I left the Midwest and hitchhiked to Alaska in 1976 where I stayed for 23 years. When people ask me why I went I always lie and tell them I was looking for adventure – lighting out for the territory ahead sort of thing. The truth is I was fleeing.
The mid-seventies was quite a rough patch in American history. We were in that post-Vietnam plunge. Watergate had both confirmed and violated everything we thought to be true about our leadership. The Arab oil embargo pushed a gallon of gasoline up past a dollar for the first time. Double-digit inflation was draining our wages faster than we could earn them, and the only thing higher than the inflation rate was the interest on home mortgages. But those things were fairly easy to tolerate. That’s not what sent me off to hide in the Last Frontier.
I was driving a taxi in East Lansing, in and around Michigan State University, which I had dropped out of the previous spring in order to do research in Oregon for a novel I still haven’t written. That was 40 years ago and my hope is that posthumous comments about my writing career will note how devoted I was to assiduous research. I had climbed a power pole and blown myself up with high voltage, temporarily taking my arm out of commission, but that’s another story. The accident forced me to abandon my research and return to Michigan to lick my wounds (not really) and contemplate the unthinkable – returning to college.
I hovered around that thought and that school in a 1970 Red Plymouth Fury for the Varsity Cab Co. It was a good job for a temporarily one-armed young man who liked to drive. All of the Varsity taxi fleet were red, unadorned Plymouths. If there was a single piece of optional equipment on them I never found it. Manual steering and brakes, painted bumpers, AM radios. They were the sort of cars Mennonites buy when they have to buy cars. All except for one – cab #235.
Cab 235 was a Ford something. I don’t remember the model, I only remember the cushioned seats, power steering and the FM band on the radio. Power steering was an unfathomable luxury to a temporarily one-armed man, but by far the most memorable attribute of that cab was the radio.
FM was still finding its legs and was playing full-length albums – Dylan’s new Blood on the Tracks, Springsteen’s Born to Run, Queen, Neil Young, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. It was almost too much joy to contain, cruising the mean streets of Lansing and its surrounds, steering with a knee, drumming on the wheel, screaming at the windshield along with Springsteen.
The AM band on the other hand was a wasteland of pop pabulum and excruciating novelty songs. Sesame Street’s Rubber Ducky got generous air time. Junkfood Junkie. Barry Manilow, Captain and Tenille, Neil Sedaka. Paul Simon, McCartney, and the Stones would sneak in from time to time, but not often enough to endure the dreck.
As my driver seniority escalated so did my assignments in 235. Soon enough it had become my cab. At least for the day shift. The night shift also had a senior driver, and while considering how things have turned out for me I owe him a debt of gratitude, but that is not how I felt the morning after he totaled my cab.
I showed up to the lot and saw 235 dragged into a corner apart from the assembled fleet with it’s front-end compressed into the seats, one wheel missing and evidence of a fire.
“Was he killed?” I asked hopefully.
The driver wasn’t killed or even badly hurt which made it all the more bitter to climb back into a stiff, rattling Plymouth. [Rare Author Automotive observation: 1970s' era Plymouths were both stiff and loose at the same time. A rare engineering feat not seen again.]
My bum arm was getting stronger by then and, in and of itself, the return to unassisted steering was not intolerable. It was the radio that broke me. This took place in January of 1976, the same month that C.W. McCall’s novelty trucker ballad Convoy reached far into the top ten country AND pop charts. If you’ve never heard this song or have forgotten it you might take a moment to avoid clicking on this link and risk having that lethal earworm implanted in your brain.
The basic story of the song is that our protagonist with the trucker handle Rubber Duck (what was with all these rubber ducks in the seventies?) decides to ignore all traffic laws on a cross-country haul and a convoy of other trucks forms up around him to blow through a series of police barricades.
Within the convoy is a truck carrying live hogs that Rubber Duck asks to back off 5 miles, then another 10 because the smell is so bad. Of all the things that bother me about this song this detail bothers me the most. If you are in a tractor trailer rig exceeding 90MPH, as claimed in the previous verse, could you possibly smell anything coming from the rig behind you? In a hurricane force tailwind, perhaps, but McCall makes no mention of a storm.
As a writer who has loosely wound his entire body of work around weak, repetitive and contradictory plot devices, I am not in a position to criticize the artistry of Mr. McCall. He was a professional songwriter and entertainer and he knocked this one out of the park.
The whole song was cleverly designed to feature a litany of CB trucker chatter which launched a years-long CB radio craze and created a manner of speaking on two-way radios that persists to this day. Even Boston ship captains sound vaguely Oklahoman on the marine radio. Every airline pilot’s cabin update could begin with “breaker one-nine” and seem perfectly natural as they go on to give the weather ahead in Southern lilts.
So with all due credit to C.W. McCall for his accomplishments, I am here to tell you that this one song nearly drove me out of my mind. And it did drive me out of the contiguous U.S. There was no escaping it. It seemed to be on an endless loop no matter which station you punched up. Turning the radio off did not help because once you’ve heard the song seven times it sticks to you like a bad tattoo.
In between airings of Convoy songs such as Manilow’s I Write the Songs would fill the time and I’d find myself screaming at the radio, “If you wrote that song, I’ll kill you!” I was losing it.
My arm continued to recover. My mood never did. I read somewhere that Alaska had jobs for all comers. I had fifty dollars in the bank. Actually, it was in poker debts owed to me, but close enough. Fifty bucks and a thumb could get you anywhere on the continent in 1976. I wanted to go.
Then I read a little article about the lack of broadcast radio outside of the major municipalities of Alaska. No radio? I was definitely going. The article was talking about plans to build over a dozen new public radio stations around the state. Public broadcasting was a fairly new trick at that time with no discernible future for me or even itself and just that quick Alaska became my Shangri-La. I collected my debts and limbered up my thumb.
I was gone. Good buddy. Catch you on the flip-flop.
(Author Note: Had McCall never written Convoy and Senior Nightshift Driver had not wrecked 235 my life might have gone any number of ugly ways rather than the way it’s gone and continues to go. It is with sincere gratitude I remember these great individuals and the influence they exerted.)