The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Thursday, January 10, 2013

White Freightliner Rememberin' Blues

My dad was an independent truck driver (and very much anti-union/teamster BTW). His name was Mack (a pretty good name for a truck driver, no?) and from the late '40s to 1958 he owned several makes of trucks.

Two I remember were a red International and a green Reo. Both seemed to break down a lot. But in 1953, he bought a used 3000 series White cabover. The White had a small sleeper and was rugged and tough. It was red and looked pretty much like the one in the picture below.

His old trailer, however, was, if I remember correctly, painted a faded silver color and it had a small cooler engine mounted up front on the outside which circulated air in the trailer. The cooler and a substantial amount of dry ice would keep the eggs cool enough for long distance trips.

In the late '40s he had a flatbed trailer and hauled live chickens to market. But in '53 he had the closed trailer and hauled eggs packed in cardboard cases about 24-25" long and about 14-16" high.

On Friday nights or Saturday mornings I frequently helped him unload when he returned from a trip. I can still feel the weight of a case of those eggs and smell the warehouse where we unloaded them. I got a little pocket money every time I helped unload which was a very good thing.

I can also still hear the sound of that big 6 White when he cranked it up and see him shifting and double clutching through the gears.

In the spring of 1954 I was 14 years old and we lived in the Inglewood section of East Nashville, and I was in my last year of elementary school, the eighth grade. (The new junior high in my neighborhood with grades 7, 8, and 9, opened that Fall and I attended it as a 9th grader or freshman.) My 8th grade teacher was my first male instructor, Mr. Whitley, a kind and generous man who had a big influence in my life.

I took two trips that year with my dad, one to Chicago and one to Miami. They were eye opening events to a kid who hadn't been anywhere but Nashville and Watertown, TN. I still remember my excitement when my mom talked to Mr. Whitley on the phone about the trips and whether my being absent would damage my standing at school. He said, "Let him go, by all means, let him go. He'll learn more on those trips than he will in a classroom."

And so I went. I learned at least two things: one, the world was a lot bigger than I imagined, and two, there were cities that made Nashville look like a small town.

But mostly I remember images, things that seem insignificant but for some reason stuck with me.

I remember we got into Chicago sometime after midnight and parked in a vacant lot near the warehouse where we would unload. It was spring and the night was warm. Dad got a couple of blankets and pillows out of the sleeper and spread them out under the trailer. He slept like a rock, but I lay awake most of the night listening to the sounds of the city, the wail of sirens, the roar of traffic, and the rumble of the L trains.

I think Chicago must've been more like the City in Sandburg's poem in those days. Rough, brawling, pulsing with energy. And, relatively speaking, fairly safe. I don't imagine it would be very safe to sleep outside in a vacant lot in Chicago today.

I remember two other things from that trip. First, how easily my Dad backed the truck and trailer into a narrow space at the dock where there were about 50 other trucks lined up. He didn't flinch and put that sucker right in there between two other tractor-trailers. He did it on the first try with no stops. It was a skill that amazed me. Looking back, it still does. I can't back anything with a trailer attached more than two feet without getting in trouble.

The other thing was going into a crowded little cafe near the warehouse and eating a regular sized $1.00 hamburger. I couldn't believe it cost that much and it wasn't any bigger or tastier than the cafe ones at home that cost around 40 or 50 cents.

On the Miami trip I saw the ocean for the first time. I saw orange tree groves. And ate some "authentic" Italian spaghetti. But the thing I remember most about the city was it cleanliness. The streets and sidewalks weren't dirty and dingy like Nashville's or Chicago's. Many were made of white concrete that looked like it was freshly poured. And there were motels everywhere.

Trucks are big, ugly, noisy, and ubiquitous today. But they still symbolize escape to many of us. When the stresses and pressures mount, and the flight option (as opposed to the fight one) seems attractive, the sight of a big truck out on the highway can make you want to hit the road.

I don't remember if Dad's White had the "Freightliner" name. It may have. But when I hear this great Townes Van Zandt song, I always remember those trips in the spring of 1954.

"Well it's bad news from Houston
half my friends are dyin'...
Ah lord, I'm gonna ramble
Till I get back where I came...
I'm goin' out on the highway
Listen to them big trucks whine." 

There are several videos of Lyle doing this song on you tube. My favorite was his "big band" version but it got taken down. What I liked about it, and this one shows a little of it too, was how much pleasure Lyle seems to get from the performances of the other musicians.


  1. He said, "Let him go, by all means, let him go. He'll learn more on those trips than he will in a classroom."

    Your Mr. Whitley was a very smart man and there's no doubt in my mind that he was a great teacher, too.

    An excellent remembrance. The first time one sees "the big city" always seems to make an indelible impression and I'm glad you shared yours. Reading this also made me remember the very first extended road trip I took (well, the first one I remember), which was in 1953 when my Mom, my sister, and I drove from Sacramento, CA to Atlanta. Driving anywhere before the interstates came into being was an adventure of the highest order... and you saw things that simply do not exist today.

    A wonderful close, too. That tune is one of my favorites by Mr. Lovett.

  2. You're definitely on the mark about Mr. Whitley, he was a great teacher. I saw him again as a HS senior when he came to "college night." He was now Dean of students at Martin Jr. College and was there to recruit students. He urged me to come to Martin, which I did. It's where I met Joyce.

    You're right too about pre interstate travel. It was a whole different ball game. Especially going uphill in a loaded tractor trailer when the traffic collected behind you. Most drivers seemed to have a little more patience in those days. And there was, as you say, a lot more to see. Remember those "snake" places where you could see all kinds of reptiles for a dollar?

    As for the tune as sung by Lovett, it's one of my favorites too. And in your case at least, the lines "Ah New Mexico ain't bad, Lord, And the people there they treat you kind" is true.

    1. Remember those "snake" places where you could see all kinds of reptiles for a dollar?

      My father refused to stop at those places, and all the other so-called "tourist traps." He was hard man, my father. ;-)

      I could go on and on about The Road in the '50s and early '60s and I wouldn't be alone in the least.

  3. It must have been a really great experience. It's something a kid will never forget until he grows up. I can imagine the excitement you had for both of those trips and the things you had seen for the first time (especially the ocean!). I believe that Mr. Whitley is a true teacher and not just inside the classroom. He knew the value of learning and was very open-minded.

    Odessa Coldiron