The more I think about Joe Bageant’s early death the sadder I get — not so much for him, who now could care less, but for what the rest of us have lost. If you don’t know Joe’s work you should, and here’s a sample to show you why.
My daddy ran the eastern seaboard in a 12-wheeler — there were no 18-wheelers yet. It had polished chrome and bold letters that read “BLUE GOOSE LINE.” Parked alongside our little asbestos-sided house, I’d marvel at the magic of those bold words, the golden diamond and sturdy goose. And dream of someday “burning up Route 50” like my dad.
Old U.S. Route 50 ran near the house and was the stuff of legend if your daddy happened to be a truck driver who sometimes took you with him on the shorter hauls: “OK boy, now scrunch down and look into the side mirror. I’m gonna turn the top of them side stacks red hot.” And he would pop the clutch and strike sparks on the anvil of the night, downshifting toward Pinkerton, Coolville and Hanging Rock. It never once occurred to me that his ebullience and our camaraderie might be due to a handful of bennies.
Yessir, Old 50 was a mighty thing, a howling black slash through the Blue Ridge Mountain fog. A place where famed and treacherous curves made widows, and truck stops and cafes bloomed in the tractor trailers’ smoky wakes. A road map will tell you it eventually reaches Columbus and St. Louis, places I imagined had floodlights raking the skies heralding the arrival of heroic Teamster truckers like my father. Guys who’d fought in Germany and Italy and the Solomon Islands and were still wearing their service caps these years later, but now pinned with the gold steering wheel of the Teamsters Union. Such are a working-class boy’s dreams.
I have two parched photos from that time. One is of me and my brother and sister, ages 10, 8 and 6. We are standing in the front yard, three little redneck kids with bad haircuts squinting for some faint clue as to whether there was really a world out there, somewhere beyond West Virginia.
The other photo is of my mother and the three of us on the porch of that house on Route 50. On the day my father was slated to return from any given run, we’d all stand on the porch listening for the sound of air brakes, the deep roar as he came down off the mountain. Each time, my mother would step onto the porch blotting her lipstick, Betty Grable-style hair rustling in the breeze, and say, “Stand close, your daddy’s home.”
And that was about as good as it ever got for our family…