The engine’s rumble gets a little heavier as you pick up speed on the acceleration ramp and ease onto the interstate. Even though the sun set a couple of hours ago it’s not quite dark, but the lights of the truck stop glow brightly in your mirrors. Ahead the marker lights on the roof of the cab put an amber glow onto the hood which seems to stretch forever in front of the windshield, and as you glance into the mirrors to check for any approaching traffic the row of lights down the sides of the trailer fade a long way back. With the tanks full of fuel, 300 or so gallons, and having just eaten supper you won’t have to stop again until late tomorrow.
It was one of those small truck stops… the lot wasn’t paved and the fuel pumps were a little slow, but the price was right and after fueling the shower felt good. The restaurant was typical for that part of the country… a creaky wooden floor, cracked vinyl chair seats and the table wobbled a little since the match book that had been wedged under one leg had started to work loose. The waitress came over with a smile and asked if you needed a menu. Most of the time you didn’t, because you already had an idea of what they offered. Earlier, when you had stepped out of the truck, it had been no surprise to get a whiff of the heavy smell of hickory, pecan and mesquite smoke that came from the barbecue shed out behind the restaurant. They cooked beef and pork day and night to supply the kitchen. So there was no need for that menu… the barbecue plate would be fine, with unsweet tea. You had to be a little careful how you ordered your drinks. In most parts of the country you just had to say tea, then specify sweet or unsweet. If you happened to be in the northeast things had to be a little more specific. “Tea”, in yankeeland, would get you a cup of hot water and a teabag. In the South and West, though, everyone understands that tea comes in a quart sized glass full of ice. If that’s not big enough there’s no need to worry about refills because someone always seems to be circulating the room with a pitcher in each hand, simply pausing by each table to ask “Sweet or unsweet”. In just a few minutes she’s back. Slices of barbecue are piled high on the platter along with pinto beans. Slices of raw onions are always standard, along with a good size jalapeno or two. You also get a choice of potato salad or fries and either rolls or cornbread. In just a few minutes it’s time to walk back across the lot and climb into the cab one more time.
As you get back up to highway speed another truck rocks your cab just a little as he rolls by. Like you, he’s got plenty of extra lights on the tractor and the trailer is stainless steel, spread axle and displays a neatly lettered sign on one of the trailer doors reminding you where he’s from. As his trailer clears your front bumper you snap your headlights off for a second just to let him know that it’s safe to pull back into the right lane. He flashes his markers a couple of times and moves over where he belongs. Maybe you’ll see him again in your travels, maybe not. You roll down your window. Things have cooled off considerably since the mid-afternoon heat. When that happens the creosote bush, which pretty much grows all over the southwestern desert, releases an oily film on its leaves that fills the air with an incredible aroma. Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether the creosote bush or the orange blossom is more intoxicating. Either way, it’s one of those times that you leave that window down for quite a while before the noise of the wind becomes annoying and you roll it back up.
By now darkness has taken over. You see a coyote cross the road in your headlights. You notice a few trucks and a car or two headed the other way, but there’s not much traffic tonight in either direction. You glance at the clock and see that it’s almost midnight, that magical time for the airwaves to come alive with the special music from the all-night trucker shows. You’ve got some choices… WLW, 700, from Cincinnati will bring you Dale Somers, The Truckin’ Bozo… WBAP, 820, Fort Worth-Dallas gets Bill Mack, The Midnight Cowboy… if you were closer to the east coast you might tune into WRVA, 1140, in Richmond to hear Big John Trimble, but almost without exception the dial goes to 870 WWL in New Orleans blasting out a signal big enough to blanket most of the U.S. at night. The Road Gang has been around for a lot of years. You remember Charlie Douglas as the first host, with Dave Nemo helping him around the studio and filling in weekends and on Charlie’s nights off. Charlie eventually moved on to become a radio host and Grand Ole Opry announcer at WSM 650 in Nashville. At that time Dave Nemo took charge of The Road Gang and brought in John Parker as the second in command. The Road Gang was a request show and those requests, almost without a single exception, focused on old-time country as well as western music. The library was vinyl, extensive and included almost any possible request. When Dave is in the studio John Parker pretty much mans the phones and brings records to the turntable, although when calling the station you may well speak with either of them.
One thing is for certain, though, you should try to get your request in early because things get booked up pretty fast for the rest of the night. That means you’ve got to try to find a place with a phone that you can get to with a big truck. There was no such thing as a cell phone or internet at that time. Truck stops could be few and far between in some places, and they may be full with no place to park in the middle of the night. There were probably some pay phones in rest areas, but again a lack of night time parking . Maybe you’ll see a C-store with an open place for a truck on a side street. You try them all and, if you find a phone that works, you make that call. Of course the line will be busy, but you try over and over, waiting to hit that break where the last guy just hung up and it rings through for you. You’ve talked to Dave and John so many times (often every night for weeks) that either one will recognize your voice and may even spend a couple of minutes in a private conversation. Dave sometimes asks “How do you come up with all those obscure titles?” and it’s especially gratifying to hear John, a walking encyclopedia of country music, ask you a question about a song or artist. Back on the road the hours seem to fly by as you listen to that old time music, almost always with a few words of historical perspective. Sometimes the facts stick, sometimes they don’t, but over the years you hear so much of it that that you begin to build your own small stack of useless knowledge!
As the clock clicks down toward 6am, the end of the show, you’re starting to feel a little tired and you’ve got to get serious about finding a parking place. If you’re lucky someone may have already pulled out of a spot in the first truck stop you try, so you back into a spot and jump into the bunk to sleep for a few hours until it’s time to start over again.
Before you drift off to sleep think about the next song you’ll request!