This is an excerpt from a work in progress, tentatively titled, “These Are Sunny Days for Our Family: Stories From My Youth.”
Early 1970s. In my college years, I work three summers as an over-the-road truck driver for my father Reed’s new packaging business. It’s a good-paying summer job, delivering plastic bottles from his suburban Chicago manufacturing plant to dairies throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. I make $5.00 an hour, which is a good wage for a summer job.
I enjoy the trips downstate or to Wisconsin and Indiana. There are even occasions when I bring along my girlfriend, Maria, and those trips especially just seem to breeze by. We leave in the early morning and roll along the highway heading out of the Chicago area to take in the endless expanse of farmland from the high perch of a tractor-trailer. We stop for burgers and sodas and sometimes enjoy a romantic moment inside the cab at the highway rest stops or while parked near some small town Dairy Queen.
Once at a loading dock in the town of Quincy in western Illinois, a dairy worker notices the pretty, black-haired girl waiting in the cab. He nods his head approvingly. Then he says: “Hey man, you must have the best damn summer job ever invented!” With that he laughs and nudges me with his elbow. On my own the trips became more tedious and I satisfy myself with small pleasures like top 40 radio and truck stop desserts. On hot days I love entering the dairy plants, cold and clean with the smell of milk and orange juice in the air. If I am lucky one of the workers will tell me to help myself to some cold drinks for the road.
The shorter deliveries to Chicago are another matter. Driving in the city means maneuvering a long tractor-trailer through often congested traffic. Once I come upon a viaduct on the west side under the regulation 13’ 6” required for a tractor-trailer to clear, forcing me to make a U-turn in the middle of the crowded road. The car horns blast as I laboriously maneuver the truck back and forth to turn the truck around. It takes several long minutes until I am finally able to reverse course.
With my unkempt, long hair, I might wear a thin headband around my forehead in the summer heat. It’s a look that sometimes stirs trouble. A few weeks into the job one delivery leads to an unexpected confrontation at a manufacturing plant for frozen orange juice concentrate on the west side of Chicago. I double-park on the street and enter the plant through the loading dock door. I have to find someone to sign the bill of lading and tell me which dock to pull the truck into. Seeing no one around, I assume the nearby unadorned office door must lead to the foreman’s office. I open it and walk in. But instead of the foremen’s office I expect to find, I encounter a plush office with an ornate desk and behind the desk an equally ornate older gentleman with dark hair and mustache dressed in a white summer suit.
The man looks up as if I have startled him. “Who the hell are you?” he brusquely snaps. “Get out of here!” I am surprised and taken aback by his rudeness. Then I notice the nameplate on his desk—Bodine. Either the plant foreman coincidentally just happens to have the same last name as the company, or I have just walked into the company owner’s office. I try to make a quick exit. “Sorry,” I reply, “I thought this was the foreman’s office. I’m looking for someone to sign the bill of lading for my delivery.” I hold the paperwork up. I expect this will be the end of it.
“I said, get the hell out of here! Out! Out!” As he speaks the man waves his right arm dismissively in the air like he is some sort of king. Then he rises from his chair to stand menacingly behind the desk, as if he is about to do something. But what? He looks tense and hostile and in his luminous white suit strikes me in that moment as an overstuffed old gasbag. A bully. Or, as I might later say to my friends, one more capitalist not to like.
”Hey, relax man,” I reply, letting my exasperation show a little. “I said I was sorry.” Unfortunately, calling this gentleman “man,” not to mention my request that he “relax,” only seems to further enrage him. It probably doesn’t help that I look like some Cheech and Chong version of a 60’s radical, with my unshaven, long-haired appearance. Now Mr. Bodine of Bodine Inc. is moving toward me from behind his desk. He raises his voice. “I said, get out! Get the hell out!” For a moment I wonder if he is going to physically push me out the door. “OK! I’m leaving!” I reply, muttering an exasperated “Jesus” only slightly under the breath as I turn to exit through the open door.
Once outside his office, I look back to see if Mr. High and Mighty is going to follow me out the door, but instead he just slams the door shut. I go looking for someone to help with the delivery so I can get out of here as quickly as I can. I never see the owner again.
When I get back to the plant later that afternoon, Dad calls me into his office. “What happened over at Bodine’s today?” he asks. This does not sound like the beginning of a conversation that is going to go well. Hesitantly, I tell him the story, emphasizing my incredulity at Mr. Bodine’s behavior. My father listens quietly and when I finish he says: “Mr. Bodine told me you threatened to hit him.” He says this flatly, without emotion, as if he is not quite sure what to make of it. But if my father is unsure, I am not. “No way!” I protest, vehemently objecting to this ridiculous slander. “Dad, I didn’t hit him! I swear! I can’t believe he said that, I didn’t do anything to him!”
I begin to repeat my version of the encounter, now with slightly more urgency. I am not quite sure if my father will believe me. Who knows what he might believe? But my father quickly interrupts. A hint of a slight smile begins to crease his face.
“Do you know what he told me?” he asks. “He told me not to send any more hippie truck drivers to his plant.” With that my father bursts out laughing, as if this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
“What did you say to him?” I ask.
“I told him, that’s my son you’re talking about!”
Now he laughs even louder. Now both of us are laughing. The man’s exaggeration had been his downfall. Whatever doubts my father may have about me, he knows I would never threaten anyone. In the face of that accusation he had known instantly that man was a liar.
I am convinced it’s just a matter of time before some calamity strikes my entry into the world of the over-the-road driver. Everyone who knows me also knows I am basically a mechanical klutz with no business being anywhere near the world of grease, gas, and carburetors. Despite my outward confidence, I fear my lack of practical, common sense skills will invariably cause something stupid to happen.
It does. In July I am returning to the plant from a delivery and plan as usual to unhitch the trailer in the dirt field behind the small factory, then park the tractor on the blacktop at the end of the parking lot adjoining the facility. It’s a warm, sunny day so, despite the rain of the past two days, I am not thinking about the condition of the field. Thus, I blithely drive the truck into the dirt field and on the turnaround the tires suddenly loose traction and the vehicle sinks into the mud.
Immediately, I try jolting and rocking the vehicle out, gunning the engine, but to no avail. The truck is dead stuck. What begins then is a saga of spinning wheels and flying mud and shovels, spread out over two long, frustrating days. I go to tell Dad what has happened. He isn’t too concerned and asks one of the plant employees to see if he can help me dig the mud out enough to get the truck moving. We take shovels and start digging, but the truck will not budge. We try unhooking the trailer from the cab, setting its front supports, and driving the tractor out alone. I step on the gas and the tractor rattles and roars, spitting mud everywhere and inches forward just enough to slip out from the trailer, the grand effect of which is for both tractor and trailer to slump down even deeper into the mud. And there tractor and trailer sit in all their ignoble glory, knee deep in the big muddy of that backlot field.
It was late afternoon when I had arrived back at the plant and soon it is nearly 6:00 pm. Dad decides we should resume our efforts tomorrow. The mud will be drier then, he says. Unfortunately, the next day we still can’t move the tractor so the decision is made to call a tow truck. Soon we watch in amazement as the tow truck spins its wheels, mud flying and tires spinning until the tow truck itself looks like it might also go under. The tow truck driver quickly decides we need the larger, industrial size tow truck. But we will have to wait until tomorrow, he informs us.
The plant’s morning shift had left yesterday afternoon to the sight of this backlot debacle, arrived the next morning to the same sight, and now in the late afternoon were leaving once again to the same sight. Our plight has become entertainment. The next day the tow truck from hell arrives. It is just huge, big enough to haul a rail boxcar. What had started out as a momentary lapse in judgment on my part has now turned into the Event of the Week. It is lunchtime and a small group of workers from the plant come out to watch the unfolding drama. I stand in the parking lot with everyone, including my father and the company’s vice-president as we watch the industrial-size tow truck wrench and yank and finally drag the mud-soaked cab and trailer out of its muddy prison.
In that final burst of noise and power before pulling the trailer out, my father and his colleague give each other a silent, bemused glance. “Well, what do you say when it’s the boss’s son?” remarks his colleague. Both men laugh. As far as I am concerned, this could have happened to anybody. But it didn’t happen to anybody, it happened to me. But before I can say anything in my own defense, work beckons and Dad turns to return to his office.
As he walks by, he tells me not to worry about it.
Summer, Decades Later. The suburban industrial park where the old business used to be is quiet now and nearly deserted. Even though it is only an hour’s drive from where I live, it has been many years since I’ve seen my father’s old business. Never once over the years have I made the turn off Route 53 onto the drive that circles the old industrial park. But it’s a Saturday evening and something about the balmy spring evening calls me to the place.
I am not inclined to ascribe much weight to any sort of oblique psychological symbolism, but turning my father’s age at the time of his death stirs up the old memories. As I drive along the road now that circles the park, it takes only a minute or two to reach the old address on Hilltop Drive. I pull my car over and park on the street in front of the building. The company is some sort of electronics business now, no trace of my father’s business remaining. Yet my first impression is how familiar everything still is. Just a few yards in front of me, next to the driveway and the loading dock I can see the large window to Dad’s old office. With the blinds drawn, I can almost imagine him behind that window, working as he used to late into the evening. The quiet of the night makes it easy to imagine the way everything used to be.
At the time of his death, Dad’s business employed more than 100 people who kept three blow-molding machines going night and day. In the rear behind the plant was a rail line where boxcars could be loaded and unloaded. Those were different days. My father’s dreams were coming true then. My own dreams as a young man were taking shape. One day in 1971 I had watched from a distance as my father showed his own father, who was visiting from Salt Lake City, around the business. I was inside my car in the parking lot, getting ready to leave for the day, when the two men had come around the plant’s back corner, apparently walking the outside perimeter of the plant. Observing unnoticed, I suddenly had this sense of my father as a son, which struck me in my then 19 years of wisdom as a novel concept. I remember how proud Dad looked as he showed his own father around the facilities. In this burgeoning business, my father’s lifelong dreams had found expression. It was a dream and it was coming true, packaged literally in a bottle.
But already our dreams were divergent dreams. He thought like a businessman. I, shall we say, did not. I once suggested to him that the plant workers would probably be happier and more productive if they were in a union. Unions mean democracy for workers, I explained. He didn’t understand. But my father tried to be fair in his dealings with people. He was always giving people a break for this or that. He was also a good judge of character. I later learned he had never liked Mr. Bodine, even before our confrontation. Tellingly, years later that man was convicted and sent to prison for selling adulterated orange juice concentrate to his business partners. The story was in all the Chicago newspapers.
Nor was there a job in the business my father wasn’t willing to do himself. When I was in high school, in the early days of the business he would sometimes ask me to help him on weekends on the loading docks, filling the truck trailers with pallets of packaged bottles. In those days there was no Sunday shift. In the summer this could be an especially hot, exhausting job. If it was 85 degrees outside, it might be 100 degrees or more inside the trailers as we stacked row upon row of large, sheet-wrapped squares of plastic bottles. It could take a couple of hours to load a trailer, and the sweat would just pour off you. When the rows got tall enough, we would have to heave the squares up to the top of the pile, then set them in place with a long pole. We would work until our arms ached and it seemed as if wasn’t possible to lift even one more package, and then we would lift one more.
Once Dad enlisted me on a Sunday afternoon to drive to the plant, load up my old blue Chevy station wagon with as many packages of plastic milk containers as I could, and then meet him at a small air strip about 10 miles away. He was rushing some product samples to a prospective client in southern Illinois and had hired a pilot to fly them down that evening. I was at my girlfriend’s house miles away when he called. Not long after we were meeting him at the small airstrip. It was dark by then and the place was deserted except for Dad and the pilot. In the dark the two of us had worked, loading the samples onto the plane while Maria and the pilot watched from nearby.
The memory is telling. In a way life for my father was always a Sunday night at a deserted airfield, working in some uncommon way to realize his goals. Actually, the theme of work is inseparable from my memories of him. He was driven in life. I feel some remorse now at how casually I used to take his accomplishments. I never knew about the sleepless nights he spent worrying about the payroll or the huge loans he had taken out. Nor did I know of his fears the business would fail. To all appearances my father’s heart pumped not only blood, but also the sweat and muscle of his indomitable spirit. He didn’t seem like the kind of man who could fail. Or, for that matter, die.
As I walk around the outside of the building, I notice the blacktop of the parking lot extends further back than it used to, replacing much of the old dirt field where the muddy debacle with the truck had occurred. Looking over the old landscape, I almost feel as if I am back in time. I can see everything as it once was, right down to who used to park which car where in the parking lot. But the moment’s reverie is quickly replaced by another thought. Anyone driving by might find the sight of someone walking around the deserted building at night suspicious. I should get back to the car. It is time to leave.
In the still of the night air, one final old story drifts into my thoughts. A couple years after Dad started his business, the bank had been threatening to call in their loan. One evening after work he had called a friend from a nearby tavern, asking his friend if would meet up with him. The friend drove to the tavern and together the two men had discussed business over a few drinks. That evening as the two men sat at the bar a man sitting next to them accidentally spilled a drink on my father’s shirt. Unfortunately, Dad had already had a few drinks and, impulsively, he pushed the other man in response. This ignited a brief tussle between the two men until Dad’s friend and the bartender broke it up. The other man left the bar and retreated to a nearby table, while Dad and his friend went back to their conversation. But a short while later my father suddenly announced that he had to say something to the man at the table.
“Reed, c’mon, forget it,” his friend urged. “Let it go.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Dad replied. He got up and proceeded over to the man’s table while his friend watched nervously, fearing more trouble. The two men spoke briefly. But instead of a fight they shook hands. Dad had decided to apologize for his behavior. He called his friend over and the three men then spent the next hour drinking together, exchanging business cards and making undoubtedly soon-to-be-forgotten plans for a round of golf.
I thought it was the perfect story. My relationship with my father had always felt like a tussle and an apology and walking that thin line between love and something else. It was 22 years of great plans and growing up and arguments that could be like one too many drinks. And then there were the moments when he just stood by me, laughed alongside me, or let me know in his own way that if he did not always understand, he was always on my side.
My father was a man who had spent a lifetime throwing defiance not so much at poverty or failure, but mediocrity. He hated the idea that life was meant to be a timid, small affair. But what was it all for? To one day be a passenger in your colleague’s car and crash into a tree and die from blunt trauma to the head? One morning you’re thinking about the day ahead, or the Christmas holiday to come, and then suddenly nearly five decades of living fades to black. There would for Reed P. Harris be no lifetime achievement awards or speeches full of fond reminiscences given at retirement banquets. No day would come when he would look back with satisfaction from the summits of a life well lived. Instead, there would only be the anticlimax of one moment’s violent sorrow.
It was as if the finale to his life were only a matter of a light switch thrown off on the way out of a room.