My father, my uncles, my grand-father and most of their friends were truck drivers.
My mother and all the women she knew and met were truck drivers’ wives. Me, my sister and my cousins were the only kids we knew whose fathers were truck drivers.
My father grew up with a passion for trains. He always wanted to drive trains, but failed the selection exam because he forgot an accent on a vowel during the qualification dictation. He never tried again and took his frustration out by joining the family squad in the local soap factory: La Savonnerie.
The family started to work there when the company was transporting wine from the Bordeaux Region throughout Europe. When the ownership of the factory was handed over to the Soap makers, the family remained with all the employees. The job did not change, just the content of the citerns.
The Savonnerie was an old-fashioned company, where there was a job for everyone, the sons, brothers, daughters, nieces and nephews, everyone who wanted to work could find his/her place at the Savonnerie. The company had bought over all the surrounding houses and built extra residences for its cherished employees. The boss walked around with his son, visiting the workshops, greeting everyone, calling the young ones: son or sonny, apostrophizing the fathers by their first names. The grown-ups would touch their cap and mumble: “Monsieur le Directeur”, puzzled by shyness.
When we were born, the company opened a bank account and put in 10 Francs every month for the first year of our lives. Being a truck driver at the Savonnerie was an honor, an hereditary honor, making it difficult to leave.
My father closed the door of the employees’ quarters for the last time after having worked there for fourteen years, he was twenty-eight, and he had just found out that he could get a better salary and get away from the factory ever-suffocating protection by becoming a long distance truck-driver. His brother joined him in his project and they started working the next day for a (still existing) local truck company run by the Solanilla brothers.
They transported wine, cereals, and many other alimentary product. They went here and there, they were young, hard working, barely needed sleep, two or three hours a night at the most, they knew France on the back of their hand, every little truckers’ cafe, restaurant, every sharp corner, every steep hill…
Driving a truck in the sixties and seventies was not easy. The work was difficult, the delays had to be maintained no matter what, alimentary products did not care for ice on the road, or rain, or mechanical problems. When the truck did not want to go on anymore, these guys would get dirty and try repair, another trucker would stop and try also, or tow the truck through the narrow roads until they came to an open garage.
Being at home, waiting was also a heavy duty. On the bad nights, mostly in the winter, my mother would walk around the house, the T.V and the radio would be on, and she would restlessly wait for a dramatic announcement. I remember listening to so many terrible news, on these sleepless nights, when the radio was the only link between most people on the road and their families. My mother would pass on her worries to us as she did not want to sleep alone, did not want to eat, or smile, just stand here and wait, wait and worry. Luckily enough, my parents always insisted on having the phone (it never stopped my mother from listening to the radio, “just in case”), which was considered a luxury at these times, and my father’s boss would call to inform my mother if my father had been delayed. I am today still thanking Mr.Edison for the invention of the telephone which allowed us to finally go to bed on these surprising nights.
What strikes me the most when I remember these times, is the distance that existed between the drivers and their wives. The latter were always considered by the men as innocent and unaware of what real life was like. On the other hand, these strong men were the new crusaders working out there in the cold to protect their family from ever knowing what a hard life was like. They were so close and yet so far.
As a kid, I was fascinated by the truck, my father’s truck, called “Pon-Pon a mange de l’avoine” (“Pon-Pon has eaten his daily portion of oat”). The big wheels, the big step you had to take to get in, the one I couldn’t take alone for many years, the way you sat up on the road and looked down at everything, the way Pon-Pon was spitting and choking, coughing and shaking in the mountain rides, the way the cabin seat bounced softly, the stillness of the night, with only the straight yellow line in Pon-Pon’s head-lights, and nothing else but the dark night and my father’s face concentrating on his driving, thinking about “getting there on time”, and sometimes, just “getting there” before being too tired to go on.
I also remember so many people I met, so many pals and work mates, who never became close to being my father’s friends, because they disappeared too soon, Moustache, Little Robert, Lucien, Big Mouth, The White, … and so many others…. I also remember François’s face at times. He was twenty-five, my Dad’s best friend, he was always there, I was eight or nine and life felt strange after his death because we kept his place empty on purpose, my father put away his camera and projector with all the funny videos on super 8 and waited more than twenty years before being able to watch his friend on a film again.
My father is now 61 years old, he is retired, but he had stopped driving long before his retirement, as the economical crisis of the mid-seventies hit the transport company very hard because of the price of fuel.
He had been driving around France for more than twenty years. He has never been able to put his hands flat like everyone else can, his hands always had the shape of the stirring wheel, no matter what, he was cut out for that job. He regretted his wheels, he longed to get back on the road, but never did.
Despite all this…
Today, he still tells the truckers’ stories we all know.