My Summer, Myself, My Student Loan Debt - A Post-Graduate Confession
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
A disillusioned young man, graduated with no hope for the future and with mountains of student loan debt, resigns himself to the life of the house-bound unemployed until he answers the siren's song of Truck Training School.
copyright 2013, Paul Hawkins
"Sliding like a knife through night,
A wide right turn and "Out of Sight.'
Sweet and spellbound journey,
Hauling cantaloupes from state to state, or cars,
It is I in my cynthian carriage,
chasing sunsets and courting the stars."
-- seen scratched on the men's room wall in Bubba's Truck Stop, Memphis, Tennessee.
I saw the ad on TV Monday afternoon, then on Tuesday, then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Thank goodness I made it to the weekend, when the station changed their programming to appeal to an audience other than the housebound unemployed. But Monday through Friday as I'd lain there in bed eating potato chips they'd flashed the ad, exactly at 10:13, between the first and second segments of an all-woman talk show. "Become a trucker,” the commercial begged me. What could this mean? Startled at my own intruigement I listened further. "Attend Ray's Truck Training School and learn to drive a semi, or ..." and here the voice spoke with such friendliness that I felt my mind relaxing to its suggestion, "... operate heavy machinery." I caught myself daydreaming that I too could be one of those flannel-clad glory boys riding high atop an orange and black earth-moving machine, orchestrating the its raw power.
I wondered at my own awe over this idea. How could it permeate so deeply into my psyche, so quickly? Could it, I pondered tentatively, have something to do with my current state of unemployment? It wasn't that I could not find a job, but simply that I found the dishwashing job I'd landed at Denny's somehow oddly stifling and unfulfilling. But this ... "Ray's Truck College." I found myself watching the all-lady talk show just to hear that friendly voice assure me that I could "be my own boss on the open road." Study it! Interpret it! Analyze it! Every morning I coached myself to do this, to bully past its tricks and determine why it affected me the way it did. But every time the actual moment came I was absolutely vulnerable and helpless, enchanted by the sweet siren's song ("Hauling loads with Ray can put you on the road that's on the way to where you want to be"). The message slipped easily past my Prairie University-trained mind and communicated directly with my soul. I awakened to the undeniability that this was the vocation I must choose, and with a flood of joy realized that yes, I would indeed do it.
I took my life savings out of the bank, went to Sears, and bought all the flannel shirts I could. I also purchased several of those pocketed colored t-shirts that look so good on a guy when he's up there driving a truck or operating heavy machinery. Then I hopped on my ten speed to seek out Ray's Truck Academy itself. When I got there they were real friendly, and when they discovered that the remainder of my life savings wouldn't cover the tuition, they even arranged for me to sign a loan contract with the Muddy Bottom Finance Agency. Being already over $138,660 in debt from my Prairie University degrees, I rightly figured "What's one more loan?" and in another instant I was enrolled.
It was the wisest decision I ever made. I now look back lovingly on my early days in the college, running over orange pylons on the training course, grinding gears mercilessly as I struggled to bring the rig up to highway speed, accidentally backing into the corrugated metal building that housed Ray's Truck College itself. But I learned, and I graduated, and on sheepskin day the 13 members of our class (Mike, Wanda, Juan, Julius, Fast Eddie, J.T., Pearl, Ahab, Larry, Dana, Thunderfoot, Mary Jo and myself) all posed in front of the school for our group picture. We had to pack in kind of close together to keep the convenience store and the Taco Barn on either side of our alma mater from getting in the portrait, but in the end everything turned out okay, and I treasure that photo.
I think back on those days now as I sit beside the big glass window of this lonely truck stop, talking to a friend and peering out at the misty night sky. I hold a cup of coffee in both hands and wonder if it will snow. There are lots of people like me on the road, frustrated liberal arts majors who have finally seen the light. It's kind of a quiet night in the truck stop, everybody waiting to see what the weather will do. The philosophers in the corner aren't taking the tension too well, and they're venting their spleen by arguing about the existence of the marshmallows melting in their hot chocolate. But over at the swivel stools are some real cool customers -- truckers, of course, but also husband and wife dance majors. They've seen all of this before and the weather doesn't bother them. They're sharing a thermos of espresso and playing charades.
I stand up.
The friend I've been talking to looks up at me in surprise. His face suddenly casts itself into a mask of creases.
"You're not going out in this weather, are you?" he asks.
"The road is calling; I've got to go."
He gazes coolly out the window. "Be careful."
How unemotional! He is a life-long politician and had been known for his cool temperament. But I know him better. There are currents running deep as rivers in that man. Something important must be on his mind.
“I will be careful," I say, "But you remember what I told you."
"It would be a hard decision," he says. "Over these few months I've come to love the smell of diesel, the song of eighteen wheels on the lonely road at night, the acute sense of oneness that I feel as I shoot across the arteries of this great land, crossing iron bridges, sweeping across the plain, winding up mighty mountains to reach their peaks and touch the face of God whom seven out of ten Americans still believe in and look to for family values!" The fire has crept back in his voice, though he himself has yet to realize it. I look at his gray temples; he looks at me.
"How can I ever go back to that thankless, self-serving profession?"
"You've got to," I say, crushing out my cigarette and rising to leave. "You are dedicated; you are sincere. Be proud of who you've been and who you can be. By your championing of student loans over the decades, you have helped out the little guy.”
“Since when are banks 'the little guy'?” he growled.
“Since people have had dreams!” I said. “Look at me – I would never be who I am now without mountains of crushing debt. I am thankful for them, and you would not call me crazy, would you?”
“You need to go back to what you do well. You are a great man who always intends what's best, in spite of the results.”
A tear rolled from his eye. “When you put it that way, who can deny it? It has been my life's calling.”
“Then I can do no less than to help the little people some more – to help them just as much as I have already.”
That was all I wanted to hear.
I turn up my collar and stride into the icy night. I climb in the rig and warm the engine. Beyond my windshield I see only a few truckers braving the freeway. I feel compelled to join them. Inside, I somehow know that things will be okay.
I pull out of the truck stop onto the freeway, and suddenly all of America is before me. The road goes on ahead of me like a silver taper, and the land on either side is black. Yet I know it's still there. I know on either side this country runs ecstatically in all directions, chasing dreams under the cover of night, dreams that can only come true in this great land, where a man can shake himself loose from any misguided academic past and finally find himself.
It is a good life, I decide. Dollar bills laid end upon end in numbers unfathomable, stretching into the night, leading me to my dream.
I hum down the lonely highway. After a while I'll pick up the CB and give my friend a call. He'll be on the road before long, I'm certain, pursuing his own destiny where-ever the magical darkness leads him. It will be good to hear his voice across the miles. I'll let the politician know that he's okay.