Miracle on Wheels
Date: Sep 21, 2019
It’s a few minutes after sunrise when the sixty-seven-year-old driver of the mammoth eighteen-wheeler rocketing north in the direction of Syracuse, New York turns to me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"You want a beer?"
Not sure how to respond, I answer in the affirmative. "Sure." We've been on the road nearly six hours, three of us packed into the truck's outdated cockpit (one situated on a cooler stuffed with sandwiches and Coca-Cola), racing against the sun's fiery ascent and watching cars scurry past like monochromatic beetles from our throne high above the asphalt. Roused by my alarm from a few hours of unsatisfying sleep shortly after midnight, I'm wide awake and ready for action.
Tom Luke smiles in my direction. "You'll have to wait until we stop. Then you can have all the beer you want."
Brownie, a close friend of Tom Luke's and his co-pilot on our harrowing journey, chuckles at my misfortune. "Tom set you up for that one.”
By now, I'm used to the pilot of the diesel behemoth pulling my leg. It won't be the last time on a trip that I'm assured will take every bit of sixteen hours (barring major traffic slowdowns) each way. But there won't be any stopping—not for anything longer than a snack and a bathroom break—until we reach our destination.
We're carrying precious cargo. Without Tom Luke, Brownie, and various others that assist them from time to time, the Clemson University football team would never play a game, and would have been unable to add two recent NCAA national championship trophies to their coffers.
Brownie, an employee of the city of Clemson when he isn’t hauling equipment, is graciously giving me a turn to relax in the passenger seat and properly appreciate the sunrise as we churn up Interstate 81.
"I've seen it too many times to count," he says when I attempt to turn down his chivalrous offering. A pair of bunk beds and a thin curtain crammed into the vacant space behind us fill out the rest of the truck's cabin.
A crow's nest of sorts, accessible only to the most limber and diminutive of crew mates, hangs directly above the driver's and passenger's seats. I've already been warned about going up there. "We've never hit anything before, but it can get a little scary seeing an oncoming bridge hurtling at you," Tom recalls.
"It'll make you wet your pants," Brownie adds. It’s hard to imagine a man of his size and stature (he's roughly six foot two with a gray beard and a faded hat I've yet to see leave his head) squeezing into such a cramped space, but the point is made.
Tom Luke is much smaller in comparison, but no less gray. He's the stuff of legend around Clemson, South Carolina; a small town practically hidden in the farmlands of Pickens County that undoubtedly wouldn't exist if it weren't for the university that shares its namesake. Ten miles of taciturn highway rolling past acres of countryside and hamlets like Pendleton and La France separate it from Interstate 85 and much larger Anderson.
In a way, Clemson is cut off from reality. The town pulses to the ebbs and flows of the academic year. For seven Saturdays each fall it becomes engorged beyond its means as eighty thousand plus flock to home football games and commandeer every cranny of unoccupied space for tailgating. The end of the spring semester denotes a dead period of sorts; bars clear out as campus empties and the locals emerge from hibernation. What few students remain flock to nearby Lake Hartwell or the various apartment complex pools.
And then there are the Tom Luke's of the world. Tom takes no umbrage at spending hours on the sunny patio of a bar frequented by college students. Formerly a devout regular at the Esso Club—Clemson's overwhelmingly octogenarian and well-known daytime haunt—he has since planted his flag, and familiar red pickup truck, at TD's at the Pier, a small establishment in a student housing community close enough to the lake to catch a pleasant breeze from time to time.
Tom's thin frame, weathered skin that manages to stay suntanned year-round, and penchant for layers (even in the depths of August) are familiar to regulars all over town. So is his smile. One glance toward Tom Luke sitting under the titled umbrella at his usual table might earn you the offer of a Busch Light from his infamously iced-down bucket, or a cigarette. He is the friendly old man who can strike up a conversation with anyone and finds any excuse to stay outdoors (even in the pouring rain).
Our eighteen-wheeler halts for a quick lunch (sandwiches and Coke) near the Pennsylvania border. Tom is eager to take off again. Few who recognize him know that he also owns his own airplane, a Cessna 172, and spends much of the time he isn't perched next to a bucket of beers whiling away the hours in his hangar at the Oconee County Regional Airport. There is plenty of Busch Light there too, stashed in a refrigerator out back. He keeps an unopened case of the stuff in the bed of his truck in case any of his usual haunts ever run out.
Marlboro cigarettes are his other staple. He smokes one now, exhaling out the window as we hurtle along at sixty miles per hour while mid-morning burns away. Fewer still understand that Tom Luke and his cohorts are a critical cog in the wheel that is a championship football program. The coaches, the players, and everyone within the glistening new football operations complex at 100 Reeves Lane, are not to be counted among them.
"Take a look at this," Tom says, handing me a pristine box. I open it to reveal an oversized gold ring studded with diamonds and an orange gemstone. A not-so-subtle memento from last year's championship season. "They gave that to me a few weeks back," he added.
When I remark that surely the ring is worth a few thousand dollars, and that there unquestionably exist plenty of avid Clemson fans eager to make an offer, Tom quickly clarifies that he has no intention of selling. "I'm happy to do my part," he explains. "All I want is to pass this ring and the others down to my daughters one day. I have no use for wearing them, or seeing what they're worth on the open market."
He means it. When I pass the box back he carefully closes the lid and slips it out of sight into the one of the many folds of the Carhartt jacket he wears over a flannel shirt. At a rest stop a few miles ahead he and Brownie switch places and I relocate onto the cooler to cede Tom the passenger seat.
"Drivers are obligated to switch every eleven hours," he informs me gravely as we start up again. "Brownie and I split this drive without too much trouble." He points outside, gesturing at the Pennsylvania countryside currently painted in festive burgundy and yellow hues of autumn. Driving the equipment truck is a volunteer position, I’ve been informed, but it comes with a perk. "Everyone aboard the truck, that means drivers and their guests, gets a ticket to the football game.”
I'm interested in the game—Clemson is favored by twenty-eight over Syracuse—but it pales in comparison to the cross-country trip to which I'm being exposed.
"Brownie likes to attend the games," Tom adds sagely. "I usually stay in the truck and listen on the radio for a bit before taking a nap so I can be rested enough to drive the first leg of the way home."
The contest, set to kick-off at eight in the evening, will end around midnight. There is no dawdling. As soon as the team's equipment staff has the container we’re hauling packed to the brim, it will be straight back to Clemson without so much as a farewell wave.
Though he tries not to show it, I can tell the tight logistics have Tom Luke slightly on edge. I listen as Brownie recounts the story of how, during last season's playoff run, they had no choice but to drive all the way from Dallas, Texas back to Clemson and then trek cross-country and over the Sierra Nevada mountains to San Francisco in the span of five days.
"All that for some pads and uniforms," Brownie finishes with a chuckle. I chance a glance at Tom blowing smoke out the passenger window. He appears less than amused.
I broach what I think to be logical questions: could they not have used the Cowboys' facilities in Dallas and skipped the initial drive back to Clemson? Would it not have been cheaper and more time effective to fly the equipment to San Francisco?
Tom just shrugs. "Frankly, I have no idea. That's the way the university wanted it done. It wasn't our place to ask questions."
When I ask if they reached their destination by the given deadline, he nods. "With close to a day to spare. Crossing mountains in a big freighter like this can be very tricky. We were lucky and the weather was good. The school doesn't always have its act together. That's universities for you. But, in the end, they find a way to get things done. There's a lot at stake behind the scenes that not everyone is aware of."
He doesn’t have to tell me twice. The assuredly odd sight of a football team emerging from the tunnel without pads and uniforms briefly crosses my mind. Forfeiture over something so seemingly simple as equipment logistics is unthinkable. In a playoff game, with perhaps a national title on the line, it would be downright brutal.
"I don't even want to think about it," Tom Luke adds, reading my mind. "But if the worst did happen, we'd find a way to make sure the boys can play. We've never failed yet."
New York arrives by mid-afternoon. The last leg of our journey is much like the rest. I disappear back to the bunk beds and sprawl out, half-listening to Tom and Brownie's conversation between intermittent dozing. Interstate 81 climbs north toward Canada, but I miss much of the scenery sliding by amid clouds of smoke from Tom's Marlboro's.
Before I know it, Syracuse intervenes and we’re docking around back of an unconventional stadium that looks more like an inflated circus tent than a venue where helmeted men will clash in just over twenty-four hours. We get out and stretch our legs while the truck is unloaded before driving to our hotel. Several beers are enjoyed that evening. Brownie laments at the price of Busch Light at the hotel bar. At one point, I catch him and Tom sneaking off to the truck to pilfer a cold one from their own reserves while they enjoy a smoke.
The next morning, we rise early and drive over to the stadium after breakfast. Much of the day is spent lounging and waiting for the game. True to form, Tom Luke remains aboard the truck and sleeps while Brownie and I stand on the sidelines. After a resounding Clemson victory (41-6), we head through the air lock doors amid the rest of the crowd and reunite with our captain for the journey home.
No one expects us back in Clemson until late afternoon on Sunday at the earliest. Something Tom Luke said resonates with me as I watch Interstate 81 churn past from the passenger seat. He is a retired city of Clemson employee. He spent the first twenty-odd years of his career as a commercial truck driver. In his spare time, he enjoys passing the days at the airport or on a modest pontoon boat he keeps docked at the Clemson Marina, along with making sure some of Clemson Football's most precious cargo arrives on time and in good shape.
"We do it because we care. Plain and simple.”
It strikes me that none of this would be possible without people who cared. Volunteers just as committed to the finished product as the coaches and young men who suit up in cleats and shoulder pads. They play just as big a hand in making the whole operation run. Men like Tom Luke make Clemson special.
I'm exhausted by the time we arrive back in familiar territory. Thoughts only of my bed and undisturbed sleep cross my mind as I stumble from the cab toward my car parked outside the football operations building. Thirty-two hours of travel packed into three days.
I look up, surprised, as Tom Luke approaches. Something about his eyes tells me exactly what he is thinking. A twinkle. Like me, he yearns for a place where he finds happiness many times over. The corner table under a tilted umbrella on the patio of a bar close enough to the lake to catch an occasional breeze. I smile and watch the words form on his lips.
"You want a beer?"