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We’re Doing What We Can to Keep Truckers on the Road

publish date: 03/18/2020

NYTimes Piece by Karen Gettert Shoemaker

We’re Doing What We Can to Keep Truckers on the Road

Karen Shoemaker is the wife of AMBEST member Dave Shoemaker, they run two Shoemakers Truck Stops in Nebraska along Interstate 80. This article is property of and is shared with permission.

LINCOLN, Neb. — My mother was born into a flu-stricken household at the height of the flu pandemic of 1918. Within minutes she was swaddled in a homemade quilt and placed into the arms of the local priest who had come to deliver last rites to my grandmother and, they feared, to the baby as well.

She cried lustily, like any healthy newborn. To keep her safe from the illness, the priest and his driver took her from the family farm to the nearby town of Stuart, Neb., to find someone to care for her. Fear of the killer virus was so strong that three women said no before one agreed to take her in. During the weeks that my grandparents and their other children were sick with the flu, neighbors wearing cotton kerchiefs across their faces left food on their doorstep and cared for their livestock.

Now another pandemic marches across the country. As the danger of it becomes clearer, my husband and grown children continue to go to work each day at one of the truck stops we own in eastern Nebraska, along Interstate 80. I-80 is one of the major arterial highways that runs through the heart of the country connecting the East and West coasts. There is no way to work from home or “socially distance” yourself in a business like that.

A part of me wants my family to stay home. Just for a while, I want to say, don’t go there. But I know I can’t say that to them any more than I can say it to the nurses, firefighters, police officers and linemen in our family. I can only take and encourage such safety measures as are available to us.

People from all over the country come through our truck stop every day and every night. Hundreds of them, driving trucks, cars, vans, motorcycles, and in warmer weather, by foot or bicycle. They come for fuel, food, showers, restrooms and respite; they come for snacks, books, electronics, tools, clothes, oddities and necessities. And they come for community, for human contact after the loneliness of the road. Some are locals who come regularly, some only once on their way across the country. They depend on businesses like ours, and we depend on them.

We live in the center of the country. Two weekends ago, cars and buses full of high school girls’ basketball players and fans came through on the way to and from the state championships just hours before one of the students was diagnosed with Covid-19. A ban on fans was put into place for the boys’ tournament last weekend, so there were fewer buses. Weekend business fell off dramatically.

Each day more customers come in wearing masks. More pay at the pumps and don’t come in at all. The benches in the hallways where people meet for everything from job interviews to family gatherings now stand empty. We’ve issued gloves to our cashiers, increased our custodians’ rounds. We’ve shut down all self-service food islands. Our wholesale suppliers are out of hand sanitizer so we’ve concocted our own from alcohol, aloe vera gel and essential oils. We’ve hung signs in the restrooms with suggested song lyrics for people to sing while washing their hands, to make sure they’re doing so for long enough. We are making plans for more drastic measures as more information is made available to us from our industry and the government.

Through it all, the trucks keep rolling in. If the goods we all need to survive are to get to those who need them, quarantined or not, people are going to have to transport them. And others are going to have to provide services to the movers. As the oft-used adage of the trucking industry goes, “If you’ve got it, chances are a truck brought it.” 

I grew up in a family of truck drivers and I’ve always had a keen sense of the hidden role truckers play in people’s lives. National or local emergencies (in my lifetime up to now those have mostly been weather emergencies) did not mean we hunkered down as a family and played games. Instead, some of us had to go out into the maw of the trouble, while others “held down the fort,” as my mother used to say.

When I was a child it was not unusual for strangers to show up at our breakfast table during such times — sleepy-eyed and grateful truck drivers that my dad and brothers had made welcome when they couldn’t make it back to their own homes. My mother always had enough food for them, and she filled their thermoses with hot coffee when they headed back out on the road. Later, I married into a family that owned truck stops and became involved in the truck-stop side of a trucker’s life. I saw how intricate and far the web of support for individuals reached.

In the past 40-plus years I’ve “held down the fort” again and again in the face of some bizarre situations. This situation though, this pandemic, has me rattled. I’ve always felt kinship with military families; now that kinship seems real and immediate. It feels like we’re living in a country on the cusp of something not unlike war. The enemy clinging to our skin, coming for us wherever we gather, slipping into our homes and making no distinctions about what side of anything we’re on.

Experts are telling us what we can expect in the coming weeks, though in truth it’s hard to imagine it happening here as it happened elsewhere — or happening at all. A pandemic is the stuff of history to my mind. We are all hoping we will be spared, that our precautionary measures keep us and our loved ones safe and well. I don’t know what the coming weeks will bring. I think about my ancestors, my grandmother, of course, but my grandfather as well, who received his draft notice just before the flu hit — the world’s war come to their door, followed almost immediately by the almost unimaginable terror of a virus no one understood.

I try to draw strength from the stories not only of their survival, but also of their community, of the people who kept doing the necessary work even though they knew the danger, who did their best to keep others safe and fed, and who held their place in the world until they could return to it. In frightening times like these I find solace in knowing there are still people like that in the world, heroes that look like regular people, just doing their jobs.

Karen Gettert Shoemaker (@kss516) is the author of “The Meaning of Names,” a novel set during the flu pandemic of 1918.

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