Working summer jobs between school years was necessary to pay my way through college. That first summer I worked as a coach for the St. Charles Track Club but only earned $500 for the entire summer. The next year, I pulled myself up by the College Kid bootstraps and found a job through a friend as a delivery driver for a U-Haul distributorship in West Chicago. My job was driving all over the Chicago area dropping off trailer hitches and cartons of packing boxes to U-Haul licensed dealerships. Between deliveries, I’d sit in the back room screwing big oily nuts onto the knob and bolts of trailer hitches.
My supervisor was a guy that ran the delivery side of the business. His boss was a mustachioed quasi-executive type that worked in the front office with a bunch of secretarial types. He also had an extremely hot-looking teenaged daughter, just a year younger than me. I’d sometimes wander into the executive area to get a cup of water and check her out. Whenever I’d come back, the other two senior members of the delivery staff gave me crap about flirting with her.
In fact, they gave me crap about a lot of things, but I needed it. They reminded me to count the hitch orders carefully. Hinted that I should study the shortest route across the suburbs to save time. Every day there was a new round of instructions to obey. And frankly, I needed them.
I wasn’t always forgetful, but I was sometimes. Nor was I always spacey, but sometimes I was. Like the day that I was looking down at a map in my lap while driving and rammed into the rear taillight of a brand new car being backed out of a new car lot. That was actually the first car accident I’d ever caused. The bumper of the U-Haul van was barely dented, but the rear tail light of the new car was obliterated. I’m not entirely sure the accident was all my fault, but the daddy’s boy in a cheesy shirt and tie screaming at the top of his lungs about damaging the new car sure thought it was. By the time I left, I was glad I hit that asshole’s car.
With all the miles I drove that summer, I was lucky there weren’t more accidents. While driving a 20-foot truck loaded with refrigerator cartons, I approached a large intersection in Roselle only to see the light change as I crested a hill. I hit the brakes but it had just rained after several weeks of dry weather and the oil on the surface of the road made my tires slip and slide. The heavy rear-end of the truck spun around to the right and all I could do is turn the wheel in the direction of the spin and slide through the entire intersection. Blessedly, no one else had entered the intersection yet and as the truck’s front end came around I got it to go straight again and just kept on rolling. No harm done.
But a half-mile down the road, I pulled over and sat there with a death shiver. “I could have killed someone,” I muttered to myself.
A week or so later, while out on a run through the City of Geneva, I was standing on the curb waiting to cross Route 38 at Route 31 when a speeding car ran a red light and smashed into a Volkswagon Beetle. The car lifted into the air, and instinctively I grabbed the guy next to me and dove with him down the steps next to what used to be the Little Owl restaurant. I glanced back to see the VW resting on its side right where we’d been standing.
The man next to me climbed back to his feet and at that moment, a car waiting at the light honked its horn at him and a woman inside waved for him to get in. Without saying a word of thanks, the man opened the passenger door and got in the car. The light changed and they drove south together.
I stood there in a state of shock. Time stood still for a few minutes. Then the light changed again and I started running back east toward my house. About halfway across the bridge over the Fox River, I stopped and had yet another death shiver. “I could have died,” I said out loud.
That whole summer turned into a weird, hot dream in which I drove around in traffic all day and tried hard not to forget anything on deliveries. The guys at U-Haul kept up the teasing, and I kept learning from it despite how mad it made me at times.
The lead guy was genuinely a kind guy who worked as a clown in parades and such when he wasn’t busy with his real job. His main helper was a somewhat officious and brusque guy with a big frame, a prodigiously groomed red beard and a ton of advice about life in general. He was clearly well-educated, often weighing in on conversations with refined input about the quality of one thing or another. He was also well ahead of his time in being a connoisseur of fine beers.
The third member of the delivery management team was the wry joker of the bunch. I liked him most because he reminded me of a close friend with the same name. He was also the one who egged me on to ask for a date with the daughter of the big boss. “Get up there and do it,” he challenged.
So I did. The end of summer was approaching and there was a Jackson Browne concert at Ravinia in late July. It took all the courage I had to ask her for a date, but she quickly said, “Yes, that sounds great” without any hesitation. We went to the concert and had a great time. That was a one-shot deal, but not every date needs to turn into a big romance to have a positive effect on your life.
The last weeks of working at U-Haul turned into strange ones. First, a big shipment of trailer hitches was due to arrive and we were all kept off the road to help unload them. But rather than arriving on an open flat trailer, they were crammed into a big semi-trailer. The load shifted during shipment and it was impossible to pull most of them out one trailer hitch at a time.
We tried several methods to unloosen the load, but finally, a tractor and giant chain were put to use. “Okay,” the bearded guy in our crew announced, “Everyone stand back.” Then the tractor fired up and tailer hitches came flying off the back of the semi. Nuts and washers flew off and struck the nearby fence. This was dangerous work indeed.
The next week a trailer came back from a rental job. It was filled with unlit fireworks and had been left in the lot to bake in the heat all day before someone got to look inside. “That whole thing could blow,” our lead guy warned. “Let’s open ‘er up and let some air in. Then we’ll see how it goes.”
Fortunately, there was no pyrotechnics that day. But on the last day, I worked at U-Haul that summer, the boys all gave me an extra hard time and when I went to start up my engine to leave, a cacophony of noise and whistles, smoke, and rattles came from inside my engine. They’d planted some sort of gag device in the engine of the ’67 Buick Wildcat I drove to give me a big sendoff. Actually, the daily fear of driving that thing to work was a gag all its own. The front-right ball joints on that car were shot and the car would shimmy uncontrollably if I hit a pothole on the way to work.
Somehow I made it through all that. And I thanked them for the summer work as sincerely as I could after the fake exploding engine gag. They were good mentors in many ways, especially given my considerable gaffes along the way. There were some that I never actually told them about.
There were also things I never felt the need to dwell upon at the time or since. All three of my U-Haul mentors were gay men. At that stage in life, it helped me understand that gay people are all about doing their jobs and living their lives like everyone else. They honestly tried to help me become a better worker and better person.
With a week left before heading back to school, I had time to get in a few more hard training runs after a summer of 30-40 mile weeks. I never did train that hard over the summer months, and perhaps I’d have been a better runner if I had, but somehow the intensity of the actual season was always enough for me.
As I ran past the spot where earlier that summer I’d almost been struck by a flying VW, I started thinking ahead to sophomore years in cross country and the track season beyond. I ran through town and was passing the Geneva Theater where I saw a group of kids hanging out and waiting for a movie. As I ran past on the sidewalk, one of them slid down to stick a foot out in an attempt to trip me. That might have been caused by the fact that I was wearing an orange and black tee shirt from St. Charles High School, and I was running through Geneva, whose colors were blue and white. But these kids weren’t exactly what I’d call rah-rah types. Two of them were smoking cigarettes, and all of them were dressed more like party animals than Be True to Your School color.
In any case, I easily jumped over the leg of the guy trying to trip me. A couple strides later, I spun sideways to give him a fist-up arm-jam gesture. Someone yelled, “Hey!” and I kept running.
A second or so later there were loud footsteps behind me on the sidewalk. I glanced back to see a huge dude trundling after me. His fat body was shaking around inside his shirt and his duck-feet strides were bad runner stuff. I trotted ahead of him and picked up the pace to leave him behind. I heard him grind to a halt, then a car door slammed and an engine roared behind me.
My spidey-sense told me the incident wasn’t over. I cut through the Jewel parking lot and was trotting down a set of aging railroad tracks to get out of sight when I saw a guy I knew from high school rolling by on a small motorcycle. I waved to him and he pulled over. “Man,” I told him. “Things just got weird back there.”
At that moment, a yellow Datsun pulled out and the kid that tried to trip me jumped out of the back seat. I saw him raise his arm and something flashed in the sunlight. He threw a large knife that quickly hit the ground and skittered past us. My acquaintance on the motorcycle kicked the starter pedal, shifted into gear, and took off with a roar.
I took that as a sign that I was on my own. For some reason, I ran straight past the car as the guy that had thrown the knife was busy searching for it in the grass. I heard doors wiggle as I flew buy and by that point, my pace was below 5:00 per mile and on the increase every step. I took off west looking for promising streets and found an alley between the houses. Glancing back, I could see the car just starting to turn around, so I swept into the alley and kept running.
Two blocks passed, and I noticed a garage door standing open. I ran inside and pulled it shut.
A minute or two passed, and I heard a car drive through the alley. I waited it out for another five to ten minutes, then came out the side door of the garage, crept out the gate, and started running for home. I was three miles away and never slowed down.
That was in 1976. In 1985, my wife and I bought a home in Geneva with a garage out back that faced an alley. The first time I walked inside the garage, I recognized its interior. It was the same garage where I’d hidden from the local toughs almost a decade before.
I’d move many times in life after college. Almost always, we rented U-Haul trucks to make the move. On move back from Pennsylvania to Chicago, I was driving up a long mountain incline in the west part of the state when the engine stalled. The truck had manual shifting, so the first few seconds after the engine stopped, the truck was in limbo. Then began a reverse freefall as I tried to start the engine up again. Finally, I got the clutch engaged and gave the key a turn. Mercifully, the truck revved up again and I was spared rolling backward down the Interstate.
I can’t see a U-Haul logo without memories of that summer flashing through my mind. Many years and many moves later, U-hauling ass is still what I’m trying to do.