Four years ago today, my brother and sister-in-law had me stay after work so they could inform me that they were letting me go.
It hit me kind of hard, considering my son was only two weeks old, and my wife was no longer working, but I dare say it was necessary.
Despite me being the production manager for their (worldwide) business, elements of the brother-brother/owner-employee dynamic were at loggerheads, and ultimately they had to consider what was best for their own livelihood.
As tough a pill as that was to swallow, they made the right call, and I told my brother that the next day when we met up at the gym for our typical morning workout. No man in his late 20s wants to admit that ending up in such a pickle is his own fault, but it was–partially because I had butted heads too often with my brother/boss at work, and partially because I had neglected my own career paths in the nebulous pursuit of Someday Making It As A Writer.
There are things that I believe in that are immutable parts of my conscience and my soul. I can’t rank them, but they’re there, and one of them is that when you own something, you have a right to control it, and in most cases, everyone else ought to butt out. This is true of my brother’s business; it had to be hard for him to make that call, because it was right, but also because we were family. I wasn’t going to hold it against him. If I hadn’t been family, I’d have been gone long before they finally cut me, no matter how well I did my job. No owner would let a manager get into shouting matches with him in front of the whole crew more than once or twice, but I did it, and the result was the result.
I went home that night, broke the news to my wife, and cried like I hadn’t in a long, long time. I was mad. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Desperate. I can’t remember ever having asked God for help as hard as I did that night. I never finished college, and my previous work experience wasn’t going to land me something that would replace the lost income. Worst of all, that happened at a time when my wife and new son needed me the most.
So I considered my options. I did some research. I went to trucking school. And then I went to work.
I hit the highway and took whatever crappy job came my way. For 8 months I drove over the road for Knight Transportation, crossing this great country border to border, coast to coast. I saw the Pacific and the Atlantic in the same week. I must have gone up and down Mount Shasta in Northern California two dozen times in that span. Hell, I’ve driven every inch of the I-5, from the Otay Mesa to the Canadian Border Crossing in Blaine, Washington.
Some drops were at noon. Some were at 8PM. Some were at 2 in the morning. (Damn you, IKEA.) I had to go into Canada several times to make extra cash, because–surprise!–guys with a CDL and a clean criminal history aren’t that common, and international commerce can keep a small company afloat. (Knight was relatively small, next to companies like Swift and Werner.)
I was usually gone for weeks at a time. My son grew like a weed while I was out. The wife and I bought smartphones for the first time, so that we could FaceTime each other on a regular basis. We called every night. She was supportive beyond all comparison, despite how hard it was. I did it because I had to, because doing it meant that my wife didn’t have to work, that she could be home with our son and take care of him. It was never going to be permanent.
And fortunately, I was able to get out of it, and quickly. A local crane company hired me on as a support driver, despite me knowing nothing about the industry. I sucked it up and worked that job for 21 months, putting up with long nights, horrible co-workers (not all of them, just the ones who had power), and a highly unstable schedule where I was sometimes lucky to work 30 hours in a week. (Other times I’d work 20 hours in a shift.)
I did it, because I had to, and it meant my wife wouldn’t have to work.
Then an even better job opened up closer to my side of town, at a higher rate of pay, in a more exciting industry: blasting. And I was able to take the skills I had learned in the previous two and a half years, and apply them in a way that made me feel like I really knew what I was doing. Lately I’ve been thinking about training a new driver to learn the things I know about the different trucks at this company, and I’ve come to realize…there’s a lot to process, and most of it is stuff you can only really learn with experience, and somewhere along the line, dare I say it, I became a really good truck driver.
I did it because I had to.
(Granted, I still make plenty of mistakes. One of my nicknames around the shop is “Tank.” It sounds cool, but they call me that because I punctured a fuel tank on a truck by driving over a rock. Twice.)
Tons of times in the last four years, I have thought to myself “Man, I wish I’d gotten into this sooner.” It’s not hard to crack $40k a year with a CDL. That’s more than we made when the wife and I both worked for my brother. And no matter how you do the job, it keeps you on your toes, you learn new things, and go to exciting places. Sure, the work sucks often, as it does with any job. Lots can go wrong, and most of it can (and will) be your fault. I think that’s a good thing, though. It keeps me responsible, keeps me aware of how I should never be too confident, never assume that I’m bulletproof, because I can botch it pretty easily if I’m not careful.
But I’ve made it this far. Because I had to.
Because the cost of learning this skill and succeeding in this line of work is less than the burden of letting my family go without things they need.
That right there is probably the most obvious lesson. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week in the wake of LTUE, and my writing career (which is still definitely happening), and how they’re related. I’m trying to figure out my mission statement.
I’ve never been 100% sure what I wanted my purpose to be as a writer. Generally I wanted to “write the books I wish I could’ve read as a boy.” But that doesn’t hit my point hard enough. And as I look back on my driving career, and consider how I might go about teaching the things I know to a new driver (backing, trailering, securing a load, managing hours, getting around tight spots on job sites), it all keeps boiling down to the same simple, salient point:
Do it. Because you have to.
I don’t remember exactly when this came to mind, but it was sometime last Saturday, possibly after the panel on Steampunk Aesthetics at LTUE, where I was a participant (and it went great! Thanks to all of you!). A single word popped into my head, courtesy of Charles Portis, Chuck Pagano, and my overactive wordsmith brain.
That’s my mission statement as a writer. That’s what I want to do. I want to write books that inspire young readers to look inside themselves, dig deep, and find the inner grit to do things that they thing are difficult, to humble themselves into being willing to learn, and then mustering up the guts to get the job done.
Everyone is going to face a trial like the one I faced four years ago, where they fall hard and have to pick themselves up, and won’t be able to do it without admitting hard truths to themselves. If I’m serious about being a writer, and having my work matter to the people who read it, then that’s the feeling I want to put into my books. GRITPUNK. Find your grit. Find the grit my characters find. Learn from their failures, celebrate their successes, then look at yourself and do the same thing.
Life is all about doing hard things. Each of them will probably be harder than the last, in their own due course and time. That’s fine.
You can do it. Because you must.