The Big Wheel Truck Stop
In September 1960, I woke up one morning with six hungry babiesand just 75 cents in my pocket. Their father was gone. The boysranged from three months to seven years; their sister was two. Ifthere was a welfare system in effect in southern Indiana at thattime, I certainly knew nothing about it.
I scrubbed the kids until they looked brand new and then put on mybest homemade dress. I loaded them into the rusty old 51 Chevyand drove off to find a job. The seven of us went to every factory,store and restaurant in our small town. No luck. The kids stayedcrammed into the car and tried to be quiet while I tried to convincewhomever would listen that I was willing to learn or do anything.
The last place we went to, just a few miles out of town, was an oldRoot Beer Barrel drive-in that had been converted to a truck stop. Itwas called the Big Wheel. An old lady named Granny owned theplace and she peeked out of the window from time to time at allthose kids. She needed someone on the graveyard shift, 11 at nightuntil seven in the morning. She paid 65 cents an hour and I couldstart that night.
I raced home and called the teenager down the street that baby-satfor people. I bargained with her to come and sleep on my sofa for adollar a night. She could arrive with her pajamas on and the kidswould already be asleep. This seemed like a good arrangement toher, so we made a deal.
That night when the little ones and I knelt to say our prayers we allthanked God for finding Mommy a job. And so I started at the BigWheel.
When I got home in the mornings I woke the baby-sitter up andsent her home with one dollar of my tip money - fully half of what Iaveraged every night. As the weeks went by, heating bills added astrain to my meager wage.
The tires on the old Chevy had the consistency of penny balloonsand began to leak. I had to fill them with air on the way to work andagain every morning before I could go home.
One bleak fall morning, I dragged myself to the car to go home andfound four tires in the back seat. New tires! There was no note, nonothing, just those beautiful brand new tires. Had angels taken upresidence in Indiana, I wondered.
I made a deal with the local service station. In exchange for hismounting the new tires, I would clean up his office. I remember ittook me a lot longer to scrub his floor than it did for him to do thetires.
I was now working six nights instead of five and it still wasn'tenough. Christmas was coming and I knew there would be nomoney for toys for the kids. I found a can of red paint and startedrepairing and painting some old toys. Then I hid them in thebasement so there would be something for Santa to deliver onChristmas morning.
Clothes were a worry too. I was sewing patches on top of patcheson the boy's pants and soon they would be too far gone to repair.
On Christmas Eve the usual customers were drinking coffee in theBig Wheel. These were the truckers, Les, Frank, and Jim, and astate trooper named Joe. A few musicians were hanging aroundafter a gig at the Legion and were dropping nickels in the pinballmachine. The regulars all just sat around and talked through thewee hours of the morning and then left to get home before the suncame up.
When it was time for me to go home at seven o'clock on Christmasmorning I hurried to the car. I was hoping the kids wouldn't wake upbefore I managed to get home and get the presents from thebasement and place them under the tree. (We had cut down asmall cedar tree by the side of the road down by the dump.)
It was still dark and I couldn't see much, but there appeared to besome dark shadows in the car - or was that just a trick of the night?Something certainly looked different, but it was hard to tell what.
When I reached the car I peered warily into one of the sidewindows. Then my jaw dropped in amazement. My old batteredChevy was filled full to the top with boxes of all shapes and sizes. Iquickly opened the driver's side door, scrambled inside and kneeledin the front facing the back seat. Reaching back, I pulled off the lidof the top box.
Inside was whole case of little blue jeans, sizes 2-10! I lookedinside another box; it was full of shirts to go with the jeans. Then Ipeeked inside some of the other boxes. There was candy and nutsand bananas and bags of groceries. There was an enormous hamfor baking, and canned vegetables and potatoes. There waspudding and Jell-O and cookies, pie filling and flour. There was awhole bag of laundry supplies and cleaning items. And there werefive toy trucks and one beautiful little doll.
As I drove back through empty streets as the sun slowly rose onmost amazing Christmas Day of my life, I was sobbing withgratitude. And I will never forget the joy on the faces of my littleones that precious Christmas morning.
Yes, there were angels in Indiana that long-ago December. Andthey all hung out at the Big Wheel truck stop.
Remember, if you got it, a truck probably brought it. Courtesy on the road is contagious.
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