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Running Highway 11

When I was a kid, I thought Highway 11 was my way “out,” and I was leaving even if I had to run myself out of town. In my mind, if you followed it south, you ended up in New Orleans, and if you followed it north, you ended up in New York City. I later learned that the southern terminus was actually Lake Pontchartrain and that, headed north, it stopped at the Canadian border, completely bypassing the Big Apple.

No matter, I worked in a highway-side gas station, or “filling station” as we called them back in the day, during high school, and this gave me both a feel for the traffic and a sense of the highway’s connection to a world beyond my own. Every afternoon, about 5 p.m. for example, the big trucks would start passing by, headed north, carrying giant loads of pine stumps to be processed into turpentine at the Hercules plant in Hattiesburg. Routinely, it seemed, one would pull into the station with a flat tire to be repaired, and it would almost always be on an inside back tandem wheel. Magically, all of the older, full-time guys would disappear, and I would be left to change the tire. I doubt that would pass muster with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, people today.

I don’t know if you ever jacked up a fully loaded stump truck, removed, repaired, and reinstalled a flat tire when you were 15 years old, but it will definitely give you an attitude. I worried more about the rim of the wheel blowing off when I aired it back up than anything else. They go straight up and will take your head off if you aren’t careful. My theme song at the time was Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” with its lyrics of “Workin’ in the fillin’ station; too many tasks; wipe the windo’; check the tires; check the oil; dollar gas; too much monkey business, too much monkey business for me to be involved in.”

My daddy had told me about New York City. He was a real raconteur, and many of his stories were Highway 11 related. When he was a young man, for example, he had helped in its construction through Lamar County, behind the wheel of a chain-driven Mack dump truck, which frequently “threw its chain” like a bicycle. He also worked on the construction of the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. When he had to “go,” there were no restrooms or port-a-potties on the lake, and he had to sit on an open-ended nail keg to keep from getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.

In his later years, he drove a trailer truck for the Movie Star Company, which had women’s lingerie manufacturing plants all over south Mississippi, delivering the finished products to New York City once a week for distribution. He liked to tell of the time he was on 11, coming down a mountain outside Roanoke, Virginia, and a wheel came off his trailer. He looked out his window, saw it passing him by, and watched it crash into a building far below. I always regarded this latter story suspiciously, however, because I couldn’t see how the tire could go faster than the truck was going.

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