Sputter started long hauling at 23, just as soon as she could get insured; it had been her dream ever since she was a little girl watching her daddy, a heavy-machinery mechanic who spent all his days under the hood. She would make a noise with her lips, a wordless sputtering song, and the family would sing to her tunes, and somewhere in that transaction Sputter got her nickname.
As a child, she devoured her father's legend: a sharecropper's kid who emigrated North for work, arrived practically shoeless in Cleveland, where he got the job at the garage. That job was everything to a man like that. That job was America itself. He had six kids. Sputter was the youngest. How she dreamed of climbing on his big shoulders, him parading her through town like his pride and joy. She dreamed. It got so she dreamed of becoming a broken-down old truck so he would spend as much time with her as he did with those rigs.
"I'm going to become a truck driver," she told him one day. He said she would have to learn how to fix one before she drove it. "Well, you can teach me!" she said. (And wasn't that the whole point?) He said, "No." Then one day just after high school graduation, a recruiter from the U.S. Army called and Sputter answered the phone and listened to his pitch. "Well, can you teach me to fix a truck?" she asked. He said he could. "Can you make me a truck driver?" He said he could do that, too. She signed up that very day.
She rarely thinks about the army, boot camp, all the hard work. She rarely thinks at all how difficult it's been to be a black woman making it in a white man's world. She thinks about being like her father, making her father proud, being a good worker, never lazy, always thrifty, changing the oil herself. She wishes Michael were more like her father.
Mostly, though, she tries to focus on the good times—so many good memories out here on the road. Like the time she was pulling 44,000 pounds of warm beer in the trailer and found herself dreaming, or sort of pre-dreaming, imagining herself kidnapped, dead and famous and featured on Nancy Grace. She hit the brakes and felt the beer slosh forward. Wake up, girl. Wake up! She slapped her cheek, shook her head. She turned to channel 19 on the CB, opened the window, smacked her other cheek.
That was when she got the idea to take her shirt off. Manning the steering wheel with one arm, she wiggled right out of it. That's what I'm talking about. She unhooked her bra. Woo! Flung that bra in the back of the cab. Woo, girl! Woo! she said to herself, the hot air blowing on her breasts and the thrill of adventure refueling her. This was just north of Columbus, Ohio, on I-71 at around 3 A.M. on a blistering summer night, and Sputter was back in business.
She got another idea. She flicked a switch on the dash and, bang, on came the cab lights, exposing her soft brown body to the night. Hello, fellas! (Hey, they probably needed to wake up, too.) She didn't wave, didn't even look in the direction of the passing rigs, just grinned smugly. "Northbound naked chick!" they said to each other on channel 19. Stuff like that. "Nice rack, air ride!" Oh, please. She did not think she had anything even approximating a nice rack. (So that was sweet.) She thrust her chest forward like a confident old hen and drove clear on up to Cleveland, two and a half hours away.