Sense Datum Blues, "Sisyphus Hitches a Ride with Phantom 309"
The driver slows his midnight purple semi to a crawl. Outside, a man struggles to roll a massive stone along the shoulder lane.
“Hey buddy!” calls the driver.
The stranger ignores him, his hands and forehead pressed against his burden. Sweat drips.
“Can I ask you a question buddy? Where’d you get such a sizeable piece of granite?”
“Good God, buddy…that rock’s bigger than any pumpkin. Let me give you a hand.”
The driver hops out and rummages behind his seat. He emerges with steel chains which he uses to fasten the boulder to the hitch.
“Come on now,” he says to the stranger. “Let’s giddy up and go, bud.”
The stranger climbs up into the truck and then eyes boulder in the rear view mirror.
“What you don’t think this old jimmy has got it in her? Let me tell you son, Phantom 309 puts em all to shame.”
On the expansive dashboard, a Joseph Campbell bobblehead sits between a recalcitrant plastic hula girl and a pyrite Anubis figurine. The driver puts the pedal down and they’re off. The big rock grates loudly in tow. Buck Owens’ “Tiger By the Tail” plays on the radio.
“My name is Big Joe,” the driver says. They shake hands. “What’d you say your name was?”
“I don’t reckon I ever met a Sissy Fuss.”
The sound of the engine blends into the sound of the dragging boulder. Big Joe looks at Sisyphus, who looks in the rearview.
Sisyphus wipes blood and sweat out of his hair.
Big Joe laughs. “You okay? A feller has to be awfully enthused by his minerals to be out here pushing rock. I mean, this is one hell of an upgrade…”
Then comes the hot and terrible sound of metal on metal. The semi grinds to a halt.
Big Joe down shifts but the rig is stuck now. Big Joe shuts it down. He was born in Cairo, Illinois and is unable to comprehend the mighty force that has taken ahold of his truck, the giant hand of Zeus.
Sisyphus jumps out of the cab and removes the chains from the boulder.
“Wait a minute, friend,” Big Joe shouts. “Here’s a dime. When you’re done pushing your rock, get yourself a cup of coffee on Big Joe.”
“A dime won’t buy a cup of coffee in Tartarus.”
“Yeah? How much they charge you?”
“Some people are up to their necks in water but are never allowed to take a drink.”
Big Joe starts Phantom 309 up again.
“Won’t let em drink? That ain’t right.” The diesel’s sturdy throb starts to wane. “Well I better get going up the road. You don’t have much further to go before you’re over the hump, buddy.”
Just as the rig is coming to speed, Big Joe witnesses an uncanny shift on the horizon. Black winds blow Sisyphus and his boulder back down the hill. Suddenly a schoolbus swings around the bend, speeding headlong into his trajectory. Big Joe sees the faces of children gaping in every window. There’s no time left. He swerves.
Elsewhere a teenage boy stands at suburban doorstep with his jaw hanging open as he’s told the beautiful girl he took to the prom last night has been dead for thirty years. The percussive sound of heads exploding from daring concoctions of poprocks and cola echo in the halls of ahistory. The singed nerves of the inhabitants of Hell respawn with no memory of the febrile endurance achieved somewhere in the succession of collapsed moments. In heaven, unremitting bliss, the sonorous echo of silence or the sound of any number of trumpets. And it’s back, back for Big Joe. Back behind the wheel of Phantom 309, to drive the same fatal route ad infinitum, to other passengers perhaps more forgiving than Sisyphus.
Big Joe, the subject of Red Sovine’s 1967 hit “Phantom 309”, is condemned to eternally drive the highway where he met his tragic end. Why was his soul not immediately whisked away to a heaven of endless plates of diner food after so nobly sacrificing his chubby duffer so that the kids on the bus may live to ride another day?
At first listen, the narrative universe of the of trucker country songs from the 1960’s and 70’s seems infused by a Christian worldview. The average trucker is presented as a man who may be duped by clever gadgets (Country Cattin’s “Pinball Millionaire”, Coleman Wilson’s “Radar Blues”) but who is always willing to employ his CB to help the little fellers of the world (the fatherless child in Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear”, the eleven long haired friends of Jesus in the chartreuse micro-bus in C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”). He may enjoy watching how a particular waitress wiggles when she walks (The Willis Brothers’ “Truck Stop Cutie”) but if he is married he is unwaveringly faithful (Red Sovine’s “The Woman Behind The Man Behind The Wheel’). He may have to take little white pills to make it home in a timely manner (Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road”) but he is ever ready to drive his rig off a cliff should that fateful bus full of kids pop up out of nowhere (Jimmy Martin’s “Widowmaker,” the aforementioned “Phantom 309”).
I think it is safe to assume that many truckers of this era were probably less concerned with the feelings of wheelchair bound children and pesky pinball machines than with the overfilled pissjugs and drug stabbings. But regardless of whether you believe the wholesome version of road culture presented in the standard trucker country canon, something about Big Joe’s fate does not quite sit right.
But on closer inspection, “Phantom 309” seems to draw its odd moral underpinnings more from the tradition of the campfire tale than from the Bible. It belongs to a certain subclass of ghost story, that of the reoccurring specter. These stories feature tortured spirits whose lives ended violently, often leaving them with unfulfilled earthly obligations. In this, Big Joe joins a lineage peopled with many prominent characters of Western lore: the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the numerous variations on the Lady in White, The Flying Dutchman, to name just a few. These characters bear burdens disharmonious with standard Christian cosmology, personal purgatories more isolating than the vehemence of Hell.
Perhaps the archetype developed as a warning for those who dared to question conventional explanations of death’s mysteries. But these figures take on new connotations with the advent of modern capitalism.
Albert Camus expressed sympathy for the laborers of his time in his 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”:
“If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is only tragic at rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. ”
It is to staunch this primal weapon— scorn— that bosses and managers have waged their advance on the subjectivity and inner space of hapless employees, from Fredrick Taylor’s first use of the stop watch as an instrument of power to the contemporary goof-troop cult of corporate “mindfulness.” It is no longer enough to simply complete tasks. One must never take one’s mind off of said tasks. Daydreaming is verboten.
While Camus sees the Sisyphus’s conscious contemplation of his burden as a means of for him to retain his heroic stature, it seems a great deal more sadistic to apply these standards to Big Joe of “Phantom 309”. Sisyphus was condemned to hump a boulder uphill forever because the Gods found his open disdain for them offensive. Big Joe gave his miserable toilsome life and was rewarded with a miserable toilsome afterlife. He is killed by the sentimentalism of his absent masters. His sacrifice is profoundly utilitarian, therefore profoundly American.
Where then does that leave the trucker, the office grub on their daily commute, the toiler, the wretch, the one who is one the shit end of so many airtight determinist schemes?
Amongst the fiendish and often bigoted jokes told by the portly, Coors Light-cap wearing trucker comedian Johnny GearJammer on his 1991 album Live at The Ice Box Inn is this unsettling yarn:
“You hear this story about this old boy... he got married and he was sitting there at the house one night, when this burglar broke in…yeah. And the burglar pulled guns on him and his wife. And the burglar robbed him of everything then he got to thinking that he’d fuck his wife…yeah. So he took a piece of chalk and drew a circle there on the floor and told this old boy ‘Now you get in this damn circle.’ And the old boy stepped in there and the burglar said now ‘Now I’m gonna tell you something, if you step out of that circle I’m gonna kill you. I’ll blow you’re damn head off.’ So he goes ahead and goes over there and he’s screwing the guy’s wife…having himself one hell of a time. I mean living it up, brother. Then he got up and he pulled a gun on ‘em. He said ‘Now I’m getting ready to leave. Don’t either one of you move.’ And this old boy standing inside the circle just starts laughing like hell. The burglar says ‘Now what the fuck you laughing about?’ Old boy says ‘I was just thinking man, you ain’t so damn tough. I got out of the circle three times a while ago and you didn’t even see me.’”
Perhaps this is how we toilers traverse the rules, overt and hidden, that our absent masters have plagued us with. In those moments when the evil eye blinks, Big Joe might be able to park his rig and get the kind of rest that we take for granted as the reward of death. Sisyphus might not be able completely halt his punishment, but he may be able to hide behind that rock for a hot second to engage in a much needed moment of erotic self-abuse. If you work a job, you know the routine. Don’t tell your coworkers any information about your personal life. Maximize your number of bathroom breaks. Gods and managers all die eventually.