When I was growing up, my father listened to a lot of Red Sovine, which meant that, whether we liked it or not, the entire family listened to a lot of Red Sovine. Why that was, and the effect it had on us, is another story for another day. But now when digging for records I can’t see a Red Sovine album without buying it. They are a surreal fragment from my childhood, and they remind me of my Dad. As a result, I own a lot of Red’s albums.
Are they good? That’s up for debate. It’s fair to say that Red Sovine is an acquired taste, and you need to be in a certain frame of mind to be listening to him. But Red Sovine definitely has his fan base. Although originally a honky tonk singer, Red Sovine’s albums are full of traditional country songs that are, for the most part, mediocre and forgettable. But where he excelled, and what people remember him for the most, was his narration of sad tales from the American heartland. With one of the most earnest voices, you’ve ever heard in your life, Red Sovine would tell stories of crippled kids, divorced fathers, dead little girls, dead dogs, dead wives, dead mothers and truckers. Yes, many of Sovine’s tales revolved around the lives of the truckers that hauled freight across America. Red Sovine’s stories were humble and pulled on the heartstrings and when Red would get that small crack in his voice at the most dramatic moments, he had the ability to make the toughest of men cry. It wasn’t the stuff that you played at a dance or a party, but it was different and created a very niche fan following.
But while I can tell you the plots of every Red Sovine narration due to the indoctrination of them growing up, there is one that I’ve always thought stood out as the best of them all – the story of “Phantom 309.” Written by songwriter Tommy Faile, “Phantom 309” is one of Sovine’s most unusual stories and one of his most acclaimed recordings. People love “Phantom 309.” It’s a different kind of story about a different kind of dead person that was unconventional for the country music industry, but relatable enough to be embraced by the mass public.
In “Phantom 309” Red Sovine takes on the role of a traveler trying to head back to his hometown by hitch hiking across America. Although his first few days of traveling are smooth, one dark rainy night he finds himself on a deserted stretch of road with no one in sight. Cold, wet and hungry, her comes to a desolate crossroads when headlights suddenly appear out of the distance and a large transport truck appears, slows down and stops for the traveler. Climbing into the warm cab, the friendly driver greets the traveler with a smile and introduces himself as Big Joe and tells him that the “name of my rig is Phantom 309.” When asked where the unusual name for the truck came from Big Joe answers “Son, this old Mack can put ’em all to shame. There ain’t a driver, or a rig, a-runnin’ any line, Ain’t seen nothin’ but taillights from Phantom 309.”
Big Joe and the traveler drive all night, swapping stories and telling tales, but when they get to a truck stop Big Joe pulls over and tells the traveler that he has to let him off. But before the traveler says his final goodbye, Big Joe flips him a dime and tells him to buy a cup of coffee “on him. As the man watched the truck pull away, quickly the darkness engulfs it, and its gone. Entering the restaurant, the traveler orders a coffee and says, “Big Joe is settin’ me up.” Well, everyone in the restaurant goes quiet and looks spooked. When the traveler asks what’s wrong the man at the counter explains that ten years ago on that very night Big Joe died in a fatal truck crash. Joe was coming down the highway when he came across a stalled school bus full of kids at the crossroads, and instead of allowing the truck to smash into the bus, Joe turns his wheel, jackknifed, and sacrificed his own life for that of the children on board. But every once at a while, at the crossroads when he died, the ghost of Big Joe will pick up travelers and drive them to safety. Finishing his tale, the man pours the man another coffee and says “Forget about the dime. Keep it as a souvenir from Big Joe and Phantom 309.”
Oh man. That is a great story! It’s a great break from the usual tales Red Sovine tells, and as a someone who has always had a love for the supernatural, I loved it as a kid, and I love it just as much now. By the way, if you recognize a few elements of the story, yes, “Phantom 309” was the inspiration for the Large Marge sequence in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” It literally is a complete retelling of the song. Also, Tom Waits put his own whiskey soaked gravely spin on the story in an emotional and haunting performance on his 1975 live album “Nighthawks at the Diner” which could be my favorite thing he ever recorded.
Now I love a good ghost story and I have had a number of experiences I can’t explain over the years making me a believer in the supernatural. So, I wondered if there was any truth, or at the very least legends, that inspired the story of Big Joe and Phantom 309. The story of the ghostly hitchhiker is a popular ghost story trope, but what about ghost truckers? Are specter semis charging up and down highways and back roads across America? Well, to my surprise I did find out that elements of the story of Big Joe was based on a real event which took place in 1961 Saugus Massachusetts, not far from Boston. Although not supernatural in nature, the story is one of sacrifice and heroism on which deserves a folk lore of its own.
There is no Big Joe, but at the center of the story was a truck driver named Pete Trudelle. From Troy, New Hampshire, Pete was a family man, with a wife and five kids. During the week Pete drove an 18-wheeler across the East Coast, and at home was a respected part of the community where he was a volunteer firefighter, and played Santa Claus for the town’s children during the holiday season.
On the morning of January 19, 1962, Pete filled up his truck in Boston and was heading home to Troy. Travelling along Route 129, Pete crossed the intersection at Route 1 and came to a point in the road where an overpass created a dangerous blind spot. When he gained visibility, Joe found that a school bus picking up children was directly in his path.
We’ll never know what was going through his mind, but at the speed he was going, Pete knew that he was going to crash into that school bus and there was little chance of any survivors. Instead of smashing into the bus, Pete turned his wheels and crashed his truck into the overpass.
With approximately 4600 gallons of gas in the tank, the truck exploded in a giant ball of flame, instantly killing Pete. However, because of his sacrifice, he saved the lives of the driver and six children who were on the bus. Pete Trudelle gave his life so those kids could live.
In the town of Troy, a marker was erected in Pete’s honor. Under a heading that reads “Troy’s Hero,” reads the inscription “The truest character of a man is shown in his deeds. In one single selfless act you showed us what all who knew you had always known. That underneath your welcoming smile, kind nature and steadfast dedication to family was a courageous and honorable man. We will always miss you and we will be forever proud of you.: A fitting tribute to a brave man.
If you were hoping for a ghost at the end of this story, I’m sorry to disappoint you. No ghostly sightings of Pete Trudell has ever been seen, and he hasn’t picked up any travelers at the crossroad he died. Instead he has rested peacefully instead of roaming the highways for eternity. Far more deserving for a man who made such heroic sacrifice. But his story proved to be the inspiration for Tommy Faile when he created Big Joe. Pete Trudelle’s legacy will live on forever in “Phantom 309.”
This Halloween when you hear “Phantom 309,” remember Pete Trudelle, and maybe buy a cup of coffee for a stranger in need on Big Joe.