The rumble of the diesel dynamo, the scream and hiss of the air brakes and 18 wheels rolling along the pavement: "It was exciting!" exclaimed Louise Spencer, 91, who lives in St. Anthony, Minnesota. "Woo! It almost took my breath away."
Spencer, a Mississippi native who has lived in the Twin Cities area for 16 years, was able to check one of her life goals off her list Sept. 2 — nine days before she turns 92 — when she got behind the wheel of a big rig for the first time in her life. With the help of Jump!, a Palm Springs, California, organization that helps seniors achieve items on their bucket lists, and Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona.
Spencer's husband, Leo, drove trucks for 30 years before he passed away, and she has always been enamored with the big rigs. "I think these big trucks on the road are beautiful," she said. "Think about it. What would we do without them? They are so important."
When Webb Weiman heard Spencer talk about her driving desire, he decided to make it happen. Weiman, the founder of Jump!, was visiting Chandler Place, the assisted living community Spencer calls home, when he asked seniors to share one item from their lists in exchange for a lottery ticket.
"We've had people who want to drive race cars, skydivers and parasailors," Weiman said. "She's the first one who wanted to drive a semi."
Not sure where to start, Weiman started calling schools with truck driving programs. The first one he called was MSCS, where he got a hold of truck driving instructor Tom Gierock.
"Without reservation, my words were, 'Let's do it,' " Gierock said.
In his 23 years as an instructor, Spencer was not his first retiree to train on big rig driving. Several years back, he trained a couple, both 75, how to drive. "It was something they talked about," he said. "They wanted to experience the life."
Gierock said Spencer did just fine behind the wheel. Over the years, there have been several students who did not fare as well. "Yeah, I've had some that couldn't make it out of the parking lot," he said.
In the parking lot at the driving school, Spencer was helped into the driver's seat of the tall Volvo rig — she normally walks with a walker — and Gierock slid into the passenger seat beside her. The pair went over the controls in the cab as Spencer was shown the brakes, shifter and other necessities of driving.
The transmission was an automatic, so Spencer would not need to learn the complicated shifting that her husband had needed to learn to make his old rig run back in the day. "It was easier than I thought, what with the modern technology," she said. "It wasn't as hard as the ones I was familiar with."
Once Spencer had taken her laps around the school's driving course and rolled back to the parking lot, she honked the horn for the waiting crowd and, with a little help, dismounted from her ride.
Weiman, who had spent weeks setting up this ride of a lifetime, was nearly as thrilled as the lady of the hour. "She did great," he said. "Great." Best of all, with this item checked off her list, Spencer was none the worse for wear. "The only thing that matters for me is she gets in and out of that truck safely."
Of course, making sure Spencer had the time of her life didn't hurt.
"I am so grateful to them for letting me do this," Spencer said. "I'm afraid I'll wake up tomorrow and it'll all be a dream."