When I was sixteen years old, the phrase referred to the 55 mile per hour speed limit on the United States interstate highway system, designed to save energy and lives, uniformly reviled by truckers and just about everyone else. But when Congress threatened to withdraw federal highway funding from states refusing to cooperate with double nickels, the states fell right into line and new speed limit signs were seen around the nation. And people didn’t like it. We had already been forced to get rid of the lead in our gasoline, but we still had lead in our feet. It seemed as if it should be unconstitutional to deny us the freedom to cruise the open road at high rates of speed.
The epithet “double nickels” may have been coined by truckers, but back in 1975, all of us seemed to regard it as a modern-day curse word. We longed for the days when the speed limit on the Kansas Turnpike was 80 mph while we looked wistfully toward Germany’s Autobahn and the tracks of NASCAR fame. We had a need for speed.
The CB radio craze was at its height, C.W. McCall’s gravelly voice was belting out “Convoy” on the radio (a few years before Kris Kristofferson brought it to the big screen) and folks high-fived saying “10-4, good buddy!”
“So we crashed the gate doing 98 and I said ‘let them truckers roll!’” Truckers were being admired as the new American cowboys, outlaws whose chief enemies were Smoky, swindle sheets and double nickels.
Double nickels was also a decidedly less romantic reference to the sentiment among truckers that the new speed limit deprived them of the ability to earn a living (i.e., they wouldn’t have two nickels to rub together). When your livelihood depends on on-time delivery and the availability of a back haul, road speed really does make a difference.
So whenever my father pulled off the interstate at a truck stop, I would make it a point to walk past the section labeled “professional drivers only” to sneak a glance at my secret heroes. And I greatly admired a girl in my chemistry class who had a CB radio setup at home and who, on the school bus, would regale me with stories of the truckers on I-84 with whom she’d most recently chatted.
I hadn’t thought about the days of trucker culture in years, but then I was reminded that I had a birthday coming up. A big one, a milestone.
And so today I turned double nickels, a bona fide over-the-hill old guy. We marked the day by driving down to Roseville for dinner and to pick up some of my favorite vegan goodies at Whole Foods. Pastor Mom delighted me with a non-dairy chocolate pie, my favorite.
The real celebration will come on Saturday, when most of the family will gather. We’ll eat a lot, indulge in more pies, reminisce over fond memories and likely reflect upon how all of us are growing older. And that will be the greatest birthday gift of all.
But the Google doodle with the birthday cakes and my name on the tool tip was pretty cool, too.