In Lancaster, Pa., it wouldn’t be Mother’s Day Sunday if hundreds of trucks weren’t driving in succession down major thoroughfares, their drivers beeping at the thousands of people who park themselves on the side of the road to wave to the children towering above from their passenger-seat perch.
Now in its 27th year, a regional chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation has turned a holiday known everywhere else for brunches and flowers into one synonymous with monster trucks.
It all began with a single wish. In 1990, a young boy wanted to ride in an 18-wheeler and he wanted his sister to ride in another, so they could talk to each other through the internal CB radio system. When Make-A-Wish put the call out looking for willing truck drivers, 40 volunteered. They all went out, two of them carrying the siblings. The drivers said they wanted to do it again, and that’s when the idea to open it up to other kids was born.
“They feel unstoppable when they’re sitting up in that truck and the adoring public is cheering them on,” said Ben Lee, the Make-A-Wish regional director. “They have all these questions about identity and self worth and in that moment they are quite literally on top of the world.”
The event has grown each year, and there’s always more trucks than there are children to take. Regardless, they all go out for the 26-mile loop, clogging up the highways — but this is one traffic jam no one minds. Locals just know to plan their brunches accordingly.
In 2003, its 391-truck procession beat the Guinness Book of World Records for “The World’s Longest Truck Convoy.” Then a Dutch trucking company in 2004 took it over with a convoy of 416 trucks. This year, Make-A-Wish is aiming to get its title back, expecting as many as 500 trucks to take to the roads this Mother’s Day.
Daryl Miller, 53, has been driving in the convoy since almost the very beginning — this will be his 25th year. He’s driven three different wish children, but for most of his rides he’s taken Travis Patterson, who has a muscular disorder. Patterson is now 27 years old. He was only 5 when he first started riding with Miller.
Miller, who is always among the top 30 fundraisers for the event — since the second year drivers raise money to participate — has entertained taking a break from driving and volunteering at the event in other ways. But when he broached it with Patterson a few years ago, Patterson said, “I don’t know what I would do. I’d really miss it.”
“It just broke my heart,” Miller said.
“The parents come around to you and they are so appreciative for what you’ve done,” he said. “After spending so much time in the hospital, when their child is granted their wish it’s a bright spot in their life. They can forget their troubles for one day. It’s a great feeling knowing you can do something so little and make such a big impact on someone’s life.”
For Chuckie, the convoy was always the highlight of his year. He’d thrill at seeing trucks on the road. He’d reach for Musser, who has become a dear family friend outside of the convoy, whenever he saw him.
At 23 years old, Chuckie’s femur snapped on Halloween, which led doctors to discover he had bone cancer. As Chuckie’s health deteriorated, his right leg had to be amputated, he was weak from the cancer, and doctors wondered whether it was wise for Chuckie to do the ride.
For Bev Magee, Chuckie’s mom, it wasn’t an option.
Before last year’s convoy, Magee pulled Musser aside and told him it was likely the last year Chuckie would be well enough to go with him. They put their arms around each other and wept softly, shielding their pain so Chuckie wouldn’t see it on his most favorite day.
Only a few weeks after that ride, Chuckie died.
This year, Musser will still drive in the convoy, but he’s not ready to invite a new child to join him. Instead, he’ll have Chuckie’s mom and his own daughter on board, and a banner hanging on the grill of his truck in memory of Chuckie.
“I’m hoping I can keep it together,” Musser said. “It’s going to be emotional, I know that, once I get there.”
For Magee, this first year at the convoy without her son will be heartbreaking. On Thursday she broke down in her car thinking about the preparations for Sunday and her first Mother’s Day without her son, she said.
“Seeing your child do something a normal child could do – that feeling was just tremendous,” Magee said, her voice breaking. “Seeing them sitting up in the truck, you can’t help but get chills and tears to watch them.”
But she said she knows Chuckie would want her to be strong. And she told Musser her son would also want him to give another child the opportunity to ride with him when he’s ready.
“We had a special needs child who lived life to its fullest. If you gave him a minute of your time, he was your friend for life,” she said. “Chuckie would feed on your emotions. He wouldn’t want me to be crying right now. He’d be like, Mom come on. It’s Ok, Mom.”