Red Sovine released the song “Phantom 309” in 1967, almost a decade before CB truckin’ songs became unavoidable. It’s about a haunted 18-wheeler, and the story behind one of its verses is quite true, to the point that town residents worked to erect a monument in honor of the real-life hero in September, 2014.
Tommy Faile wrote the lyrics to Sovine’s single in 1966. The song was covered by dozens of artists afterward, including Jack Bond, Dave Dudley and John Waits.
The song is a first-person narrative by a hitchhiker, who’s trying to return home from the West Coast. After three days, at a crossroad in the pouring rain, he flags down a tractor-trailer driven by a guy named “Big Joe.”
Big Joe drives through the night and drops the narrator at a truck stop, flipping him a dime for a cup of coffee before heading off into the darkness.
The narrator walks into the truck stop and talks to the waitress about Big Joe’s generosity. She lets him know that he was picked up by a “ghost driver,” and that ten years earlier, at the very same intersection where he was picked up, Big Joe swerved to avoid hitting a school bus full of children. He lost control of the truck and was killed in the wreck.
The urban legend part about being picked up by phantom truckers is up to you to believe, but the story of the crash itself was absolutely true.
On Jan. 29, 1963, John William “Pete” Trudelle drove a tanker truck to the Chelsea River Bulk Petroleum Facility north of Boston to load up on 4,600 gallons of gasoline. Trudelle turned around and started to make the several-hour trip back to Keene, New Hampshire, near the eastern bank of the Connecticut River, just across from the state of Vermont.
He started up Route 1, just north of Boston in Saugus, Mass., on the Newburyport Turnpike.
The intersection of Route 129 and Route 1 in Saugus was treacherous. Trudelle passed under the bridge, where a blind spot impeded drivers as they went into a dip. Little did Trudelle know that there was a car stopped under the bridge, where it was waiting for a school bus to pick up children.
There was no way Trudelle could stop. Rather than plowing into the back of the two vehicles stopped, he crashed the tanker into the bridge abutment. Trudelle was unable to escape the cab as the 4,600 gallons of gas erupted. The driver of the car, Robert Mayer of Stamford, Connecticut, tried to escape, but was overtaken by the flames.
The bus was engulfed in flames, but the six children and the driver on board had time to escape. About 10 seconds after the passengers and driver got out, the bus burst into flames. The heat of the fire was so intense that steel girders on the overpass buckled from the flames.
In August of 2014, residents of the town of Troy, New Hampshire, got together to build a monument in honor of Pete Trudelle. According to an article in the Keene (NH) Sentinel, “Troy selectmen approved [the monument] in July and construction on footings for the stone on the common is well underway.” On September 13, the monument was unveiled.
The main inscription reads, “Troy’s Hero,” just below the words, “Greater love hath no man than this … To lay down one’s life for his fellow man.”
If you’re younger than the age when “Phantom 309” was a hit single, you may still recognize the story. It was the inspiration for the “Large Marge” scene in the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
IMAGE SOURCE: Pete: John William Truedell Facebook Page