In three decades on the road, Bill McNamee has piled up enough adventures to fill several volumes — but he hasn’t done it alone. For the past 27 years he’s brought along a “menagerie” of companions including mice, a lizard, a hedgehog, a duck and the occasional bulldog, all of whom have come along for the ride.
Along the way, his “mascots,” as he calls them have accumulated their own share of experiences and gotten into the occasional mischief, notwithstanding the fact that each is stuffed.
“I started out with a mouse called Seatbelt Sam in ’99. I saw this mouse at Cracker Barrel and I thought, ‘You know, this would be a good mascot,’” he said. “I got another mouse; that was Mario, Mario Provolone. And then, I found this girl mouse and I named her Cheddar Mouse.
“Cheddar married Seatbelt Sam,” McNamee continued his story. “Two years later, we went out and got three little mice — three little catnip toys — named Colby and Pepper and Jack. So, they had three kids.”
Told out of context, this backstory about McNamee’s collection of stuffed animals with elaborate backstories might suggest a guy who’s been out on the road just a little bit too long. In fact, however, his furry pals are all part of McNamee’s strategy for engaging schoolchildren through the Trucker Buddy Program, and it’s an effective strategy.
“The concept of that program is to show kids what we have in our beautiful country. It’s also to show the necessity of the trucking industry in everybody’s life,” he said. “We promote a positive image and show them that (truckers are) normal people, just like their moms and dads. We just don’t get to come home every day.”
McNamee said he is also able to share lessons about seatbelt safety and distracted driving that children can share with their parents.
“We throw in anti-bullying messages, sharing the road messages, how to be good friends to their classmates. We’re doing all of that and making it all fun,” he said.
McNamee, who drives for Carbon Express, has been assigned to various classrooms during his time in the Trucker Buddy program.
Currently he’s currently assigned to three classrooms of Christopher Elementary second-graders in Christopher, Illinois. That’s 62 kids in all. While on the road, he’ll drop the classes a postcard or send a photo of the mascots; while at home, he’ll pay the students an in-person visit.
“You know, a lot of kids never leave their hometown. Some kids never go coast to coast. They’ll never see the Rocky Mountains; never see New York City. So, we share that with them and while we’re doing that, we teach them about how important the trucking industry is,” he said.
“This thing just grows and grows. It seems like every couple of months, I can think of a new lesson for them about something,” he continued.
In fact, the stories have become elaborate enough to qualify as their own daytime dramas. McNamee staged a wedding for Seatbelt Sam and Cheddar after a student suggested it wasn’t proper for unmarried male and female mice to travel together. In another caper, he caught the mascots ordering pizza using McNamee’s credit card without permission.
In their latest stunt, the mascots went for a joyride on McNamee’s riding lawn mower, only to be caught and sentenced to “house arrest,” complete with ankle monitors. He’s working with local authorities to “pardon” them, allowing them to go on the next run.
McNamee’s mascot collection has grown right along with the storylines. In addition to the mice, the crew now includes Henry the Highway Hedgehog, Larry the Lizard and a duck, named simply, Duck in the Truck.
“He used to be small duck, about 6 inches tall,” McNamee said. “But, last year, he got stung by a bee because I found this really big duck. So, I made the storyline, and I got my first responder medical bag out and I put the mascots all around him and I took pictures of them. They had a stethoscope, and they were checking him out.
“He never recovered from the bee sting, so he is now really big in the truck because he got all swollen up. He’s the big guy in the truck,” McNamee continued the tale. “We just call him Duck in the Truck. We got him a T-shirt made and we’re starting to work on a fan club.”
McNamee is aided in his Trucker Buddy stories by his wife Carrie, a fellow commercial driver who used to team with him on the road and now drives a bus. He said chronicling the tales of his ragtag crew not only keeps him mentally occupied on the road, but it also fulfills something his mother always preached when he was young.
“Mom always said, ‘Don’t be a taker; be a giver,’” he said. “I’ve always been an over-the-road driver and I didn’t have a way that I could give back at home. I couldn’t be a coach or Cub Scout leader because I was never home. I was searching for something to do with my time that would educate young people and also help improve the image of the trucking industry. I wanted to put something good out there, so that when I told people that I was a truck driver, I could be proud of that.”
Check out McNamee and his mischievous mascots on his Facebook group page, Trucker Buddies North & South, at facebook.com/groups/293354981039913.