Briefly, Dennis Weaver plays a sales rep driving his Valiant through the desert on his way home from a conference. He ends up playing Mouse to the much larger Cat, a beat-up tanker truck whose driver we never see, save fleeting glimpses of a hand or a booted foot. The truck relentlessly chases the man for scores of miles, tries to run him off the road, nearly flattens him several times. The climax is not explosive as we might expect, and the abrupt denouement is unsettling and surprisingly believable.
Watching Duel tonight reminded me of my own experience with a truck that frightened me more than any thriller or horror film. In 1988, I was driving several days a week from my home in Folsom, New Jersey, to what was then Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) for fifteen credits a semester. Although Rte. 322 was the most direct route, sometimes traffic was quite annoying on that road. Many days I opted to take Mays Landing Road into Winslow, and Winslow Road to Williamstown, or the reverse. The stretch of road was only about six miles long. It may not have saved me any time, but the ride was certainly smoother.
One late winter or early spring day in the afternoon, as I drove my old brown VW Rabbit home, I took this back way and was doing about 50 m.p.h. on Winslow Road. Shortly after I got on the road, I noticed in my rear-view mirror a white delivery truck of some sort, about the size of a small U-Haul. I thought nothing of it, probably engrossed in the latest Bangles song on the radio. But then I noticed that the truck was coming behind me really close. Really close. And then closer and closer. Suddenly, I saw the driver. His hair was wild and bushy. He was grimacing, his mouth wide and teeth gaping with his eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets. His hands were clamped at ten and two o'clock on the steering wheel; his elbows were high and his shoulder clenched. I was startled—shocked, really. What was going on?? I had no idea, but I didn't want to find out, so I floored it.
Of course, in my beat up car, that meant getting a little faster, a little at a time. I increased speed to 55, then 60, then 65, then 70. The truck behind me met my pace, and the look of insanity on the driver's face never wavered as he continued the chase. I kept increasing, to 80, then 85. I was scared to death to be going that fast, the fastest I had ever driven (even today, I rarely get up to that speed), but I had no choice. It seemed like speed or die. Finally, the truck started to fall back, slowly. As we crept up an incline that led to the overpass at the Atlantic City Expressway, he was far enough away for me to slow down at the intersection with Rte. 73 and make a quick right turn to take me back to Mays Landing Road and get home. I didn't look back right away, but after a few minutes when I did, the truck was gone.
I still used that road through the rest of the semester before I dropped out of college, but only heading to Glassboro. I never drove home that way again.