Breaker breaker 1-9, how about ya Large Car Nation (10-4 Magazine)? I’m putting a shout out wall to wall and tree top tall, broadcasting from the Golden State all the way to the coast of Maine and everywhere else you can get this magazine. Truck driving, as you know, is a specialized profession and it requires its own language (and a lot of other skills, too). Only a few of us still speak the language of the road, CB lingo, that is. Who remembers their 10 codes?
Trucking today is far different from how it was when I started driving 40 years ago. When someone asked you a question and you needed to answer in the affirmative your response was “10-4 driver” or “Rodger that!” The slang terms used to describe our work became so natural and normal to us drivers we incorporated it into our day-to-day patterns of speech. In fact, when I returned to college after a few years of trucking, I had to attend some speech and English courses to be deemed EXCEPT-ABLE and admitted into their program. The nerve of those people!
Unlike most jobs, truckers are totally consumed with what we do and where we do it. For me, like a lot of you, truck driving is a way of life. From the clothes I wear (don’t forget your 10-4 swag) to the way we schedule my time off, everything I do revolves around dispatch – from our load schedules and following all the way to making time for appropriate maintenance and repairs. More than once I have been told, “You can always tell a truck driver, you just can’t tell them much.” I say that tongue in cheek but still, I believe it may be true. If you want to test this theory all you have to do is go down to the local fuel stop and hang out for a while. These days, it can be difficult to figure out who are the drivers and which ones are the retirees out for exercise. I don’t know who started the sweatpants thing, but I don’t subscribe to the style. If you see this old man running in sweatpants, look close behind me, because there’s most likely a bear in hot pursuit.
This is already the third month of 2021 and, true to form, we had plans to take some time off in Louisville, KY. Insert a “not smiley” face here! Why, because the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) has been canceled again this year. Can we just get back to normal, or at least to something that resembles 2019? Many of us only make personal contact with our trucking friends and colleagues once or twice a year, and its often at a truck show. MATS is the only time I get to hang with the crew from 10-4 Magazine and it’s always a good time. I have many lifelong friends who share my passion for driving, and many of these friendships began at the truck beauty contest in Louisville, back when it was called the Pride & Polish (I always liked that name – it’s simple and straight to the point). When a driver has pride in his/her work it shows. The polish is just our excuse for getting together.
One of those friendships started more than 23 years ago. My friend, let’s call him JJ, is a lifelong steel hauler in the Midwest. He raised his kids to respect hard work and to appreciate the fruits of his labor. We all hope the best for our children and strive to see their dreams come true. What does this have to do with trucking? As fate would have it, JJ’s son wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps. That means learning to do things the right way, or as some of us would call it, the OLD SKOOL way.
Along with the day-to-day tasks of driving, JJ’s son is also learning ways for life on the road. And this isn’t one of those three-week training sessions with a skills test at the end – we are talking months of loading steel and throwing tarps, working every day, regardless of the weather. Whether it’s raining, hot, or cold, the loads still need to be chained “the right way” (especially if you are running iron into and out of the Chicago area). Then, if traffic is not too heavy, he gets to drive under the watchful eyes of a master, a Wagon Master (that’s a real trainer, with years of experience, not weeks). Keep in mind that his load is two 50-thousand-pound coils on a sled (a trailer with up to 8 axles) or a set of pup trailers with a total of 11 axles.
Up in the north land we can plate for 160,000 lbs. gross weight. Putting that kind of weight on is easy – keeping it on is the hard part. That’s where I come in. Little J, that’s JJ’s son, doesn’t want to listen to his instructor (dad) because he has already heard all the lessons before. I think many of us can remember riding with our parents as a child or when we were first learning to drive and watching and talking with them one on one. We as parents can never be sure when they (our kids) are listening. The same goes for student truck drivers in training. So, how do we impart this knowledge to them?
Some of the hardest problems are solved in the easiest of ways – over lunch. Those of you who know me personally are not surprised I would think of food at a time like this. Did you ever wonder why professionals have business lunches or extended group meals? We all have those days when someone says, “Houston, we have a problem.” You guessed it – they all get together and brainstorm and listen to other people’s ideas on solving said situation. Back in the day, every diner worth their salt had a driver’s table or a place for the regulars to sit and talk. Most of the time it was a large round table setting in the center of the room and it was reserved for the professional drivers and folks who were on a time schedule, which included salesmen and bus drivers.
Back then, “Professional Driver” was a title we wore proudly. We were given priority over other customers and everyone knew why – because it was called a truck stop, not a travel center. Many restaurants had areas designated for drivers only. It’s a shame how most of the mom-and-pops of yesteryear have faded away. Along with them, we the drivers have also lost the tremendous opportunity to pass on our knowledge and experience to the next generation.
My favorite place to stop and chat with the locals is Uncle Pete’s Truck Stop in Lebanon, Tennessee. If you get the chance, stop by and patronize them when you’re in the area rolling across I-40. Stop in and grab a seat around the community table, and don’t be surprised if they are not all men. I’ve known some awesome lady drivers that hang out there, too. If you find some flat-bedders, talk through these problems as if you are the driver struggling with the answer. Then, all your son has to do is listen. Who knows, he may come to realize there’s wisdom in your teachings.
I still pine for the old days when I ran meat to the east coast with my father-in-law, the original Wagon Master. I’m talking in the days of cabovers and 42-foot meat railers. That’s right, I too learned by riding with and working for a family member. I began hauling cows from our farm and quickly graduated to pulling a reefer. I also spent a few months as a team driver running from Detroit and Chicago to New York City pulling a meat railer. Before the days of boxed beef, we shipped beef as sides – they split the carcass in halves and hung this “swinging beef” with meat hooks from the roof of our trailers. I’ve got some stories about more than one dock worker who got chased by an angry driver while being threatened with a meat hook. Oh, those were the days!
There were so many good drivers back then. If and when a driver did get in trouble, most every driver was willing to lend a hand on a moment’s notice to bail them out. Back then, none of us had to worry about the 14-hour clock and ELDs had not been invented yet. Who knew way back then that some of us drivers were more than just another pretty face? Speaking of pretty faces and CB handles, some of the guys were quite vain. It was humorous the nicknames or “handles” drivers were known by, like Handsome Jack, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Dazzling Dan, just to name a few. Most of those guys had real names, but I don’t ever remember anybody using them. We were trucking, and they were truckers, so we respected them for what they did (not the name they called themselves).
Thinking back, things were kinda crazy then, but all (or most) of that freight still got delivered undamaged and on time. I would like to believe our health was better then too, since we weren’t eating sack lunches full of junk food and carrying out buckets of soda drinks. Gosh, I can almost taste Shelly’s Tuesday Special at the restaurant up on Snowshoe. For you West Coasters, Snowshoe is a little hill in Pennsylvania that has claimed a lot of unsuspecting drivers and far too much equipment. I hadn’t been there in a long time, but I recently had the good fortune of stopping in there for a bite to eat.
Most weeks it was the same thing on the menu, and the drivers were the same ones, as well. My typical meal was a hamburger steak with brown gravy over fried potatoes, green beans, and a slice of pure heaven… peach pie. Now that, and a cup of strong black coffee, will make a driver out of anyone. Don’t hold me to this, but all that and a dollar tip would have gotten you out the door for under $10. I received a fair amount of my trucking education listening to and remembering conversations from the “Truckers Only” table at that restaurant. That was a trucker’s life!
Today’s drivers will never know the pride we took in our work. This was an opportunity to escape our father’s trade or, for me, a chance to get off the family farm. Anyone can get a job these days. They are hiring at Burger Town USA all the time. If not there, then the big box stores, but that’s not a career choice or a line of work most of us want to spend the rest of our life doing. I can remember my schoolteachers giving me fits every day about my daydreaming and looking out the window. “Dennis, you will never get a good job if you don’t learn to pay attention,” they would often say. But for me, the wanderlust never went away. After graduation I roamed the world for a few years in the military, then came back to my hometown. And I never stopped dreaming about what might be over the next hill.
Somewhere along the way I did learn to pay attention, and that has served me well as a professional driver and owner operator. Back in the day, drivers were regionalized – they had their routes, and the union drivers with the big freight carriers set the scale for pay and much more. We may see a return to more of that style of regional routes in the near future. With more and more companies creating specialized routes for drivers, we could again see the return to the shorter hauls and a more personalized service for their customers.
Who knows, there could be an opportunity for the old mom-and-pop truck stops to make a return. If all this comes to pass, I can retire to my red lawn chair and be the greeter at Aunt Barb’s Cafe and Rest Home for old and tired truck drivers. It will be a place where everyone knows your name (hey driver) and we will be telling stories about the days of old as we remember it. Then, when we run out of true stories, we’ll make some new ones up. Until then, keep your coffee hot and the stories going so the next generation will have someone to look to for answers. Truckin’ may look completely different today from what it did in the 1970s, but rest assured, it’s still diesel, concrete, and hard work. Hey, can I get a coffee to go? 10-4!