The Glory Days

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Norm Butler is not the type of guy who sits around and longs for the past, but like so many others out there, he would argue that the 1970s and 1980s were “the glory days” of trucking.  Back then, when trucking was still regulated, the big freight companies ruled, you could make an honest living, truckers were respected by the public, and believe it or not, it was even fun.  A lot has changed since then, but trucking is still a good business – and it can still be fun.  Unfortunately, with the advent of the ELDs (Electronic Logging Devices), truckers cannot stop when they want to stop or rest when they need to rest, because once that clock starts ticking, there is no time to waste (or enjoy).  This, along with other factors, have caused veterans like Norm (64) to ponder retirement.

Born September 11, 1956, in Sacramento, California, Norm Butler was raised in a trucking home – sort of.  Norm’s dad Bill went to work at Interlines Blankenship Motor Express out of Sacramento in 1952 as a warehouse worker.  Eventually, he tried being a driver, but it really wasn’t his thing.  Ending up in management at the company, which changed its name to System 99 around 1963, Bill was relocated to Southern California in 1965 to run their terminal in Los Angeles.  Norm was about 11 years old when the family moved to South Gate, located in the heart of Los Angeles, then, shortly after that, out to the suburbs of San Dimas, CA.

In those days, San Dimas was a small “country” town just east of Los Angeles, and Norm enjoyed his time there.  In high school, he played a lot of baseball and football and, at 15 years old, he started working at night on the dock at System 99 – he even got his union card at just 16 years old.  When his parents decided to get a divorce and move away (dad to the Bay area and mom back to Sacramento), Norm didn’t want to leave, so he lived with a friend’s family for a year or two to finish high school and continue playing sports.  After graduating in 1974, he moved back to Sacramento and began working on the docks at System 99 there.  Two years later, in 1976, chasing a girl (who would eventually become his first wife), Norm moved back to Southern California and transferred back to the System 99 terminal down there.

While working on the dock, loading and unloading trucks, Norm would occasionally be asked to move a trailer.  At first, he wasn’t very good at it, but then a driver named Coley Stafford gave him some advice and began teaching “Stormin’ Norman” (that is what Coley called Norm) how to back the trailers into the dock, and he eventually got really good at it.  In 1977, Norm got his license to drive a truck and started running locally for System 99.  He did that for about a year, but he really wanted to be a line driver.  Problem was, you had to be 25 years old to be hired on as a line driver, and Norm was barely 22.  However, the company knew Norm very well and, along with a few strings being pulled by his dad, Norm became the youngest line driver at System 99.

Running from Fontana, CA to El Centro, then to Yuma, then back to El Centro, before heading back to Fontana, Norm drove a short International cabover with a spring suspension and pulled doubles.  Later, when he got on a sleeper team with Gary Smith, an older driver who taught Norm a lot, they would run to Reno, Phoenix, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and, occasionally, they’d go to Las Vegas with doubles and then pick up a third trailer and pull triples to Salt Lake City.  In those days, running with Gary, they drove an International Transtar cabover with a very small sleeper and a turned-up Cummins 350, hooked to a 9-speed, with no Jake brake.

The Motor Carrier Act of 1980 was signed into law by President Carter on July 1, 1980.  The Act prohibited rate bureaus from interfering with any carrier’s rights to publish its own rates.  As implemented, it removed most rate making from the rate bureaus, eliminated most restrictions on what commodities that could be carried, and deregulated the routes that motor carriers could use and the geographic regions that they could serve.  The law authorized truckers to price freely within a “zone of reasonableness” and truckers could now increase or decrease rates from current levels by up to 15 percent without challenge.  This change hit freight carriers like System 99 and many others hard.  Most of them eventually closed their doors – including System 99 in October of 1985.

Norm and a few others were asked to stay and help the company close their terminals and move trucks.  Viking Freight was taking over what was left of the operation, and they offered Norm a job – but he declined.  Instead, he went to work for the Baker Brothers (Dick, Russ and Bob) out of Los Angeles who had a small fleet of trucks leased on at Bestway.  Purchasing a new 3-axle International 9670 COE for Norm with no power steering and no Jake brake, this truck looked good, but it was not fun to drive.

After about a year, the Baker Brothers began to downsize, and they offered to sell one of their trucks to Norm.  Buying a 2-axle 1981 Freightliner with a 76” cab and a 380-hp Cat engine hooked to a 10-speed and 3.90 rear gears, this was not a “fast” truck, but it was a good truck.  When he bought it, the truck already had 800,00 miles on it, and Norm drove it to 1.3 million and never had to rebuild it.  With the purchase of this Freightliner, Norm became an owner operator and formed N.M. Butler Trucking in 1987.  Staying leased on at Bestway, Norm stayed there until 1994.

While at Bestway, Norm eventually replaced his 1981 Freightliner with a white 2-axle 1987 Kenworth K100 cabover, which he fixed up nicely, and then replaced that one with a new dark green and black 2-axle 1992 Peterbilt 379 short hood with a 36” sleeper – his very first conventional rig!  Powered by a 425 mechanical Cat hooked to a 13-speed and 3.55 gears, the truck was ordered with just a 200” wheelbase, which proved to be too short, and made the truck very rough to drive.  This was the first truck Norm had ever ordered, so he didn’t really know what he was doing.  Pulling for Bestway and based out of their terminal in Sacramento, Norm would run doubles down to Los Angeles, Fontana, Orange County and San Diego.

In 1994, Bestway began phasing out their owner operators and moving toward company trucks and drivers.  Norm left and went to a company called Inter-Cal, where he pulled their trailers for about a year in and around California.  In 1995, he got rid of his conventional Peterbilt and went back to a cabover, buying a new 2-axle 1996 Freightliner with a 104” cab.  Painted Mocha Pearl with a Dark Caramel Metallic frame and powered by a 460-hp N14 Cummins hooked to a 13-speed and 3.70 gears, this truck had a long wheelbase, and Norm loved it.

One night, when coming out of Los Angeles, Norm got to talking with a driver from Dirksen Transportation out of Manteca, CA.  Dirksen had a nice fleet of blue cabovers and were known for pulling 57’ van trailers throughout California.  After talking a while, the driver convinced Norm to apply at Dirksen for a job.  Henry Dirksen, the owner of the company, was very picky about who he hired, but he liked Norm.  Dirksen drivers had to dress a certain way and maintain their trucks a certain way, as well – they also had to have a blue truck to be part of their fleet.  Norm really liked his Mocha Pearl Freightliner, but he decided it was worth it to paint it, and had Bill Rocha spray the rig in Dirksen’s signature colors of two-tone blue with silver stripes.  He also bought a set of 1986 Comet trailers that were 28’ long from Dirksen, and then went to work.

Running throughout California and to Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and all over the Pacific Northwest, Norm pulled those doubles with that Freightliner cabover until 2001, then he replaced them.  Since nobody wanted to deal with doubles anymore, Norm replaced the combo with a new 2001 Freightliner Classic and a nice used 53’ van trailer he bought from Dirksen.  This conventional tractor was Dirksen blue with vinyl stripes, and it was powered by a 475-hp ISX Cummins hooked to a 13-speed and 3.55 gears.  Norm only kept this rig for a couple years, then bought a new 2003 Peterbilt 379 with a 475-hp Cat “Bridge” motor.  As most know, Caterpillar built these “Bridge” engines in 2002 and 2003 to “bridge” the gap between the pre-emissions 6NZ and the ACERT engine – and they were junk, so Norm did not keep this truck for long.

In 2004, Dirksen was bought by Gardner Trucking out of Chino, CA.  Norm was still leased to Dirksen, but they no longer needed to have a blue truck.  So, in 2005, Norm ordered a new 2006 Pete 379 in dark red with a 70” standup sleeper, a 565-hp ISX Cummins, and a 275” wheelbase.  Norm loved this rig, and eventually bought a new 2008 Utility trailer to pull behind it.  In 2009, they too started phasing out their owner operators, and Norm saw the writing on the wall.  Thankfully, at that same time, one of the warehouses Norm was hauling into offered him a direct job, hauling aluminum cans between Sacramento, CA and Olympia, WA.  To this day, he is still working that haul, along with others.

Also, in 2009, wanting to save some fuel, Norm decided to replace his 379 Peterbilt with an aerodynamic truck and purchased a new T660 Kenworth with a 72” bunk.  Powered by a 525 ISX Cummins, the truck was silver with dark red accents.  Running this truck for three years, in 2012, wanting a bigger sleeper, he replaced it with a 2013 Kenworth T660 with an 86” bunk.  Powered by a 550 ISX Cummins hooked to an 18-speed and 3.36 gears, this rig was painted dark red and gray and featured a Seminole paint scheme.  Norm also ran this rig for three years, and then in 2016, wanting something a little more old school, he ordered a 2017 Kenworth W900L.  Powered by a 550 ISX, Norm changed the colors a bit, opting for a brighter Radiant Red Effect color, with two Phantom Grey stripes, which were outlined with thinner Cream stripes (these are the same colors on his current truck).

Being a good businessman, Norm always sells his trucks at the right time, and because he takes such good care of them, he always gets top dollar, too.  While he owned his 2017 W900L, he bought a brand-new 2019 Utility trailer to pull behind it and painted it to match.  This is the same trailer he pulls today, and because his new truck is the same colors as his previous one, he didn’t need to paint the trailer or do anything at all to it – and it still looks like almost a perfect match.  His latest truck, the one featured here and on our cover and centerfold this month, is a 2020 Kenworth W900L.

Ordered in 2019, the 2020 KW was finally delivered in February of 2020.  Typically, Norm has taken almost all of his new trucks to be customized by his friend Brent McGrath at Brent’s Custom Trucks in White City, Oregon, but this time he decided to do something different and had the truck drop-shipped directly to Whit-Log Trailers in Roseburg, Oregon, where it spent five or six weeks being customized.  Whit-Log is known for building awesome log trucks, but they recently started taking on other projects like this, and Norm was very happy with how it all turned out.  The truck was ordered with a 280” wheelbase and features a 72” AeroCab flat top sleeper with a Diamond VIT interior.  Powered by a 565-hp X15 Cummins, hooked to an 18-speed and 3.56 gears, the truck came painted Radiant Red Effect with a Phantom Grey frame.

Once the folks at Whit-Log got the truck, they went to work.  Some of the first things done included adding a rear light bar, reconfiguring the rear section of the frame, building and mounting a flush painted aluminum deck plate, building and mounting a custom painted air line box fitted with glass watermelon lights, and then repainting the entire frame from the cab back, to make sure everything matched perfectly.  They also painted the fuel tanks and then added a painted 12 Ga. visor, a Valley Chrome front bumper, seven LED “bullet style” cab lights from United Pacific, a set of six-inch miter-cut pipes from Dynaflex, and polished stainless Hogebuilt half fenders.

Some of the less noticeable things done to the truck include six inset bunk lights from Shift Products fitted with LED “GloLights” from United Pacific on the back of the sleeper, air cleaner light panels (front and back) with watermelon LEDs, small painted drop panels from Phoenix Design & Manufacturing with small LED lights on both the cab and sleeper, RoadWorks hub and nut covers, and vinyl stripes designed by Norm and then done by John at JB Signs & Design in Sutherlin, OR.  Brent at Brent’s Custom Trucks provided the billet mirror lights and billet quick connect air line covers on the connection box behind the sleeper (Norm has another set of connectors at the rear of the truck, as well).  Finally, all the pinstriping was done by Pauly’s Custom Pin Stripe in Ashland, OR.

You might notice that the truck sports #99 on the sides of the hood near the front – this was done in honor of Norm’s time at System 99.  Those were very good times for him, that also included his dad, his brother, who worked there for a long time as well, and even his sister, who worked there for a short time at one point.  Also, on the window on the back of the sleeper, there is a memorial sign in honor of Norm’s cousin, Dennis Jennings, who was a pilot that owned a vintage 1948 Ryan Navion four-seat airplane, who died last year of cancer.  Norm really liked Dennis, and Dennis really liked Norm’s truck.

Norm loves music, and the stereo system inside this Kenworth reflects that love.  Installed by Stereo Icon of Elk Grove in Elk Grove, CA, the system features a Sony head unit, a 5000-watt 12” subwoofer from Quantum Audio under the bed in the sleeper, and several other speakers.  Norm likes jazz, rock, funk, classic rock, and even a little hip hop dance music, but his all-time favorite is Steely Dan, so crank it up!

The trailer, as mentioned before, is a 53-ft. 2019 Utility 4000D-X composite dry van with matching dark red and gray stripes and plenty of lights.  The nose cone is covered in dark red vinyl, and the rest of the front is polished.  The nose cone and stripes were done by Black Dog Graphix in Sacramento, CA, along with Norm’s logo on the pleated and polished rear doors, and the all too true saying, “Ain’t Broke Yet But I’m Sho Nuff Bendin” on the lower left corner of the rear doors.  All four of the locking bars are stainless – Norm likes to have four locking bars because it helps decrease stress and flexing and helps the trailer to last longer (he learned this trick from Henry Dirksen).  Norm also mounted a polished six-gallon water tank under his trailer with a hose spigot for washing stuff up, which really comes in handy.

People to thank include Steve Annis, the salesman at Papé Kenworth in Coburg, OR who ordered the truck for Norm, Brett Whitaker at Whit-Log Trailers, Norm’s longtime engine guy Rick Erickson (also at Papé Kenworth in Coburg, OR), his cleaner and helper Justin Henneinke, a local driver for 7-Up and friend who helped Norm get the truck ready before and during the photo shoot, Norm’s lifelong friends Bob and Lin Morgan (who came to be part of the photo shoot), and Norm’s father Bill.  After leaving System 99 a few years before they shut down, Norm’s dad went on to work in sales at A & R Freight System, Bestway and DHE.  He worked until he was 80 years old, finally retiring seven years ago.  He came out to the photo shoot, as well, and it was great to meet him.  A final request from Norm was to give a shout out to his two nieces – Whitney and Bernie – who are both young adults in their 20s, and who both love Norm and all his cool trucks.

Married to his wife Diana since 2005, the couple has no children – but they do have their cat Henry.  These two first dated back in 1989, and then got together again in 2000.  Diana has been an independent court reporter for over 20 years, and this keeps her very busy.  Norm’s company has been called Butler & Son Trucking since 1996, when he changed the name to honor his father (in this company name, Norm is the son).  Norm’s dad is not actually involved in Norm’s operation, but he wanted to give him a nod, nonetheless.  When not trucking, Norm likes to watch sports, do yard work, hang out with friends, wash his cars, and take vacations.

A few fun facts about Norm: 1) He quit drinking alcohol in 1990, but he still drools at the thought of an ice cold Coors Banquet beer; 2) Norm was given the nickname “OG” Norm by his friend (and fellow cover trucker from back in December 2016) Gary Ross.  “OG” is a slang term for someone who is exceptional, authentic, original, or old-school, according to the Urban Dictionary.  Norm says it stands for old guy; 3) He lowers all his trucks, cars, and pickups and says he always will; and 4) Norm loves clothes – especially button-up shirts and boots – and has hundreds of them to choose from in his closet.  He said, “George Strait and my trucking mentors taught me how to dress!”

After almost 45 years of trucking, Norm is looking to retire soon.  “Running now, it just gets harder and harder with the ELD – and it’s a lot less fun, because you are always chasing the clock.  And mutual respect, that brotherhood we all used to share out on the road, barely exists anymore.”  When asked what he might do when retired, he said he would like to do volunteer work and help charities.  Diana plans to work for a few more years, so Norm will have to find something to do to fill his time (maybe he can find some young drivers out there to mentor).

As time marches on, more and more of these “OG” truckers are retiring or passing away.  Drivers of this stature from these “glory days” of trucking, Norm Butler included, were people of their word who had integrity, were honest, who worked hard, and got the job done – no matter what.  These traits need to be passed on to the next generation of truckers by guys like Norm so those “glory days” can once again return to trucking.  They may not be exactly the same as the 1970s or 1980s, but that doesn’t mean they have to be any less glorious!

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