It’s a New Year! The holidays are over and your primed to start your new career as a truck driver. The recruiter said there were plenty of opportunities waiting for you, and he was right. The job market is strong, and the pay, wow! So, you took the plunge. Off to school you went, and here you are.
You finally made it! And now, you are sitting right where you always wanted to be – behind the wheel of a big rig. The first thing you do is check your mirrors and, to your surprise, the image there is you standing beside the road pumping your arm up and down to get some trucker’s attention. You look closer and realize that was the first time you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up. Fast forward to today… how did you get in that seat? Who were your influences? What doors had to open for you to get the training needed to qualify for a CDL?
Forty years ago, when I started driving trucks, driving schools were hard to find and even harder to get in to. Back then, most of the seats were taken by large companies who were training their own employees. Seniority was king with most union tradesmen (truck driving is and always has been a valuable “trade” in America). Just in case you’re not sure about that, check the national wage scale. Most first-year drivers will gross more than some college graduates. That’s impressive, especially when you consider the cost of any state university compared to the small investment needed to attend a driver training course.
Today’s job market is stronger than ever. We are seeing some of those same employment practices being put back into place again. Finding a good employee is difficult, so when they appear, it a good idea to find ways to utilize them. There have been a lot of new drivers starting their driving careers in the last couple of years, both young men and women, who are taking full advantage of the opportunity. But many older folks are filling those available seats now, as well.
Over the time of my experience behind the wheel, I have encountered lots of people who have expressed their desire to drive. They ask questions about life on the road, the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. But, mostly, they want to know why I do it. I tell all of them the same thing: “I’m only doing this until I can retire and buy one of those really large motor coaches and drive in the middle lane doing 55 mph!” Well, not really, however that small attempt at humor gives me a perfect opportunity to enlighten the general public about trucks and the world of trucking.
We never know who is listening or how they will respond to what they learn. I’ve met retired school teachers, police officers, and even a man who claimed to be a doctor, who couldn’t deal with the stress of their jobs (like there’s no stress in this job). All of them were driving trucks now – some locally and some over-the-road – but they all loved doing that thing we call “Truck-N” a lot.
I once had a group of tourists from a foreign country approach me at a rest area – they wanted their picture with an American Trucker. Between a translator and some hand signals, we had a very enjoyable afternoon. They called me “cowboy man” because that was their impression of the American trucker – a concrete cowboy – the last free spirit. Many foreign tourists see us as men and women on the move. Sometimes, in our hectic schedules, I, like so many others, forget just how fortunate we are to live and work here in America – a place where we can choose to be whoever and whatever we are capable of.
I love it when the sun is peaking over the horizon and that first light of morning is fading into a glorious festival of colors – I marvel at how lucky I am to witness a brand-new day. Every day has the potential to be your best day ever. How we act or react will determine our level of success or failure.
I grew up on a dirt road in southern Michigan where our family was involved in agriculture. Farming, like trucking, is a lifestyle – it consumes the entire family. My brother and I both learned to drive watching our father. At the tender age of about 10, I started driving tractors and wagons around the homestead. Shortly after that, I farmed myself out to work for one of our neighbors. The reason I mention this is that they were huge influences on not only my driving style but my work ethic, as well.
As a 10-year-old, I learned quickly that driving the hay wagon is much better than lifting all those bales of hay. My brother didn’t catch on as quickly, so I didn’t let him in on my new-found knowledge. Later, I worked with and for my father-in-law, who was one of those guys who made it look easy to command a tractor-trailer. As I mentioned earlier, there wasn’t a school for me, I learned to drive using a scoop shovel and a water hose, as the cost of my education was cleaning out the cow trailers. There weren’t any paved parking lots with pretty lines painted on them either… no, I started driving in a corn field.
To this day, I still practice many of the drills they put me through back then. I often park in a vacant lot and get out my coffee cans to use as markers. Then, I practice driving around them, seeing how close I can get without hitting them or backing over them. As the new drivers of today take to the roadways, I hope they too will remember to practice their driving lessons. It can be difficult at times to remember, but this is for real… safety is always rule number one.
Today’s trucks are light years from what some of us old hands started with. However, they still come with the same opportunity and responsibilities. Too often new drivers think we are picking on them when we comment on their choice of action when driving, but there is little they will do that we haven’t done a time or two, ourselves. Hopefully, they will use our experience and not suffer the same fate as we did. No one likes to drive a classy ride with bent bumpers or a busted hood, so if we can save you from that, we will try.
Life on the open road awaits those brave enough to search it out. Don’t be afraid to spread your wings. Success is but once removed from failure, so don’t be scared to try. And, if things don’t work out at the first company, you just try and try again. If I were to offer any advice to new drivers it would be simple and straight to the point: “Keep the tractor ahead of your wagon at all times,” and, “The most dangerous section of road you will ever drive on is the 100 yards in front of you, so drive accordingly.”
Thinking back to my first days, I dug up a few old pictures. The white GMC cabover was my father’s (he is the one standing next to it). Most folks knew my father as Uncle Chuck, and his CB handle was Moonshine Charlie. The blue and gray cabover was my first new truck in 1982 – it is an International 9670 Limited Edition 75th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee – and it is still in use today here, locally. The white and blue Peterbilt cabover with the hopper bottom trailer was one of the first trucks I built to haul limestone. I completely remade that truck right in my driveway.
Now that I’ve taken this trip down memory lane, I hope it will show that life will sometimes throw you some curves, so when it does, downshift, check your mirrors, and if no one is coming, go for it! Till we meet again, may the sun shine on your shoulders and not in your eyes. Drive safe out there, kids… 10-4!