You may recall the 1977 song “Black Betty” by the one-hit-wonder band known as Ram Jam. This was a popular song that a lot of folks didn’t necessarily care for, or worse, greatly disliked. But, like it or not, it was a hit song, and whenever you hear it, that irritatingly-catchy tune gets stuck in your head. Much the same as the song, this “Black Betty” A-Model featured here, which most people love, was not exactly loved the first couple years after its current owners Heath and J’Lynn Church of Shawnee, Oklahoma bought it – in fact, it was pretty disliked! But, after they got all the kinks worked out, “Black Betty” went on to become a beloved member of their small fleet that is used every day.
Representing the third generation in his family to drive truck, Heath Church was born in North Carolina. When he was four years old, his parents moved the family to Astoria, South Dakota. Heath grew up around trucks and helped out by doing some driving during the harvest season, but he never drove over the road and did not obtain his CDL until he was 24 years old. In the ranching area where he grew up, Heath’s job options were limited. But, one of those options was trucking, and Heath and his family knew lots of people in that industry.
In his early years, Heath had various jobs, but most were somehow affiliated with trucking. He was also part of the rodeo circuit in team roping and calf roping from 1986-2013. In 1994, Heath and his dad David started a fencing company called 3-C Construction (3 Churchs), with his mother being the silent partner in the operation. David continued driving full time while Heath did rodeo and ran the fence company.
Throughout the years, Heath’s father and grandfather had tried in earnest to keep him out of the trucking industry because they knew the sacrifices that were made, including the time away from loved ones and the stress it can put on a family. But there came a point when Heath wasn’t bringing much money in from rodeo and the cost of travel into town for work didn’t make for good enough earnings, so Heath approached his dad and said he wanted to get into trucking, at least during the slow winter months.
Knowing the owners of Hannah Trucking prior to them buying out a company and starting their trucking operation, Heath talked with Terry, one of the owners, and although he had zero experience, he got hired. Back in the day, when trucking was a government-regulated industry, if you wanted to start a trucking company, you had to wait until another company went out of business or buy one out to get your Class B permit to operate. In those days, companies would run a “bingo card” which was a board that you stickered with what states you were driving through. The stickers were your fuel permits, and that’s how it worked until IFTA (International Fuel Tax Agreement) came into play.
Needing to learn all the ins and outs of running over the road, Heath turned to a family friend, Don Carlson, who was a driver for Hannah Trucking, who took Heath out and taught him to drive. When Heath asked Don about filling out logbooks, Don just laughed. He filled it out, but he never really explained how to properly do it. Don put it to Heath that they were out there to work and that it was his job to teach him how to stay alive on the road. Don told Heath there were three rules he needed to learn and take with him: 1) You can come down a mountain many times too slow but you can only come down a mountain too fast once; 2) Always keep at least three truck lengths in front of you so you have the needed time to stop; and 3) Always keep the tanks full in the winter.
As a driver at Hannah Trucking for two years total, Heath drove the truck the second year leased-on with East West Motor Express out of Blackhawk, SD. After that, he went to drive for Jim Greene, who’s truck was also leased-on at East West Motor Express, where he stayed driving/leased for the next 11 years. Originally, trucking was supposed to be just a part-time deal to make up for the fencing company being slow in the winter, but eventually it turned into a full-time driving gig.
As anyone can relate to, getting into the trucking industry is a learning lesson. Some things are learned the easy way, and some are learned through a more difficult route. Heath told me his story of how he learned about logbooks the more difficult way. As I mentioned previously, his family friend Don, who taught him how to drive, smiled and laughed when Heath brought up logbooks. When Heath went to work for Hannah Trucking, he didn’t use a logbook, but when he went with Hannah Trucking’s truck and leased-on with East West Motor Express, he had to learn.
East West had dedicated lanes of drop and hooks, and on Heath’s first run, he was out for 14 days and ran 12,000 miles. The requirement is that a driver is supposed turn in logs daily with their trip packs. The office asked Heath where his logbooks were, and he said he didn’t fill them out. Heath didn’t want to admit he didn’t know how to fill them out. The conversation was short, and it was assumed that Heath would turn them in, but dispatch grabbed him and asked if he was ready to go back out.
Of course, Heath wanted to work and make money, so he went back out for another 14 days and approximately 12,000 miles. He came back and Darwin Stebbins (he and his brother owned the company), who was also the fleet manager, called Heath into his office. At this point, Heath was thinking he wasn’t working hard enough, but Darwin asked him, “Kid, where are your log sheets?” He said he didn’t have any and then proceeded to say he avoids the scales and doesn’t get caught. Heath also said that if he did get caught, he would just pay the $25 fine. Darwin said he couldn’t do that, and Heath was sent to safety to get educated on logbooks. This was an ongoing issue for about six months before everything got straightened out.
In addition to the logbook issues, Heath also had a little problem with speeding in the early part of his trucking career. When Heath started with East West, he had never driven west of I-25 before. On his first trip going to the Northwest, he got three speeding tickets in one day! The speed limit at that time in Montana was open, but not for commercial trucks. After that six-month period, though, there was some leniency, but the company finally got Heath on the straight and narrow.
Around 1998, East West safety director Jerry Kahler called Heath, knowing he would be back in the winter, and said he had a truck that was in a fix. The payments were behind and the owner needed to get it back in the black, so Jerry asked if he was interested in getting into the truck, which was virtually brand-new, and if he thought he could get it caught up. Heath said to keep in front of him with work and he should be able to get it caught up in six weeks. Jerry said, “Do what you need to do and bring your paperwork to me.” To his word, in six weeks and 21,000 miles later, Heath had the truck back in the black. Heath ended up staying in that truck for a year until he purchased his first truck.
Heath purchased his first brand new truck in 1999, which was a Peterbilt 379. In 2001, he traded it in for another new 379, and then in 2004 he purchased his last brand-new truck – a Peterbilt 379 flat top. The 2004 Pete 379 was named “Grey Ghost” and it is still owned by 3-C, Inc. today. In 2008, instead of trading the truck in on another new one with all that emissions junk, they decided to keep the 379 and start buying older A-Model Kenworths to rebuild and work. Heath bought a 1982 A-Model in 2008 and rebuilt this truck to work every day.
On June 1, 2013, Heath married J’Lynn McCreery of Gillette, Wyoming. At the end of the summer that year, Heath sold the 1982 A-Model to buy the A-Model seen here – now known as “Black Betty” – which he still owns today. Heath is the truck’s fourth owner, but he plans on being the last. On January 1, 2014, their trucking operation moved from South Dakota to Heath and J’Lynn’s new residence, a small ranch equipped with a shop in Shawnee, OK.
As previously stated, “Black Betty” was a big let-down and hated for the first two years Heath had her. When Heath purchased the 1979 Kenworth W900A she was equipped with a C-15 CAT 6NZ under the hood, a two-stick transmission (6-speed main and 4-speed auxiliary), 3:70 rear gears, and a 287-inch wheelbase. She was also fitted with a nice 1981 66-inch Double Eagle sleeper, which she still has today. Since buying, “Black Betty” has seen a few changes, including some modern upgrades to make the truck more comfortable to ride in.
Around J’Lynn’s birthday in May of 2015, the rear-end in “Black Betty” went out. After getting that repaired, just two weeks later, right around their anniversary, the motor blew up. Heath contacted Troy Meyer, who came and got him for both breakdowns, and then, after calling Keith at Tony’s Diesel Service in Sioux Falls, SD, “Black Betty” was hauled up there on the hook. When it was all said and done, “Black Betty” was equipped with a 1,000-hp TWS CAT 3406E that definitely knows how to get down the road!
Tired of being jarred all around, in the fall of 2015, Heath decided to soften up the ride a bit. While Mike Horst, creator of Air Ride by Horse, was busy trucking, he was also trying to explain to Heath and Troy Meyer how to install his system like it was being done on a W900L, since he had never installed it on a W900A, which is very different. With no bump steer, Heath and Troy ended up installing the air-ride system completely backwards of the way Mike suggested it should be done, but it worked.
Today, Heath runs regionally with “Black Betty” pulling a 2015 MAC 48-foot stepdeck trailer (and soon he will be adding a 2000 Utility refrigerated trailer to the family, as well). With the stepdeck, Heath can be found hauling steel, coils and plate steel. All said and done, “Black Betty” received a new motor, a frame stretch (to 300 inches), rebuilt transmission, new rear ends, new front and rear suspension, rebuilt AC heater core system and new wiring. Other extras the truck has is 6-inch exhaust, WTI rear fenders, a visor from Joe’s Welding, a 22-inch Valley Chrome front bumper and a Valley Chrome rear bumper. “Grey Ghost” is currently under construction, getting a complete restore. The plan is to have it done and on the road this winter so “Black Betty” can start taking the winters off.
Talking with Heath, I asked him what his favorite childhood memory was in trucking and he said he always remembered riding with his dad during the summers on short runs. His dad, at that time, drove a cabover and Heath could climb up on the doghouse and just roll into the bunk. Thinking through his entire trucking career thus far, Heath remembered a funny thing that happened one time when he and his dad were running team together in a 2001 Peterbilt 379 they used to have.
On this run, Heath was driving while his father David was in the bunk sleeping. They were in Wyoming heading west on I-80 toward California at the 35-mile marker and, for those who do not know the area, between there and Evanston is three hills referred to as the Three Sisters. Heath didn’t want to wake his dad up, so he didn’t put on the Jake Brake at all. The second sister is straight up and straight down. David woke up and got into the jump seat but wasn’t quite fully awake yet. At this point, the windshield wipers were fluttering because of the strong wind and the speedometer was maxed out at 85 mph (the needle was buried). After glancing over at the speedometer, he gave Heath that “fatherly” look and calmly said, “That’s not the windshield wipers beating on the window, that’s the angels beating on the windshield saying slow this damn thing down!”
I also wanted to take a moment to talk with J’Lynn to get some advice for the trucker’s wives out there and to find out what “hats” she wears at the company. She takes care of all the bookkeeping for 3-C, which includes the fencing company, trucking company and paperwork for the lease trucks. She also takes care of all the ranch and home operations. J’Lynn comes from a ranching family and still goes up to Gillette, WY to help with hay season in the summer, the cattle roundup and shipping in the fall. With regards to advice for trucker’s wives, she stated that a relationship needs to be built on trust and to avoid listening to others, so it doesn’t induce self-doubt. Also, have your own hobbies and activities, and learn to be self-sufficient. When he is home, be prepared to just hang out at home and don’t bombard him with too many plans. Give him the time to decompress and relax.
Special thanks from Heath to Troy Meyer of Meyer Truck and Trailer for virtually no downtime when it came to the repairs he needed, as well as Tim Weaver from Bald Eagle Sleeper Services (who used to work for Double Eagle) for doing the interior in the cab, except for the dash. Thanks to Jeff Weaver out of Pennsylvania for his work on the whole dash, including covering the metal dash with leather and all the wiring, and Nathan Beckert of Nathan Beckert Body Shop in Sioux Falls, SD for all the paint work on the frame after Heath got hit last winter. Heath’s mom and dad, Mary and David Church, get many thanks, and a special shout-out to “uncle” Don Carlson for teaching Heath the ropes. And, last but most-definitely not least, Heath sends out a big thank you to his wife J’Lynn Church for her love, support, hard work and dedication.
For some, like myself, the first sighting of “Black Betty” was in November 2017 when Big Rig Videos caught Heath in Joplin, MO (see the rolling CB interview on YouTube). One change you’ll notice from the video versus what the truck is today is the motor, from the CAT 6NZ Heath purchased the truck with to the 1,000-hp TWS CAT 3406E it has now. Heath isn’t in the truck show circuit, but he is a part of the greatest truck show in the world… the open road.
There is something special about the trucks and drivers who fly under the radar but still have a quality image within the trucking industry with the pride they have in their rides. The “Bam Ba Lam” rocky road that began the ownership of this “Black Betty” brought her to the truck she is today. Thank you to Heath and J’Lynn Church for opening up your home and allowing me the honor of photographing your truck and telling your story, but I still can’t get that damn song outta my head! As always, to all the drivers out there doing the deal, truck safe.