It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m riding through some town with a name that’s not important. What is important is the impression I get from the people who live there. Who are they and what do they have to do with me or my work and family? Is this someplace I want to stay in or just keep on passing through? Does it look safe, or am I an unwelcome visitor? This town could be Mayberry, NC and their sheriff might even be Andy Griffith (reference from the old television show many of us grew up watching), but our impression of their town is not nearly as important as their impression of us, the outsider who just rolled in.
Let’s assume when you first pulled up to their one stop light in the center of town you were greeted with a friendly wave and maybe even a smile, and some young high schoolers even flashed a “thumbs up” sign – cool, I like this town. As you roll down the street, picking up speed, running your iron horse through the gears, you are watchful of your reflection in the storefront windows. But, what does your reflection say about you? Did you set just a little taller in your seat, even though it’s resting on the floor? Did you check your mirrors to be sure that you are square in your lane, taking notice your speed is still within the posted limit? Sure, you did! Did you wave back to those young kids, knowing that most of them wishes he or she could go with you? They don’t know where you’re going, but they see you and your impressive rig looking majestic, large and in charge. Yes, even young people can tell when someone is truly a master of their craft. The wave you give them is your final act of class, as it says “thank you” and acknowledges them.
Now, let’s change this scenario up a bit. You roll into the same town, fast and loud, rolling the jakes through all the gears, right up to the traffic light, hoping it will turn green and you won’t have to come to a complete stop. The light changes and you are off to the races, raking the transmission and belching enough smoke to blackout the street lights. You nearly run over farmer John, who was a little slow getting across the street, as he struggles to move his walker up onto the sidewalk. The same young kids are there on the corner, with no smiles and no thumbs-up, only a look of disgust because you’re acting like a jerk. By the way, that old farmer is the brother of the local law enforcement. Wanna guess what happens next? Yup, you guessed it, here comes Johnny Law, and he ain’t happy today. At least he wasn’t until you rolled into town.
Waiting at the city limit sign with lights flashing, the lawman waves his hand, gesturing for you to pull over. You act surprised – what could he want with me? I didn’t do anything, at least not in the last ten minutes. He walks up and asks you to step out of your truck. When the door opens, he has to step back, as paper cups fall out on the ground at his feet. “My oh my, just look at what the cat drug in here today. Driver, I’m going to need to see your log book!” I don’t know why he wants to see your logs. Just because you haven’t shaved for a week, your clothes are disheveled, and your cab looks and smells like a trash dumpster. That’s when you start acting rude right from the start. I don’t think your smart mouth is going to help the cause any. Sometimes it’s better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubts.
Image is everything. We, the drivers of all trucks, are rolling billboards for the people and companies we represent. That goes for owner-operators, lease operators and company drivers. I don’t want to single out any one group. We are all friends here, right? So, let’s get to what really put a burr under my saddle. If you’re not sure what a burr is, it’s a seed pod that has spikes and irritates anyone or anything it becomes attached to. Let’s go back to the first driver that rolled into town and assume he wants to stop and find some grub, groceries, or maybe a sit-down meal. We already know his equipment is nice looking, probably clean and well-kept, maybe even show worthy. Now, how about the driver? Is he or she as well-kept as the truck, or did something go wrong?
The greatest driver on the road may be driving the best equipment available and still look like an out-of-work bum. This is a reference from the Smokey and the Bandit movie, when Snowman (Jerry Reed) asks Frog (Sally Fields), “What’s the difference between a legend and an out-of-work bum?” They, of course, are talking about Bandit (Burt Reynolds), who at the time is drunk and disheveled, laying in his bunk. Keep in mind he is supposed to be some great and famous truck driver back in the 70s, or so the movie goes. How many times have I witnessed this same look at the fuel stop or in a truck stop restaurant?
There are signs all over that say TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR RIDE. Okay, I’m with you there, but how about taking a little pride in yourself, too. If you can’t afford a belt, stop any flatbedder and ask for a tarp strap (these drivers are always willing to help). We don’t care what your boxers look like or how far you can walk without pulling your trousers up. Oh, and ladies, that goes for you, too. Some things we don’t need to know.
Living on the road for well over four decades now, in that time, I have seen the amenities available to drivers get considerably better. When I see photos of drivers from the 60s and 70s, they show men and women who look like they are at work, not on vacation. If you think of this activity as semi-retirement, then go home and get your personal vehicle, get out of the truck, and leave that seat for a real driver who is prepared to do the duties this job requires. I don’t think there is a retail company anywhere that would accept employees dressing in sweatpants, ragged old dirty t-shirts and flip-flops. Really, is that your idea of appropriate attire for work? I can’t count the times I see “drivers” walk out on the dock area in a grocery warehouse dressed like that and then kick up a fuss when the foreman tells them they must leave for safety reasons. I don’t know where to start with all that, but really, if we have to explain, they most-likely won’t understand anyway.
Going back to my first driver, the one who entered the town looking cool on the stool, neat in the seat, and the envy of those young kids, he is more than likely going to leave a positive impression on all of them, and they will still be talking about his/her rig long after they are gone. We keep asking where the next generation of drivers will come from – well, they will come from the streets, but only if they see “driving” as a viable career choice. When I first started, drivers were easily identified by their style of dress. They didn’t all dress like cowboys, however it did become a popular style that still holds a place in the hearts of us produce pimps and some hardcore flatbedders. There’s a lot to be said for a well-dressed driver.
Not every job out here is as clean or perfect as we would like it to be, but there’s still no reason a driver can’t make an effort to be presentable when dealing with the public. I’m going to stay with this driver who is wanting to stop and eat there in that nice town. If he/she parks in a safe place, according to all the local ordinances, and steps out of the truck looking like last week’s lunch leftovers, once he/she walks away they look like a homeless person and will be treated as such. I’m speaking from experience here – if you want to be treated like a professional person, then look, act and talk like one. I have to believe that our first driver was dressed appropriately and as well-kept as his truck. What could be the problem then? The old saying goes, if you walk the walk and talk the talk, then you are the real deal. Well, I hope that talking part doesn’t get our driver in trouble. I’ve seen sailors blush when truck drivers start telling their stories!
We are all human and therefore subject to have faults in our character. Mine? I have a fast temper. I guess being of Irish decent doesn’t help. Not only do I have fits of anger when I’m mad, but I also get loud when excited or deeply involved in an argument. This is another of the things that get drivers in a bad light at the “family” restaurant. We sometimes forget there are ladies and children present.
What we say and the words we use tell a lot about us. I grew up in a house that didn’t use foul language. There was always the exception, like when dad was in the barn and things didn’t go as planned, but that wasn’t the norm. I try to be mindful of the folks around me when I’m out and about on the road. Oftentimes I’m reminded of the phrase my mom used to say when us kids would get carried away and be verbally abusive to each other: “If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything at all!” In most cases, that just about covers it.
I’m still wondering what happened to those kids that were standing on the corner downtown – if they were here at the restaurant, what would you tell them? You see, the impact you made when you rolled through can carry far more weight than you might know. I remember when I was a teenager in a small town. We too had a local fuel stop that did tire repair and small fix-it jobs, where the steel trucks and grain wagons would stop. I never dreamed back then that I would make my living behind the wheel and get to see every corner of this land (some foreign countries, too), but I did know that the highway leaving town went somewhere, and that is where I wanted to go, wherever it led. One day I did go – it was a couple days after I turned 18 – and I’ve been going ever since.
People often stop and quiz me about life as a long-haul driver. I try to be honest and realistic about my experiences, because that time is the best opportunity to highlight our profession. And I do believe it is that – a profession, a skilled trade – one we can be proud of. I’ve spent many years studying my craft and practicing until it became instinctive and as natural as breathing.
I try to be that first driver when I enter any town – sure, I have straight pipes and a big horse, but that doesn’t mean I have to use them. I can still hear those old-time drivers rolling through my town, back then, and as they rolled up through the gears. It was music to my ears. That sound became a siren’s song. These were working men that wore heavy boots and pearl-snap shirts. They were rough and tough, but honest men. Never once did I see one with droopy drawers or flip-flops. Those were the kind of people you looked up to and hoped, one day, you too could measure up to their standards.
I’ve just left the truck wash and put on a new clean pearl-snap shirt, my boots are on the floor and the big Cat is humming its tune. That means it’s time to go TRUCKING, just as soon as I get the chicken lights lit, because, you see, IMAGE IS EVERYTHING. If you see me on the super slab, give me a shout, and I will wave a big hand to you… and that’s this veteran’s view, 10-4.