I often get asked, “Have you been truckin’ for long?” I always answer, “Nope, just started the other day, I think it was Tuesday the 5th of May. Can’t remember the year – might have been ‘73, maybe ‘74 – but I sure remember the truck. Yup, it was a GMC daycab, with a gasser, five gears and a 2-speed rear axle. Man, we were getting it done, set the world on fire, moved a lot of farm machinery with that low trailer. Don’t think it even had a brand, just some cobbled-up flat deck that belonged to the Case tractor dealership there in town.” I think if I was to recall some of the stories from back then, Johnny Law might come looking for us. By today’s standards, our tactics could be considered a bit “SHADY” – oh well, I think the Statute of Limitations has run out by now.
This month is the big blowout for ATHS in Reno, Nevada, so I will bring some color from yesteryear. Most of us remember our first load. Some were short jumps across town and others were more adventurous, over the river and through the woods, so to speak. Mine was purely by accident, and I mean that in the most honest manner of speaking. I didn’t start out to have this adventure at all. I was a victim of circumstance, along with mostly just dumb luck and a little good fortune.
Let me set the stage for some of the younger folks who read my articles. I grew up in a small town in southern Michigan in the early 70s. During my junior year in high school, I attended Vo-Tech, that’s short for Vocational and Technical School, in addition to my regular classes. Having grown up on the family farm, I excelled in some of the testing programs and was “farmed” out to one of the local farm implement dealerships. Now this was considered lucky, since I got out of all my afternoon classes at school, and even received a paycheck for my efforts. If you haven’t figured it out yet, farming and trucking have a long and colorful connection. Some of my first duties there included delivering farm tractor and implement parts to their customers. That’s still trucking, but I wasn’t driving a big fancy tractor-trailer rig, I had to drive an old and “rusted” Chevy pickup.
Some of our most valuable lessons are learned out of necessity. I realized early on that a little toolbox and a handful of end wrenches were my best friends, along with an arrangement of other miscellaneous parts. My life’s ambition at that time was to pursue a career in mechanics – diesel mechanics, to be specific. This was at a time when few farm kids went to university after high school. Most of us learned a trade by apprenticeships or from working with their parents and close friends, so the tractor dealership was a match made in heaven, for me.
The manager down at Case Power and Equipment was a super guy named Hank Langford. He wore many hats in those days, ranging from salesman to problem-solver and, sometimes, a saint with a halo. In life, you are bound to meet people who you can tell right away they are not happy. Then, others just beam with confidence and it spills over to those around them. Mr. Langford was the second type, and he weeded out any and all people in the first group. I was lucky enough to work for him until I finished my senior year of high school and joined the Marines.
Sometime during summer, before I started my senior year, he got this great idea to send a couple of us out to collect some used equipment he had taken in on trade. When the time came, I was busy doing my thing, building implements, plows and field cultivators. But I must admit, I wasn’t totally happy, working outside in the elements during the long cold winter, and expecting to spend my summer doing it in the heat didn’t sound promising, either. When the time came to leave for southern Indiana, where that equipment was, the second driver was a no-show. I don’t know how it happened, but I was volunteered to take his place.
This should be fun – an overnight run. The other driver was a young man named Allen Dull. I don’t think he was 20 years old at the time. None of us had a license for anything larger than the pickup. To drive a commercial vehicle, you needed a chauffeur’s license, issued by your home state, and all states had different requirements. I didn’t get mine until 1979, when I was hired to drive for a company out of North Carolina. I think that’s when I first received a medical card, too. Anyway, back to my story.
We were supposed to go get an old Case combine in some town that we couldn’t find on the map. The town is Sexton, Indiana, just a short distance from Indianapolis, not too far south of Interstate 70. Well, that sounds simple enough, what could go wrong? Don’t look at me, I was a 16-year-old kid who had no idea where I-70 even was.
Since neither of us was sure how to get there, we took two-lanes across three states. Bear in mind, we were driving a 1970 GMC conventional day cab with a single axle, and we were pulling a flatbed that was maybe 35 feet long. The GMC had a Chevy-powered V-8 (maybe a 427 big block) – great for your El Camino, not so much for your El Trucko. But we were really styling with our 10-speed (nobody told us it was a 5-speed with a 2-speed rear axle), and that little tid-bit would have helped us considerably on the way home.
The two of us were quite proud when we arrived at our destination. We asked where the combine was, and someone walked us out to the yard and said, “There’s your stuff!” “Our stuff? We are only here for a combine,” we said. “Nope, that’s all yours,” he replied. Now what do we do? Better call Mr. Langford and get some answers. I heard Allen tell the boss, “Yes sir, we will get as much as we can. I’ll let you know when we’re loaded.” He hung up the phone and we left the office (sorry kids, no cell phone). Back then, if you wanted to make a call, you had to ask permission to use an outside line, and long distance was expensive so not everyone would let you use it. Now, where was I? Oh yea, we were going to load that stuff.
They didn’t have a forklift large enough to pick some of the implements up whole, so we started taking things apart. The boss never said how to load things, so we just did the best we could. We got the combine loaded first and then realized the bed wasn’t long enough for the wagon carriages with their gravity boxes attached. As they always say, “When there’s a will there’s a way!” I think that’s why they sent me as the second driver, because I had experience building farm implements. We started taking thing apart and before long it looked like a kid’s toy set – there were wheels over here and boxes over there, and nuts and bolts everywhere. That day, I realized that I could see the load in my mind before we even started placing it on the deck. The boss must have known (or at least suspected) I had that ability, but if he hadn’t pushed me, I would have never tried.
Well, we got everything loaded. It probably looked like Jed Clampett’s old jalopy from the Beverly Hillbillies TV show from back in the 1960s, but we got it all. We started for home with our treasured load. Nobody told us we needed to check our weight or measure the width, they just said call when you’re loaded. We called and then put our nose in the wind, so to speak. I remember the wind was blowing hard that day, and we couldn’t get much over 35 mph.
It’s a good thing there aren’t any hills in Ohio or Indiana, or we would still be trying to get back home. I never did know how much that load weighed, but I can guarantee it was in excess of 73,280 pounds, which was the legal limit back then. Once again, no one said, “Be sure to check your securement before you pull out,” they just said, “Call when you’re loaded.” Well, we called, and then the fun began.
It’s funny today when I think of all the things we got wrong loading that load. I don’t remember how often we stopped to re-chain and strap things back on, but that’s how most of us learned. Back then, there weren’t schools to go to like today. Trucking was a trade, and you had to give something up to learn it – usually your time and some labor, helping out another driver. That “pay it forward” deal isn’t anything new – if you needed information, you found someone who you trusted to instruct you on a good way to do something, then you helped them out in exchange. I learned most of my tricks of the trade from other hands on the job sites. Knowledge is all around us if we will only take the time to look, and then be prepared to compensate the teacher, in return.
When we finally made it back to the dealership, there wasn’t too much damage, except for the exhaust stack on the combine. In our excited state of loading, we did remember to close the windows and lock the doors on the cab, but no one thought to measure the height of the stack. Oops! We remembered just as we went under the first overpass. Better late than not at all, right? After that, every time that combine came into the shop for service, the boss kidded us that it had a “Texas Tilt” to it.
That mechanic thing didn’t work out for me. I think Hank knew it all along, he was just waiting for opportunity to meet experience and set me off in a different direction. I did take to the truck driving thing, and I’ve spent almost an entire lifetime of roaming the globe to get me here. I’m still not sure where here is most of the time, but I keep learning and stacking up more adventures.
I still reminisce about the old days with a few of my friends. After a short time, and a couple cups of Joe, someone mentions having to use the preheaters or glow plugs to start those cold engines. Let’s not forget how well a Reyco leaf spring rode or how easy the center point steering system handled. That takes me to another time, a much simpler time, when drivers were drivers and life on the road was a barrel of rainbows!
Enjoy the show and tell some tall tales just for old time’s sake. And if you see me in the setting sun, don’t forget to wave and flash your lights twice… I’ll be watching for ya, 10-4!!