Still havin’ a good time, driver? It was the dark of the moon, on the sixth of June, in a Kenworth haulin’ logs. Cabover Pete with a reefer on, and a Jimmy hauling hogs. We was headin’ for bear on I-1-0, ‘bout a mile out of Shaky Town. I said… hold it …hold it, hold on. That sounds familiar for some reason. That’s right, those lyrics are from the song Convoy, recorded by C.W. McCall back in the1970s, when I was young and trucking was fun – or was it?
I remember those days – I was living in Southern California at the time, still serving my time with Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (U.S.M.C.). That was about the time when Americans fell in love with the open road, and those concrete cowboys became the heroes of every kid in the country, both young and old. We would all go up on Church Hill in San Clemente, CA and fire up our hand-held CB radios. If you didn’t get walked on or covered up by a base station, anyone could break in and talk to their favorite driver.
Church Hill was just off the 5 (west coast speak for Interstate 5 or I-5) between San Diego and Los Angeles, on the northern edge of Camp Pendleton, home to the First Marine Division when I was there. I got the CB bug really bad (citizens band radio). You could say I had the fever – white line fever. That chance to ride off into the night. I never wanted to chase anyone, I just wanted to be someone – an American trucker.
In the late 70s, we all watched the actor who played Billy Joe McKay in the TV series BJ and the Bear and followed his exploits of wild rides with beautiful woman and flashy trucks. Now, who doesn’t want to be a part of that? Seeing this great country (America the beautiful) and partying every night (back row at the Orange Ball), then making more money than any of us could ever imagine, on top of that. By today’s standards, a couple hundred bucks doesn’t sound like much, but in 1976, cash was king. Based on those stats, please sign me up!
So, was trucking more fun back then? I’m not sure what a good measure of fun is, however, I do believe that the times were much simpler, and drivers did not have to deal with all the rules and regulations we have today. None of us had cell phones or satellite radios yet, but we managed to wear out the 8-track players and still catch 3 or 4 innings of our favorite teams before we lost the signal on the AM station. If we were really lucky and the trucking gods were running our way, we could get one of the 50,000-watt stations from somewhere in the Midwest. Those stations broadcast the Road Gang after midnight. It wasn’t like today’s talk radio, where you can talk in real time. Back then, if you could get through to the host (Charlie Douglas or later Dave Nemo), you made your request and hoped you were still in range if and when it actually got played.
Try to remember, there were no cell phones, and we lived and died with the pay phone. We didn’t have credit calling cards yet either, so armed with a pocket full of quarters and a little time to kill at supper, we tried to get on the play list. All night long we would hear the host call out special requests to drivers from their loved ones. Girlfriends or wives often called in to wish their sweetie a happy anniversary or birthday. This was a time when CB handles were used instead of a christened name. At the time, it seemed like we knew just about everyone out there on the road, and if you got a shout-out on the all night radio show, you were a celebrity – at least for a couple days, until someone else replaced you.
That pay phone was our lifeline, the contact to dispatch, the only way to find a load and, of course, to call home. Like so many drivers at the time, my wife and I raised our son on the end of a pay phone – every night I called home to stay connected with family and to get my instructions. This became a ritual at many households, and a necessity for over-the-road operations. Sometime around the mid-1980s, the truck stops started to put phones at the tables and in the restaurant booths. That was a great improvement in a driver’s life. Instead of waiting in line for a pay phone out in the driver’s room, they could set down and relax without all the noise of fifteen other people talking at the same time.
Fast forward to today and think about your daily routine. How much do you depend on the cell phone? Could you even survive without it? Now, try to plan your day with a stop to use the pay phone 6 or 8 times in your tour of driving – that might take some of the fun out of it. When we did get cell phones, they were the size of a cement block, and cost way too much to use. Often, if it rang, we would look for our pager to see if we needed to call in, then look for a pay phone to use, anyway.
How many months now are we into this Covid nonsense? Who is having fun now? Driver run here, now run there, and don’t forget your mask. Sure, all of us are still essential – that is until we try to collect payment for our added inconveniences, then we are just part of the team, right? I know that it’s only September and most of the country is deciding if their kids should go to school or not, but most of us drivers are already thinking ahead to when the weather will break and be cold. I know I am, because it’s been hot this summer, especially if your truck doesn’t have A/C.
In case you are getting nostalgic for the old days, don’t forget that most of us back then didn’t have that cool breeze blowing through the air vents. And even if a truck came from the factory with A/C as an option, most of the companies I drove for didn’t maintain it. I’m sitting here in Fort Worth, Texas, on a sunny summer day, practicing social distancing – not to be fashionable, but because I could use one of those liquid stall sessions (a shower). Who would have thought in 2020 it would become so difficult to maintain personal hygiene? Kinda reminds me of the old days when, if we needed to, a driver could wash up out behind the fuel bays in a large sink or stainless-steel tub.
I’m sitting here at my delivery, waiting to be called to a door, since I’m a “work in” right now. If you’re not sure what that is, it’s just what it sounds like. I am a day early for my delivery, so if someone misses their appointment today, I will “fill in” their spot. In the meantime, I’m sizzling nicely out here in the parking lot. If I’m lucky they will give me a door before I’m more than half done, or just medium rare. We talk about the old days, and if I could have had one modern convenience then from today, it would have been a refrigerator. A cold drink is a wonderful thing. Even if you don’t like your water cold, that crazy contraption will keep the Girl Scout cookies from melting. Yep, I got some free cookies this week and I tossed them in the fridge overnight. Oh, it’s a good life I live. Too bad I don’t have any soft serve ice cream to dunk them in. I guess even a good day has to have its limits. Oh, were having fun now!
Most senior drivers start getting nostalgic about the old days not because they were better, but because they are our connection to the past, when we were young and may have been more carefree. I have been watching the new young guns, those drivers of today, the ones who will become our replacements, as they do the same jobs we did 30 years ago. Sure, the equipment has changed, and the roads are wider, smoother, and much faster, but the job really isn’t that much different than 30 years ago.
We no longer listen to the Road Gang on AM radio. That’s been replaced by the Truckers Channel on XM satellite radio and 10-4 Magazine’s Facebook live programming with John Testa. The cell phone has put technology at our fingertips, however, today’s drivers are still slamming gears and drinking diesel fuel. The CB radio is still in some trucks, but even that has been replaced with Facebook and Twitter. Do I think the “new guys” are having fun? Sure. They are enjoying the freedom of the road, just like we did. The only real difference I can see is not in them, but in me, and those drivers of my time. We have been hardened by experience and time, and what was once wonder and excitement has now become normal. We don’t see the job of “trucking” like we once did.
This is for the old timers – when was the last time you parked on the side of the road (or some safe place) just to watch the sun rise? How about looking across a mirror-smooth lake and see a reflection of the other side? Can you still smell a snowstorm, or do you smile at a thunderstorm, knowing there will be a beautiful rainbow just before it passes? These are only a few of the things that come to mind when I question if I’m still enjoying my chosen career – TRUCKIN! Would I do it again? You bet, in a New York minute, and I’d take my Texas time doing it.
During my lifetime I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with folks of many stripes, so to speak. Of all those people, few are as happy in their lives as the ones that drive a truck or work alongside us. I refuse to get old, and l work at staying up with what’s happening today. If you have lost that old time feeling, then go back and look for it. If you’re not sure, I have it on a good authority that life isn’t about the actual destination… it’s the journey that makes the best memories. When our life is done and we can no longer do what we once did, all that’s left is our memories.
I’m still sitting here at the loading dock, waiting for the unloaders to finish. After that quick splash of rain comes to an end, then maybe that rainbow will come and brighten my day. Until then, I’m waving a big hand at ya, while the other is holding the cookies, 10-4!