Trucking has definitely changed over the years. Back in the day, which many of us wish we would’ve been a small part of, was a time of brotherhood, camaraderie, and porch lights. Truckers did the deal to do what needed to be done – for the money and for the love of trucking.
Names on the CB radio like Southern Shaker, Bootlegger, Cannonball, American Gigolo, Real McCoy and Dollar Bill, to name a few, weren’t just handles, but recognizable names to brothers and sisters of the highway where you knew you had a friend behind that mic. For some, those names may mean nothing, but for others, it is a trip down memory lane. A time when outlaw trucking was a thing, but it wasn’t mentioned much. Porch Light groups were big in the 70s and 80s, and you knew a driver was part of a group by the lights in their windshield.
In 2020, I photographed a 1985 Pete 359 owned by Nick Black out of Canton, NC which was featured in our December 2020 issue. Prior to the article being printed, I was invited to join a group called “Porch Light ITA, WBO, OMW” – which surprised me. This was a pretty cool group to be a part of because members were sharing old photos and trucking stories that grabbed my attention.
The WBO (Wild Bunch of Outlaws) and the OMW (Oscar Meyer Weiner) groups were smaller groups by comparison to the ITA. The WBO ran red porch lights and the OMW ran green porch lights. There is only a small group of ITA members that are members of all three groups, including Virgil “Dixie Twister” Taylor and Gary “Shade Tree” Medford.
The ITA (International Truckers of America) group started in the early 80s by Charlie “Carolina Road Runner” Beaver. There was a $10.00 membership fee, and the members ran white porch lights. The early board consisted of 14 members, as well as rules to be used as a guideline for all members. This group reached 1,000 members and held that number until October 2020 when the board voted to bring 26 new members to the group. Nick “Scooter” Black (#1016), who I mentioned before, was one of those additional 26, along with David “No Count” Rogers (#1008), Alen “Hired Hand” Smith, Jr. (#1028), and David “Renegade” Meadows (#1031). All these truckers were part of the 2021 new group of members.
Board members were a mix of for and against the addition of new members. It was believed new, younger members should be added to continue the legacy of the group. The board members against the additions felt new members couldn’t compare to what the original members were because what was done, could never be done again. The current board consists of Donnie “Hollywood” Austin, Carol “Brat” Webb, Tim “ScatterBrain” Sawyer (one of the original board members), Artie “Dollar Bill” Daniel, and Dave “Runnin Late” Hollingsworth. There are some members still being searched for, like Georgia Red, but there is uncertainty if these members are still around. Over the years, due to drugs, violence, suicide and sickness, the ITA has lost several members, and those losses are felt throughout the entire group.
There is a system the board put into place when selecting new members to add. It starts with a driver actually showing interest or a current member suggesting a driver. The candidate then fills out an application and, if they are to proceed further, one of the board members needs to be willing to sponsor that candidate. A background check so-to-speak is conducted to ensure the candidate is a good fit. The qualities they look for are if the individual is a good person, if they work hard, and how well they take care of their equipment.
The majority of these members chased produce from coast to coast or up the east coast, with home bases in states like Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Alabama, South Dakota, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. Back then, many of the carriers promised 48-hour service, from coast to coast, and it wasn’t team drivers meeting these timelines. Some of the CB handles of these men and women were taken from nicknames they had growing up, and some were given their handles while out on the road.
Gary “Shade Tree” Medford obtained his at 13 years old while he was mowing a lawn, and someone yelled out “Shade Tree” to him. Donnie “Hollywood” Austin got his nickname back in the 70s when he owned a Pontiac Grand Prix and wore mirrored aviator sunglasses. Benny “Chevy II” Gray used to drag race Chevy IIs. Carol “Brat” Webb dubbed herself as such because that was the best way she could describe herself. Clifton “Broomstick” Whitely got his handle because his wife Margie’s folks had a broom handle plant. Larry “Midnight Rider” Webb (Carol’s husband) received his handle because he used to be a third shift police officer.
Due to the article on Nick Black, I had the opportunity to speak with Clifton Whitley and Donnie Austin. These two gentlemen became the ones that I would communicate with from time to time. After noticing the group had their first reunion, where most hadn’t seen each other in 30 years or more, Donnie thought it would be a good idea for me to attend their second annual reunion. After checking with the rest of the board prior to my attendance, they okayed my invitation. This was a real honor, as they don’t allow outside people to this event, just the drivers and their husbands/wives.
The 2021 reunion was held at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Lavonia, GA on Friday, September 17 to Saturday, September 18. The event and location were planned by Donnie Austin. He said the hotel has an amazing and accommodating staff who love the ITA group. Their third reunion is already planned for 2022.
As some of you may know, not all the stories can be told. With the knowledge of the big rides, bigger horsepower, and the unmentionable ways drivers ran hard and made deliveries from coast to coast, you can understand why. The stories I can share are reminiscent of the trucking days gone by and how, for most, the family on the road was more important than the family back home. Donnie said, “All of the good stories were good, and the bad stories, well those were pretty good, too.” There were so many great stories I heard from Carol “Chestnut” Jones, Dave Hollingsworth, Gary Medford, Phil “Real McCoy” Hatfield, and Clifton Whitley that I could go on and on. Some of these fun trucking stories would’ve been great additions to this feature, but the colorful words that would’ve been needed to accompany them couldn’t be typed up.
I listened in at one of the round tables where Mike “Timekeeper” Mann was talking about how their travels went. On one trip, 16-18 trucks left out on a Sunday, then they stopped at a rest area west of Birmingham, AL. All day, there were multiple stops in each state along the way, and when they finally arrived in El Paso, TX, Mike said he had to get go. He had to deliver that next morning in Sacramento, CA and logbooks needed to be put together (yes, plural, for those not accustomed to using loose-leaf and paper logbooks). That was about a 15-hour trip, and he made his appointment time, got the truck unloaded, reloaded on Tuesday night, and headed back for Georgia.
After making it to Odessa, TX, Mike’s refrigerated unit quit working. He called into dispatch to let them know about the problem. He was asked where he was going to get it fixed, and then Mike asked what the outside temperature was between there and Atlanta – it was in the low 30s the whole way. Mike said he wasn’t getting it fixed, and that he was going on to his delivery. He opened the doors in the back and headed to Atlanta. When he arrived to unload, the receiver asked why his refrigerated unit was off and Mike said it was almost out of fuel so when he arrived, he cut it off. The receiver did a thermometer check, and the product was at 34 degrees, right where it needed to be. He dropped off his truck to get the unit repaired on Friday morning, went home, and was reloaded for California that same night.
Not only are there stories of mishaps, but there are shenanigans, too. Mike Mann mentioned a time when Donnie Austin was driving a Kenworth W900 and Mike had a Peterbilt 359 with a group of trucks running together. Mike showered in Shady Grove while the others wanted to shower at the Petro in El Paso, TX. Mike stopped at the service road near the Petro to take a nap across the steering wheel while waiting on the others. He asked Donnie to wake him up if he fell asleep. Mike had dozed off and Donnie pulled up to where Mike was and decided to pull the nose of his truck directly up to Mike’s truck. Mike said the noses of the two trucks were so close that you couldn’t even fit a cigarette between the bumpers – and then Donnie set down on the horn. Mike said it scared the hell out of him and he called Donnie everything but a white man! Some lessons are learned by example, and some are learned the hard way.
I also heard confessions along with the shenanigans. These were not necessarily all regrets, but more so life lessons. One of the members talked about doing jail time for drug use back in the day. He talked of the fun they had back then, and if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t have changed a thing. One driver mentioned that back in the day he was a train robber, so-to-speak. He’d pull up to the side of a refrigerated box car at a packing house and fill up his tanks. He managed not to purchase any fuel for a good while. A couple of the other drivers had talked about the various driver’s licenses they would carry from different states. It was a memory game, because you had to recall which license you needed to provide should you be pulled over.
Some drivers today couldn’t fathom what went on in trucking’s past. It was in the past though, where regulations weren’t as heavy, and drivers were willing to take risks. One thing I can say is not one of them said they didn’t have fun. Those were the days of running fast and heavy. Run-ins with the law were inevitable, and Artie “Dollar Bill” Daniel had a group of us laughing when he talked about him and another driver getting tickets. Artie signed his ticket, but when the officer handed the ticket to the other driver, the driver said he couldn’t write. The officer said, “Well then, put an X on the line,” but the driver said he couldn’t because that was his daddy’s name. The officer said he better write something, or he was going to jail.
If anyone has ever mentioned being out on the road and using the “business” channel, then you can bet they ran a big radio in their truck (most still do). Certain ten-meter radios have upper and lower bands that have several hundred channels. For the ITA, a channel was picked, and it allowed you to talk on the radio to anyone across the country. If you didn’t have a radio with the upper and lower bands, there was a kit you could purchase to get those extra channels. Clifton Whitley said, “You always knew you had seen a pal when you saw that white porch light on the truck.” This business channel encompassed the group, so no one was ever alone on the road. They made sure there would always be someone available to talk to on the radio.
I had several different conversations with Donnie Austin, both at the reunion and on the phone, as he became my contact for formulating this article. He spoke about the strong friendship he and Mike Mann had, and how they would run together every other week, if not every week. Donnie said the brotherhood and the excitement of what they might do next was what he anticipated. Trouble or not, Donnie was always all in. Donnie said he was just a kid when he got started. With his father being in the military, he traveled a lot. Everywhere they went was by car, and Donnie became infatuated with big trucks. At 19, he couldn’t go over the road, however, he knew some people who fudged his paperwork so he could get into trucking, and hasn’t looked back since.
This reunion was full of laughter, hugs, and tears. As with most reunions, this was family, brought together by the many miles they’ve spent together. You find traces of this kind of brotherhood today, but back then, no driver was left behind. If you broke down, there was another truck with you that either had spare parts or ran to go get them. There were always time constraints getting to the required destinations, but that didn’t stop these men and women from having fun and helping each other out along the way. The members of the group today, old and new, can share their experiences, stories, advice, and give assistance when needed. Keep a lookout, because many of the old and new group members can still be found, out on the road, trucking hard every day.
Special thanks to Donnie Austin, Dave Hollingsworth, David “Little Snake Doctor” Dunlap, Clifton Whitley, Carol Webb, and everyone else I was able to meet at the reunion. It was an amazing experience to not only meet everyone but be welcome to hear the stories of what the industry used to be like. Thanks to Dave Hollingsworth, Clifton Whitley and David Rogers for kindly providing me the support photos I needed. A big thank you to all who attended the reunion and allowed me the opportunity to document some of what life was like back then and share it with all the 10-4 Magazine readers. Thanks to Carol for saying I needed a handle – she dubbed me “Lois Lane” – an obvious roving reporter reference.
Never miss an opportunity to learn about the industry we are so passionate about. Eventually, the older generation will not be around anymore to tell their stories. It is our job to document and remember these stories to not only pass their legacies to the next generations, but also to preserve what the lifestyle was like and keep that love of trucking alive. As always, to all the drivers out there doing the deal, truck safe.