Another month has rolled around, and I need to make a note to myself: if you don’t want to spend the rest of this month in the doghouse, remember the 14th is Valentine’s Day! Drivers, if we want our significant others to remember “10-4 Day” then we might want to get something special for them on this lover’s holiday. I’m thinking, maybe a new Peterbilt necklace to hang from the sun visor. You know, a little “truck love” for Just Steppin – my truck – since she hasn’t learned to read yet, and I should probably give the card to my wife. Maybe she won’t read this article and then I won’t have to explain anything!
Just for the record, on the 20th of last month (January), we celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. That’s a lot of living between us, which includes four houses, eight cars/pickup trucks, and somewhere along the way enough semi-trucks to rack up a whole lot of miles. Every time I see one of those wall signs that say “Live, Laugh, Love” I’m reminded of a lifetime of memories, all worth living again. We would still live the life we have, laugh at our mistakes, and love every minute together. I know this is sentimental, but when you find a good thing, spend your time practicing what enhances the experience.
This month I want to give a shout out to all the moms, dads, uncles, and grandfathers who have taken the time to teach the next generation how to do what they do – drive. No, I didn’t forget the aunts and grandmothers, because they were busy teaching many of the ladies who we are married to how to live with the egotistical, eccentric, and obsessed individuals we drivers are. When I was learning the art of driving there were very few lady drivers. That’s not meant to be a sexist comment, it’s a matter of record. The equipment we drove was not designed to accommodate lady drivers, and there were limited accommodations to service them, while out on the road.
In the 70s, if you wanted a shower, you would get a cheap motel and sleep a few hours before dispatch gave you your next load (pre cell phone days, of course). Many of the rooms had a phone in them or close by so we didn’t have to wait in line at the truck stop restaurant for a pay phone. The trucks were by no means easy to drive either. My first truck, a Ford 9000 cabover, didn’t have power steering, which meant I had to stand up to turn the wheel whenever backing up or turning at a slow speed. Every time I see a 22-inch white steering wheel I’m reminded of that old relic and the times it would “whip” me around the cab when I hit a big pothole.
Back when I was too young to drive with a license, but was moving trucks and docking trailers, the clutch was so stiff I would use both feet to press it down. Don’t laugh – there was a time before the “Easy Pedal” clutch was a thing, and long before the automatic transmission, when men were men, and the ladies just didn’t drive. Did I also mention that Ford 9000 didn’t have an air ride seat either? Mine was hydraulic, and unless you weighed 200 pounds, it didn’t bounce anything except the driver. We used to joke about having “air ride” seats – that was what we called the space between the seat of your pants and the top of the chair – mostly air.
The rear suspension on my first truck was a 9-spring stack made by Reyco. The only time it would give or spring at all was when the truck was fully loaded, and then it didn’t ride worth a darn. And, back then, there wasn’t any of this riding with your feet on the dash and reclining the seat into the bunk. You had both hands holding tightly on the wheel and your feet flat on the floor. It was a matter of safety (mostly your own). With all that being said, we still showed up to work every day, and climbed up in the cab to see what adventures awaited us out on that open road.
I never said truck drivers were the sharpest tools in the shed, but we are the toughest. Outside of iron workers and high rise construction workers, we have some of the most dangerous jobs out there. That may be why the pay is like it is. Don’t start with the “we don’t get paid what we are worth” conversion with me because I’m not listening. There is a great range of pay value in the trucking industry. Why, you ask? That’s a great question. It’s because the experience level of the driver and the potential value to the company is assessed by the people at the company, not the driver.
The most glaring example of this is when fleets sell their overpriced, excess tractors, to over-zealous and ambitious drivers. They have convinced them, the driver, they can earn more money and get a bigger piece of the pie if they are the owner of the truck. The reality is that the fleet is still the owner of the equipment since most are “purchased” on a lease contract. Lease contract means just what it says – you are renting their stuff! Very few contracts allow you to go outside their system to contract freight on your own. The carrier has access to and controls the potential freight, therefore it’s called leftovers. Every company will, as a rule, cover all their own trucks with freight first, or at least with the most profitable loads.
None of us are so important to a company or the carrier that they will feed us the cream of the crop to keep us from leaving their organization. Yes, they will throw you a bone every so often, but that is just to keep us interested. But they are not going to take a loss just to make sure you don’t. Remember what I wrote last month about recruiters and politicians? You don’t always get what you are promised. I normally tell the drivers who ask me about leasing to STOP, DROP, and ROLL. Stop looking for that easy money, drop the pretense of Super Trucker, and roll all your energy into becoming a better version of yourself. Sounds like a solid plan, right?!
Now, if I haven’t offended my readers, let’s get to the reason I’m saying all this. Driving trucks is a true family affair. The hours drivers are required to spend on the job is considerably greater than most occupations. An OTR (over the road) driver is gone 24 hours a day, oftentimes for multiple days or even weeks, without getting home. This puts an unusual strain on the partner at home, and if there are children in the house, it will affect them, as well. Driving can be a blood sport, and when drivers miss appointments and family functions, their family screams bloody murder! That’s where it helps to have a mentor from within the industry. People today, and not just young people but most folks who enter this occupation, think it’s nothing more than a sightseeing tour.
Thank you to the recruiters for glamorizing a difficult job. If you listen to the hype, truck driving is all rainbows and sunshine. There are rainbows, but only after a storm, and then no one says the sun will shine. Those storms can be real, and they can come as rain, snow, wind, and even sandstorms. Some of the most severe storms, however, come as what I call the “wife storm” – that’s when you get hit with an unforeseen force of nature where you don’t know which way to turn or how to react, so you just answer your phone and say “yes dear” as quickly as possible. It’s all a part of driving, and it will affect every one of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
My wife and I were fortunate to have not only my father-in-law, who was teaching me how to drive the truck back in the day, but also my mother-in-law, who was supporting my wife when I was gone. Even though my wife came from a truck driving family, she had never experienced the day to day lifestyle of a driver/husband’s home. We got married a few months before my enlistment was up in the Marine Corps, so she had some sense of abandonment – just kidding, but I was sent on a field deployment the week after she reached California and we set up our house. There is a certain alignment with military life and trucking life, and the recruiters play on it to direct prior enlisted personnel into trucking. The abruptness of dispatch can often be the difference between a normal and an obsessive lifestyle.
For those of you who didn’t read last month’s article, I spoke directly to the seasoned drivers, asking them to reach out to the new or young drivers. This month, I would like to compliment the men and women who teach their kids not only what they do for a living, but also how and why they take the actions they do. The old phrase “do as I do, and you will be forever satisfied” may play well here. I realize not everyone is cut out to be a truck driver or to work in our industry, but a basic understanding of the life and lifestyle can save some of them from themselves. Whatever do I mean? Once a driver gets bitten by the bug, he or she will never be the same again.
Now don’t get me wrong – we still need doctors and lawyers and people to do all those boring jobs, too. I can’t imagine why they would want to, but more power to them. This is where some folks go wrong by picking a partner who is not going to be home much of the time. The freedom of pushing yourself and the equipment you trust to its limit is an experience few people can comprehend. But, to a driver, it’s the essence of life itself. Seeing the sun rise every morning in a new or different place can offer a sense of peace and harmony, and hammering down an open stretch of blacktop and taking in the scenery along the way is, in a word, priceless.
To the person who has never sat behind a well-tuned CAT engine and experienced the rumble and the roar as you press the fuel pedal, or felt the vibes of a V8 Detroit as it winds through the gear box, all I can equate it to is the same feeling I got as a 16 year old kid getting my driver’s license for the first time. When I first backed that 1965 Mercury Monterey out of the driveway and onto the street, I couldn’t stop smiling, as I fist-pumped the air in rhythm to the music on the radio! As we say, “THAT’S TRUCKIN!” If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. But I am probably preaching to the choir here.
Every couple will butt heads at some point when the job gets in the way of a healthy relationship. Barb and I often joke about the second wife, with my truck being that person. The fact we have found humor in the situation is a sign of wisdom and experience on my wife’s part. It takes a special person to except the hardships that come with this job. When a driver is absent from the home for weeks – and in some cases months – at a time, there are a lot of “Honey Do” things that don’t get done. Don’t misunderstand me, there have been times when she had no patience for my insistence on getting back to work or for neglecting my responsibilities at home. She may only be 5-foot 6-inches tall, but when she carries a 6-foot 2×4, she really gets her point across.
Most of my driving career has been long haul OTR, but there have been times when I needed to change up to accommodate the family. Fortunately, there are opportunities for a person to move around from one company to another, as long as you don’t do it too often. I always enjoyed the home time when working locally, but I found the actual hours I worked were greater than when I was running long haul (go figure, right). This, too, can put a strain on the relationship. Someone once said, “When mom’s mad, ain’t no one happy, and when dad’s mad, he sleeps in the truck.” I’m not sure that’s the right answer, but I have heard my mother say, “It takes two to tango, so if you want to dance, listen for the music.”
I started this whole thing thinking about father and son relationships and how they used to pass down the family heritage from one generation to the next. I was raised to be a farmer. Little did I know, due to economic times in the early 1970s, that dream would never be. I finished high school at a time when the prospect of employment was slim. Four years later, after my military experience, I returned home with a wife and all the responsibilities of a family. That’s where I dialed in my skills as a driver. I took to the road out of necessity – not because I was born to do it! All these years later, I can’t imagine my life any different.
I think my destiny was set long before I realized how life would turn out. “Wagon Master” was my father-in-law’s handle. He saw the wonder lust in me and set my feet on the road to where I’ve been. That’s what I mean when I use the term “Generational Experience” – when your children, or just young people in general, see you do your life’s work. Just the time spent with them riding in the jump seat, watching you roll the gears, and listening to the stories of people you know and the places you have been, will help mold their opinion of your work. If more people took pride in the job they do and worried less about what others think of the job, there would be way more happy workers out there. There is a certain satisfaction in watching your children grow into the people they are to be, and knowing you showed them a slice of your life, even if you were not always there from day to day.
One of my proudest days was the first time my son took the wheel as a licensed CDL holder running team with his old man. Then, when he left the yard on his first solo dispatch, loaded for the east coast. Then, still another milestone was when he became an owner operator in his own truck – a vehicle the two of us built together for him. After a short stint, he came to me and said, “Dad, this driver thing isn’t for me, it’s your life, and I want to go a different way.” Like I said, it’s not for everyone, but at least he has a vocation to fall back on should his dream not work out.
In all walks of life and all careers, there are crossovers or life lessons, and places where experience will help you avoid the pitfalls of poor design. My son now uses his early experience as a driver to build better trucks and truck parts. As my trucking career winds down, he is still building his name, his style, and his brand. Even though I no longer go trucking with him, I can still spend a few weeks every year helping him build the trucks dreams are made of, for drivers who dream of the open road. Here’s to my family affair – it’s still trucking, and that’s all good, 10-4!