Friday, November 13, 2009

A refreshing change: TV tackles real trucking issues

All too often, it’s the fiery crash that grabs up media headlines and leaves audiences with an irrational fear or dislike for heavy trucks that share their roadways.

While crashes and fatalities do occur and are tragic, the viewer rarely gets to hear stories about other trucking issues or from the men and women behind the wheel.

Every so often, someone gets it right. Recently, that someone was Dan Rather, who dedicated two recent episodes of “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet to trucking issues with an emphasis on driver training. Even though he did cover safety and crashes in his reports, he also asked truckers about training, experience and other topics such as the economy, driver pay and competition.

The latest was Episode 436, titled “Truck talk,” which aired Tuesday, Nov. 10. It was based on a trucking roundtable discussion that featured OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer and OOIDA Life Member Miles Verhoef.

Rather’s team invited the panelists to Willie’s Place Theater at Carl’s Corner, TX, to break new ground in addition to revisiting topics covered in a previous show (Episode 433, “Queen of the Road”) featuring OOIDA Member Desiree Wood.

Rather demonstrated his reporting experience by researching the issues and asking tough but fair questions of the panelists. Many of the subjects were ones that OOIDA and its trucking constituency have long been concerned with.

It was refreshing to see an established newsman like Rather asking the right questions and allowing the panelists time to answer without a lot of editing.

Spencer is no stranger to TV cameras, having appeared on CNN, Fox, C-SPAN and other networks through the years. Time constraints on many news or talk shows leave little time for much more than a sound bite or a brief discussion of a single issue. Not so with the Rather report.

So what made this latest report so darned good?

For one thing, the topics did not magically appear out of thin air, thanks to OOIDA Media Spokesperson Norita Taylor who fielded numerous calls from Rather’s producers during the months leading up to the taping. The time Rather and his staff put into the research paid off.

While we at Land Line Magazine and Land Line Now report on many of these topics extensively, it was quite refreshing to see Rather bring the dialogue into America’s living room.

He is not going to stop there. Rather said he will continue to pursue trucking stories for future episodes of his news program. On behalf of all highway users, let’s hope for a big audience.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In lieu of flowers

Trucker Larry Works, a longtime OOIDA member with a larger-than-life personality, died earlier this week.

Larry’s widow, Chris Works, told me that truckers and friends were welcome to make a donation to the American Lung Association in lieu of flowers.

I got to know Larry two years ago, when he called Land Line to talk about his 2006 arrest at a Joplin, MO truck stop.

As Land Line detailed in this news story, Larry was tasered multiple times, and both he and his wife were pepper sprayed while inside their truck cab after an argument with an apparently off-duty sheriff’s deputy from Newton County, MO.

With a booming voice and occasionally colorful language, Larry enjoyed talking about his work and all the friends he made. In fact, he had contact information for several witnesses he said backed up his side of the taser incident story.

Larry died from an apparent heart attack on Monday, something his family said stems from the 2006 tasing incident.

Like many truck drivers and OOIDA members, Larry was a military veteran and a self-made businessman. Larry didn’t mind telling me he had no problem sticking up for himself and his wife after what he termed an encounter with a “rogue, off-duty” cop that July day in south Missouri.

Unfortunately, the Works family was forever changed by the incident, and we’ve all now lost a good driver and a great character.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sniper stalked truckers in 1953

In 1953, a roving sniper was on the loose terrorizing communities, shooting people to death at random. All the shots allegedly were fired from the same weapon. Detectives frantically pursued the killer, questioned suspects, analyzed clues, and followed countless leads.

The story dominated the national media, which called the shootings “an unprecedented wave of fear.” The story sounds a lot like the DC sniper story, but it happened about 56 years ago in Pennsylvania.

On July 25, 1953, trucker Lester Woodward, 30, was fatally shot while sleeping in his truck’s cab near the Irwin Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Western Pennsylvania.

Three days later and 30 miles farther east on the turnpike, near Donegal, trucker Harry Pitts, 28, was slain by the same “phantom killer.”

Three days after that, trucker John Shepherd, 36, was shot and wounded as he slept in his truck’s cab near Lisbon, OH – 18 miles from the western end of the turnpike.

Truck driver and OOIDA Life Member John Taylor, of Cross Junction, VA, vividly remembered those events. He told me about it during the 2002 Beltway shooting spree prior to the arrests of John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo. I wrote it up for Land Line in November 2002.

“It was a scary time,” said Taylor. In the summer of 1953, he said he was running the Pennsylvania Turnpike hauling apples out of Winchester, VA, into Pittsburgh. “Everybody was concerned. Most truckers, including myself, were carrying a firearm for protection.”

Drivers began bunching at service plazas and taking turns sleeping and standing guard. “The police discouraged us from sleeping along the turnpike so a lot of us began parking at Howard Johnsons,” said Taylor.

Suspects were questioned in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, as well as a gang from St. Louis.

A week after the third shooting, a 24-year-old farmhand from Fayette County, PA, was arrested on a minor assault charge in Uniontown, PA. John Wesley Wable told police he was the “Turnpike Phantom,” but they dismissed him as a “screwball” and let him go.

A week later, however, the wounded trucker’s stolen pocket watch turned up in a Cleveland pawnshop. Police traced it to a nearby rooming house where they found the .32-caliber German pistol used in the three shootings – and a woman who said she was Wabel’s girlfriend.

After a nationwide manhunt, Wable was arrested Oct. 13 near Albuquerque, NM.

Wable later was convicted in the shootings. He was executed by electrocution on Sept. 26, 1955.

“The police never said why he did it,” Taylor recalled, “but it must have been because the turnpike was in his area, and it just was easy access for him.”