Thursday, December 29, 2011

Land Line’s top 10 blogs of 2011

Many of you read our daily news, listen to our Sirius XM show and read our magazine. We also deliver several thought-provoking and popular commentaries each week in the way of blogs.

It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t even know what a blog was. This year, we posted 84. Our entire Land Line staff writes blogs, as does our staff from our OOIDA satellite radio show “Land Line Now.” Several OOIDA staffers contribute blogs regularly to the OOIDA website, as well.

Land Line Associate Editor Dave Tanner banged out the top blog of 2011 on the magazine website, catching readers’ attention with a “Farewell to Willie’s Place.” It is, of course, a comment on the end of that famous truck stop at Carl’s Corner, TX. There was the rumor that Willie Nelson won the truck stop in a poker contest. And that’s true. Willie actually told “Land Line Now” host Mark Reddig that was the truth – and I heard him say it.

Number two this year was a blog written in November by Senior Editor Jami Jones. A pig is a pig. You can dress it up and put some lipstick on it, but underneath it’s still a pig. That’s what you’ll hear Jami say every time someone says Mexican trucks are as good as U.S. trucks. That claim is just not true and in her blog – “Lipstick on the pig” – she put a sharp point on it, backed up by facts. Ouch!

Our most prolific blogger was Bob “Cowpoke” Martin, a Land Line columnist who died on Oct. 11 from liver cancer. His style was inimitable. The third most popular blog of 2011 was one by Bob called “End of the trail” and it’s Bob’s farewell to his readers. How many people get to do the “by the time you read this I’ll be gone” blog?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A call from the North Pole

Two, four and nine. Those are the ages of three kids in one of the trucking families who would have had little under the tree if not for a surprise gift of $700. The cash came from an unlikely benefactor.

Calling themselves the “Christmas group,” a small troop of volunteer truckers raise money for other truckers in need. The effort has now has grown into an extraordinary group called Trucker Charity Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization with its main office located in Summerfield, IL. While Trucker Charity works all year to help needy drivers, the Christmas effort is the traditional heart of their charitable work.

Tuesday night they set up a conference line and methodically went through the process of calling 10 families and surprising them with a generous, no-strings attached gift of cash. With every call, it was announced that they were “calling from the North Pole …”

Secretary of the Christmas group is OOIDA Member Eldon McFarling.

“Words cannot describe the feeling you get when you hear the joyful, emotional response from the family members,” Eldon said later. “It’s something you have to experience firsthand.”

Eldon and Trucker Charity president (and OOIDA Life Member) Lance Wood invited me to sit in on Tuesday night’s mission. I told them later I was glad I had a box of Kleenex handy. The spirit of Christmas was shining bright last night as they gave away $7,000 worth of MoneyGrams.

“I never knew there were so many people who cared,” said one tearful woman whose husband has ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She accepted the gift on behalf of her husband, a former expediter whose disease has progressed to the point he can’t talk.

The couple had been nominated by OOIDA Members Bob and Linda Caffee, who are Fed Ex Custom Critical owner-operators and who just happened to be home in Silex, MO. Linda Caffee joined the conference call during the presentation as she navigated downtown St. Louis.

“It was one of those moments when the true meaning of Christmas really smacks you upside the head,” Linda said later.

OOIDA Member David Gilland of Nettleton, MS, was driving across the Pennsylvania Turnpike last night while tapped into the Christmas group’s conference call. He was asked if he wanted to make the call to the couple he and some trucker friends had nominated.

“Sure,” said David, aka Bullwinkle.

Trucker Charity’s Greg Manchester explained that this couple had really been struggling. He was an ex-Marine and didn’t like a handout. But the company he was leased to had cut his miles back, there were bills to pay, and the house needed repair. Christmas was virtually non-existent for them and their three kids. The couple was speechless. She was sobbing.  

“They don’t think drivers do anything for each other anymore,” said David, who was tooling down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, connected via his Bluetooth device. “This is proof that that is just not true.”

Like David, most of the truckers who were on the conference call were doing business. Occasionally one would say something like “Hold on, I got to catch a ride to the yard.” Or “Thanks to that call, I just walked through a warehouse with tears running down my cheek.”

The group called one driver and his wife and happened to catch up with them at a West Memphis truck stop.

The family was really having a tough time of it, said Greg, and the family included a 15-year-old boy who was being home schooled in the truck.

The wife said tearfully that they really hadn’t had anything good happen in the past couple years. We talked to the couple’s son, too. He was 15 and a well-spoken kid. He told us he’d rather be on the truck with his parents than home. The boy thanked the group, saying that Christmas had not been good for the past few years. His dad chimed in, saying he’d been out on the road 40 years and never had to ask for a handout. He promised when he got back on his feet, would “pay it forward.”

I heard that “pay it forward” phrase a lot Tuesday night.

OOIDA members Debbie and Jeff Zehrer, Sauk Centre, MN, are owners of Cubby Buddy toolboxes for semi truckers. They are drivers and also sponsors of the Christmas Group. Debbie was there to get the information from each family to get the money to them in the most convenient way. You could tell she was no newbie to the process.

“Where are you gonna be tomorrow? Tennessee? Will there be a Wal-Mart close by? We’ll send you $700 in a MoneyGram or put it on your Green Dot, whatever is best for you.”

One of the last trucking families that the group contacted was a couple who happened to be talking to each other on the phone when we called. She was at home; he was on the road. They were hitting bottom, overrun with truck repairs. Within seconds, we had them both on the conference call.

“If you only knew,” he said, clearly astounded and hugely relieved by the $700 gift. “Getting this at the last minute? If you ONLY knew. I was just saying to my wife, what the heck are we gonna do?”

He was going to stay out and work Christmas, but after getting the call, he said he’d be thinking about that.

“We are all truckers, too,” the selected families were all assured. “We understand what you are going through.”

The Christmas Group trucker volunteers have been doing this for four years. In those four years, Trucker Charity Christmas Group helped 59 families and dispersed over $37,000. This year, they raised $7,000 in three weeks.

They raised the funds by selling items on the Trucker Charity Christmas Group Fundraising website and via donations.  On Dec 19, a panel of volunteers, including OOIDA Member Kerry Mullins of West Lafayette IN, and OOIDA Life Member Ralph Acocella of Hickory, NC, waded into about two dozen applications and made their way through a selection process, which is done by a secret vote and based on a point system for an unbiased treatment of the families. Out of two dozen nominations, 16 were determined viable and then came the hard part – choosing the final 10.

“It was tough choosing 10, so many truckers need help right now,” said Lance.

“We are a group who cares,” was the simple explanation.

“We are all truckers and we are from – well, all over the place,” said one participant.

On Tuesday night, though, they were all from the North Pole.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shorts, flip-flops and reindeer games

You think Wal-Mart jumps on Christmas early? Let me tell you, sugar plum, they don’t hold a motorized multi-hued LED candle to Land Line.

The editors and designers start sweating deadlines long before the temps at Grain Valley fall below 90. Sunset’s still about 8:45 CDT when “Land Line Now” news anchor Mark Reddig starts testing his permanent outdoor Christmas light display. And we contributors have to pretend it’s chestnuts, not hot dogs, roasting on an open fire.

I was still in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops when they reminded me my “cracked carols” column was coming up like January bills.

Writing parodies isn’t easy, or everyone would be Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio jock who is the fallen angel atop the Christmas song parody tree.

His classics include “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Wreck the Malls,” and the irresistible “Walking Round in Women’s Underwear.” I am not worthy.

It’s even harder to write parodies when it’s not the season, but my friend and ace gearjammer Rufus Sideswipe helped by humming his favorite Christmas song – “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” – to get me in the right frame of mind. (That’s a tough tune to write new lyrics to, by the way.)

About half the time, a tune will prompt me to replace a few words with something trucking related, and that cranks the creative engine. Other times, I’ll think about something in trucking and hum until a tune sounds like it will fit.

And it has to fit. Because Senior Editor Jami Jones thinks tune is something you do to an engine, Associate Editor David Tanner checks the songs to make sure my lyrics more or less follow the same pattern as the original. I’m glad he does that, since neither Rufus nor I could carry a tune in a tanker. But I’ve had to do some deadline rewrites, counting syllables on my fingers while trying to sing new lyrics.

But these hashed-up hosannas must be popular, since I’m still invited to do them after six – or is it eight – years? And they kinda make me miss being closer to the gang in Grain Valley and to the other Land Line stalwarts like Perfessor Paul Abelson, Suzanne Stempinski and Jeff Barker and his Bionic Burrito. It’d be a great Christmas if we could all spend it together.

So, here’s hoping you enjoy the latest installment. Maybe Bobby Boofay will video one of them for YouTube.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

OK, it’s really Christmas …. My Mack catalog is here

Every morning I get mail, email, phone calls by the armload. It’s part of the job. But last week – in my daily mail, there it was … my favorite catalog, Mack’s Bulldog Basics – Official Licensed Merchandise wish book.

Not only does it have everything needed to smartly outfit the Mack truck owner, driver and enthusiast, not to mention what you need for your Mack truck to be totally lunked out – it’s pages and pages of official bling and fun stuff for truck editors.

Mack mountain bikes, die cast collectibles, Ride-On toy trucks ... it’s a catalog for all sexes, shapes and age. T-shirts, caps and little red infant creepers with an “intake” arrow on the front pointing up and an “exhaust” arrow on the back, pointing down.

The toy pages always slow me down, but the real show stopper for me is the retro pages. Vintage Mack posters from the early to mid-1900s are printed on heavy stock and suitable for framing. I like the black and white ones best, but the showroom posters are tough looking, too. I want one of those big B-model era metal thermometers, in case I ever get my dream garage.

And I also want the Bulldog oil can bank, a new item that looks just like a vintage oil can but smaller. Another item for my dream garage-mahal – maybe even my office here at OOIDA headquarters – is the 15-inch neon clock with chrome bezel. OK, it’s $70, but (hey, Mark Reddig) it has a green NEON light.

On through the pages, you can find Christmas ornaments, Mack golfballs, golf clubs, Mack backpacks, mugs and even a signature chrome ashtray with an authentic polished chrome bulldog hood ornament mounted above the cigar clips. I don’t smoke cigars, but I would like to have one of these on my corner table in my office with a big Havana there, half smoked. People might think someone really important has been visiting me. It might be a good conversation piece.

You don’t have to be driving a Mack to sport Mack stuff. There are plenty of cool automotive accessories, a Mack mountain bike and even a Mack snow sled.

Man’s best friend has its own section in the Mack catalog – leashes, pet beds, pet chews and even a leather collar with metal studs. My favorite in this section is the stainless steel dog dish with a pewter insignia of the Mack bulldog in the Mack script. If I was a Mack owner, I would have one of these, pet or no pet. It could be an ice cream bowl for my husband.

Our senior editor Jami Jones’ favorite part of the catalog is the hood ornament page. Of course, there’s the famous chrome dog – but there’s the outfits. You can outfit your dog with a black cowboy hat, a fireman outfit, a construction helmet, a Super Hero with flowing cape, a soldier outfit with USA medallion, a pink vinyl Ginger Mack outfit (smokin’ hot!) and, wow – a Santa outfit that will have ‘em talkin’.

You don’t need to have a catalog to shop for the cool Mack stuff, which is good, since I won’t be loaning mine out. You can call 800-570-4820 or go to

Monday, December 19, 2011

So I walk into the Midway Truck Stop …

Anyone who has jumped off of Interstate 70 at Exit 121 knows that there are two things you can count on about the Midway Truck Stop: friendly people and never knowing what you’re going to see.

Joe Bechtold, center,  sets up the strongman competition.
My idea of Sunday afternoon fun the week before Christmas was to load up the kids (two teens and a tween) and head out to Midway for the filming of a trucker appreciation event for the show “Truck Stop Missouri” airing on the Travel Channel.

My truck show veteran, road trippin’ savvy kids were skeptical. What could a truck stop smack-dab in the middle of Missouri do that they haven’t seen before?

I laugh, even now, as I write this. They should have been wondering what is that crew at Midway going to do this time?

Just about everyone has flipped on the TV and seen the strongman and strongwoman competitions. I just hadn’t seen one up close and personal until Sunday.

Redefining "truck pulls."
Midway Truck Stop’s Joe Bechtold invited four of the strongest men I’ve ever seen in my life to hold a strongman competition that included lifting a barbell with mounted car tires as the weights for the warm-up act. Then they graduated to a “truck pull” where they pulled the Volvo tractors supplied to the event by Arrow Truck Sales.

Television will not do this justice. I promise.

These guys pulled those trucks more than 80 feet in less than 20 seconds. I figured I’d have all day to take pictures of them pulling those trucks. Not quite.

Big Foot, and its tires, were a big hit.
Later on, the “main event” was an appearance by the “Bigfoot” monster truck team to crush rows of junk cars. Even my boys who don’t get impressed by much that doesn’t involve them were amazed. Soaring high in the air over the junk cars, revving engines that hit deafening decibels, it was hard to not be impressed.

Again, television won’t do the size of these trucks justice. To give you some perspective, my son pushing the tire in the picture is about 5 feet, 9 inches tall. And, yes, I stopped him before he gave his sister a real ride.

All in all, we had a great time. And we weren’t the only ones.

OOIDA’s Norita Taylor and her son were there as well. She set up a cool area for kids in attendance to write letters and draw cards for the Truckers for Troops care packages. That was quite the hit too with the kids.

There’s just no shortage of things to do or see at Midway. As we were leaving, I swear there was some local riding around in a motorized shopping cart. Honest. My bet is, Joe couldn’t resist taking that ride for a spin. Guess we’ll have to see if that makes the final cut for the episode. And, as of right now, no air date has been set. So we’ll keep you posted once that’s finalized.

You figure it out....
While Midway is one of my favorite places to stop, it’s important to realize that “Truck Stop Missouri” is a celebration of the independently owned stops around the country. These men and women always find a way to make the experience memorable for those who come by. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to supporting the “mom and pops” out there on the road. LL’s own Jeff Barker is the driving force behind the page. Be sure to check it out.

From what I’m seeing on the Facebook page, the stops they talk about are a lot like Midway. You never really know what you’re going to find until you stop, but a lot of the time it’s a real treat.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Let’s get real

Medical professionals, many who stand to benefit from such a regulation, continue to beat the drum that most truck drivers should be tested for sleep apnea.

I have a short reply:

Americans are 10 times more likely to die because of a medical professional’s error than they are in a crash with a truck.

Let that sink in.

As Land Line reported last week, advisory boards including the FMCSA Medical Review Board approved recommendations that all truck drivers with a body mass index of 35 or greater be evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea.

Some studies estimate U.S. patient deaths by medical errors in at least the tens of thousands, making Americans 50 times more likely to die at the hand of a doctor than by a truck crash.

The annual fatalities tied to wrecks involving commercial vehicles has hovered near the 4,000 mark for years, actually improving the past few years and dropping below 4,000. That 4,000 figure includes any wreck in which a commercial vehicle was involved, including when the driver of a motorcycle or passenger car is killed while rear-ending a stopped truck.

Ben Hoffman is chairman of FMCSA’s Medical Review Board and the chief medical officer for GE and. Yes – that GE – the one that manufactures CPAP machines.

Hoffman took control of last week’s meeting, denigrating opposing viewpoints and largely ignoring anyone who didn’t agree with his opinion that most overweight truckers likely have sleep apnea and need CPAPS specifically to treat the affliction.

I’m stunned that Hoffman apparently doesn’t feel he may have a conflict of interest.

For fans of the NBC show “30 Rock,” this would be a bit like Jack Donaghy, the fictional TV character played by Alec Baldwin as GE’s president of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming overseeing a federal advisory board that regulates television. Well, regulates television and microwaves – and can require millions of Americans to purchase more microwaves.

But I’ll say it again – Americans are at least 10 times more likely to be killed by a medical professional than by a truck wreck – even a wreck caused by you.

After the Medical Review Board voted to recommend drivers with a BMI of 35 undergo expensive testing, OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told me he doesn’t disagree that health problems exist for most Americans, including truckers.

The problem is, no one is looking at factors that affect driver rest for all drivers – no matter their body mass index.

Issues like hours-of-service rules that discourage a driver for pulling over and taking a nap when they’re tired, or shippers and receivers who can make a driver wait for hours to be loaded or unloaded.

Board members shouldn’t be able to recommend changes that would directly benefit members’ employers.

“Realistically, the conflict of interest in the makeup of that group is just absolutely glaring,” Spencer said. “They by no means have an objective viewpoint. The Medical Review Board has an economic interest tied to this particular issue.”

The Medical Review Board includes some individuals with lengthy academic resumes. It’s too bad the board still includes no one with knowledge of or background in trucking.

I interviewed the previous Medical Review Board chairman about both the higher number of deaths from medical errors and the conflict of interest issues two years ago. Read the interview by clicking here.

Now just hold on a minute

If you think the National Traffic Safety Board is going too far in recommending a ban on hand-held phones and texting in all vehicles, you better hope they don’t see research that indicates the, um, hydraulic pressure that builds up after drinking coffee or soda and being in the cab for several hours is as distracting as being drunk or sleep-deprived.

Researchers in Australia – where they know a thing or two about being tipsy – found that when your bladder gets really full, to the point that you worry about every little bump in the road, your concentration and memory just let go.

Sadly, if the feds hear about this, I could see them putting the squeeze on commercial drivers first. Not only are you easy targets, but it'll be payback for those nasty jugs left all over America.

Some whiz-bang engineer will come up with a Bluetooth-enabled remote hydraulic sensor in the seatbelt sync’ed to your dashboard info center.

As the diesel needle drops, the personal pressure needle creeps upward until there’s a warning chime telling you it’s time for a pit stop.

Ignore it too long, and maybe there'll be a fault code for your safety manager to download. How humiliating would it be for all concerned if the next safety meeting included potty training – and you’re on the hot seat.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wreaths at Fort Leavenworth

Another successful “Truckers for Troops” campaign has drawn to a close, and naturally many of us at OOIDA are thinking of the troops in combat zones. But veterans are also very much on our minds. In the past month, there have been a number of stories on an event called “Wreaths Across America.”

Fort Leavenworth cemetery
(Photo by Grant Andersen)
The latest Land Line story was about the U.S. Senate unanimously passing a resolution to designate Saturday, Dec.10 as “Wreaths Across America Day.”

“Wreaths Across America” took place this past Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery and at more than 700 cemeteries in all 50 states where almost 325,000 wreaths were placed at the tombstones of veterans.

Having read so much about this tradition started 20 years ago by the owners of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, ME, I wanted to participate this year. And I wanted to do so at the historic Fort Leavenworth cemetery in Kansas, one of the original 14 national cemeteries.

Saturday was a cold, sunny day as my 24-year-old son, Grant, and I set out.

We pulled up to the military base checkpoint and noted that all the vehicles in the visitor lane were being inspected, especially a pickup loaded with hay. My car was full of papers, magazines and books – the normal detritus of a copy editor’s commute.

Commemorative wreath (Photo by Grant Andersen)
When I showed our driver’s licenses, I was asked why we were going on base. When I said we were attending the laying of wreaths ceremony for “Wreaths Across America,” the soldier stepped back, wished us a nice day and waved our uninspected car on.

We parked and were bemused to see half a dozen young people in Revolutionary War uniforms pile out of an SUV and grab their weapons. They were the color guard for the ceremony, members of the Junior ROTC corps at Leavenworth High school.

Near the flagpole we were soon surrounded by riders of the Kansas Patriot Guard, Gold Star mothers (whose sons or daughters died while serving the nation), soldiers and veterans in uniform, and other members of the public.

Placing of the wreaths. (Photo by Elizabeth Andersen)
The brief ceremony, which was timed to coincide with the Arlington event, included the color guard, a moment of prayer, and the ceremonial laying of eight wreaths commemorating each branch of the military, prisoners of war and those identified as missing in action, and Gold Star families.

We were invited to lay wreaths on graves in a specific section of the cemetery.

As Diana Pitts, a Gold Star mother and the organizer of the ceremony, told the Fort Leavenworth Lamp newspaper, “It’s important to place a wreath on someone’s grave that hasn’t been visited in awhile. ... When it comes to veterans, it’s important to do our best job to recognize all of them, to bring remembrance to those whose Christmases can no longer be spent here on Earth.”

It was moving to see people standing in line quietly to receive the wreaths and saying thank you every time before walking to the graves and carefully placing the wreaths at the base of the tombstones.

A moment of remembrance. (Photo by Elizabeth Andersen)
My son and I each placed three wreaths and then were reluctant to leave. It was a beautiful sight: the serried rows of white tombstones enlivened by the greenery and red ribbons, the dress blues and camouflage of uniforms, the Patriot Guards’ motorcycle gear and children’s colorful winter coats.

There was such reverence about the scene that I was reminded of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC in 2002. My sons were teenagers, and their father had served stateside in the Navy during the Vietnam War. I remember when the Wall was designed the controversy over Maya Lin’s design and how it was derided as a “gash in the earth.”

My sons and I had watched a documentary about the Wall, so we were prepared. I was not prepared, however, for tears to start running down my face as we walked downward beside the polished black granite and listened to the hushed voices around us and saw people reaching forward to touch their loved ones’ names.

That’s how I felt this past Saturday at Fort Leavenworth. You had to be there.

Friday, December 2, 2011

They know how to get to you

Just in time for the 2012 presidential election season there is yet another tool at candidates’ disposal to help them get their message to you, and in most instances whether you like it or not.

Methods used by candidates to reach voters are always evolving. In the past few years we have seen the use of text messaging and social media to help candidates personalize themselves to voters.

In fact, a study by the Pew Research Center found that about one-quarter of online American adults used social networking sites to engage with the 2010 election.

With one estimate that half of all Americans will own smartphones by year’s end, geo-targeted mobile advertising is viewed by a growing number of political campaigns as the latest, and greatest, method available to directly reach voters.

Geo-targeted ads are touted as enabling candidates to increase the relevancy of messaging. As a result, more and more campaigns are tapping into the new era of real-time mobile advertising that is geographically relevant to a voter according to where he or she is at a particular moment in time.

So, here is a glimpse at what you could soon expect to see on your smartphone if you consented to sharing your physical location through an app. Let’s say you are picking up your kid from school and up pops an ad about how important education is for a candidate to be your state senator. After you leave school you turn onto the major thoroughfare and you get another ad that reminds you that your governor, who is running for re-election, diverted some road funds to other budgets.

You may also get an ad to let you know that distracted driving is a no-no.

These targeted ads can be sent to you anywhere – even on your way to the polls on Election Day.

Location targeting abilities are also being touted by businesses such as Internet radio company Pandora. The personalized radio service says it can use the growingly popular feature to benefit political campaigns.

Pandora boasts that “political campaign strategists have the option to target voters by state, county and congressional districts, as well as metropolitan survey areas, and designated market areas.”

The company claims that more than 110 political campaigns have run ads this year.

Those numbers, as well as the frequency of smartphone election ads, are certain to skyrocket in an election season that includes more than 80 percent of elected officials at the state and federal levels of government.