Monday, June 20, 2016

Trucking in 1994

The last time I spent any serious time in a truck was 22 years ago. I rode with a veteran owner-operator named Richard in his forest-green Freightliner leased to Transport America. He wanted to be called Richard, not Rich or Dick. I was a freelancer for Heavy Duty Trucking Magazine. Richard and I spent five days on the road and I kept notes, cataloging where we went, what I saw, and Richard’s comments along the way. Here are just a few observations from 1994:

Richard and I amused ourselves crossing Pennsylvania on I-80 recalling the once-familiar names of carriers that had vanished after deregulation 14 years earlier. Between the two of us, we must have remembered 100 or more.

A few union carriers were still in business in 1994. We saw two of them. CF Motor Freight and Carolina Freight had pup trailers spotted at J.C. Penney in Wauwatosa, Wis., where we picked up an empty 53-footer. Carolina Freight would sell out to Arkansas Best a year later. CF, once known as Consolidated Freightways, would struggle on until 2002 when it finally collapsed in bankruptcy, though Con-Way, Consolidated’s non-union divisions, would survive.

Some things that are troubling now were troubling then, too. “The truck stops and rest areas are full at night. You can’t go over hours, but you can’t stop either,” I wrote.

At 2 a.m. that Sunday, for example, we couldn’t find a parking space at the Flying J in Wytheville, Va., or anywhere else in the area. We were late because of a cascade of delays that began earlier when Richard missed an exit. There was a delay picking up in Crossville, Tenn., and another in Knoxville where we stopped to eat. We had to keep going. There was no alternative.

The truckload industry had been growing rapidly since deregulation, but there was already a “driver shortage.” You could tell by the billboards soliciting drivers. Richard thought part of the problem was the crowding.

“How many trucks are out here now? How many fleets have they created?” Richard asked rhetorically.

“Most of them are 48-state truckload carriers, unlike the old days. Rest areas are jammed at night. There is no room for more trucks,” he said.

Twenty-two years later, of course, there are lots more trucks and even less room.

Trucking life took a toll then just as it does now. At 54, Richard was on his third marriage. Trucking “definitely had something to do with it,” he said. And he worried about what he would do if he couldn’t drive for a living. “There are no jobs anymore,” he told me.

But Richard said he enjoyed life. He owned two Harleys. One year earlier, he and his wife had ridden one of them from home in New York state to Harley-Davidson headquarters in Wisconsin to celebrate the company’s 90th birthday with 70,000 other bikers.

The best of those five days with Richard was riding through rural Tennessee on two-lane blacktop. The worst was the food and trying to sleep while hurtling down the interstates. I had driven for an old-time LTL carrier doing some line-haul, but mostly pickup and delivery. I was struck by how truckload driving was similar in one particular way: There was no end to the little things that trip you up, the small delays for this reason or that. There was always some problem to overcome, some forgotten detail to make right, and it was up to the driver to do it.

I had fun, too. That was the first time I had been down south; I had never seen a Waffle House. “There is at least one at almost every Interstate exit around here,” I wrote, amazed. “Their menus are laminated plastic and look like supermarket circulars.”

Can’t say I cared for the waffles all that much.

And I got a kick out of listening to Dale Sommers, the famous Truckin’ Bozo, on WLW-700 at night. One night he said the U.N. had 600,000 foreign troops in America waiting to quell an insurrection by armed citizens when the economy collapses. The U.N., he said, was planning to impose a worldwide income tax.

Was he serious? It didn’t matter. He filled the night with trucking news, driver call-ins, and a bit of camaraderie. After a long career in radio, Dale died in 2012.

Richard and I had left from the Bendix Diner on Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., on Wednesday, June 1. Richard delivered me to the Horizon Diner on Route 17 in Ramsey, N.J., on the following Monday. It was five days on the road. It felt like a month.

Since then I have had the greatest respect for drivers in the truckload industry. It can be a difficult, tedious, frustrating job.

OOIDA’s own Jon Osburn and I have talked about this. Like so many drivers, he’s comfortable on the road. He’d be driving even if it wasn’t from truck stop to truck stop in OOIDA’s Western Star, “The Spirit.”

I couldn’t do it, even if I was 30 years younger. I’ll stick to writing.