Drivers' Corner - Lookin' Back

My Life as a Truck Driver

By Dick Lower

Today, looking back over the years of which I spent my life as a truck driver, I have no regrets. There were good times, hard times, bad times and sad times. It was a life I chose as a profession. As a professional truck driver, it was a professional lifestyle that occupied my life and was not just a job. However, this professionalism did not begin all at once. It took time to develop into the high tech professionals that glide across the highways today.

There is camaraderie among drivers binding them in a friendship and this friendship has been evident through the years. Today, as one crosses the country at night time, there are lights on in the country from farms to small communities. It didn't use to be that way at all because everything used to be totally dark. Farms might have had one light on out in the barnyard and they wouldn't leave it on all night like they do today. So, what you saw out on the open highway at night was nothing but darkness and a lonely two-lane highway.

CB Radios didn't come up on the scene until around 1968 and they were scarce and clumsy. So, it was for years we used the "Telegraph" to send each other messages. The "Telegraph" was a series of hand signals during daylight hours and light signals at nighttime. For the most part we were totally alone out on the open road. It makes me shiver to think about the cold dark nights of winter driving we use to plow into. If you broke down, all there was to lean back on was your wits and whatever you stashed away in your cab. We had one ace in the hole and that was other drivers. Another driver would not pass you up without checking you out to make sure he didn't leave you stranded.

In the '40s and '50s there were trucks still in use that did not have heaters in them. It was one of the most stupid things companies did and, of course, they did it to save money. They didn't have any heaters placed in the cabs. If the driver wanted heat, he would have to purchase a heater and install it or have it installed at his own expense. The first time I crawled into one of these cabs I didn't notice there wasn't a heater--not until later in the day when it was getting cold and I tried to find the heater switch but to no avail because there wasn't any. I finished my trip and headed straight for my supervisor. "Hey!" I said. "You sent me out without a heater in that truck?"

"Yeah, I know it," he stated. He explained it was one of the earlier models of Internationals and that is the way they came. I made it clear if that tractor were put under a trailer for me I would not drive it. That model of truck was called a "KB-7 International."

Out of the '50s we drove and into the '60s burning gas in most all trucks. Diesel was not the favorite fuel of the time then, as it did not begin to be popular until 1960 then diesel trucks took over the roads. Diesel fuel was more than half the cost of gasoline therefore one could pay for a truck in the difference in fuel. A win-win situation!

Interstates had not taken over the country yet. General Eisenhower brought back the idea from World War II from Germany. Hitler had built some of the finest highways in the world and America would soon copy these designs and the Interstate would be born. The nearest thing to an Interstate was something like "Route 66" and or other boulevards near cities across the country. However, all these highways, including Route 66, did not feature "merging" traffic. They all required stop signs.

Still, all in all, the truck driver was well respected and very well paid. In and around Peoria, Illinois, where I worked, a truck driver made two to three times what a factory worker made in a week. The driver's pay was 25% of the load or an hourly wage, which would match or be greater than the 25%.

It was about to all change though because the Teamsters Union controlled all or most of the country's trucking traffic. It was in the late 60s and many places you couldn't get a load unless you had a Union card. Caterpillar of Peoria, Illinois, was one of these companies as they supported a Union shop. Large strikes broke out and many became bloody as struggle for power became evident across the country.

However, it wasn't large companies or the union that broke these power struggles; it was the price of fuel, which surged sky high due to an energy crisis. The president declared a national emergency and the 55 MPH speed limit came into the picture. The time was around 1973 or 1974 and President Nixon was in office. Truckers were getting tickets left and right, and as a result CB radio sales began to skyrocket also. Everyone was keeping an eyeball on Smokey Bear because the Telegraph did not fill the gap any longer.

The final blow didn't come to us until 1979 and Congress passed the "Deregulation Bill." Now anyone could buy a truck and go trucking anywhere in the country. They didn't have to go by set tariffs of the government. They could charge whatever they wanted. So the cut-throat'n began.

After that, Union busting gained momentum as wages dropped because of the deregulation. By 1975 drivers were beginning to leave the industry because of low income and a different set of people came on the road as drivers. They were not as disciplined as the Union drivers and they worked for a lot less. By 1980 Union busting spread across the country like a plague.

In the 1980s companies were finding drivers from all walks of life--from the unemployed and through social organizations, and also an increasing amount of women drivers were filling the driver's seat. These people entered the trucking world with the prospect of making big money.

The mode of companies was: "If you don't do it, we can hire someone else that will." That was their threat and they meant it because a lot of people wanted to cash in on trucking. However, it didn't take long for a new driver to figure out they were working for peanuts.

By 1990 no one would admit that there was a growing driver shortage because that would mean companies would have to offer more money and that they did not want to do. As I recall the first company to really jump up and take the bit in their mouth was J.B. Hunt. They dropped their training programs for new drivers and offered experienced drivers more pay. In some cases their pay offer was twice what many drivers were making. This shook the chains all over the industry and many stated that it wouldn't work, but it did. J.B. Hunt maintained their drivers and proved a point in the trucking industry.

September of 1995 was when my last trip was logged and I parked my rig for the last time. I was supposed to feel good about retiring, but it felt like losing an old friend. I enjoyed my trucking years and would miss many of my friends across the country. I felt like what I did was an honorable profession and still today I am in the driving profession; however, buses and limos aren't that hard to drive.

After almost 50 years I find the camaraderie between drivers is still there as they help one another in any way they can to perform their duties. So today, 2005, when I go to the Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville, Kentucky, I am swelled up with pride just to know I was a truck driver.