Hanging up the keys

Author Harry Rudolfs reflects on a rewarding career. I never thought this day would come, just imagined I’d keep driving into the sunset. But reality has been creeping into my joints the last few years, especially the knees.

I am getting creakier. After more than 40 years and almost two million miles, my body, if not my soul, is telling me to gear down. Most truckers know why they drive.

For me, the initial spark was the Cannonball TV series that aired in Canada and the U.S. in the early 1960s. At the time our family didn’t have a television, but I caught a glimpse of the show at a friend’s house when I was five or six and I was hooked. This was a joint Canadian and British production starring Paul Birch and William Campbell as “Cannonball” Mike Malone and Jerry Austin, respectively.

Thirty-nine episodes were filmed between 1958-1959 around Toronto. A SuperTest gas station cafe in Maple, Ont., served as one of the sets, and much of the highway footage was shot in the Hwy.

9 and Airport Road area. The Cannonball series provided the template for American trucking shows and movies in years to come.

The team hauled freight in a GMC 950 COE (cabover engine) for the fictitious C&A Transport. But they were more than just hired drivers – they rescued hapless motorists, foiled kidnappings, thwarted criminals and were able to chase down and corral runaway trucks. Clearly, heroic journeys and great adventures awaited me on the blacktop.

Cannonball spoke to a young boy who was fascinated with heavy equipment and driving, and I’m probably not the only one so affected. My dad taught me to drive the family Pontiac Laurentian when I was 14. By 19, I had my first driving job working for a company delivering school books around Ontario.

This was good experience; 2,000 miles per week driving vans, curbsiders and five-tons. I got to know southern Ontario really well. My career has come full circle.

I started out working for a small courier delivery service, and I’m finishing up as a linehaul driver for Canada’s largest courier company. I’m leaving at a time when the parcel industry is undergoing strong growth due to a changing consumer paradigm. The big box stores and malls are withering while the couriers are thriving.

FedEx, for example, is moving to seven-day delivery. But in those early years, driver comfort was way down the list. Bench seats were the norm (better for sleeping) and air-ride seats and suspensions were not on the horizon.

Five-ton trucks without power steering weren’t uncommon, and these were the last days of gas-powered tractors. My first employer had a V12 GMC in the lineup, a former Kingsway tractor that used to run Montreal and burn outrageous amounts of gasoline. Air-conditioning started appearing in trucks in the 1980s but I drove tractors without AC well into the mid-2000s.

Shippers and distributors were slow to mechanize and this is still sadly the case. Some customers expect you to hand-bomb freight and this will probably never change. Delivering to a customer like National Grocers meant hours of unproductive waiting time.

After you finally got into a dock, you were required to stack every box on a skid, wait for a slow-moving Teamster to check it off, and then wait for another one to arrive with a lift truck to take it away. Smart shippers knew to include a case or two of the product for the dock supervisor. Equipment has gotten safer and more dependable.

Take re-capped tires for instance – these were simply awful at one time. Drivers would usually carry a pen knife to cut off the strips of peeling rubber. If your truck broke down en route, there was an unwritten rule that you were allowed to mickey-mouse anything to get it back to the yard.

Nowadays, depending on what the sensor tells you, you will probably be stuck waiting for a tow, or a technician to come out and reprogram the CPU. Driving itself has become easier and more comfortable. If the weather is clear and the roads are dry, I set the cruise control, punch in a few buttons on the stereo and settle back in the air-ride seat, making sure my lumbar is well supported.

At my fingertips I have a satellite-connected computer, a CB radio and a push-button mic phone. But in reality, the freedom and independence we ascribe to this profession is illusory at best. Within seconds, dispatch can find out exactly where I am and what the truck is doing.

Technology is encroaching faster than we realize. Anti-rollover technology is a great thing, but I have no use for mandatory collision avoidance systems, electronic logbooks or in-cab surveillance cameras. Call me a dinosaur, but I’m happy to be leaving the business before robots take over most of the driving tasks – and that day may be closer than we’d like to believe.

There are a number of things I won’t miss. For one, the discourtesy shown by commercial drivers toward each other has only gotten worse over the years. Lane discipline is almost non-existent, so I’m happy to see the Ontario Provincial Police starting to fine drivers for following too closely and conducting blitzes to do so.

And what can we say about the abuse of the CB radio, once an important safety and communications tool for highway drivers? Fewer truckers use these radios now, but the “yahoos” are still quick to punch the mic button and deliver rants and curses concerning a driver’s ethnicity. The last analog stand of bigotry, I suppose.

I’m glad to have driven through my last white-out and pea soup fog. Another thing I won’t miss is coming in to work and finding a foot of snow on the trailer. Mechanical snow cleaners (if they are working) only dust off the periphery and always leave a layer of snow and ice on the roof.

But overall, it’s been a great ride, and it’s saved me from a life at some mundane office job. I got to see a good deal of North America and had a rich variety of experiences. I’ve hauled lumber, steel, chemicals, B-trains, and never been stuck too long at any one job I didn’t like.

Like me, a significant cohort of baby boomers are on the verge of retiring in the next few years. Recently I compared war wounds over coffee with some 60-something drivers in Port Hope – these were reefer and freight haulers, in the twilight of their trucking careers, with their own variety of aches and ailments. Not surprisingly, since there is no longer mandatory retirement at age 65, some are planning to keep working until 67 or beyond.

While the rest of us, when the time comes, will attempt to handle our new freedom as best as we can, get on our spouses’ nerves, and take a least a couple of weeks off before starting to call around to see if anyone still wants us.

Of course, I will miss the camaraderie and the great friendships that have enriched me.

To quote Walt Whitman, “Observers of cities and solitary toilers…journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, they are the swift and majestic men, they are the greatest women.”

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