A double life

| January 03, 2006

Trucker/Senator Robert Starr and the wreckage of his truck and a car after they both hit a highway cave-in. Starr rescued the car’s driver.

Trucker Robert Starr gets up and goes to work every day like everyone else. But one day he wears jeans and boots, and the next he wears a suit and tie.

The 63-year-old Starr, owner of Starr’s Transportation, has been a truck driver for 35 years and has been helping shape politics in Vermont all his life. He was a Democratic state representative for Vermont for 26 years, and in 2005 was elected as a Vermont state senator. In the past, he has also served on the school board and zoning board in his hometown of North Troy, Vt., and as director of the Vermont Truck and Bus Association.

Although daily legislation and deskwork keep Starr busy, he still drives nearly 50,000 miles a year, hauling plywood, Styrofoam beads, furniture parts and animal supplements. His small, family-owned company employs 32 people and covers highway all the way to the West Coast.

“You certainly know about the real world by being a truck driver,” Starr says. “It keeps reality close to home – more than someone who doesn’t work with regular folks.”

In addition to his contributions to the people of Vermont, Starr has shown his share of heroism on the road.

Starr was hauling a light load on Autoroute 40, near Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Canada, when the car in front of him braked at a 2-foot trench in the middle of the road. A construction crew had been digging a drainage pipe underneath the road, and as Starr neared the trench, he realized it was getting bigger, eventually reaching 30 feet wide. (The cause of the widening trench is under investigation.)

The car’s driver, Ann Ayotte, couldn’t stop her car, and as she hit the trench, the impact buckled the front end of the car underneath and pushed the floor upward, trapping her feet in the floorboard.

Starr realized he could not stop his truck in time and accelerated, throwing the front end of the tractor-trailer across the culvert but ripping the back wheels off. The fuel tanks caught on fire as the truck skidded to a stop.

Starr barely escaped the flames of his own truck as he jumped out to rescue the woman trapped in her car. A retired paramedic rushed to the scene, along with Matt Matthew, a fellow trucker who stopped to help, and the three men tore off the car door and carried the woman away from the car as it burst into flames.

Ayotte, a college student at the University of Three Rivers in Trois Rivieres, suffered multiple injuries, including one leg broken in two places, one leg broken in one place, a shattered ankle and a dislocated hip. After months in the hospital, she is still recovering.

Starr continues to check up on Ayotte, saying simply, “I wouldn’t abandon her, that’s for sure.”

Starr feels a similar commitment to the state of Vermont. His family has lived in North Troy for generations.

His career as politician and truck driver keeps him on his toes.

“It’s a total change – what I do at home compared to down there [at the state capitol],” Starr says. “I’m glad to go down there but glad to get back to the real world and deal with real people.”

Though he suffers some teasing from other government officials about his love for the open road, Starr brushes it off, glad to still be trucking after all these years.

“Most politicians don’t work like truck drivers do,” Starr says. “And I can outwit most of them.”
Rachel Telehany


Cinderella Story
Today’s big rigs offer the latest in styling and power. But in the 18th century, the gala carriage was the height of sophisticated technology, pulled by six horses and manned by liverymen in front and back.

Freightliner is helping return one gilded gala coach to its former grandeur. The truck manufacturer donated $100,000 to the Portland Art Museum for the restoration.

The coach, one of only a few left intact, was originally constructed in the 1750s. It belonged to Ludwig VIII, Landgraf of Hesse-Darmstadt, a member of the noble German family Hesse, which has connections to royal families all over Europe.

“At the time, this was state-of-the-art technology,” says Jeffrey Fisher, Freightliner director of corporate communications. “The coach signals mobility and transport, and there is a connection between that and trucking.”

Freightliner is part of Daimler-Chrysler, which is a German-American automotive company.

“We take great pride in our companies’ international reputation,” says Fisher, “and we are delighted to help others get a glimpse of transportation engineering from an artistic perspective.”

A team of experts worked on the coach for eight months, refinishing the gold carvings and leather upholstery. The Cinderella style of this carriage is no accident. The famous fairy tale collectors, the Brothers Grimm, were frequent visitors to the Hessian court and are believed to have modeled some of their stories after it.

The coach will be displayed through March 29 at the Portland Art Museum, along with other artworks from the Hesse family’s collection, and then returned to the Schlossmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.
–Rachel Telehany


Trucking from Anxiety to Zen
Frustrated with the politics of her social work occupation and ready for a life change, Joyce Cascio decided to embrace truck driving and ultimately achieve her life dream – becoming a writer.

Already working two jobs in programs to prevent domestic violence and counsel victims of domestic violence, and with two college degrees, Cascio wanted to do something different that did not include textbooks and classrooms. So she signed up for a paid training program with Schneider to become a driver.

Cascio drove for 16 months and kept a journal of her experiences on the road. While new and exciting, the first months of truck driving were overwhelming for Cascio.

“The first three months are hard for a new driver,” Cascio says. “I was overwhelmed by the culture and initial loneliness.”

But solitude became the muse for her book, Joyce in the Belly of the Big Truck: A Modern Day Jonah Story. The book is a collection of life lessons learned on the road and how Cascio applied them to overcome fears and anxieties that were holding her back from achieving her goals.

“Being in the big truck gave me a lot of time to think about my life,” Cascio says. “It helped me put my life into perspective and find peace. I knew I had to write a book about it.”

Her book, now available with a companion workbook, is divided into anecdotes and ends each chapter with the lesson that Cascio learned about herself from each experience. In one incident, Cascio is attacked by dogs and injured because she did not heed a “Beware of Dogs” sign. Ultimately, the author discovers that when it comes to other people’s safety and welfare, she takes precautions to protect them. But when it comes to her own safety, she subconsciously decides her life does not matter. A theme throughout the book is finding inner strength and taking hold of one’s life.

Although many of Cascio’s experiences in the book are difficult, the author speaks fondly of truck driving.

“I didn’t respect drivers before I became one,” Cascio says. “But everybody should do a stint as a truck driver.”

In the first chapter, “The Zen of Trucking,” Cascio humorously describes the training process and her initial assessment, “How hard can it be?” After grinding gears and making a lot of mistakes, Cascio realized she had been living a timid life and had to decide whether or not she was going to pass the training program.

“I had come face to face with a truth about myself,” Cascio says. “I had settled in life.”

Her first bout with low self-esteem was in high school when a teacher told her she had no talent as a writer. Devastated, Cascio shied away from writing for much of her life. Truck driving gave life to her literary dream.

“It gave me the courage to face my greatest fear – putting something in print,” Cascio says. “But it is harder to write something personal and put it out there to be criticized.”

Although the book is based on the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, it is not a religious book, Cascio says. The audience is anyone who is interested in self-enlightenment. The author is a Universalist and says many Unitarian and Universalist churches have adopted her book and begun distributing it.

Cascio, who lives with her partner Amanda and two sons, Seth and Matthew, in Kansas City, Mo., now tours the country leading workshops and speaking to groups about the “Nineveh Experience,” which is the theme of her work. The book and workbook can be purchased from Nineveh Press for $10 each at this site.
Rachel Telehany


Homeward Bound
As the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, animal shelters are spilling over with the abandoned pets of evacuees.

Civic centers and universities opened their doors as emergency animal shelters in hopes of reuniting owners with their pets. But the difficulty lies in actually transporting pets to their owners. Many people have moved out of the area and can’t return to pick up a pet, and animal shelters are stuck holding pets indefinitely, waiting for someone to claim or adopt them.

Crete Carrier owner-operator Sue Wiese answered the call for help and formed “Operation Roger,” a partnership with other commercial truck drivers to transport adopted and found pets to their owners. A simple request for volunteers on a trucker satellite radio show in September 2005 has grown into an organization with about 30 drivers all over the country.

By responding to want ads on www.petfinders.com, Wiese connects the needy pet with a driver in the area. These pets may be hurricane victims found by their owners or other animals adopted by people across the country. Drivers pick up the furry friends on their normal routes and set up “legs” of the journey with other drivers. The pet owner then meets the driver for a happy reunion.

“I was overwhelmed at the number of drivers who wanted to help,” Wiese says. “The phone was ringing off the hook.”

Wiese added, “These are the type of people [drivers] we have.”

Wiese named the volunteer operation after her Manchester terrier, Roger, who died last June. While listening to Katrina coverage on the radio, Wiese knew she wanted to help.

“I prayed, Lord what can I do as a trucker? How can I help?” Wiese says.

The information for Operation Roger is located on the website. Wiese maintains a bulletin board of reports on successful reunions. Her favorite story is the journey of Taz, a small black Schipperke who started in St. Louis with one driver, changed drivers in Atlanta, changed again in New Mexico, and then finally met his new dad in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Since September, Wiese and her volunteer buddies have delivered more than a dozen pets. As Operation Roger grows, Wiese, better known by her CB handle “Classy Lady,” hopes she can get funding to become a non-profit organization and develop a better website.

For more information on Operation Roger, check out this site. To adopt a pet, log on to this site or the Humane Society’s website.

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