Playing with a Full Deck

| September 04, 2002

There are some loads that make other drivers sit up straighter and take notice. Consider the appeal of three shiny factory-fresh Class 8 trucks, each one hoisted with its nose high in the air, being transported to a dealership by another new tractor – a caravan of four vehicles leap-frogging down the super slab in an oddly precise formation.

Unlike most loads, a load of four “decked” trucks bends three times, making them as difficult to back up as a 40-mule team. On the other hand, “they stop and turn better than the typical tractor-trailer,” says Don Mihalko, vice president of labor at Hook Up, in Macungie, Pa., where the “decking” and delivery of new vocational market Class 8s is job one.

Looking at these one-of-a-kind loads, one might imagine they are as quirky to handle as their appearance suggests. They are. Decking operations have all sorts of quirks. Take the name, for example. Decking is the proper term, despite the use of the widespread misnomer, piggybacking (which is an entirely different operation).

Why a load of trucks being dragged on their rear axles, without the use of any trailer, or other conveyance with a deck, is called decking, remains unclear.

What is now the decking industry started out using flatbeds. Howard Sober, credited with being a pioneer of decking, was a college student at the University of Michigan, when he began deliveries, hauling a truck atop a flatbed, according to Hook Up’s Carl Hamm. It was a way to make money on the weekend. The young entrepreneur delivered his two trucks and was picked up by his wife for the drive home. That was in 1917.

Today, the flatbeds are gone, replaced by saddle mounts, oak 4x4s, chain and long, steel u-bolts. Delivery is no longer a simple process of driving one truck off a dock onto a trailer to load and unchaining and driving it onto another dock to unload. Chain falls or wreckers put the noses of delivered trucks on the ground at their destination and the delivery driver has some reassembly and lubrication to do before they move.

Jerry Geake, a veteran at delivering decked trucks, makes 41 cents a mile. On average he drives somewhere between 1,800 and 2,400 miles a week. Some weeks half of those miles are driven in rental cars. After trips of more than 600 miles to final delivery, Jerry Geake flies home. He prefers the short trips because rental car miles are logged miles and he’s paid for driving them at nearly the same rate as he is paid for driving the Class 8.

Decking drivers have to return the rentals and make their way home or to the terminal by taxi. When they fly home, drivers are not paid for their time in the air and must only log those hours as “on duty not driving” if they do not take eight hours off when they get home, says Jim Geake, terminal manager at Hook Up and brother of Jerry Geake. Some drivers prefer this situation since the frequent flier miles they accumulate are theirs to keep.

If there’s no chain fall, driver Jerry Geake would have to call in a tow truck, a time consuming alternative.

Hook Up is a union operation. There is a shop steward who makes sure the dispatch board is run by strict driver seniority. Dispatch is at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. every workday.

Drivers late for dispatch lose their spot and must go to the end of the line. Drivers returning from a trip generally have 14 hours to report for their next dispatch says Jerry Geake, who likes the system. “I left to start a construction outfit once but came back seven years ago. I’m number 36 on a 70-man board. I can pretty much control my schedule to be home when I want to be home and still make good money. It took seven years to get there,” he says.

Jim Geake and his staff are responsible for making rental car arrangements and plane flights. In a sense, dispatch is a travel agent for drivers. After a delivery, drivers usually only need to make a phone call for a taxi to be taken from their last drop to an airport or a rental car counter. Back at the office, Jim Geake’s new Optimizer software tells him the cheapest and most efficient way to get his drivers back. Drivers carry a cash card and a credit card to pay out of pocket expenses.

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