Eldon Conklin likes to keep busy, and at age 71 hasn’t slowed down a bit. He left trucking in 1972 and bought a furniture company, which he sold in 1988. Conklin became involved in the local government of Gouverneur, N.Y., in 1985 when he joined the board of trustees. In 1998, he was elected to a 4-year term as mayor of the city.
Being mayor and dabbling in business wasn’t enough for Conklin. His niece’s husband was an instructor for the Blue Devils drum and bugle corps in Concrete, Calif., and 13 years ago, she asked him to help transport the corps during its summer tour. Conklin contacted the corps’ traffic manager, and before he knew it he was flying to Oakland, Calif. The former trucker had never seen a corps show and wasn’t quite sure what he had gotten himself into, but he’s never regretted becoming a part of the organization.
“I do this because of the dedication of the kids,” Conklin says. “I have a great belief in young people. It’s unreal the way these kids work.”
He began driving the equipment truck and later began pulling the food trailer and helping in the kitchen. The Blue Devils start practicing in late spring and perform May through August. There are 135 kids, ages 15 to 21, in the corps and all have healthy appetites.
“My God, can they eat,” Conklin laughs. “I use 80 pounds of hamburger to make meatloaf.”
The food trailer is 48 feet long and is named Devil’s Food. The kitchen has a refrigerated unit above the fifth wheel. Three buses are leased to transport the bugle corps members and one truck is leased to pull the promotional trailer. The organization also owns an equipment trailer and two buses used to transport staff members.
In addition to driving, Conklin cooks meals and assists with minor injuries of corps members.
A typical day for Conklin begins at 8 a.m., when he helps serve the members breakfast and then helps with lunch. Practice stops around 5 p.m. and dinner is served one hour later. If there isn’t a show, the members practice until 11 p.m. After the show or practice, the tour hits the road and travels during the night.
Conklin recently renewed his commercial driver’s license for eight years in the state of New York. He has all the endorsement on his license and hopes he can keep his schedule for several more years.
“When I renewed my license I told them I hope I have as much confidence in me as you do,” he laughs. “My body will have to tell me when to quit. I’m very fortunate. I’ve never been in the hospital and have had no major sickness. I’ll have to let my health determine when I quit.”
The kids in the corps are disciplined and often go on to musical careers or teach music. Conklin is proud of the kids and says that when they leave the corps they are prepared to conquer their dreams.
“After what they’ve gone through here they’re not scared to go for what they want,” he says.
Every year Conklin tells the corps director that he won’t be back, and every February, he receives a call asking him to drive again. Conklin always gives in and does it for the kids.
“He says if I don’t do it they can’t go,” Conklin says. “It’s very rewarding to me to be part of something so few know about unless they’re involved. It’s so important to the kids. I gain satisfaction from being part of this.”
Besides driving and cooking, Conklin helps with first aid for injured members. Many sprains last the whole summer because of the constant practice. One day he was helping a girl with her sprained wrist and she told him he reminded her of her grandfather. These young people
connect with Conklin and he considers them to be his friends.
“The kids who’ve been around a while come up and hug me like a long lost friend,” he says. “They come into the food trailer a lot to talk. The cooks are close to the kids, and they look to us to talk to and make them feel better if they’re having a bad day.”
The corps members have a computer program that plans their route but the director often takes Conklin’s advice on short cuts. He also checks the route for low underpasses.
“Most often they take interstates,” he says. “I tell them life isn’t all four-lane highways.”
When Conklin ran his furniture business, he often drove a straight truck to deliver furniture. “I loved getting in that truck,” he says. “I’ll never have trucking out of my blood. Many truckers will get out of the business and return. Trucking is like owning your own business. There is no one looking over your shoulder. If you make your schedule and do what you should no one bothers you much.”
But Conlin acknowledges that times have changed since he began trucking at age 18. He wanted to drive locally but the owner of the trucking company that hired him convinced him to take a load 358 miles to New Jersey. Conklin didn’t know where to go and was relieved when an older trucker saw him on side of the road and stopped to help.
“He was going to the same place in New Jersey,” Conklin says. “I never lost sight of his tail lights. He picked me up two days later and I followed him back home. It was a different world then. That was the kind of people on the road 51 years ago.”