Living the Ideal

Was truckers’ image in 2001 good or bad? As usual, it was both.

On one hand, Dear Abby lauded them as “angels of the highway,” the Washington Post ran a long article on the daily challenges of their lives, one trucker was the hero of the television series 18 Wheels of Justice, and every news organization in America spotlighted those volunteering for New York City disaster relief.

On the other hand, Alabama parents feared truckers would steal their children, the Ottawa Citizen ran a long series depicting them as reckless, sleep-deprived highway menaces, the movie Joy Ride starred a big-rig-driving psycho named Rusty Nail, and every news organization in America spotlighted the dangers of hazmat hauling.

The popular image of truck drivers is more complex than it was 40 years ago, when Overdrive was born and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” was a new tune. Radio host Arthur Godfrey’s self-sacrificing “Knights of the Road,” the blue-collar heroes of Merle Haggard songs, rock group Little Feat’s laid-back hippie who fueled with “weed, whites and wine,” the cheerful lawbreakers of “Convoy” and Smokey and the Bandit, the hell-raising cowboy and the sobersided businessman – all these images of truckers coexist, among four-wheelers and truckers alike. Fighting the negative stereotypes, truckers say, is a daily duty of every hauler on the road.

“I don’t think we have any problem with image that we don’t bring on ourselves,” says Daven “Sarge” Taggart of Springfield, Mo., an owner-operator leased to Landstar Ligon, who started driving a truck in 1956 at age 15. “It’s how you dress, how you take care of your truck, the language you use. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s the attitude of the driver that makes the difference. If I approach somebody and give them a smile, they’ll give me a smile back.”

William Jobe of Nashville, Tenn., an owner-operator leased to Atlantic Trucking, always lets the neighborhood kids help him wash his truck, is courteous to four-wheelers and will talk about his profession to anyone interested. “The public image that I have is a positive one,” Jobe says. “It’s important, because you are your business.”

Don Cartwright of Gardner, Kan., a company driver for McLane Food Service with 23 years’ experience, says he understands many four-wheelers’ feelings about truckers because he often feels that way himself.

“Some guy comes blowing by you, you think, ‘Idiot,'” Cartwright says. “I see trucks overweight, speeding, 80 mph – you name it. It’s hard to maintain a good image out on the road. You get a few that are cowboys and hotdoggers, and they are the ones people remember. All we can do is always have a professional attitude when we are out there.”

In the 1950s, radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey regularly read letters on the air about good deeds performed by truckers, whom Godfrey called “Knights of the Road.” The term endures among truckers but not among the public, says longtime owner-operator Bobby Gilbreath of Saginaw, Texas, now a company driver for the U.S. Postal Service. He believes the image of truckers is worse today because truckers are worse.

“People used to want a trucker to come along when they were broken down,” says Gilbreath, who started driving professionally in 1974. “Now they hope a trucker doesn’t come along. We used to take pride in the way we looked and the way our trucks looked and how we went down the road. If you used vulgarity on the CB, another trucker would pull you over and kick your rear end.”

Jennifer Wilson of Denison, Texas, who drives team with her husband, Bryan, for CRST Van Expedited, says the influx of women truckers is improving the industry’s image. “Women tend to be more cautious and have fewer accidents. They’re more patient. And married couples driving team tend to get along with each other a lot better. They’re not always racing to get home, because home is wherever you park the truck.”

Trucking stereotypes are changing, says Wilson, who bucked stereotype herself by modeling for Redbook magazine. In the October 2001 issue, a stylist guessed women’s professions based on their hairstyles. He pegged Wilson as a caterer: “Something soft about her look steered me away from truck driver.”

Wilson says professional appearance is important in any business, and her husband agrees. Bryan Wilson says he sometimes tells truckers: “Listen, you don’t want to go in there looking like crap. There’s a truck stop down the road. Why don’t you stop in, have a shower and a shave? You’ll feel better.”

Jobe, a short-hauler home most nights, gives his shower coupons to truckers who seem to need them. “I try not to hurt anyone’s feelings,” he says, because a bad appearance is often a cry for help.

Taggart, a former sergeant, says he sometimes tells a slovenly “slug” of a driver to clean up and shape up. Leading a Landstar orientation class, he told one driver, “If you took a shower now and then, you’d have more friends.” A scowling, unshaven, sloppily dressed trucker, Taggart believes, communicates that he is not in control, and furthermore that he doesn’t respect himself.

Taggart isn’t troubled by bad-guy truckers in movies such as Joy Ride. “I think people are too sensitive about Hollywood. Like the movie Duel – some people took that as offensive to drivers, but it was just a movie.”

The Odd Rods card is from the early 1970s.

A few truckers mirror the worst Hollywood stereotypes. One September afternoon, Margie Harrison lived a real-life version of the 1991 movie Thelma and Louise, in which the heroines are harassed on the highway by an obscene trucker. She was driving alone on I-81 in Virginia when a trucker repeatedly passed and slowed for 15 miles, ogling and gesturing. Shaken and feeling “stalked,” she pulled into a rest area to escape.

When Harrison described the incident in an online trucking newsgroup, the responses ranged from unsympathetic (“Gee, get a life, lady!”) to suspicious (“You must have asked for it”) to obscene. She later received threatening e-mail.

“I am not anti-trucker,” Harrison says. “I think most are probably decent family men. But I also believe that this ogling behavior happens a lot.”

Many truckers agree their image is hurt by the profanity and sex talk common on trucking newsgroups and CB airwaves. Cartwright says, “I don’t listen to the CB at all because there’s so much garbage on there.” Jobe says the rude CBers are “just doing it to get a rise out of somebody,” so he tries not to give them the satisfaction.

Foul-mouthed truckers parading their vices are nothing new, judging from a profane exposé of independents in the March 1976 issue of the rock magazine Crawdaddy. One trucker in the article steals from his carrier. Another pays bribes to get unloaded; another barters with hitchhikers for sex. One says his carrier advocates running over nuns and children rather than losing a load. One bought his rig by running marijuana cross-country. Drug abuse is described as rampant.

Today’s negative trucking articles tend to focus not on sex and drugs but on safety issues, thanks in part to activist groups founded in the 1990s, such as Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Parents Against Tired Truckers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, founded in 2000, is one Washington response to the interest in commercial truck safety.

“The news media just blow a story out of all proportion if it involves a truck,” Gilbreath says. For example, he argues, headlines trumpet how many trucks fail inspection, but no one reports how many four-wheelers fail – in the states bothering to inspect automobiles at all. Coverage of the recent hazmat scare, Gilbreath says, has exploited fears not just of terrorists but of truckers.

Fear of truckers takes bizarre forms. The hazmat scare has revived old urban legends about menacing trucks, such as the claim that Coca-Cola concentrate is so dangerous it’s officially a hazardous material. (It isn’t.) Plans to build a convenience store near an elementary school in Duncanville, Ala., were protested this fall by parents, one of whom told a reporter: “I have a fear of a truck driver stopping and saying, ‘That’s a nice-looking kid, I think I’ll take him.'”

Retired FBI “profiler” John Douglas has worked on many cases in which truckers were falsely accused of serial crimes. He says truck drivers are no more likely than anyone else to be serial predators – and they are, in fact, often the victims rather than the perpetrators. “Every occupation, including the FBI, has a bad apple or two that gives a black eye to all,” Douglas says.

A common attitude truckers hold about image is, “What does it matter what four-wheelers think of us?” It matters, Gilbreath says, because those four-wheelers sit on juries, hold public office, write regulations and affect trucking in countless other ways. Dual speed limits, parking bans, Jake Brake restrictions – all occur because of public misperceptions, he says. “Everybody picks on the truck driver, but everybody depends on him, too.”


Low speed limit inspires a classic

In 1973, the nationwide speed limit was cut to 55 mph, and truckers began evading speed traps by traveling in convoys. As a result, a pair of Nebraska advertising men created an image that would stick to truckers for years.

Bill Fries and Chip Davis created the fictional C.W. McCall, a storytelling, waitress-chasing trucker, to promote Old Home Bread. A jingle about McCall’s exploits became so popular that MGM hired Fries and Davis to create five McCall albums.

In late 1975, a song on the B side of their second album hit the charts. “Convoy,” about truckers trying to avoid troopers, touched a nerve in America, says Fries, now retired in Ouray, Colo.

“I admired the rebellious nature of truckers,” he says. “We were listening to the truckers on the CB on I-80 going through Omaha. There were several convoys going through there to beat the speed limit. Truckers thought 70 mph was more efficient. They found out where the troopers were and reported back. There was strength in numbers.”

In 1976, “Convoy” hit No. 1 on the Billboard country and pop charts. It spawned a short-lived industry of trucker-related television shows, songs, toys and movies, including Smokey and the Bandit and, inevitably, MGM’s own Convoy. By the end of the fad, 60 million CB radios were in operation, and 20 million C.W. McCall albums had been sold.

“I was never a truck driver, even though people think I must have been,” says Fries, who played McCall onstage and in the studio. “I wanted to sound authentic. I wanted to talk like people talk. If you want to talk to truckers, you have to sound like a trucker.”

Not everyone in trucking appreciated the lawbreaking good-old-boy image. Singling out films such as Convoy as bad for the industry, the American Trucking Associations created America’s Road Team in rebuttal. But for many people, McCall remains America’s most famous “trucker.”

Sean Kelley

NEW ROADS FOR TRUCKER SONGS

On a typical shift as host of “The Lost Highway” on WVUA-FM in Tuscaloosa, Ala., disc jockey Joey Thompson might play a number of classic trucker songs – Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever,” The Byrds’ “Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man,” the Willis Brothers’ “Truck Drivers Queen,” anything from the old Starday Records compilations such as Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves and Other Truck Driver Favorites – all of them released before Thompson was born.

Trucker songs, Thompson says, may be the present-day equivalent of the outlaw ballad, which you can trace back through “Jesse James” in the 19th century to the medieval British Isles. “In songs, the truck driver sort of carries on that torch,” Thompson says. “He’s the antihero. He’s breaking the law, but he has a good heart.”

It’s not surprising, Thompson says, that the heyday of trucking songs faded when the emphasis of the industry changed from outlawry to safety. Lately, though, the vintage trucker song is winning new fans, thanks to re-releases from labels such as HighTone and Diesel Only. At the same time, new trucker songs are being written by roots-rock and retro-country musicians such as Bill Kirchen, whose new CD Tied to the Wheel includes “Hillbilly Truck Driving Man,” “Truck Stop at the End of the World” and “Poultry in Motion.”

One such band is the Drive-By Truckers, a country-rock band based in Athens, Ga., whose latest CD is Southern Rock Opera. Visitors to the band’s website, www.drivebytruckers.com, first see a cartoon of a snarling trucker making an obscene gesture through his cab window.

“That sort of sums up our sound at the beginning,” says band member Patterson Hood. “We had a belligerent approach to country. But the band’s name is nothing we gave a lot of thought to. It was the product of a night of drunken tomfoolery.”

The cartoon also parodies the image of Southerners as “a bunch of racist backwoods hillbillies” – an image not far from negative trucker stereotypes, Hood says.

His great-uncle was a trucker who sometimes took young Patterson along. Hood’s stepdad also is a trucker; his romance with Hood’s mom inspired the Drive-By Truckers song “18 Wheels of Love.”

“As a band, we spend 200-plus days a year on the road, so we can relate to the trucker’s life,” Hood says. “We eat in a lot of truck stops.”

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