A Life on the Road

Sonny Wagner plans to visit many of the places he went while trucking but never had the chance to see.

What would you do if you retired from 50 years of over-the-road trucking? George ‘Sonny’ Wagner is getting out of his Century Class Freightliner and into a 318-horsepower converted Greyhound bus and driving back over many of the roads he has spent a lifetime driving.

Should be a snap. He’s already driven more than 4.6 million accident-free miles.

“I want to actually stop and see places I’ve only seen from the cab window,” says the 69-year-old Schneider National veteran. “First stop is the Statue of Liberty. I’ve seen the lady so many times, but I’ve never gone to visit her. After that, I’ll go back down some familiar roads and park the bus, unhook the Jeep from the trailer and go take a real close look at some of my favorite places.”

At age 19 (it was 10 presidents ago and Harry Truman was still in the White House), the man from the small town of Park Falls in northern Wisconsin, began driving behind the wheel of a farm truck and quickly graduated to a logging truck. His first long-distance job came for Kampo Transit, a company that had him hauling cans of fresh cream into Chicago in a 1953 Ford. Then Wagner began hauling liquid milk into the Windy City and so began a career as a bulk tanker man, moving on to chemical tankers when the company began hauling to paper plants.

He moved to Schneider National when the company bought Kampo, so Wagner’s half century on the road has really only been for one company.

“I was driving regular two-lane highways back in ’52,” he says. “The first interstate was the I-290, which is the Eisenhower Expressway today. The first part that was built ran from the Chicago Post Office downtown out to a cemetery and you had to get back on to the two lane. After that there was a section of Highway 12 in Wisconsin that became interstate, and today that’s part of I-94.”

While roads have changed and trucks have far more muscular power plants and smoother transmissions, it’s the creature comforts that Wagner says made the most significant changes in his professional life.

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“Before power steering, moving even 13,000 pounds meant you had to be really strong,” Wagner says. “And back then we had two transmissions to handle, now everything is on one stick. You used to have to be strong to drive a truck, now you have to be educated, that’s a major change.”

But it was air conditioning that became the single most profound influence on how Wagner felt out on the road. “For the longest time I thought I had athlete’s foot,” he says. “The skin was peeling off my feet it was so hot in the cab.”

Wagner drove a day cab until 1960, when he finally had the luxury of a sleeper in an International tractor. “My first sleeper had 17 inches of room behind the driver’s seat, and it widened out to a huge 24 inches behind the passenger seat, because you could move that one forward,” Wagner remembers. “But then I thought I was in heaven when I got a Diamond T with 32 inches for a bunk behind the seats.”

For the past 50 years, Wagner says he’s never considered a career change. He is a person who likes to go places. “Maybe I got addicted to diesel fumes or the motion of a truck and that’s why I would never leave it, who knows. But I’ll tell you this, it was always a challenge,” he says.

“I learned to drive all sort of trucks under all sorts of conditions and each one challenged me. But tractors sure are changing. When I got my last truck, the Freightliner, six years ago, it was the first time I had to read the book to figure her out. I’ve had other 30-year drivers tell me the same thing.”

The biggest single problem he faced, year in and year out, despite major chances in technology and power? Weather. “Ice, fog and snow, once you’re in then you have to handle it yourself and that can take everything you’ve got. I’m a 55 to 60 miles an hour driver and I’ll always slow for bad weather. I remember once a driver doing 40 in freezing rain. It was the speed limit, but he couldn’t control his car, and he spun and was headed under my trailer. If he hadn’t hit the ladder and bounced he would have lost the top of his roof.”

Wagner’s experience has given him the chance to offer this piece of advice to newcomers to the truck driving ranks: “Take it easy until you get to know what’s going on,” he says. “There is a rhythm to driving and it takes a while to get into it.”

A single man, Wagner says his new life on the road will be as a tourist instead of a driver. After the Statue of Liberty he has his eyes on Las Vegas, another regular stop he never really got to enjoy, and a trip to Alaska to visit his son. And after that comes a place he says he always wanted to go to but never had the chance. He’s headed for fun in the sun in legendary Key West, Fla. But he won’t be gear-jamming. The bus has an automatic transmission.

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