Susan Dyer, a freelance writer for more than 20 years, has been sharing the cab and the open road for a year now with her partner Wes Schilling – an owner-operator for more than 25 years.
Wes always says if the wheels aren’t turning, you’re not earning. Most drivers are paid by the mile, so no mileage means no pay. That’s a trucker’s reality.
While all major trucking companies offer medical benefits, it’s rare to find one that offers paid sick leave. If a driver tells dispatch his log book is closed for a day or two, then he can start deducting each hour off the road from his next pay check. More than likely, he will just take the decongestant sold at the nearest truckstop and keep the wheels turning.
During the week I can’t ride along with Wes. I stay home in Boston with my teenage son, Ian, and I have a full-time job as a schoolteacher. Every weeknight, just after 10, Wes calls home. I am always eager to hear his voice. It’s a comfort call as much as a business call. After we exchange a few much-savored words of affection, it’s on to the household bills and whether or not I checked the oil in the car recently.
But the call is important for another reason, too. Wes tells me he is safe. I need to hear that every day.
A few days into the New Year, I looked at the kitchen clock and anxiously noted that it was just before midnight. Wes had not yet called. I had already called his cell phone twice and had gotten voice mail both times.
Around 4:30 a.m. the phone finally rang. I was wide awake. I shot off one question after another and then just started bawling.
He said he’d felt sick earlier in the day. The more the day wore on, the worse he felt. He said he lay down in his bunk some time after 2 p.m. and stayed there until he could no longer sleep. His cell phone kept waking him.
“You could have answered it,” I said between sobs.
“Honey, if anything happened to me, you would have been the first one called,” he answered sympathetically.
It was temporary relief. He called me back just before I filled my travel mug for my daily commute.
“Sorry dear, but you need to let the school know you won’t be in today,” he said. “I need you to pick me up at the terminal. The mechanics are going to service my truck. I’m sick, and I’m coming home.”
He was off the road for a week. I was paid for my personal day. He didn’t get paid for any of his time off.
“It is the price you pay for freedom,” Wes said. “The cargo doesn’t wait for anyone. If you can’t deliver the load, then somebody else will.”
“Yes, but they are always advertising for more drivers,” I said. “Maybe they should consider offering better benefits.”
“There is no better medicine for an ailing trucker than a sunrise reflecting off the paved highway.”