Former owner-operator’s novel immortalizes trail-blazing independents
By Todd Dills
Fred Afflerbach didn’t set out to launch a trucking career when he took a job working for a Bekins Van Lines-affiliated moving company in Austin, Texas, while in high school. He caught the fever all the same.“The owner-operators would come rolling in and the drivers are telling stories and your eyes are popping out of your head,” he says of the days his affliction began. “You work for them loading, and their families are from Buffalo or wherever — might as well be the North Pole to me. That’s when I got the bug, in the summers working for these operators.”
Afflerbach’s love affair with trucking came with more than its fair share of codependency — which is explored in fictional form in his “Roll On” novel, out last month from Academy Chicago Publishers. The book captures the late 1970s and early ’80s when Afflerbach first sat behind the wheel. “I got my CDL in 1976 and went to work with the local moving company,” he says. He bought his first truck at age 22 and went over-the-road as a “bedbugger” leased to Bekins in an era fraught with big differences of opinion industrywide, including among independents.
In “Roll On,” owner-operator Ubi Sunt, a child of the orphan trains of the first quarter of the 20th century, is on what might well be his last cross-country haul. The company he’s leased to is struggling with a buyout and falling freight rates, and rumors abound of an independent drivers’ strike Sunt wants nothing to do with. Perhaps most importantly, Sunt’s daughter and grandkids are tugging on the owner-operator’s road-bound comfort. They want him to retire from the road, and take up residence nearby their Philadelphia home. But Sunt’s 1956 Pete cabover, known as “Old Ironsides,” and Sunt have work to do yet.
Hardworking, restless but business-savvy at home and showing great expertise — at times, even valor — on the road, Sunt is Afflerbach’s tribute to those who came before him. “Every generation hands off to the succeeding generation what they know and what they’ve learned,” he says. “When I came on, I was listening to these old-timers — these guys drove when the roads were more primitive, drove with more primitive equipment, too.” Those old-timers “showed me the ropes,” he adds — “adjusting your brakes, what to do when your brakes freeze up … When you broke down on the side of the road, you had to figure out how to get running again yourself. Most of that’s changed today.”
Since retiring from the road, Afflerbach has worked as a newspaper reporter, and is teaching school and writing books. And yes, you read books right. Watch for a “Roll On” sequel.
Afflerbach wrote the book to answer a question: What happens when an independent trucker who’s clearly addicted to the road finally has to settle down? “I don’t think I answered that,” he says. “In the 1970s I ran across so many guys who settled down only to come back on the road when the wife looks at them and says, ‘Go back out or we’re going to get a divorce.’” He’s joking, partly, but adds that he thinks of the pull of the road as something that “transcends trucking.” “It’s people who just move for the sake of it,” he says. “A lot of people have that bug.”
He’s hoping, of course, they might well be the kind of people who’d enjoy his book. For what it’s worth, I know you won’t regret picking it up.