When owner-operator Richard Maxwell started driving professionally, cabovers were common, truck stop amenities were sparse and Dwight Eisenhower was still president. After 60 years of trucking, Maxwell, 76, hopes to retire at year-end, capping a driving career that began in the late 1950s.
His first commercial driving experience was with a dump when he was 16. “Around 17 or 18, I got my first tractor-trailer job hauling steel, which I’m still doing,” recalls Maxwell, an owner-operator who lives near Philadelphia and is leased to Tryon Trucking, based in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.
When he requested that first steel haul and was asked if he had experience, he replied yes, even though he had never driven a tractor-trailer.
Maxwell managed to hook up the trailer (“more or less common sense”), survived driving through Manhattan, but faltered at the steel mill. “It was a wide door, but I couldn’t even back it in,” he says. Another driver came to his rescue.
He continued as a company driver for years, and has been an owner-operator ever since he bought a B61 Mack some 45 years ago. Other truck brands he’s driven include Autocar, Brockway, Peterbilt and International.
He’s hauled mostly steel, but also other freight, including swinging meat, where the carcasses hung from roof rail hooks. “That was something you had to be careful with, especially with curves and turns. It will go over on you if you go too hard.”
Maxwell never had that happen, nor did he have any accident except two that weren’t his fault.
“I was coming from one interstate to another on a one-way ramp, like 3 in the morning, and a guy was drunk, coming the other way down the ramp. The police don’t even know how he got there. I had a cabover Mack and he hit me head-on. I thought he was dead, but he took off running. The police found him in a few minutes.”
Another time a Mercedes-Benz driver hit Maxwell’s rear drive tire, flipping the car onto its roof and into the median, where it eventually landed upright. That driver, too, took off running, but was apprehended quickly.
“I get the weird ones,” Maxwell says.
Another time, climbing a snowy hill in Ohio, a milk truck in front of him couldn’t handle the grade and began to slide back. That forced Maxwell to stop, and then he began to slide off to the side, where there was a cliff. Fortunately the milk truck stopped in time, as did Maxwell, but “the back of the trailer was hanging over the edge when I stopped.”
Once, delivering machinery to Laredo, Texas, where he typically dropped Mexico-bound freight, he was told that a Mexican tractor was supposed to take his trailer across and return it. “I said, ‘You can take the trailer, but I go with it.’”
He didn’t have the proper papers to cross, but a representative of the receiver showed up, cut the red tape, and he made the trip in and back.
Maxwell didn’t have a truck with air conditioning until he drove a 1984 Mack cabover, and many of his early trucks also had no sleeper. In those cases, “I slept across the seats. The Autocar had like a bench seat that went all the way across.” The Macks required putting something between the seats. “It was all right for a few hours, but I’m six-one. Even when I was a kid, it was hard to straighten up and walk.”
Truck stops and their amenities were hardly what they are today, Maxwell recalls. “Most of the good ones were the 76’ers,” he says, referring to Union 76 facilities that had been Pure Oil until Union Oil Co. purchased Pure in 1965.
“They were the first ones that had the showers, and everything that you needed, basically,” Maxwell says. There were other “mom-and-pop truck stops where they had a community shower, one big open shower room,” he recalls.
Maxwell’s wife, Marilyn, says her husband tended to downplay some of the scarier moments of life on the road, such as driving sleep-deprived.
“Back in the old days, we used to run straight through, had little problem staying awake at night,” Maxwell recalls. “We had different tricks: rolling the window down, getting coffee, throwing water on your face.”
Those days are long gone, and Maxwell now drives strictly local. He doesn’t have any idea how many millions of miles he’s driven, but he plans to add some more after retiring, possibly doing seasonal hauling for a farmer friend.
Marilyn doesn’t “want me hanging around the house, so I got to find something to do,” he says. “We’ll see how it goes.”