Seven years ago, when I first hired on with the outfit I work for, you had to wait until someone retired. My old employer, the in-house food service carrier for a major restaurant chain, had been acquired by a mega-fleet that, despite assurances to the contrary, culled us old dudes like so many brood cows. Their scratch transition team all walked in with matching lavender shirts one driver’s meeting in June of 2011, stood in a tidy row of five and promised all of us in saccharine tones we could keep our jobs as long as we met certain perfectly reasonble requirements, including a pay cut.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether they intentionally brought in this most ham-handed crew of incompetents to discourage tenured employees from staying so they could bring in their own help more cheaply, or if that’s just how they always did things down there at mega-fleet headquarters. But by about the third day after their twenty-something transition “team leader” had taken residence, the mega-fleet’s true colors were on the table. It’s not hard to run off a truck driver. A little harsh criticism here, a little impossible scheduling there, and you can clean house pretty fast.
Within a couple weeks, my chiropractor told me he could no longer adjust my back. He said I was just too stressed to adjust: “You need to figure out what is causing this, and change it fast. Quit stressing and trust in God.” As innocuous as his advice seemed, it was nothing but salt in a fresh wound. One month before all this, I had received the highest evaluations and bonuses a driver there could receive. I was delivering around 90,000 lbs. of products — flour, cheese, meat, paper goods — all over the Eastern U.S. to restaurants every week. I was good at my job, and proud to be unloading freight and slinging a two-wheeler into my 50s. I had the respect of my fellow drivers, and they had mine. There is a certain camaraderie between those in the trucking industry who earn their pay by back-breaking work that will never exist among the “no fingerprinting” crowd. It’s an exclusive fraternity. (I’ve worked both sides of that coin.)
Weeks later, when my junior manager from the mega-fleet said I didn’t meet their criteria as an applicant, I was put out to pasture, making me, officially, a mega-fleet reject. It was a tough patch. For the first time in my life, at 52 years of age, I filed for unemployment.
Still, some buddies where I work now spoke up for me, and I found a soft place to land. I just had to wait until someone retired. Mercifully, after two weeks, someone did retire. I was hired on here, and assigned to ol’ 144. I was conversing with adults again, not the mega-fleet’s malicious millennials. Homer once observed that it is a fearful thing to be ruled by young masters. Homer wasn’t kidding.
I was thinking of these things today when I stopped at the Dinner Bell in Sweetwater, Tennessee. I had been warned early on by some of the senior drivers here that ol’ 144 had been to the eatery so many times at the behest of the 72-year-old hand who drove the 386 Pete that she may just involuntarily veer off on that exit if I’m not real careful. No worries. It’s the best place to eat on I-75. I was already stopping there.
As always, a proper Southern feast was laid out — yams, turnip greens, roast pork , seasoned lima beans, seasoned cabbage, fried chicken, fresh bread, all kinds of salads, four different cobblers, cake and ice cream. I loaded up and sat down. Seeing the love those fine people put in making those wonderful entrees, I removed my hat.
Maybe it’s just because Thanksgiving’s coming on. Maybe I had just stayed up too long the night before, and drank too much coffee; but I began to reflect on all the people who had helped me out of a jam — like ol’ Lee and Ronnie and Beerbelly, and Banjo, who told the old man here to hire me. Or like when I first started trailer trucking in ’87 with a cartage outfit and they had a two-week hold on your pay, which meant from the day you started until you got your first check, three weeks would transpire.
On that final Friday, I was coming down the home stretch, westbound on Indiana 18. I had a wife and three children at home. I was young, proud and green — too proud and green to negotiate my most basic needs with a trucking outfit. Three days before, I had run out of food and money. Desperate now, I wheeled into a small truck stop at the corner of 18 and 1 in the hamlet of Fiat, Indiana, and scoured the sleeper, hoping to find some loose change beneath the mattress — luckily, a windfall of pennies, mostly, a few nickels and a couple dimes. Enough, possibly, to fund a cup of coffee.
“‘Bout how much do you get for a cup of coffee?” I asked the old man with my best beggar’s smile. He smiled back, “Oh, ’bout fifty cents.”
It was nearly closing time. I asked if he minded if I sat down and warmed up a bit, my old White Freightliner’s heater having seen better days.
His name was Roger Ruble. Turns out he was from that onetime breed of ex-drivers who would build a truck stop of their own. You used to see places like that. Nobles in Corinth, Kentucky, was started by a Roadway Driver.
“There’s nothing I hated more than a dirty bathroom when I drove truck,” Roger explained. “One time I stopped at a place, just half starved, and I went in to use the restroom. It was absolutely filthy. I spoke my peace to the manager, drove off hungry, and decided right then I would start a place of my own.
“Say, I’m getting ready to throw this sandwich away. Want it?”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
My dad used to tell me, “You don’t eat, Paul. You inhale.” I must have inhaled that sandwich too quickly, and revealed too much of my condition.
“I got some pizza in this other case that’s fixin’ to get pitched. Want some of that?” Ruble said.
By the time I left there, I was warm and full. Offer after offer of nourishment was accepted, until I could eat no more. One of the Russian writers once observed, “The stomach never forgets,” and the name of Roger Ruble will be etched in my mind for time immemorial.
Roger sold his place and retired. After about two weeks of all that he had had enough sitting around and went back, of all things, to trucking, where he became my coworker at a dry freight outfit not far from Fiat. Once, I caught up with him in the break room, and tried to tell him what he had done for me. “Man, I threw a lot of food away at that place. Glad I got out when I did,” he joked, barring any accolades. That was just Roger.
They retired ol’ 144 a while back. Least I haven’t seen her around in a good while. Mr. Ruble passed on some years ago, one of the most universally loved and respected truck drivers you could ever name in these parts. Me, I haven’t gone hungry in a good while, thankfully. Turns out there was a thing called a cash advance I could have easily had for the asking, but I may have never gotten to meet ol’ Rog. Happy Thanksgiving.