Read his lips

Updated Oct 20, 2010

F. P. Sykes made a rally call 45 years ago with all the indignation of Dirty Harry’s famous one-liners.

Sykes, an owner-operator from Springfield, Mo., had witnessed plenty of lousy working conditions for independent truckers by September 1965. He may have wanted to call the Oval Office direct, but he wrote a letter, instead, urging Overdrive’s readers to petition President Lyndon B. Johnson for fairer treatment: “You have heard of the War on Poverty and the unemployment problem we have all over the United States,” he wrote. “Here is one thing that could be done to help solve the problem.”

 He had purchased a 1965 Freightliner and a new 40-foot Great Dane trailer and had reason to defend his profession. “I believe we drivers have enough to do without having to do the loading and unloading for these big companies,” Sykes wrote. Johnson, however diligent he was forming the Great Society, had his hands full working with the large labor unions and other national conflicts. He barely averted a national rail worker’s strike in April 1964.

The hard-scrabble times and railroads’ domination of freight in the ‘60s created daily hardships for many owner-operators. Truckers often had several days’ delay getting unloaded or had to pay for having perishable goods such as meat or produce removed from the trailer.

Many drivers were eager then to have more equitable freight rates and less control from the Interstate Commerce Commission. Sykes wrote his letter more than 45 years ago and the ICC no longer exists, but his worries may have been similar to 2010’s economic angst. The recent recession has been compared several times to the ’60s.

Although the owner-operator fired up his pen, not a .44 Magnum revolver, anyone can read his lips — and the anger in his note: “I had to get this off my chest.” But his lighthearted appreciation shone too. Glad to have a magazine forum, the trucker wrote: “I can hardly wait for each new issue.”

As for Dirty Harry, film critics debate whether or not Clint Eastwood actually spouted, “Read my lips,” as New York Times blogger Stephen Dubner writes in, “Freakonomics: the hidden side of everything.” But like the fictional Harry, the writer of that long-ago letter had true grit. After all, it takes bravery to sign your name and address to a screed — and then put it in the mail.

And by the way, any truckers from that era who wrote President Johnson or others urging better conditions for independent truckers, we’d like to hear from you.

Contact Overdrive managing editor Lucinda Coulter at [email protected] or call her at (205) 248-1080 about anecdotes from your own career or other trucking history for Overdrive Retro.