Trucking was ‘a hard life,’ as personal closeups show in 1970s documentary

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Updated Feb 19, 2021

Jobie Vaden standing in front of a Keaton Truck Lines White-Freightliner truckThe late Jobie Vaden, known as the Arkansas Motormouth, was featured in “On the Boulevard.”Lynn AdlerWhen Lynn Adler and her four Optic Nerve video colleagues hit the highway in the late 1970s to interview truckers, they didn’t know much about the nitty-gritty of the over-the-road grind. By the time they’d completed their national tour of more than six weeks, hanging out with drivers at truck stops and their homes, their eyes had been opened.

Among other things, they learned that “the lifestyle is not exactly healthy,” partly because of truck stop food, Adler said when we spoke early this month. And sometimes it wasn’t just nutrition that the fare lacked.

“We would go into a truck stop, we’d meet some guys, we’d do an interview, and we’d ask them if they would come into our funky motor home,” she said. “We’d play back some of the material and we’d give them coffee.”

Celebrating 60 Years The Voice of the American Trucker Overdrive logoRead more in Overdrive's weekly 60th-annversary series of lookbacks on trucking history, and that of the magazine itself, via this link.Long before gourmet coffee had become commonplace, the videographers pleasantly surprised their guests by serving a brew made from upscale beans they’d brought from their base in San Francisco. “They were, like, what is this?” Adler recalled.

Their interview subjects often warmed up to their hosts, inviting them to visit them at home. The crew accepted offers when the location fit their schedule. Some of those intimate moments at homes are among the most touching scenes in the 30-minute 1979 documentary that emerged from their tour.

“It’s one thing if you’re a single, but so many of the people we met had families, had kids, young kids,” Adler recalled. Many had gone into trucking, in some cases wildcatting -- running regulated freight without appropriate authority -- in those days before deregulation opened the market, to seek “freedom from the 9-to-5” work routine.

Screenshot from the documentary with subtext reading, 'You got the Sleepy Eye bring it on back.'Parts of the documentary include CB conversations with subtexts. The Sleepy Eye was the handle for Robbie Johnson.Lynn Adler“As you know, it doesn’t get you freedom, especially if you’re an owner-operator. You never know when your next load is going to be available.” They met many owner-operators “stranded” at a truck stop, waiting for a load.

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“It’s a hard life,” Adler said. I assured her that assessment still held true, even if some of the factors behind it have changed.

The half-hour documentary, "On the Boulevard," had a limited broadcast on some public television stations in the early 1980s. (To view it, drag the playhead to 1:10 to find the start.)

Given the time that has passed since making the film, many of the featured truckers have passed away. “I got an email from Larry Vaden, whose dad was Jobie Vaden, the Arkansas Motormouth,” who has died, Adler said. Bobby Zimmerman, of Valdese, North Carolina, also has passed, as she learned from his grandson.

You can see photos of some of the truckers in our 2015 coverage of “On the Boulevard.” And if you missed last week’s anniversary installment, check it out for Optic Nerve’s brief video from a 1974 trucking convention in San Francisco.

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