Life Yet to Live

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Trials and tribulations can happen to anyone, but it is how we react to those situations that make or break us.  Some trials are more severe – like finding out you have an expiration date – which not only affects the individual, but those close to them, as well.  Sometimes, by the grace of God, individuals beat the odds because they are meant to do more in life and there is still life yet to live.  Such is the case for Chad Johnson.

As the third generation in his family directly involved in trucking, Chad Johnson (47) was the one that ventured outside of logging, which aggressively coursed through the veins of those before him.  Between his grandfather and great-grandfather, there was a transition from using horses for logging to using motorized equipment.  As a young boy, Chad’s father remembers the big white horse that was the power behind moving the logs to the trailer.  That white horse would pull the logs to the lower area where the wagons were and, in a finely devised system, would pull those logs up a pole ramp onto the wagon.  Chad’s father actually quit school in the 8th grade to help in the woods, which formed his work ethic necessary for when he started his own company years later.

One might say that Chad was born to be in trucking – even before being born.  His mom worked for the logging company Chad’s father owned and ran a skidder (a machine used for pulling cut trees out of the forest to the landing) which she operated even while pregnant.  She said to Chad, “You rumbled around in there (her belly) until you fell out!”  There was no surprise from his parents that he was going to follow tradition and become part of the trucking industry on some level.  Chad can even remember his first ride in a truck – a 1953 GMC tractor trailer logging truck – when he was just a toddler.  Chad started out running logging equipment as soon as his feet could touch the pedals around eight or nine years old.  By twelve years old he was running a dump truck on his brother-in-law’s farm.

At twelve years old, Chad found himself being called by a Freightliner FLC.  There was a trucking company, Iredell Milk Transport, near to where he lived, and every day on the school bus he would pass by and see the white rig, which they used for a yard truck.  Chad admired the nice fleet of FLCs and FLAs the company ran, but something struck him, and he knew he had to have that one truck.  As the years went by, he would stop at the company to pester them and make it known that he wanted that truck.  He tried to get his dad to buy it, but he wouldn’t and, of course, the company owners didn’t take him seriously because it was ugly, beat up, and stood out like a sore thumb.  But Chad was determined to purchase that daycab tractor.

At age 18, Chad got his license while still in high school, and as soon as he graduated, he went dump trucking.  Saving his money, on June 6, 1995, he walked into Iredell Milk Transport, sat down with Wyatt Festerman, the eldest of the two brothers who owned the company, and worked out a deal.  After buying the truck, he started C. Johnson Hauling Co. that day and, shortly after, purchased a dump trailer.  His company would embark on dump trucking and grading.  The truck was road ready when he bought it and immediately went to work.  Three months later, Chad painted it blue with dark gray fenders, like you still see it here today.

On September 21, 1995, Chad met his future wife Angie, who he married exactly one year later.  Born and raised in Mooresville, NC, this is still Chad’s hometown to this day. In 1999, Chad needed a dump truck, and since his Freightliner had good specs, he fitted it with a dump body.  An engine swap was completed in 2000 to replace the 290 Cummins it originally had, and dual stacks replaced the single stack he had purchased it with.

Things changed for the business in 2009 when the housing market collapsed.  Because Chad’s business was primarily residential grading, he ended up closing the doors and selling all the equipment, except his Freightliner, which got parked in the back of the barn.  He went on to work as a driver for Yarbrough Transfer, a heavy haul company, more known on the east coast.  While at Yarbrough, in 2010, Chad was chosen, along with seven other drivers, to haul rock to the FDR Memorial in New York City.  This wasn’t just any rock, it was 6’W x 6’H x 12’L pieces of snow-white granite weighing in at 72,000 pounds each.

It was truly an honor for Chad to be a part of this monumental move, and the first load he took was his first time ever in New York City.  The loads were escorted in the middle of the night on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He woke up in the morning, with that first load, peered out of the driver’s side window, and saw the Statue of Liberty.  It was a moment he vividly remembers.  He went on to haul four of the 68 pieces.  There was a film crew that documented the loading and unloading of the pieces of granite throughout the entire process.  Everyone who had a part in the memorial coming together was invited to see the grand opening.  In 2012, Chad was sought out by a local construction company called Wayne Bros. (who had been friends of the family for years) so he left Yarbrough Transfer and went to work for them.

Cancer is an ugly disease that is everywhere and something no one likes to talk about.  It isn’t a popular topic in conversations, and when it is brought up, it often makes folks cringe.  Cancer rears its ugly head in many different forms and fashions, but the worst is when there are no signs at all.  In December of 2014, while still working at Wayne Bros., Chad had gone to work as normal and was doing his pre-trip on the company’s Kenworth W900L heavy haul truck before heading out.  He went to pull the hood open to check the fluids and felt a stabbing pain in his abdomen and it felt like something popped.  Not thinking much about it, he went out for the day to start running his loads.

That morning it was particularly cold (about 14 degrees), but Chad was sweating profusely, and at one point, he had to take a break and lay on the trailer.  His supervisor called to check in on him and asked what he was doing, and when Chad told him he was laying on the trailer, he said he’d send someone out to get him.  Chad said it would be okay because he was just about to his pick-up location and said that he would load and bring it back to the yard.

At some point throughout the day, Angie had been called and given a heads up of what had been going on, so when Chad got home, she utilized her nursing skills and assessed he was going to the Emergency Room.  At the hospital, they performed a CT scan and wanted to do a colonoscopy but weren’t able to because there was a blockage.  The scan showed a tumor the size of his fist in his abdomen so emergency surgery was performed to remove the tumor, a foot of his colon, and 20 lymph nodes.  After the surgery, Chad was told the shocking news that he had stage IV colon cancer and that it would inevitably spread.

After six months of chemotherapy, which ended in July of 2015, Chad found out in September of that same year that the cancer had spread to his liver.  This was monitored and, in December of 2015, he had surgery to remove a tumor the size of a large plum and a segment of his liver.  In January of 2016 he started another six months of chemotherapy, and then in September of that same year scans showed spots on his lungs.

To deal with the spots on his lungs, doctors put Chad on an alternate therapy called CyberKnife surgery, which was a noninvasive surgery to remove tumors he had in each lung.  There was a total of ten treatments, and each one he was put in a full body mold to keep him still.  Upon completion, they put Chad on a year of chemotherapy in the form of pills, instead of intravenously, which he completed in the spring of 2017.  After that, Chad went to see a specialist for immunotherapy where he was given, for the first time in his life, an expiration date.  At that time, he was advised that he had roughly two years to live.

Angie, in support of her husband, asked what he wanted to do, expecting him to say, “Travel.”  Instead, Chad said he wanted to get the Freightliner out from behind the barn because he had always wanted to take the truck to a show.  Initially, Angie said no, because he wasn’t physically capable, but Chad thought, “Challenge accepted!”

Calling longtime friend Brad Wike, Chad asked him when his show was going to be, which was scheduled for September 8, 2017.  Chad had attended Brad’s show several times but was never able to take a truck, so now Chad was determined to get his truck ready.  The dump truck was converted back to a road tractor because that is what Chad wanted to show it as – and what it was built to be.  Brad Wike’s show benefits Relay For Life which is near and dear to Chad’s heart.  When the show came around, Brad let Chad and Angie set up a tent to hand out colon cancer information packets.  Relay For Life is a community-based fundraising event for the American Cancer Society.

In March of 2018, Chad celebrated one year of being cancer free and a week later, he broke the news to Angie that he bought another truck.  He purchased a 1999 Peterbilt 377 and started a new company, Blue Ribbon Transport, LLC.  Not to be confused with Pabst beer, the blue ribbon is the colon cancer awareness ribbon, so Chad chose this name to pay homage to what he had been through.

The truck being featured here is the aforementioned 1982 Freightliner FLC12034T with a Cummins Big Cam II, RT11608LL transmission and, for those who don’t know, it is an 8-speed deep reduction overdrive.  The truck also has a 4.44 gear ratio, 214” wheelbase, 7-inch stacks, and Hogebuilt quarter fenders.  The bumper was custom made by Valley Chrome.  Chad had to special order this bumper because he added extra leaf springs which lifted the front.  The OEM bumper was 14 inches, but in order to hide the axle appropriately, Chad worked with the engineers at Valley Chrome to create an 18” bumper to look just like the OEM bumper, but with a different measurement.

A cool little addition is the Retro Sounds stereo faceplate, which looks like what you would see in a ‘55 Bel Air but, if you look close, you see there is a digital readout.  Though it looks classic, hidden behind the faceplate are hookups for modern conveniences like satellite, etc.  As Chad says, the truck isn’t perfect, but she sure has character.  He purposely has kept different OEM pieces on the truck.  If you look closely at the mudflap on the back side of the driver’s side front fender, you may think he really needs a new one.  Upon closer inspection, this mudflap is original and a discontinued piece of history, so it only seemed fitting, since the truck lives the retired life, that she sports these OEM flaps.

Memories are experiences that can be good, bad or indifferent, but one thing is for certain, they are remembered.  Chad remembers his father had always been excited with what Chad accomplished and experienced.  He recalled the time he hauled his biggest load, which was a crane weighing 208,000 pounds.  He had spoken to his father and remembered his dad was excited over this adventure for his son.  Chad’s dad had Parkinson’s and dementia, so within the conversations they had he would oftentimes drift off, but he still remained excited through all of those conversations.

After stopping at the Liberty Truck Stop in Harrisonburg, VA for the night, that truck stop would never be looked at the same, because the following morning Chad received a phone call from Angie that his father had passed away.  There is a raw emotion that remains when the chance to say “I love you” one more time isn’t allowed.  There is a missing piece of closure that weighs heavy on a heart.  Years later brings us to this year’s ATHS National Convention and Antique Truck Show, which was held in Harrisonburg, not far from that same truck stop where the memory of Angie’s call is still very vivid.  Chad experienced a sense of calm during that show when he took a photo that included the first three trucks he remembers from his childhood that his dad had, all lined-up together.

Having recently celebrated the 26th anniversary of owning this truck, Chad looks forward to many more years with it.  We talked about the history of the truck, which is always interesting to discover, especially if an owner knows the complete history of the truck.  This particular FLC was manufactured in Mt. Holly, NC and sold by Freightliner in Charlotte, NC.  It went to a rental company in Louisiana and had been rented out to a farm down there.  Upon completion of that rental, the truck was brought back up to Charlotte and sold to Iredell Milk Transport, which is the previously mentioned company that Chad bought the truck from.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve met plenty of members of the ATHS (American Truck Historical Society).  I can now add Chad to that list, as he is a member of the Palmetto Upstate Chapter, along with the Piedmont Carolina Chapter, as well.  He joined because he wanted to be around others like him who had a passion and appreciation for the older trucks.  This was a chance for Chad to learn more about his truck, what he needed to do at shows, and learn as much as he could to pass down his knowledge to others.  As he has met (and continues to meet) people within and outside of the organizations, he said the camaraderie is really the best part.

Today, Chad and Angie continue to live life the best they can and continue to be good people.  Angie is a registered nurse who originally wanted to be a lawyer but, as some people know, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.  Angie drove a friend of hers to take the entrance exam for nursing school and, while there, thought, why not take the test, too.  It seems that everything happens for a reason, because she passed the entrance exam with flying colors and that set her career path in a different direction to the nurse she is today.  Together, Angie and Chad have two sons, 23-year-old Chad, Jr. (who goes by Andy), and 20-year-old Joe.

Special thanks from Chad to God, first and foremost, for everything.  To his wife Angie, for putting up with his truck addiction, being his rock, best friend, biggest supporter, partner in life and guardian angel, because he doesn’t know where he would be without her.  To his parents, for allowing him to follow his dreams, and to Kenny Wilson for inspiring Chad, before they even knew each other, to have the desire to show his truck.  Thanks to Brad Wike for his friendship, support, and for having a show that brings everyone together, and Donald “Country” Brownlee, for not only his vast knowledge of Freightliner FLCs, but also for standing behind him and pushing him to keep on.

A big “thank you” also goes out to F.J. Ervin for giving an 18-year-old kid, fresh out of high school, a driving job.  Because of him, Chad learned about running equipment, wrenching, farming, and acquired a solid foundation for the skills he has today.  Thanks to Frank Brown, a former employer, for his inspiration and showing Chad the ropes of heavy haul and trucking in general.  Lastly, thanks to Jim Yarbrough for his time, wisdom, assistance, and passing down the importance of load securement from his lesson of insufficiently chaining down a load.  His words are written in Chad’s federal handbook: “Your chains weigh no more on the load than they do on the rack.”  Chad went on to say that another of Jim’s lines was, “If my trailer is turned over out in the woods, the load better still be under it!”

I would like to say thank you to Chad and Angie for their conversations, kindness, and time to help me complete this feature.  You will find Angie, Chad, and his truck out supporting Brad Wike’s show this year on September 11-12 in Maiden, NC.  As with each article, I am honored that owners open up and allow me to tell their stories.  Chad beat his expiration date and is currently three years cancer-free.  He doesn’t take any day for granted and realizes he is alive for a reason and still has more life yet to live.  As always, to all the drivers out there doing the deal, truck safe.

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