Memories And Miles

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Spring is in full force and the sunny days are finally warming my old bones.  There hasn’t been so much rain as to dampen my spirits or drown out my enthusiasm for trucking.  This is the time of the year when we all want to gas up the John Deere and take a spin on the lawn mower or dig up the garden beds.  That is if you can afford it this year.  I may have to take out a second mortgage just to fill my pickup truck’s gas tank.

Everything is new and green around here.  Farmers are working around the clock, planting their crops, so that means the freight boards are a little more plentiful with their trucks out of the system.  This is the month when I remind all of you drivers to stay vigilant when in farm and ranch country.  The number of tractors and implements on the roads greatly increases, and accidents can happen when you least expect it.  Some of you complain when you get held up on a two-lane, waiting behind a line of traffic, or following a farm parade lead by farmer Joe and his big red diesel-fired chariot.  If you are pulling a reefer and have a load of high dollar produce on, I don’t want to hear a peep out of you!  Without farmers we don’t eat, and you don’t truck.  End of story.

The same goes for bucket haulers out there hauling fertilizer in and last year’s grain to market.  All you cow trucks and bull haulers, you know the deal – load them like a rail car and drive them like your head is on fire!  I could go on and call out more of you, but I think you get the point.  The American farmer is every bit as important as we drivers, and farm safety is no joking matter.  Every year, far too many farmers and farm workers are injured in crashes with the motoring public.  And I don’t have to look far to make a connection with those statistics.  My wife’s uncle was struck by a car while moving a tractor from one farm to another.  This happened when he was in high school and, unfortunately, Uncle Keith lost his life as a result.

Much of the farm labor is younger and may not be as experienced as they should be.  We can’t do anything about their level of competency, but we can ensure that our actions don’t infringe or impede their movements.  Take a minute and slow your roll – the world will wait.  Roll your window down and breath in some of that fresh country air.  Just for the record, the driver of that farm machinery is someone’s father, brother, sister, or mother, and they are just as loved as you, so please slow your roll when in the country.  Also, don’t forget to wave as you pass, because the folks down there on the farm are friendly.

Speaking of rolling down the two lanes and taking a stroll in the sunshine, Barb and I were returning from the truck show last month down in Louisville, Kentucky, when we stumbled on to a couple of surprises.  The first one was when we were trying to find a place to eat dinner that had a sit-down restaurant.  You know, the kind with real waitresses and no paper plates.  Is it too much to ask to have a refill on your soda or maybe use real silverware?  How about one with a buffet and a salad bar?  Oh, I know, it’s just out of the question nowadays since Covid spoiled all that.  One can dream though, can’t we?

We had both eaten before leaving the motel, so two hundred miles later, I was feeling kind of hungry.  I’m just not into fast food or junk food, so we were playing that age old husband and wife “What are you hungry for?” game.  “I don’t know, what do you want?”  I found out years ago the husband doesn’t stand a chance of winning this argument, but we play along anyway.  I had suggested a few choices, but none of them really appealed to us, so we just kept driving.  Somehow, we got on the subject of old-time truck stops, then began naming as many as we could remember.

Back in the early 80s, I ran a lot of local loads between northern Ohio, southern Michigan, and the eastern tip of Indiana.  In those days there were many union freight companies operating in that region.  Almost every town along the major routes had a mom-and-pop diner or a hamburger stand that catered to those drivers on a schedule.  At the time, I was working for a tanker company, delivering food grade oil for a major potato chip supplier.  We loaded just south of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then delivered a couple miles from the Detroit metro airport.  These were fill-in runs and not very desirable, but every driver took his turn, whether they liked it or not.

The only bright spot doing these runs was you could stop at the Vagabond Diner and Fuel Stop on Hwy. 24 at US Route 127 in the town of Cecil, Ohio.  The name now is the Vagabond Village.  I had heard rumor they were still open but didn’t really believe it would be the same as before.  Since the age of Covid it’s hard to find any restaurants that still have a buffet or even enough wait staff to take your order in a timely fashion.  I have to remind myself from time to time the problem isn’t with the waiters who are serving us, it’s with the ones who still haven’t returned to work.

For those of you not familiar with this area, the “new road” (Interstate 24) runs two miles to the south of the old road and all those drivers that roll past now do not realize there is an awesome meal waiting for them just off the exit.  There is still limited parking and no overnight space available, but back in the day we rolled right past their front door.  We called that diner “the supper club” and all our company drivers knew where we meant to stop (if we said the real name on the radio than everybody would stop and we wouldn’t be able to find a parking spot when we got there).

Barb and I stopped at this place right at the dinner hour on a Sunday, and the place was packed with local folks.  I inquired as to why they were all there on that day, expecting to learn of some civic event taking place in town, but nope, not that, they all said, “It’s the food!”  I have to agree, by the time we left I was sold, and we will be going back again to support them and help to ensure they stay in business for years to come.

As we finished our meal and were waiting to pay, I couldn’t help but notice how little the place had changed over the years.  Sure, they had spruced it up a little, but it still looked and felt like the diner of the old days.  They still have counter service and a few booths, but the rest are tables with wooden chairs.  The young girl running the cash register couldn’t believe I had been stopping at this place for over 40 years.  Oddly enough, the more we change, the more some things just stay the same.

After leaving the restaurant we continued to meander our way through the countryside and talking about where I used to go and the kinds of freight I hauled in or out of those places.  The town names are still the same, but most of the businesses have changed, grown, or are gone all together.  It is sad it see so many of these small businesses fall by the wayside.  Even before this last couple of years and the Covid thing, many of them were on the way out due to the cost of technology, labor, and the fact that so many of the jobs were sent overseas.  Somewhere in the past I had heard that as long as people live here there will always be a need for truck drivers.  Well, that may be true, but along with all those businesses that closed, we too may be replaced by driverless trucks or people from someplace else.

I was getting a little bit nostalgic by the time we reached our little town, and when we turned down the road to Aunt Barb’s Cafe (our house), I got a real blast from the past.  Driving by one of our neighbor’s farms, there sat the first new truck I ever drove.  The one I ran New York City with for almost three years.  In my mind I saw the truck as it was 40 years ago when we picked it up at the dealership.  The pages of 10-4 Magazine are graced with some of the most fantastic rides from years gone by, but seldom do we see the garage finds in their original form.  I couldn’t help but remember all the miles, running from Detroit to Secaucus, NJ, loaded to the limit with fresh hams for the butcher.

In 1982, International Trucks (or the name plate we call Navistar today) introduced a very limited edition 75th anniversary truck.  As I recall, they only produced enough for each dealership to get one truck.  They were all painted the same, and every one of them came with a Cummins engine.  They had some different specs available, but most were 350 or 400 horsepower.  We were lucky enough to get two of these trucks – one for my father-in-law to drive (my boss at the time), and one for myself.  I still remember the first time I pulled out of the yard with a load – I was king of the hill.  That 9670 was a big step up from the old 4077 model I had been driving.

There are a lot of tall tales told about how fast those trucks could go and who was the biggest car on the street, but I can say with all honesty, that wasn’t me.  My cornfield Cadillac topped out at 68 mph, and it didn’t matter if it was uphill or not, that’s all it could do.  But in a 55-mph world, I still managed to leave most of my vacation funds with the local police departments along the interstate.

Back in those days, very few trucks running east of the Mississippi were conventionals, due to the state length laws.  Also, doing city work every day, the cabover was far better suited to maneuver through traffic.  I’m not too sure why there is this trend to acquire old cabovers – they were uncomfortable to drive and a bear to climb into after you hand loaded or unloaded the trailer!

Few of the trucks around our home at the time had air ride suspensions, including ours, which had a Reyco spring set up that rattled your teeth when you hit a bump and caused the seat to rebound so hard you needed to wear a hard hat to protect your head.  And the big windshield on this rig gave the driver heatstroke in the summer and frostbite in winter, but hey, that was trucking, and I was young enough to withstand the punishment.  Even now, as I look at it, I remember the good times, too.  Like when we raced from the Detroiter Truck Stop to make last call at the Rebel in Youngstown, Ohio, and still make a dock time at 4:00 AM in New Jersey.  We didn’t waste any time along the way.

That truck, like so many of the old diners, holds a place in my heart much the same as an old friend.  I see it for what it was and not what it became after years of service and many drivers.  Few rigs stay in the same family or business for over 40 years like this one.  Heck, I’m not even sure if the trucks of today will last for that length of time or leave a legacy like this one has.

If only this truck could talk, oh the stories it would tell.  Some good, some questionable, and a few nobody would believe.  If only I was younger and had the time to restore it back to its original condition.  It’s not that I would want to drive it every day, but every once in a while, it would be fun to drive it to town and relive a time not so long ago when I was young, the highway played out like the Wild West, and truckin’ just seemed to be a whole lot easier.

My wife and I made it home to the farm and, sure enough, my steady old horse was saddled in the shop and ready to ride come Monday morning.  There is something to be said for a square hood truck with a Cat motor and wheelbase.  My white a blue Just Steppin’ Peterbilt 379 may not have been my first love, but it’s my current ride, and if you see me strolling out in the country, don’t forget to wave.  I sure hope this slow-moving farm tractor turns off soon, 10-4!

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