Ralph was very clear to his manager: He would not drive his truck after Memorial Day because of “the terrorists” on the highway.
“Some people call them tourists, but as far as I can tell, they are out to scare the hell out of me, so I consider every damned one of them as a terrorist,” author Ed Miller recalled a driver telling him.
For most truck drivers, the summer months represent a Wild West environment as families hit the roadways for vacation. To Miller, who was working as a terminal manager in Baltimore when driver Ralph told him he was parking his truck for the summer, the story is among his favorites from his 60-year career in the industry.
The 72-year-old Miller recalls the highlights of his career — which includes time growing up on his grandfather’s farm, serving in Vietnam with the Seabees, working as a truck driver and terminal manager, and seven years working in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Office of Freight Logistics — in a new book: “A Trucker’s Tale: Wit, Wisdom, and Truck Stories from 60 Years on the Road.” The book is available now from publisher Apollo Publishers or through Amazon in hardcover, audiobook and Kindle versions.
“I had a conversation by phone with a good friend and while talking I remembered a story of this truck driver I had worked with over 40 years ago and … I thought I should put it down on paper to tell the grandkids someday,” Miller told FreightWaves of his inspiration to write the book. “Then I put another story down and kept going. And then I had enough stories to write a book.”
The book is filled with the types of stories that anyone growing up around trucking can relate to: stories of riding the brakes down a steep hill with an illegally overloaded trailer, or of a load being rejected by a receiver because it wasn’t packed correctly. Miller also covers stories of interactions with police (they were generally positive, he said), the importance of the CB radio, and more than one accident caused by a pretty woman.
Along the way there are plenty of tales of the “numbskull” drivers — or as Miller referred to them, those who are “missing a few pallets” — as well as lessons learned and funny stories.
“When I drove years ago, it was different,” he said. “I’m not going to say I filled out my log correctly every minute of the day. I may not even have filled out my log until the weekend. Drivers have always had a love-hate relationship with cops — but they have a job to do and the police have a job to do.”
Hang on to that beer
Securing loads was critical during Miller’s driving days, as it remains today. While he was in Vietnam, this lesson was driven home for Miller on two occasions.
Hauling a flatbed of steel plates just a short distance to a fabrication building in Da Nang, Miller didn’t bother to chain down the plates. “It didn’t seem necessary,” he wrote in the book. “But just when I was in sight of my destination, I turned right at an intersection and the steel plates decided to go a different direction. They shot right off my trailer and landed in the roadway, just barely missing a jeep carrying the colonel and his driver. It was a close call, and way too close for comfort. One look from the colonel and I felt like Beetle Bailey as he stood ready to catch hell from Sarge.”
That wasn’t the only lesson Miller learned about securing a load. Every other week or so, the author got the chance to haul the military’s most prized possession: shrink-wrapped, palletized, double-stacked beer. Not covering the beer, though, was a crucial mistake.
“On this run, I was winding through a hamlet when I noticed the driver in an approaching Army truck blinking his lights and pointing above my truck. I didn’t see anything unusual as I looked into the sky, but my rearview side mirrors revealed several little Vietnamese boys on top of the trailer. They were grabbing cans of beer and throwing them as fast as they could to their friends running behind the trailer,” Miller recalled.
Perhaps the highlight of “A Trucker’s Tale” is when Miller talks about his grandfather Obie. Obie was a “self-made jack of all trades” who started his own trucking business while simultaneously running a farm. Miller opens the book with stories of the education he received growing up around Obie.
To old truckers, stories like heating up airlines with blowtorches and kerosene heaters, or protecting yourself while changing tires in the days before tire cages, are reminiscent of the way trucking conducted its business.
The lessons of Obie
Obie, though, was a resourceful trucker, which Miller noted when he wrote about the oil-recycling system Obie developed.
“After each oil change, we would pour the used oil into fifty-five gallon drums. When a drum was full, Obie would attach his homemade drip pipe to the drum, affix this to the back of the Farmall M farm tractor, and then spread the oil on the dusty gravel and dirt roads of his 168 acres. This kept the dust down, and when traffic traveled those roads or paths, the roads would get packed down and often ended up looking like they were paved with asphalt,” he wrote.
The lesson Obie taught above all else, though, was that hard work produces good results, Miller said.
“When we did a job, we were clearly told to do it correctly the first time so we didn’t have to do it again,” Miller said.
Miller spent time in and out of college, holding driving jobs in between as a way to pay for schooling. He never did finish college, but his time in the military provided plenty of education. Still, he acknowledges in the book that his experience in the Seabees was different from those on the front lines. (The Seabees, otherwise known as the United States Naval Construction Battalions, are responsible for construction activity for the U.S. Navy. They replaced civilian construction firms that handled work on bases following the attack on Pearl Harbor)
“Being a truck driver also helped make my experience tolerable since it gave me a unique vantage point from which to observe Vietnam’s sights and culture. I drove through the same villages and towns several times each week, including Huế, the Cathedral City,” he wrote.
When speaking with FreightWaves, Miller went a step further.
“My experience in the military was completely different from a grunt — someone who spent their time in the jungle,” he said. “We did a lot of things in enemy areas and I drove through bad areas for six months, but when we did something like that, the Army or Navy protected us.”
Only 1 true professional
In the second half of the book, Miller talks about his time in management at various trucking companies, some of the unique characters — like Ralph — he met along the way, and his time with the Maryland DOT. During that tenure, he worked on truck parking issues with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). It is one of several topics he touches on in the final chapter, which is equal parts celebration of the American trucker and admonishment for those who don’t follow the Knight of the Highway code.
“To America’s truck drivers, let’s return to the days when big rigs don’t tailgate four wheelers, and the motoring public isn’t scared to be on the same highway as truckers. Let’s return to the days when those same car drivers once again refer to you as the true Knights of the Highway,” Miller wrote. “I would like to advise that the next time you play the game of ride-that four-wheeler’s-bumper, you need to become aware that you—not that car driver—but you, and only you, are the professional in this match. Remember that the car driver is an amateur. Act like a professional truck driver and move back, and away, from his bumper. Pretend the car ahead of you is carrying your children, and back off!”
Overall, though, Miller believes the American truck driver should be celebrated, and the vast majority are true professionals. He is just as critical of government officials and the truck stop chains when it comes to providing safe truck parking, though.
“To get truckers to avoid parking on the shoulder when they need to rest, there needs to be enough parking spaces for them to easily access,” he wrote. “Truck parking shortages usually happen at night or during severe weather events, because too many trucks are vying for too few spaces. Some truck stop chains would love to build additional parking spaces, but local communities have been very successful in lobbying their elected officials to deny the truck stop’s building permits, relying on the old standby NIMBY (not in my back yard) talking points, and citing noise, pollution, increased traffic, and the belief that truck stops are sinful lairs of vice and prostitution.”
Miller concludes by noting that trucking is quite different today.
“Drivers today ride very comfortably in powerful tractors as they pull trailers equipped with wind-efficient skirting and trailer-tails. Not too many years ago, drivers had to climb Town Hill, on I-70 in Pennsylvania, in third or fourth gear. Now, most trucks climb the mountain without ever gearing down,” he wrote. “They also either don’t get to cheat or don’t have to worry about making mistakes while filling out their logbook, as they ride in tractors equipped with electronic logs. The tractors also have lane departure, forward, and side collision avoidance technologies. And cab interiors are very quiet, which means that drivers don’t have to turn their CD or radio volume way up. And it’s not necessary to deal with the pain of locating and stopping at phone booths, or the danger of this, and no one overhears you when you speak with your family.”
For those who grew up in trucking families over the past 60 years, the stories Miller retells will likely sound familiar, but that’s because they are. His recollections of being raised in a trucking family and of a lifetime spent in the industry are as true to him as they are to everyone else during that time.
He concludes with a final thought.
“Even in the event that no one ever reads the book (except my family members whom I have threatened with bodily harm if they don’t read it), my time spent writing has been worth the effort, as it’s allowed me to relive so many good times,” Miller wrote.
And that’s all he ever set out to do.