Thursday, January 17, 2019
There but for the Grace of God…
I pedaled LTL (less than load) freight during college and for my first few years in teaching. A buddy hooked me up with a Northern California outfit and during a couple of ten-week stints in the summers, I made almost as much as I did in nine months of teaching.
Never driving line, I envied the independence and freedom of the guys who took to the open highway and, while putting the pedal to the metal, probably enjoyed the vast reaches of our great land. So much so that during my first several months as a self-doubting classroom teacher, I thought a lot about trading my credential for a class 1 operator’s license and hitting the road with ‘em. The romance of the open road stuck in me pretty good, so I considered the option again with my first self-doubting months as a school principal. And again, as a district-level administrator.
Finn Murphy writes of his decades-long career hauling home furnishings across the nation. Turns out that the furniture folks who drive for United and Allied and Bekins and North American find themselves in different league than those who drive for Werner or Schneider or Swift or Prime or Crete. The freight guys essentially pick up a loaded 53-footer from a dock and go to the next dock, back ‘er in and clock out or wait for the next call from dispatch. The furniture folks have to meet with the shipper (customer) analyze that which is to be moved, arrange casual (local labor) assistance, pack cartons, load the trailer like some sort of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, get from point A to point B on time and without damage, unload, unpack and place everything. It’s a days-long process with days-long-only relationships. The driver is an independent business person who deals directly with the customer – a customer who all too frequently looks down upon the individual with whom they place in trust the most valued of their possessions. Odd, when you think about it.
The furniture hauler can be shackled by weigh-station officials, many of whom are intent on exercising an outsized amount of authority; and disappointed by dispatchers who promise a lucrative load that doesn’t materialize after having dead-headed (driven empty) hundreds of miles to pick it up. A week of driving for Allied is a lot more taxing than a week driving dock to dock. But it pays a lot better. Sometimes four to ten times as much. Thus, the furniture guys are shunned by the freight guys wherever a good shunning can take place.
Murphy, a well-read, well-educated individual, turned his back on the conformity demanded by parents who sent him away to college. It seems he couldn’t shake the “romance” that came with his college-years summer job. His story of unsuccessfully backing his trailer down a twisting drive, feathering the brakes down a seven-mile stretch of curving, icy roadway rather than chaining up, and of not being entirely sure the second story deck could support the weight of the grand piano and his two helpers makes for an entertaining read. I was captivated by the wisdom of his insights about the people he’s met and his thoughts about what America both was and has become.
I’m glad Finn Murphy drove truck and wrote about it.
And, looking back, I’m glad I didn’t.
See your local independent book seller.
“The Long Haul.” Subtitled: “A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road.” Finn Murphy. WW Norton. 2017. $17.