Truck drivers know why they truck, but they can’t always explain it. Leave it to some outsiders to delve into the psychological aspects of gear jamming, why we come back day after day and enjoy this job. For one thing, it’s a profession that exists in the real world, with real people and real situations, some of whom are extremely charming and multi-dimensional. I wrote the following piece on white collar professionals who turned to trucking, about 6 years ago and I’d love to know what these people are doing now. I suspect some of them have moved on to other occupations. Still, they offer some insight of the most compelling reasons to drive truck. Heck, I’ll find redemption in P & D work, yet!
Oh yes, I’m going to be on the Dave Nemo show on XM Sirius this Thurs. Sept. 24 at 10 am Eastern Time…Something about Canadian trucking history, eh?
Stepping off the Treadmill and onto the Highway:
Soldier, Preacher, AdMan, Trucker: Burned out professionals find fulfilment, even salvation in driving big trucks
Jacob Froese says trucking saved his life–literally. Four and a half years ago he was a practising Mennonite minister with a busy parish in Edmonton, Alta. But beneath a rock-like exterior, Froese was dealing with what he describes as suicidal bouts of depression. After 19 years behind the pulpit he was overextended and on the brink of psychological collapse.
Having worked as a trucker while attending seminary, Froese grasped at truck driving as a lifeline. “I actually suffered a nervous breakdown while heavily involved in urban ministry. My yearning was for the open road because I’d actually tasted it,” he says. “At the worst times, I’d romanticize the sound of the tires on the pavement.”
Froese quickly found a broker from the Yanke Group willing to sign him on. After a few months on the open board, he was both the pilot and owner of a 98 Freightliner.
Born in Saskatchewan, from Old Colony Mennonite descent, he looks like a prairie boy, tall and tanned, sipping coffee in a Brampton, Ont. diner. His rig waits in the lineup outside. The 54 year old Calgary-based driver has just dropped a trailer at the company yard and is on his way to hook to a load of paper towels bound for Wisconsin. His steel blue eyes stare through gold-rimmed aviator glasses as he talks openly about his transformation from pulpit to owner-operator. A small silver cross dangles around his neck
“I’d wake up in my cab and sweat about what meeting I had that day. Then this great feeling of relief came over me when I realized all I had to do today was drive 1,000 kilometers.”
But the pastor-come-trucker does not consider his new occupation to be that different from his former calling. “I’m still touching people. I connect with some of the real things in life, right here in the trucking world,” he says. “Spiritual stuff. You’re dealing with bad communications, frustrated managers and drivers. You know what? I consider that the real world. I have something authentic to participate in.”
For most rookies, getting behind the wheel is less dramatic. Many are introduced to the trade by a friend or relative. A good number have agricultural or mechanical backgrounds. Some drivers originally take up trucking as stepping stone to a better job and end up sticking around. But a new group of metamorphosed draymen is quickly earning its place among the ranks. This is an oddball assortment of highly educated, frayed and burned out professionals, on the rebound from stressful management and executive jobs.
As counselor at the Humber College Transport Training Centre in Rexdale, Ont., Ron Mikula has seen more than a few anguished white collars come sniffing around his school. Office workers, a former IBM executive, and a stock broker have all been through their program
“They’re trying to get away from a high-pressure environment into different kind of job where they can still call the shots. It’s a different kind of pressure,” says Mikula.
Rick Butterworth of Middleville, Ont. is a perfect example. A year ago he would have been tearing his hair designing corporate advertising campaigns from his home in Lanark County. His freelance consulting work was going well, but he was discontented.
“Every time I wanted to strangle a client over a desk, there was a voice that said, ‘Relax, you can always drive a truck.’”
Until then, the biggest thing he’d ever driven was a 28 foot U-haul. With the same diligence he applied to his freelance work, Butterworth investigated half a dozen driving schools and companies. “My research suggested I was suited for long hauls,” he says.
Butterworth chose an Ottawa-area school that streamed him into the Highland Transport system. He obtained his AZ licence late in 1999 and long hauls are what he got. Today he is working on the open board and likely to be anywhere in North America.
I caught up to him on his cell phone, cooking dinner for himself at a rest area near Montgomery, Alabama.
“It’s been really good for me,” he says, positively gleeful about his lifestyle change. “Now I’m no longer staring at the computer. I got off the electronic highway and decided to see the real one.”
Butterworth, like the above-mentioned Froese, has been able to balance married life with long road trips. Both acknowledge long term relationships with understanding spouses as a crucial underpinning of their new work life.
“Living 5 hours from the yard, I tend to stay out for 4-6 weeks,” says Butterworth. “My wife is used to having me away from home for long periods of time, anyway. She was tired of this unhappy, grumpy, middle-aged man sitting around the house.”
The phone crackles and Butterworth’s steak sizzles. He admits that he’s had to adjust to a new pay scale. “I make as much in one week as I used to bill for one day in the 80s,” he says candidly.
But one senses that the rewards of his present job are worth many times his previous invoices. “I always had moral problems with some of the projects I worked on…but there’s definitely something honest and blue collar about driving a truck. It’s definitely a progression from what I’m used to.”
Captain Doug Handforth had a long and varied Air Force career behind him, including service as an assistant logistics officer for the Snowbirds aerobatics team in Moose Jaw, Sask. But he was desperate for a change and tired of pushing pencils. “There was a lot of pressure from a logistics point of view,” he says. “I was in administration. Everything I was dealing with was paper–emails, memos, telephone calls.
He hit on trucking as the perfect solution to his dilemma, despite not having any hands-on experience. Handforth wanted a portable trade should his family decide to move out of Kingston, Ont. (two of his sons are very fine hockey players and his daughter is a competitive swimmer). Further, he was anxious to find another vocation before he reached the difficult, overlooked, unemployable age of 55 (he’s 48.). Lastly, he says, “I thought I had lost touch with my roots. I wanted to get in real life situations with people.”
So far, trucking has supplied that reality for the former military man. Handforth has found a niche that fit his personal situation–running team from Toronto to Moncton, N.B. and back, two times a week.
The intense schedule allows him weekends off and downtime with his family. “I’m happy,” says Handforth. “I don’t know if I can drive a truck for another ten years. It’s demanding on your body. But for now trucking has met all my expectations.”
The above three drivers are not unique. While researching this article, I heard stories of teachers, lawyers, computer scientists, nurses, paramedics, PhDs and exiled civil servants driving truck.
These neo-truckers bring a new element to the industry. They are often workaholics in middle age who come to over-the-road transport as a second or third profession, usually from highly skilled and creative positions, sometimes forsaking large salaries. And they share the vision of an endless panorama of endless sunsets, moon rises and starry skies. For these new drivers, trucking is the coolest job in the world, and they know it.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs