On the road in times of war

by David Howell

EDMONTON, Alta. – Edmonton Journal reporter David Howell went on a long-haul ride with Alberta trucker Roy McKay through the American west to Phoenix, Los Angeles and Oakland last month. Along the way, Howell talked to Canadian truckers and ordinary Americans about their thoughts on the U.S. war in Iraq and Canada’s controversial decision not to send troops in support of its American neighbors in the conflict.

SWEETGRASS, Mont. – Questions, paperwork and X-rays filled up nearly two hours of Roy McKay’s Saturday when the Alberta long-haul trucker would rather have been rolling south.

“That was long. That was long,” McKay sighs after a U.S. Customs agent told him he could get his Kenworth back on the road toward Utah, Arizona and California. “I didn’t want to see this today. But at least we’re released.”

Half an hour would have been more reasonable, McKay says. But long waits are not uncommon at the international border crossing, especially with the heightened security of the U.S. government’s Homeland Security provisions put in place after Sept. 11, 2001.

With war raging in Iraq, the U.S. is on top alert, with unprecedented security along the Canadian border and around key government buildings, airports, seaports and nuclear and chemical plants.

McKay, 53, from the southern Alberta hamlet of Cayley, logs about 180,000 kilometres behind the wheel of his truck every year – about 140,000 of that in the U.S. He has driven for Mullen Trucking of Aldersyde for 17 years.

Just recently, he returned from an eight-day trip to Newark, N.J. Now he’s hauling custom wheel rims and $500,000 worth of telephone equipment to Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Hayward, Calif., near Oakland.

He got three hours of driving in Saturday before running into a backlog of traffic waiting to get across the border. Customs agents used a gamma X-ray machine to scan his 17-metre trailer for contraband such as drugs or weapons.

McKay was instructed to produce his birth certificate, driver’s licence and a thick sheaf of papers documenting his load.

“Sometimes they’ll ask you if you’ve ever been fingerprinted,” he says after being told he was free to go. “I used to say no, but now I’ll have to say yes.” He was required to get fingerprinted a month ago because he is registered to haul explosives into the U.S. McKay thinks security is getting tighter with the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Customs agents tend to be moved around, so each time he pulls up, he sees a new face. “A lot of border crossings I use have whole new contingents of people,” he says. “And rightly so – it’s so they don’t get comfortable, I presume.”

The war in Iraq finds its way into McKay’s thoughts. Because he spends so much time in the U.S., he tries to stay abreast of new developments. And his oldest brother, Don, lives in Washington state and has become an American citizen.

When the two spoke by phone recently, Don’s first question to Roy was about why Canada isn’t taking an active role in the war.

“I said our government has stated it does not wish to participate,” McKay says. “My own personal thought is we should have been involved from the start. I’ve lost faith in the United Nations.”

McKay says he’s always conscious that he’s a Canadian working in the U.S. He tunes in to talk radio to stay abreast of what’s happening in Iraq, and at home on the political front.

“Like anybody else,” he says, “I’m trying to stay as current as I can to what the situation is over there. And in the United States right now, you’d better listen to what people are saying because of the war situation.”

He also listens to other truckers on the CB. “I tend to listen a lot. I want to see what other people are advising. And right at the present time, because of the current world situation, you’ve got to listen more than talk, especially when you’re across the line, in the U.S. of A.”

OGDEN, Utah – Day two on the road with McKay ends at Ogden, Utah, 13 hours and 850 kilometres from Buffalo Bob’s, a dowdy truck stop on the windswept outskirts of Great Falls, Mont., where he woke up in the sleeper of his truck.

At 7 a.m. McKay wakes up, walks to the cafe where he orders a trucker’s breakfast – ham, eggs, shredded potatoes, coffee and more coffee.

In the next room is a tiny casino. Two TVs above the VLTs are tuned to Fox News and its gung-ho coverage of the war in Iraq. Fox is now the most-watched U.S. cable news channel, but nobody in here is watching.

“You do watch, but you’ve still got your daily grind,” says Bob Adams, a former U.S. Air Force sergeant who runs the cafe and casino.

Adams has heard all about the supposed tension between Canadians and Americans over the Canadian government’s decision to stay out of the Iraq war. But he hasn’t seen it for himself. He meets a lot of Canadians – mainly truckers and snowbirds driving motorhomes up from Phoenix or Palm Springs – and doesn’t feel any sense of friction.

“I go with what the people say and every Canadian I’ve talked to in here has agreed with what we’re doing over there,” Adams says. “You can put whatever kind of spin on it you want, but if you listen to the real people, I’ve never heard one negative response. Each and every day, the more the war travels on, the more everybody is seeing that we were right.”

Canadian trucker Reg Creamer, who is hauling a flatbed trailer to Salt Lake City and Houston, sips his coffee at the cafe’s counter.

He’s rolling a smoke from a pouch of Player’s tobacco he brought from home. “My attitude is, anywhere I’m south of Wyoming I’m going to quit smoking Canadian cigarettes,” the Calgarian says. “It’s a dead giveaway, and (Americans) are going to give me a hard time down here.”

Creamer says he supports the U.S.-led war against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. “It’s pretty obvious that somebody had to do something. I think the biggest problem is that Chretien is trying to get his name in the history books at the expense of average Canadians. It’s a national embarrassment. But maybe while we’re down here, we can talk the guys into changing our regime.”

McKay rolls his truck 250 kilometres to the southwest, making his first fuel stop in the copper mining city of Butte, Mont.

John Zant, an Iowa trucker hauling ice cream to Kent, Wash., turns his attention away from stock-car racing on the TV in the lounge of a Flying J truck stop. He greets a reporter with an accusation: “Are you a Canadian?”

His suspicion confirmed, he takes the opportunity to unload some anger. “You don’t back us up,” he says. “Here we are, trying to free the world from tyranny and you’re not backing us up. And you’re speaking out of both sides of your face. You’ll use our country, but you won’t support it. So if you don’t support it, in my opinion, get the hell out of it.”

Increased tension between Canadians and Americans is front-page news in Montana. Readers of the Great Falls Tribune saw a front-page story headlined “War draws U.S.-Canada border a bit thicker.”

“People have come in here ashamed to show Canadian money because they think we’re mad at them,” one bartender says in the Tribune.

The trip south down Interstate 15 cuts through the rugged heartland of Montana and Idaho. Beef cattle graze on either side of the highway.

There’s visual evidence that the American fighting forces are on people’s minds. In the tiny hamlet of Dell, Mont., a billboard flanked by U.S. flags advertises community support for the troops. Gas stations all along McKay’s route south are selling T-shirts with slogans ranging from the simple patriotism of “I Support Our Troops” to the more hawkish “Goin’ Cruisin’ in Iraq” with a picture of a missile in flight.

After unloading 40 pallets of telephone equipment at a warehouse in Hayward, Calif., McKay asks me for the address of my hotel in Berkeley.

See, he isn’t a guy to leave you stranded on the side of the road. That wouldn’t be right. So he drives me to the hotel, negotiating busy downtown intersections in his huge Kenworth with its 17-metre trailer.

We parted company there on good terms. I went off to f
ind an antiwar rally, and he headed south to Lompoc, Calif., where he was to pick up a load. We’d had a good ride over the previous five days, travelling through Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and California. From our starting point in Aldersyde, near Okotoks, to where he dropped me off in Berkeley, we covered 3,715 kilometres of blacktop, from tight two-lane mountain passes to huge Interstate highways.

McKay’s job was to deliver his goods on time and without any hassles for himself, his truck, the trucking company or its customers.

Mine was different: ask Americans about the war in Iraq, especially with respect to how they feel about Canada not lending its armed forces to the U.S.-led coalition.

Early on, McKay told me where he stands. He thinks of removing Saddam Hussein from power as a nasty job that has to get done. He worries about what’s happening in Iraq to people on both sides.

Some Americans I met had stronger opinions. The two I will remember most are the 86-year-old woman in Berkeley who cried when she talked about how much she hates the war, and a trucker in Montana who used a disgusting racial epithet to describe Iraqis and other Arabs. I’m sorry I heard it, but it illustrates how racism effects people’s attitudes towards the war.

The further south we got, the more difficult it was to find Americans who knew anything about Canada, let alone our country’s position on the war. McKay had to be out on the road another week or so before getting home to Cayley, in southern Alberta. He misses his family when he’s out on the road, and last year he was away for 308 days. One night, he told me he likes to buy lottery tickets – just one for each draw, mind you. If he won $1 million, he says, he’d keep driving. He’d quit if he won $5 million. If he won $6 million, he’d buy a ranch.

He’s always wanted a ranch. And his job gives him plenty of time to think about it.

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