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The Last Load

OSHAWA, Ont. - After 40 years of 'humping furniture,' as Bill Waistell refers to it, it's time to park it for good. The owner/operator, who has spent the last 25 years of his career driving for Mackie...

OSHAWA, Ont. –After 40 years of ‘humping furniture,’ as Bill Waistell refers to it, it’s time to park it for good. The owner/operator, who has spent the last 25 years of his career driving for Mackie Moving Systems, reaches into his pocket and pays his lumper one last time at the Mackie warehouse in Oshawa, Ont.

He has just taken on his last load, which he’ll haul to Hamilton in the morning before heading to Prince George, B.C. for his final drop. After that, it’s back home to Shawnigan Lake, B.C. just outside Victoria. His truck’s already sold. Most of his goodbyes have been said.

“It hasn’t hit me yet, but I know it will,” he says as he prepares for his final cross-country run. “I sometimes wake up at night thinking about it -Jeez, no more on-the-road, no more seeing all the guys I know and like and having a good time. It’ll be different, but I think my wife will like it.”

Waistell’s wife Vivian is resting at a nearby hotel -there’s no more living out of the truck for either of them.

“When I’m travelling, it’s the truck all the time but when I get into town, it’s the hotel,” he says. “A lot of guys will stay at the truck stop, but I can’t stand it.”

Waistell first got into the furniture hauling business at the age of 25, when he was dissatisfied with his job as a B.C. Ferries deckhand.

“I had a lot of days off and one day my next door neighbour said ‘I work for a moving company, do you want to work on your days off?’ So I started doing that and I loved the physical labour,” Waistell recalls. It turned out to be a lasting labour of love. Waistell bought his first truck, a 1965 single-axle Ford cabover with a 250 Cummins and began hauling household goods around Vancouver Island.

“That was quite the ol’ beast, I tell you,” he says. “Colder than a whore’s heart in the winter time.”

Waistell signed on with North American Van Lines and soon after, with North American agent Mackie Moving Systems. He took a short hiatus about 20 years ago to try hauling freight, but “three months later I quit freight and went right back into furniture again,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stand it.”

Waistell figures he has owned about a dozen trucks during his career. One of his favourites was a ’65 Kenworth with a 250 Cummins and a four-and-four, two-stick transmission that kept him busy behind the wheel.

“I just loved that truck,” he recalls with a chuckle. “You had 16 gears to choose from and you were always playing with them. In the mountains it was nice because you always had a lower gear.”

It was a far cry from his current ride -a 2004 Volvo VN780 complete with an automated transmission, twin bunks, refrigerator and a 19- inch TV.

“I’m spoiled now,” he says with a smile. Waistell has always taken pride in his equipment, and he had no problem finding a buyer for his current rig, which has only 650,000 kilometres on it.

All told, he says he’s racked up about two million miles during his career and has delivered furniture from coast-to-coast in Canada, as well as into the US and as far north as Yellowknife. Most of his loads originate in B.C. and from there he’ll usually deliver to Mackie headquarters in Oshawa, or to a home in Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal. A delivery from Victoria to Ontario can earn him as much as $17,000 gross, which is one of the appeals of transporting household goods.

“Furniture is good money compared to freight…if you want to get out and make some money, you can do it,” he says, adding a good run will consist of 30,000 lbs of furniture packed front to back, top to bottom. “Whenever you load them, you load them right to the roof and right to the back, otherwise you don’t make any money.”

Exceeding legal weights isn’t a concern with furniture, he explains, since a 53-ft. trailer cubes out before it grosses out when hauling household goods. Furniture hauling is a different kind of trucking. Waistell makes just seven or eight trips per year and often spends two to three weeks waiting for a backhaul. When he’s stranded in Ontario, Mackie’s tries to keep him busy hauling general freight or car parts for other segments of its business. However, Waistell is often just as happy to catch up with old friends while waiting for a return load of furniture. The lucrative nature of furniture hauling means there’s less urgency to get back on the road.

But like other forms of trucking, the furniture business is not without its challenges.

“The (cost of) labour’s gone up,” Waistell says. Over the years, he’s established a network of helpers in virtually every Canadian city, but many of them now command $20 an hour “from the minute they sit down in that seat.”

There’s also a growing contingent of “independents” to contend with -smaller movers with no van line affiliations, who Waistell says often undercut rates and promise unrealistic delivery schedules.

“The discounts have gotten bigger in the moving industry,” he laments. “I don’t want to cut all the independents up, because there’s some good ones out there, but there are a lot of bad ones too. Some people never see their furniture again and if they do, they only get half of it or it’s smashed and broken.”

Waistell also has grave concerns about the safety of Canadian highways. While he says he’s “watched them twin the Trans-Canada Highway across the prairies” over the years, current traffic volumes and the lack of professionalism on the roads today worry him.

“It gets more dangerous out there every day,” he says. “In the winter time, you’ll see at least five wrecks between here and Vancouver.”

Driving through the Rockies in winter is one of the things Waistell says he won’t miss, even though his wife prefers to accompany him on those scenic runs. He also won’t miss the physical labour. Just a few months ago he had to pick up a load in Kelowna in the 40-degree heat -closer to 50 C inside the enclosed trailer.

“I’ve had enough of that,” he says. “I’ve humped millions of pounds of furniture.”

However, like any trucker he admits he’ll miss the call of the open road, as well as visiting the many people he’s come to know during his travels.

“I chum around with a lot of people and have gotten to know hundreds of people,” he recalls. “I get into town here and I know everybody. I’m really going to miss the Mackies and all these guys here. Even the guy at the hotel; I told him I was leaving and he and his wife came to my room and brought me a bottle of scotch to say goodbye.”

Ross Mackie, patriarch of the family-run Mackie Moving Systems, is still hopeful he can coax Waistell back to work once winter passes. But Waistell shakes his head.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I’ve made up my mind. As much as I like them, I just don’t want to do it anymore. It’s a hard ol’ life sometimes, humping that furniture, I tell you.”

Instead, Waistell plans to spend more time on the golf course or aboard his buddy’s 18-ft. boat in pursuit of Vancouver Island salmon.

But that’s not to say he’ll never again slip behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. In fact, he admits with a grin that he has already put out the word that he’s available to deliver the odd load of freight or lumber locally on the island.

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