Truck News


What a long, strange trip it’s been

I got my A/Z licence in Toronto in 1981, the same year Truck News was born. At the time George Brown College had a truck driving school located in a bunch of portables on Cherry Street, just north of ...

I got my A/Z licence in Toronto in 1981, the same year Truck News was born. At the time George Brown College had a truck driving school located in a bunch of portables on Cherry Street, just north of the ports.

It was a great place to go to school in the summer because we trucker wannabes could take our lunch breaks down at the beach. A friend sailed by in his Hobicat catamaran one Friday afternoon and took me for a cruise around Toronto harbour – this is the life, I figured.

But it wasn’t all fun. We had some intense instructors, Milt Fraser and Stan Bond among them, who took us through the paces, including one exercise which had us jackknifing into side door unloading docks, something that’s rarely seen these days. CP’s Toronto terminal (formerly Smith Transport) was just around the corner on Commissioners Street and Stan had been a driver at Smith for years. He went on to become a great teacher at George Brown. I was grieved to hear Stan passed away a few weeks ago; he’ll be sadly missed.

Air ride seats were scarce. This was the era of bench seats (better for sleeping), and “Armstrong steering” (quite a few of the five tonnes I drove in the late ’70s did not have power steering). One company I worked for had a big steel-boxed V12 GMC gas tractor sitting in the yard – a remnant of a fleet of Kingsway trucks that used to run Toronto-Montreal and burn outrageous amounts of gasoline en route – there were still a lot of gasoline-powered tractors around in those days.

Shippers and manufacturers were slow to mechanize. Most customers expected you to hand bomb freight on and off the trucks. Delivering to a food warehouse like National Grocers meant hours of waiting time. When you finally got in a dock, you were required to stack every box on a skid, wait for a slow-moving Teamster to check it off, and wait again for another one to appear with a lift truck and take the skid away. A smart shipper would include a few cases of product for the dock supervisor and this would speed things up considerably.

When you’re young you think you can do everything, or at least your body has fewer limitations. Nowadays I wouldn’t even think of working 70 hours a week, or consider making a round trip between the Ford plants in Oakville and Cleveland during a fierce blizzard. And I wouldn’t be able to do 25-30 pickups per day, or work 14-16 hours delivering drums of chemicals off the back of a power tailgate.

Commercial driving has gotten much easier – and more comfortable. If the weather is clear and the roads are dry, I set the cruise control, push the buttons on the stereo, and slump back in the seat making sure my lumbar is properly supported. At my finger tips I have a CB radio, a satellite-connected computer, and a cell phone with a television screen that plays video games.

But in 1981, even trucks with air conditioning were extremely uncommon. I didn’t start driving rigs with AC until the late 80s. And the first onboard computers appeared around that time. They were awkward, bulky and inscrutable instruments (Cadec came first followed by the more sophisticated Traxis systems). I hated them and imagined they were bringing a dehumanizing element to the craft. Luddite that I was, I’ve got to admit dragging a magnet across the face of a machine a couple of times – to “realign” the electrons a wee bit.

Some of the equipment I drove for smaller operators in the bad ol’ days wasn’t very safe. Like the Flying Tigers pilots in China, occasionally we’d cannibalize other trailers and trucks in order to get on the road. Stuff like clearance lights and minor defects weren’t a high priority. The rule was, if you broke down and could Mickey-mouse something to get you back to the yard, you were golden.

Trucks have gotten bigger, more powerful and safer. Breakdowns are unusual, and a trailer with a missing clearance light is an oddity. Components have gotten lighter, stronger and more durable. Tires, especially the retreads, are so much better. And ABS brakes have probably saved a lot of lives in the decade since they were introduced.

Truck drivers have always worked a lot of hours and probably always will. But fatigue is one factor that hasn’t changed. This is no job for the sleepy-headed, or for the tardy or irresponsible. Truckers work until the job is done and then work some more if they have to.

There’s a calling to the road, there really is. If I don’t get to drive for a few days, I really miss it. I even plan my vacations so I can take truck trips with friends. At least for me, there is some measure of salvation, redemption and freedom obtainable in driving a truck. But it has to be re-made constantly. No matter how long the journey, there’s always the next trip, the next adventure. And you never have to worry about leaving anywhere because you’re always on the road to somewhere else.

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