When Rene Robert and his co-driver Catherine Maxsom trudged into the Fargo, N.D., truckstop the evening of May 17, 1996, they were so covered in mud and oily goop that the other patrons stepped back, almost in fear. “We had no idea what we looked like,” Robert recalls. All he knew was that two hours earlier, neither Robert nor Maxsom were sure if they would survive another moment or drown.
The ordeal had started with 110-mile-an-hour winds and a visibility-destroying downpour. Robert (it’s French, pronounced Robe-air) and Maxsom were team-driving their ’89 Peterbilt as owner-operators under contract to the American carrier Landstar. The Pete had 950,000 miles on it and was earmarked for sale, but Robert wanted to top the million-mile mark and “get the free jacket from Shell, because I always used Shell products.” So he and Maxsom (who is now his fiancée) left Alberta and headed south. The winds were high but manageable. Until the pair was outside Fargo.
She was in the sleeper berth. He was trying to see the road through the rain. A sudden gale wrenched open the hood latches and Robert wrestled the truck to the shoulder. He called Maxsom to come into the cab and put on her seatbelt.
“The next thing I saw in the mirrors was the trailer coming up behind me and after that it’s a blur,” Robert recalls. Hit by tornado-force winds, their rig was plunked into a drainage ditch. “I woke up face down and didn’t know whether we were in a lake or sinking or what.” The sleeper berth where Maxsom had minutes earlier been snoozing was covered in mud and steel. She would have been dead.
The police arrived and helped them out of the truck, and then they all stood back as the wind yanked the trailer further into the ditch. That’s when the cops took the team to the truckstop to get cleaned up.
The Pete was a write-off. The drivers had to miss about three months of work. And Robert never got a jacket. Until now.
In April, at a ceremony at the Truck World trade show in Toronto, Rene Robert was named Canada’s first highwaySTAR of the Year, an award sponsored by highwaySTAR magazine, Freightliner, ArvinMeritor, Espar, Caterpillar, BF Goodrich, the Owner-Operators Business Association of Canada, and Chevron Delo. The judges sought nominations from across Canada during the latter part of 2003 and early ’04 and selected the Magog, Que., native, now the owner-operator of Classy Trucking and currently working for SLH Transport out of Calgary. He walked away with $10,000, a laptop computer, an Espar heater system and not one but two flashy black leather jackets.
Robert wasn’t recognized for surviving a North Dakota windstorm. But when you look at the way he has handled his 30 years of trucking, it’s evident that it would take more than a piddling tornado to dampen his spirit. Robert has dealt with every eventuality this industry doles out. He’s been with more than a dozen companies, he’s sat dispatch, worked head office, and battled on behalf of co-workers. And he’s come through it with optimism and elan.
Just ask Bob Cumming. Cumming was also driving for Landstar the day of the tornado. He was heading back to Edmonton from Florida when he got a call from head office asking if he’d help a colleague in distress. Cumming agreed when he learned of the severity of problem and drove out of his way to Fargo to pick up Robert and Maxsom. They’ve been close friends since.
“The thing about Rene,” Cumming says, “is his enthusiasm. There are so many complainers, but with Rene it’s not about what’s wrong with things, it’s about what’s interesting. He has a way of looking at both sides of things. If he’s talking about how a carrier sells you short, he understands why the guy had to do it.”
Dedicated to the safety of those around him, Robert’s an 18-wheeling Samaritan. In August 1979, he steered his shiny new GMC Astro into a ditch rather than into a stop-sign-running Jimmy. The woman driving had a baby in her backseat. Another time, during a snowstorm, Robert saw the car in front of him disappear over the bank and land on its roof. First on the scene, he commandeered passers-by to rescue the driver and provide comfort until help arrived. Robert has rescued other truckers, lost and freezing motorists, and in one case, a whole police force. There was a blizzard up near Red Deer, Alta., and the cruisers couldn’t get gas until Robert braved his way through the storm with his tanker full.
Robert’s collection of safe-driving awards attests to his skill, and Bud Rice, his safety manager at SLH, says Robert routinely scores between 98.6 and 100 per cent in log audits. “He’s the kind of guy you wish everyone could be,” he says. “He just won’t run illegal loads.”
Since the Astro that he ditched to save the mom and baby, Robert has owned one Kenworth W900, one Ford LT 9000, no less than four Peterbilt 379s, and three Freightliners. Currently, he and Catherine haul Sears goods in a ’99 Freightliner Classic XL with a 3406 Cat, an RTLO 2090 18-speed overdrive AutoShift with a 3:55 ratio, ABS, a 70-inch stand-up bunk, and everything else it takes to make the place his home.
Although Maxsom doesn’t drive as much as she used to, she still does the books and, if need be, finds loads. That’s not an issue with SLH, but as Robert says, you never know where this business is going to take you. Or what it’s going to demand. “You know,” he says, “for years carriers treat owner-operators almost as if they’re employees, but when they go broke, the employees get paid but the owner-operators don’t.” That, Robert says, is a rule that should be changed. Robert also thinks that the solution to the driver shortage is pretty obvious. “It’s not hard to figure out. Just pay them more.”
The first time Rene Robert got paid to deliver something, he was seven and his freight was the local paper in Magog. And though his parents sort of held out hope that their strapping son with the work ethic befitting a Habitant and great ear for music (he played organ professionally at one time, and sold keyboards on the side) might be a priest, Robert always yearned for the open road.
He and Maxsom have two grandchildren now, in Winnipeg, so there’s some talk that Rene Robert will—God help us—someday buy a house and stop living out of his truck. But that’s down the road. And as Robert will tell you, you never know what’s down the road.
“The tornado changed me, you know,” he says. “It taught me that you can’t ever tell what tomorrow holds. I love driving. I love leaving and travelling. Trucking offers that sense of adventure and the day I lose that gut feeling, that’s the day I’ll quit.”
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