Windshield Time

There are good days driving truck. And there are bad days driving truck. So far, Jerry Drolshagen was having a bad day. The 57-year-old Wisconsin native blew a compressor while hauling 31 pallets of aluminum baking tins to central Alabama, which wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if it wasn’t the middle of August. He’d spent two stifling nights without air conditioning, the temperature in his sleeper cab reaching a sweltering 116 degrees.

On top of his worries, repairs to his tractor — a 2001 International Prostar Eagle — had taken longer than expected this morning. He was in danger of missing his 11 a.m. unloading at the Dollar General warehouse. I’d received a call from Drolshagen in which he told me to be on the “McDonald’s side” of the Love’s Travel Stop in McCalla, where we’d agreed to meet.

It was a little after 10 a.m., and the sun beat down with a Deep South intensity. AccuWeather predicted a heat index of 104 to 108 degrees. The air was thick with humidity, and the vegetation beyond the trash-strewn parking lot was lush. Cicadas called out the end of summer as a steady flow of portly truck drivers clutching outsized plastic soft drink mugs streamed into the chilled air of the truck stop.

Quick Pick-Up

Truckers like Jerry Drolshagen move the food, the fuel and everything else that makes the U.S. go round. While doing so, they face unique security and safety challenges.

Before long, Drolshagen’s red tractor and white 53-foot box trailer turned off AL-216 into the parking lot, whipped around back and paused on the far side just long enough to take on a passenger and his duffel bag. Drolshagen — 5 feet, 7 inches tall and thickly built — was dressed in jeans, a sleeveless black T-shirt and a camo hat. Bedecked with a hands-free headset, he was on hold with a freight broker with whom he was negotiating his next load.

“The older the truck, the bigger the breakdown factor becomes,” he said upon finishing his call. “This truck has 1.146 million miles on it. You’ve gotta roll with the flow. Adapt, improvise and overcome.”

The latter is a line from his favorite movie, Clint Eastwood’s 1986 technicolor war film Heartbreak Ridge, which seems fitting given that Drolshagen did a stint in the United States Marine Corps after turning 17, during which he also drove truck. Originally from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Drolshagen was a military brat who also spent time growing up in California, Michigan and Florida. He said Orlando was a nice enough place until “the rat came to town” (Mickey Mouse and Disney) and tanked local wages.

Unload

Forty minutes later, he was admiring the spacious and open parking lot of the enormous Dollar General warehouse. “Must be a newer facility,” Drolshagen mused as he parked his rig and hustled on foot to the guard house to check in. “Don’t be late,” he joked with a harried-looking fellow driver doing the same. Drolshagen said that if you’re late dropping off at Dollar General, they’ve been known to make you wait 24 hours for your next appointment. He used to sweat things more as a younger driver, he said, but now it’s “like water off a duck’s back.” This is fortunate. As mentioned, this was not a particularly good day driving truck.

After five minutes of waiting, he “got a door” at the warehouse. He pulled around the side and expertly backed 70 feet of truck and trailer up to the loading dock. “I’ll try not to give you whiplash,” he joked as he executed the maneuver. “Now we wait.”

It can take the Dollar General warehouse workers anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to unload a trailer. (You know they’re working when the tractor-trailer starts swaying from side to side.) They call you when they’re done. Like most drivers who haul general freight, Drolshagen never lays a hand on his cargo. Instead, he passed the time by pointing out interesting things in the yard. There was a local driver, recognizable by his “day cab” sans sleeper berth, and a miniature tractor called a “yard dog” that moved around empty trailers.

Keeping Hell at Bay

Drolshagen said he’s seen drivers “raise hell” because they think they’re not being unloaded fast enough. He drives with a SIG Sauer P938, Ruger LCP and AR-15 pistol just in case any hell spills over into his vehicle — parked in a yard or otherwise. The SIG resides in an Alien Gear holster inside the waistband on his left hip, the backup .380 sits in his pocket, and the AR pistol is within arm’s reach in his berth. There was no sign at the warehouse explicitly prohibiting firearms. It was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. Otherwise, he leaves his firearms in the cab when he exits his truck on a shipper’s/receiver’s property.

While virtually all of the “mega-firms,” like Swift, Schneider and US Xpress, ban drivers from carrying firearms, Drolshagen is fortunate to work for a small outfit that recognizes the dangers faced by over-the-road truckers. It’s a job that’s statistically riskier than being a cop, Drolshagen said. There are too many companies out there that don’t allow the drivers the means to protect themselves, he said, although he estimates that between 40 and 50 percent of mega-carrier drivers carry despite their employers’ prohibitions.

One Man’s Musings

Drolshagen fiddled with the switch controlling the fan and air conditioning, concerned that, despite this morning’s repair in “BFE,” the issue was unresolved. As the mercury continued to rise, he’d know soon enough. He took advantage of the downtime to fix himself lunch. “Microwave cooking at its finest,” he said as he munched a hamburger procured from a mini-fridge a minute earlier. Drolshagen has perfected the art of nuking food. He’s even been known to microwave a steak.

You’ve gotta roll with the flow. Adapt, improvise and overcome.

At one time, Drolshagen wore jeans in a size 58 waist, but he recently lost 60 pounds by cutting his calories. His wife, Gwen, is an avid canner. She has been helping him make healthier choices in the truck and at their home on 5 acres in Redgranite, Wisconsin.

Two hours later and 5,600 pounds lighter, Drolshagen’s truck was traversing the streets of Jefferson County, Alabama. Drolshagen took note of the different stripes of Baptist Church found in this part of the country. “You wonder if Primitive Baptists attend service in a loincloth or something,” he joked.

Drolshagen’s mood soured when he determined that the air conditioning still wasn’t working properly and his engine was running hot. He used his smartphone to search out the nearest shop, which happened to be the I-65 Truck & Auto Repair Center at the end of a gravel driveway next to a patch of piney woods in Warrior, Alabama.

Solid Support System

For the rest of the day and into the evening, a group of young mechanics wrenched on Drolshagen’s aging International. The crew was led by Tyler Campbell, who issued a stream of quips and one-liners at his co-workers and Drolshagen with perfect deadpan delivery.

“You shouldn’t carry a gun. It’s dangerous,” Campbell drawled, straight-faced, while simultaneously producing a Taurus Public Defender in .45 Colt and a North American Arms .22 Magnum from his IWB holster and pocket, respectively. While his younger co-workers went home for the night, Campbell stayed on the job several hours past the normal closing time. He came from multiple generations of truck drivers, which sensitized him to the plight of the broken down. “It’s the nice thing to do,” he said. “I quit when the work is done.”

Drolshagen was off making a phone call when Campbell said it was rare to come across old-time drivers like him anymore. The newer drivers? They didn’t bother to make small talk at truck stops and didn’t know basic engine repair. All they wanted from him was patchwork and quick fixes, he said with disdain.

Despite Campbell’s best efforts, the engine was still running 10 to 20 degrees too hot as Drolshagen drove off into the humid Alabama night. Fearing the engine would burn up with the additional weight of cargo, he was forced to cancel his return load. Gwen dealt with the freight brokers on his behalf. “We make it work because we’ve had lean times where there was nothing,” she later told me. “You go with the blessings that you’re given and just kind of go from there. But it gets frustrating.”

Homeward Bound

Disgusted and ready for the day to end, Drolshagen found parking at an independent truck stop with a gravel lot and minimal facilities. He scarfed down a microwaved Chinese dinner before hitting his bunk for a fitful night’s sleep in what amounted to a big aluminum sauna.

Drolshagen woke up at 5 a.m. and took a long-awaited shower at a nearby Love’s. With luck, he’d make the 800-plus miles home to Wisconsin with his load of “sailboat fuel” within 11 hours — the maximum daily drive time allowed by the Department of Transportation’s hours-of-service rules — but it would be close.

When asked his favorite state to drive, he brushed the question aside. “It’s all windshield time,” he said tersely.

As he wended his way through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, Drolshagen’s mood seemed to lift. Outside Chicago, he pointed to the spot near O’Hare International Airport where the incoming planes’ headlights form a perfect line, stretching off into the distance. But the pattern must have been different that day because the line of descending planes was nowhere to be seen. Instead, off to the right, an enormous Boeing 747 cargo plane slowly climbed into the sky.

“I’ve never seen them taking off from this side,” Drolshagen said, shaking his head in amazement. “With this job, you see something different every day.”

Truckers and Self-Defense Series (Article 3 of 8)

The Safety Issues Truck Drivers Face | Protection on the Road | On the Road — Jerry Drolshagen Profile Specialized Driver — Mark Schmidt Profile | The Road Calls — Paul Lathrop Profile | Truckers and the Law | Carrying While Driving | Options for Truck Drivers