Truckers and Self-Defense Series (Article 4 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

Time off is a precious thing for an over-the-road truck driver. Mark Schmidt is no exception. When the 46-year-old “specialized” driver invited me to spend a few days with him in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, I jumped at the chance to experience the domestic side of driving truck. We agreed to meet at a picnic for members of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle riding club. The event was held in nearby Metamora at an upper-middle-class home that was surrounded by a perfectly manicured lawn with a spring-fed lake out back. “Bring your swimsuits!” read Schmidt’s invitation.

The only problem was Schmidt wasn’t there, and none of the leather-clad Baby Boomers had any idea who he was. Eventually, I ran into a taciturn Vietnam vet who had a hazy recollection of recruiting him at a local dealership. Apparently, it’s hard to make an impression when you’re “home” a mere 30 days per calendar year. Eventually, Schmidt roared in on his SuperLow 1200T. Hooked in behind him was Dezet, a black miniature pinscher dressed in goggles, a helmet and a tiny leather “cut” to match her owner’s. Upon dismounting and setting Dezet free, Schmidt apologized for being late as he took in the scene.

Schmidt is a tall, slender man with a wiry beard and weathered features. Thousands of hours of windshield time have left his eyes fixed in a permanent squint. When asked a question, he pauses a beat before answering in a low voice roughened by countless Marlboros. After a pleasant afternoon spent swimming, shucking corn and eating hamburgers, Schmidt rode the 30 odd miles to the Red Roof Inn Flint – Bishop Airport and into a different world. He rents a room in the decayed, rust-belt city because it’s cheaper than the surrounding countryside. He chooses this motel in particular because its water is piped in from Detroit and is safe to drink.

A Little Downtime

Banned from carrying weapons in his truck by the company he’s leased to as an owner-operator, Schmidt defends himself off the job with a Glock 17 on his hip and a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield strapped to his ankle. “You never know what’s going to happen from day to day,” he said. “I pray that I never have to draw my weapon. It’s the last thing I want to do. But it’s peace of mind.”

That night, I followed Schmidt a couple exits down the highway to Scooters, a local biker bar. Helmetless, he used both blinkers and hand signals to let traffic know where he was going. Before long, we were sitting on a patio, enjoying the warm evening air, sipping draft domestic beer out of mason jars. Schmidt explained that he grew up in a rural area just east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. From time to time, his family attended the Jewish service at Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy. They had so little money that they ate spaghetti most nights. He’d been married twice — once at a courthouse and once in a Pentecostal Church — but “never again.” He had driven truck in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged. At one point in his life, he was homeless but grew weary of crashing on people’s couches.

Later that night, members of an outlaw motorcycle club made their way out onto the patio. Schmidt eyed them suspiciously. He said he’s polite to members of the local biker gangs, but he doesn’t go out of his way to engage them.

That night, with ongoing police action behind my building, Schmidt retrieved a large black case from his car. He unzipped an AR-15 carbine and assumed a fighting stance, demonstrating the red dot and pressure-plate activated light. Mentioning the armed officers on the far side of the building, I suggested, helpfully, that maybe we should close the door.

Over the next few days, Schmidt gave me a tour of his world, driving through some of the worst neighborhoods in Flint. Many of the homes were merely burned-out husks. He explained that when people can’t afford electricity, the candles they use for light tend to start fires. We ate at his favorite Italian restaurant, stocked up on food for the road at Walmart (deli meat, cheese, honey buns and Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches) and bought Blue Buffalo dog food and bully sticks for Dezet at PetSmart. Before long, it was time to get to work.

Load ’Em Up

In the trucking world, the term “specialized” means that a company hauls something in particular as opposed to general freight. A company could specialize in hauling wide-load agricultural equipment, for example, or the blades for wind turbines.

In Schmidt’s case, he hauls truck chassis — cab, engine and frame only — on custom-designed lowboy trailers. He travels from Flint to businesses and job sites all across the country. He’s responsible for driving the trucks — usually Mitsubishi-manufactured Fusos — onto his trailer and stacking them one against the other with an elaborate system of removable metal ramps. At delivery sites, he does the same thing, only in reverse. It can be exhausting work, Schmidt said, but he doesn’t need to join a gym. And his paycheck would be the envy of a general freight hauler.

His first run of the week was a short hop to a site in Indiana. What could have been a day trip turned into an overnight because of a late start. And so we found ourselves sitting outside a restaurant called “Souper Brew” overlooking a pleasant little truck stop in the Hoosierland version of Amish country. Schmidt enjoyed a paper container of cream of asparagus while horses and buggies clip-clopped along, mixed sporadically with the auto traffic. He told me that he likes his employer but doesn’t like being told not to carry. He has reasons too.

“I was flat-bedding in San Francisco,” he said. “A guy walked up behind me, put a gun to my back and said, ‘Give me your money!’ It’s just not a pleasant feeling.” Schmidt gave the thief the money, he said, because money can be replaced. “It’s my life,” he said. “The company is not there protecting me if someone comes up and tries to rob me.”

Schmidt woke up at 5 the next morning and drove off in search of his receiver. A Marlboro dangled from his mouth, and his face was lit a ghostly blue by his Rand-McNally GPS. Outside his window, the rolling farmland brought to mind the opening scenes of the movie Hoosiers. Silos stood out against the early morning sky, and some of the houses’ windows glowed with cheerful yellow light. “You know what?” Schmidt said. “I think I’ve been here before.” He drove down a lane that led to an industrial park and a warehouse surrounded by a sea of truck chassis. Day was just starting to break, but the site was already buzzing with activity.

Dezet stood on the empty driver’s seat and barked while Schmidt removed the straps over the front wheels of the first chassis. He carefully rolled them up and put them in a built-in toolbox behind his cab. There was a hissing, pneumatic sound as he pulled two metal ramps out from inside the rear of his trailer. He carefully climbed into the cab of the chassis, started its engine, rolled down its window and gingerly backed it off the trailer. After the chassis was down on the gravel, Schmidt drove it down a row of similar-looking vehicles and parked it in place at the end. He would repeat this process three more times over the course of two hours. It was light out by the time he finished. “Time is money when offloading,” he said. “I have to make every step count.”

There’s another reason why Schmidt needs to be quick and efficient: Unloading chassis requires complete focus, making him an easy target for criminals.

How a Specialized Driver Protects Himself Off the Job

Two days later, Schmidt was hauling a fresh load of chassis to Tacoma, Washington. He stopped for a break at the Bosselman Travel Center in Grand Island, Nebraska. It was a trucker’s paradise, replete with a movie theater, a tattoo parlor, a chapel, foosball tables and flat-screen TVs tuned in to college football. But as Schmidt left, he shook his head and said that the place had changed.

“How so?” I asked. He stopped to think for a moment. “There used to be a life-sized statue of The Predator.”

As the sunflowers of Nebraska gave way to the windswept hills of Wyoming, Schmidt caught a glimpse of the Rocky Mountains in the distance. A billboard sponsored by the Laramie County Cowbelles read, “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” It made him think of a job he had while still in high school.

During summers, he “cowboyed” at a ranch in nearby Elk Mountain. He repaired fences, rode horseback and drove cattle out of a mountain pasture down onto the flatlands. It was a lifestyle he tried on for size, but the money wasn’t there. Perhaps that’s why he’s so appreciative of the job he has now. Of course, it has its travails, but it’s something on which he can build a life. He’s improving his credit score with the aim of buying a new Peterbilt. And he’s considering buying property back in Flint.

When Schmidt began driving professionally in 1992, it was largely an act of defiance. He’d long been fascinated by the lifestyle and equipment, but he’d been somewhat of a hellraiser in his early days. A company in California took one look at his record and told him he’d never sit behind the wheel. “That pissed me off,” Schmidt said. “So, I set forth to drive a truck.” Wyoming’s famous wind rocked the cab of his Volvo as Schmidt fixed his eyes on the distant mountains.

“Nobody’s going to tell me I can’t do something,” he said.

Truckers and Self-Defense Series (Article 4 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