Truckers and Self-Defense Series (Article 5 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

“I got the grill guard for deer, but it works well on Nissan Versas too,” Paul Lathrop said while doing his pre-trip check.

It was a drizzly, gray day in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 50-year-old over-the-road-driver-turned-gun-rights-activist was thumping his tires in preparation for a long haul to Vermont. He was describing a November 2018 accident in Chicago where a young man in a Japanese import zoomed past him on the right, hit an icy patch, lost control and came to rest sideways, directly in Lathrop’s path.

“He just ran out of talent,” Lathrop said. “A truck was in the lane to my left. I couldn’t move to the right. So, basically, all I could do was stand on the brakes. Luckily, I didn’t kill the guy.” Indeed. Such is life for a man who drives an 80,000-pound brick wall for a living. To be fair, it’s the only Department-of-Transportation-recordable crash he’s had in more than 1.5 million miles of driving professionally. He’s fond of his $70,000-a-year job and takes it seriously.

“Once I found trucking, I knew I found my calling,” he said. While Lathrop’s been an owner-operator in the past, he grew sick of the hassle of taking care of his own equipment. He currently is a company driver on a newish Volvo with a mere 175,000 miles on the odometer and 525 horses under the hood. Whenever he leaves the yard, he has confidence his equipment will get him to his destination sans breakdowns.

Philosophy From the Road

Hauling 35,000 pounds of plastic bags through the cornfields en route to I-90 East, he stopped at a Love’s to grab a free coffee with his fuel points. A combination of coffee, cigarettes, Diet Mountain Dew and Bang Energy Drink propels him through his day. However, being a Type 2 Diabetic, Lathrop does his best to make healthy food choices. His wife Susan manages a convenience store deli. And, together, they share a passion for the Food Network and all things cooking.

“Good food is good for the soul,” Lathrop said.

So is a strong marriage. Somewhere during the course of the morning, Lathrop used his Amazon Alexa to take the first of many calls from his wife. They have a habit of bantering about who loves who more before hanging up. “Be well into the relationship before you go trucking,” he warned. “If you’ve got a one-year marriage and go into trucking? I give you a 5 percent chance that your relationship will stand.”

Lathrop said that trucking is worse than the military, where, despite being deployed for six months at a time, you still get to be home with your spouse the other six months. He, on the other hand, is out six days and home for a mere 34 hours. “If I could find a job that pays what I make now and be home?” he asked. “I’d do it in a heartbeat. They’re just not there.”

Prior to driving truck, Lathrop made his living as a collections agent, pestering people who weren’t squared away with their credit card bills. He considered himself a customer-service agent with “a bit of an attitude.” All that changed when an over-the-road trucker friend showed Lathrop his paycheck. Lathrop’s eyes bugged, and by July 2002, he was Class-A-certified and on the path to a new and more adventurous way of life.

The miles rolled away under our feet as we pulled into Minnesota, past the billboard with a woman in a horned helmet — “Nine Out of Ten Vikings Recommend Trails Travel Center” — past the exit to the SPAM Museum — “Not a Tasteless Tourist Trap!” — and on into Iowa.

Lathrop’s Life

Lathrop grew up in the countryside outside of Sioux Falls, where the closest neighbor was three-quarters of a mile away. He remembers selling vegetables at the farmers’ market and walking local beanfields with a machete, hacking out weeds for $5 a day. The first gun he ever shot was a break-action, single-shot .22 rifle. Guns simply weren’t part of his adult life, however, until the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks encouraged him to purchase a Taurus Judge and, later on, a .40-caliber Glock 22.

We passed through Iowa and descended onto surface streets, where Lathrop grumped at another truck driver’s lane choice. Lathrop shared his theory that Des Moines is a gathering place for Iowa crazies. “It’s no San Francisco though,” he said upon further reflection.

Lathrop has hauled a variety of general freight over the years. For a time, he picked up junked cars on the East Coast and brought them back to rebuilders in South Dakota. He’s hauled new Harley-Davidson motorcycles from York, Pennsylvania, to dealerships in the Rocky Mountains. And there was the time he hauled the pallet containing $2 million worth of cancer drugs.

We made our first rest stop in Portage, Indiana, that evening, just past the billboard advertising “Nudes-A-Poppin’” — the “most well-known nude event in Indiana.”

“It’s acceptable,” Lathrop said of the 638.9 miles he’d covered in the past 10 hours. “I’ve done better. But I’ve done far worse.” Lathrop said he’s one of the few fans of the now-ubiquitous electronic logging devices that don’t allow drivers to fudge their hours of service. They level the playing field and allow him to compete with drivers who otherwise would be driving 24 hours a day on methamphetamines.

The next day, driving into the hills of eastern Ohio, south of Cleveland, Lathrop gripped the steering wheel in obvious pain. His back was giving him fits, the result of an accident suffered years earlier. He had been running loads for Petco, where, uncharacteristically, he was involved in loading and unloading. Before he could react, a 2,000-pound pallet of dog food pinned him against a wall. He was out of work for eight weeks and still hasn’t fully healed. “This is a young man’s job,” he said. “Not something you can make a 30-year career out of.”

While Lathrop loves South Dakota, he hopes to become a snowbird when he retires from trucking and spend winters somewhere warm where he can play tennis. It could become a reality sooner than later if his gun-rights podcast, The Polite Society, keeps growing in popularity. “I believe that Second Amendment new media is more effective at reaching the common gun owner than the NRA,” he said.

Hasty Words Wreak Havoc

One of the things that fuels his activism is the memory of a false accusation and subsequent arrest that took place in Nebraska in February 2016. He was with a student driver en route to Ontario, California, when another driver on the fuel island at a Flying J blocked their forward progress.

“He comes storming out of his truck, walking toward my student,” Lathrop said. “He put his foot on the running board and started climbing up like he was going to clobber him.” It was at that point that Lathrop said, “Dude, I’ve got a gun.”

The irate driver vacated the lot, and Lathrop and his student were well down the road when they were pulled over by highway patrol and taken back to the scene of a supposed crime. The man had called the sheriff and spun a fantastic yarn about Lathrop having threatened him with a chrome revolver and asking him if he wanted to die, which was especially egregious considering that Lathrop carried a standard-issue Glock while driving truck at the time.

Lathrop spent four days in jail, but with the help of Frank Fiamingo, then president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, he was able to make bail. The charges were dropped when the State of Nebraska couldn’t locate the driver who made the accusation. “The one thing he missed is the other guy got to the telephone first,” said firearms instructor and self-defense expert Massad Ayoob, a longtime friend of Lathrop’s. “The liar got to be the victim complainant, and the honest guy became the suspect.”

Lathrop doesn’t want to be known as the “gun-rights guy who got arrested,” however, and at the moment, he was more concerned with getting his load to the receiver in time.

Rise and Shine

It was a chilly morning at the rest stop in New Hampshire. Lathrop roused himself at 5 a.m., despite the appointment not being until 7:30 a.m. He groggily sat up in the driver’s seat, smoking the day’s first cigarette and fighting off what he likes to call “sleep inertia.” At 6:30 a.m., he navigated his big rig over the Connecticut River and into Vermont. He was on surface streets now, so he had to pay close attention.

“They’re not the best-laid-out in New England,” he crabbed. At one point, he crossed a narrow bridge over the White River and did his best impression of a credit card going through a slot in the cash register. He made the sharp turn left off Vermont-5 onto Vermont-14. As he traveled along the rushing mountain stream, he passed forest glens, steepled churches, clapboard homes and an ancient-looking cemetery with perfectly mowed grass. By Lathrop’s estimate, the Green Mountain State has some of the best scenery in the country. Finding the warehouse, he backed into the dock located inside a garage and said that this was where he really earned his money. Going from a brighter area to a darker area makes it hard to see in your side mirrors.

Lathrop handled it with aplomb, however. And, after 1,658 miles, the load was delivered.

Truckers and Self-Defense Series (Article 5 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