Top sat across the table from me in the church’s dining hall three weeks ago. The only other person in the room was his darling and ever-serene wife of fifty-three years, Elsie. We all had our own Styrofoam cups – his and Elsie’s with steaming black coffee and I nursing a Mountain Dew. I had asked him to come to the Wednesday evening Bible study early so we could talk. I’ve known Top (Ronnie Hogue) only a couple years, as I’ve been attending this church that long, but we acted as if we’d known each other all our lives. Veterans tend to be like that. He was one of the lucky guys that got to play over in Vietnam back in the sixties (he’ll laugh at that when he reads it – if he gets time to log onto the internet), and then decided to stay in the Army 20 years. By the time he retired in the late eighties he was a First Sergeant, an E-8, so that’s why I call him Top. He’s put on a few pounds since then (as have I) but the extra weight just makes him look more imposing. I certainly would be honored to share a foxhole with Top. He’s in his 70s now, which would have made him a teenager when he and Elsie tied the knot, so I know she’s gone through a lot, too. Not only did they survive Nam, but a couple of tours in South Korea and Germany also. I think retired veteran’s wives should get some kind of combat pay, but that’s another article.
Our meeting, however, isn’t related to Top’s military career, although after twenty years of service, you could argue that everything afterwards is related because the discipline, the dedication, the honor, the commitment, the grit gets into the veteran’s very DNA and influences the rest of his or her life. I had asked Top to come early so we could talk about his second career as a big truck driver. There had been a fair amount of talk lately on the internet about truckers descending on the nation’s capital to protest everything from the government shutdown to Obamacare to the NSA eavesdropping on citizens or any combination of a couple dozen other fiascos going on in DC. There was a couple of Facebook sites – Truckers to Shutdown America and Truckers Ride for the Constitution – that were pushing for a three day shutdown of their own from October 11th to the 13th, and a protest in the capital with an army of trucks bogging down the area. I told him what I’d read and asked him what he thought.
“It ain’t gonna happen,” he drawled in his casual Alabama accent. “Ain’t no way they’re let that many trucks get into DC, and they sure as heck ain’t gonna quit workin’ all over the country for three days.”
I was a little taken aback. I’d never heard Top speak with such confidence about something outside of the scripture. Elsie’s eyes sparkled and she gave a little smile as if telling me I’d better listen.
“First of all,” he continued, “there ain’t anywhere near the same number of truckers in unions as there was back in my day. Most drivers work in somebody else’s rig, and if they was to up and roll into DC with the company’s truck, they wouldn’t have a job when they got back. Same thing’d happen if they set their rigs down for three days. These fellas gotta work just to get food on their family’s table, and I don’t mean 40 hours a week. Your average long haul trucker is usually gone a week at a time, then they’d be lucky if they get 48 hours at home before they have to go out again. They ain’t making a whole lot of money, either. Never did.”
He knew I had been to the 2 Million Bikers to DC, and spoke to that. “These bikers, they did a good thing, but tryin’ to compare truckers to them is crazy. Truckers’ gotta work!” I asked him what it would take for the truckers to make their unhappiness known to the government. Top sat back in his chair and stuck his hands in his overalls with his thumbs exposed. “All they’d have to do is stop haulin’ fuel and produce for a week. That would get the government’s attention! That would get everyone’s attention! Especially if folks can’t get their gas or perishables. That would do it.”
“This business of going to DC and cloggin’ up traffic ain’t gonna do nothin’ but make a lot of people mad. Most folks today don’t realize how much their lives depends on the trucking industry. Chances are, if you’ve got something, it was hauled in a truck.” He let me stew on that a few seconds as he took a swig of his coffee. “There’s only been a few strikes that’s made any difference. In ’73 a bunch of independent truckers went on strike over fuel costs, low pay and weigh stations. In ’76 the Teamsters went on strike, but it only took three days before they got what they wanted. In ’79, though, they had a strike for nine days, and that about broke the back of commerce. Food was rottin’ in stores, folks were lined up around the block for gas, it was a mess. In ’97 the Teamsters had a strike of UPS drivers for about two weeks, and that had a big impact. Yep, if you want to make ’em squirm, hit ’em in their pockets.”
Top shifted in his chair. “But it ain’t the government that’s gonna suffer. Business will, and the people will. Especially the drivers and their families. Nah, things’d have to be pretty bad to make drivers around the country strike.”
“Things are pretty bad,” I answered. “You don’t need me to tell you what’s going on, Top. We talk about it all the time.”
“Yeah, but truckers will need a good reason to strike. You let their taxes go up or the price of gas to shoot through the roof, or-”
“Or having to spend more money on their health insurance because of Obamacare,” I chided in.
“Yeah, that’d do it,too. It’s gotta be well organized, though, and it’s gotta make an impact, or it’ll be for nothin'”
We moved on to other subjects, but Top’s words struck me deep. If truckers across the country shut down, they would have to be willing to lose their jobs. It would take an entity with the funds to back them legally and insure they get their jobs back, and be willing to take care of their mortgages for as long as it took. The whole thing smacked of lawyers, and that’s a far cry from anything I had imagined. I went home that night and began digging into the world of another army of our nation’s warriors, the truckers.
To Be Continued…