To truck drivers, “flatbed” or “flatbedding” is a verb.
“Flat bedding” allows a driver to haul such a variety of products it gives them opportunities to go places and see things that a lot of drivers could not normally do.
Flatbed truckers carry large heavy objects like coiled steel, heavy road equipment, insulation, automotive parts and truck chassis for big commercial trucks.
The items carried on a flatbed are as varied as the people who drive them.
Truckers can handle 80,000 pounds of tractor-trailer rig safely, going years without an accident.
They are self-motivated types who understand the value of a dollar and are unafraid of working hard, long hours.
The Tulsa Business Journal talked to five truckers from two of the largest Tulsa-based trucking companies — three from Arrow Trucking, based at 4230 S. Elwood Ave., and two drivers from Melton Truck Lines, at 808 N. 161st East Ave.
They are safe. They have seen the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Collectively, they have been from Mexico City to the North Slope of Alaska; from Newfoundland to San Ysidro south of San Diego.
They do not agree on truck stop food. But, they all make sure they eat right. They pack their rig with cooking utensils and appliances, and they shop for the right foods. They eat light: Salads, soups and chicken.
“Some of the these truck drivers look like they are laying in the buffet eating,” said one driver.
“I don’t want to grow to 500 pounds,” said another.
They agree trucking is a “great life” but warn it can be a cutthroat business for the uninformed or the careless. They liken their company to family.
“It is what you make of it,” said one.
Allan Johnson, 55, has driven 2.1 million miles for Melton Truck Lines without an accident.
Of the truck drivers TBJ talked to, Johnson was the only one actually driving in Oklahoma. He was dropping a load of mineral at Sheffield steel in Sand Springs.
Johnson earned his trucking license when he was 18. That was 34 years ago. He’s consistently been in the business the last 25 years.
Like many drivers, someone in his family influenced Johnson to become a trucker.
“My father was a truck driver,” Johnson said.
His first love out of high school was mechanical engineering.
He quickly admits trucking “is a long way from mechanical engineering.”
Riding in a cab atop the tractor-trailer rig was enticing.
“We lived on Long Island and my dad drove for a private carrier. I was 12, 13, 14, and went with dad for the first time to the New York piers.
“If you are a truck driver, it is not a fun experience. But as a kid, it is phenomenal,” Johnson said, recalling the day. “You see all the ships, the other trucks, the cranes, and you say, ‘Whoa! I think I like this.’”
Never Met a Man …
For Johnson, it is not the driving he enjoys as much as it is meeting people.
Johnson likes a good conversation.
“Oh man. They did not warn you that I am a talker,” he said, adding that his average cell phone usage is 8,000 minutes a month.
For Johnson, being a flatbed trucker is all about the sites and experiences.
Johnson’s seen much of North America.
“I’ve been to Vancouver Island by ferry. I’ve been to the Everglades right after Hurricane Hugo tore it up.”
Johnson has been from San Ysidro near the Mexican border to nine out of 10 Canadian provinces.
At the same time, Johnson is intrigued with what he gets to see on the job. His curiosity and his engineer’s mind get a workout. What a casual observer might see as a mundane delivery excites Johnson, as he is able to see things the rest of us don’t.
“For example, I just came out of the steel mill in Sand Springs. Now, no one gives it a second thought what the steel your car is made out of — or your lawnmover, or bicycle, or anything else that is made out of metal,” Johnson said. “No one gives it a second thought — about how the process starts.
“In my job, I get to see how the steel for my truck was made. How it was forged. How they add minerals when it is in its molten state. How they separate the slag.”
And not just steel, it is the same for lumber, or bricks or the roofing material that goes on top the house.
“I see things that you take for granted every day. I see where it all begins.”
“There so many different things to consider,” he said. “The attitude now with the new guys is that they do not care.
“I came out here – and my generation – we are out here because we like the lifestyle. Believe or not, the thing I could not handle about working 9-to-5 is that I had weekends off,” he said.
Drivers have to take the job seriously, he stressed.
“It is a profession. It is not something that you can expect to just come out here and do it,” he said.
Johnson laments too many people drive trucks because they do not know what else to do.
Johnson once knew an airline pilot who had been laid off but earned his license.
“I asked him, ‘why are you driving a truck?’ He says, ‘because it is the only way to get insurance. What else can I do?’ “
Once he was called back, the pilot announced he was “Outa here!”
“He said, ‘There is no way I could do this for a living,’” Johnson said. “If you can’t drive a truck without the right reason, you cannot be good at it. Take it seriously.”
Eating Out? No Way
Johnson hates to eat at truck stops.
“You picked the wrong guy for that question,” he said. “I do not eat at truck stops.”
Truck stops have unhealthy menus and they are expensive, he said.
“They are not cheap,” he said. “And the healthier you want to eat at a truck stop, the more it will cost you.”
In his truck, Johnson carries two refrigerators, a toaster oven, a microwave and two single-burner stoves.
What he does is plan his meals and buy the groceries.
“I love going to Wal-Mart,” he said. “It is like a two-hour vacation from the truck. You get out, stretch your legs and walk around, meeting everyday people. Anything you buy for the house, I buy for the truck — only in smaller quantities. Or, maybe not. I have a lot of stuff in this truck.”
Flatbed trucking is the back bone of transportation in the U.S., Johnson said.
“Flat bedding” is a not just putting something on a truck and closing the doors, he said.
“It is knowing how to get it on that bed. How to secure it safely, making sure it is on the trailer safely and making sure it stays there from Point A to Point B,” he said.
Carl Adams, 63, has been driving over-the-road 37 years and has logged more than 3 million miles accident free.
Adams was a youngster when he was exposed to trucking while riding with his uncle, Frank Adams. The uncle drove trucks for the U.S. government in Europe and Korea. Once back in the States, he joined the Teamsters Union and drove in Philadelphia.
Carl Adams started driving when he was 19 while living in New York in the 1960s and he also joined the Teamsters.
“I worked for the Old Man — Jimmy Hoffa,” he said.
While in New York he delivered steel girders for the World Trade Center towers that were being constructed in 1975.
He worked in New York for about 10 years before moving to Napa Valley, Calif.
“Lived near Roy Rogers,” he said. “I knew Roy and Dale Evans.”
Adams has driven from the North Slope of Alaska to Mexico City.
He’s hauled parts of the London Bridge to Lake Havasu, Ariz.
He’s driven on the ice roads in Canada near Yellowknife.
“It is like going in the wilderness in the pioneer days,” he said. “Today, they test it. Scrape it using road scrapers and spray water on it all the time.”
Otherwise, “you wind up at the bottom of the lake.”
What’s on television is often dramatized, Adams said.
“You have to cross at a certain speed. You have to know how to shift a truck,” he said. “Because, if you don’t you start a surge and can break the ice.”
Ice road truckers have rules, he said. They have a maximum speed limit of 30 mph and must maintain separation on the ice.
“On TV they make it look like they are driving 60 mph. That is not on the lake,” he said.
Adams has hauled equipment weighing 180,000 to 190,000 pounds across the lake.
In the 1980s, Adams drove oil field and military equipment and ammunition across the U.S.
Adams loves history, likes to meet people and travel all over the country.
“What a way to go and without paying for it,” he said, laughing.
Trucking has been good for his family as he’s raised two daughters and sent them through college. He’s been married to Earlene for 36 years.
“She rode around the country with me until our first daughter was born,” he said
“This is a good industry if you are interested in it,” Adams said. “You can make a career out of it. But, it is just like any career, you have to put effort into it.”
Many drivers attempt to buy their truck first, but Adams encouraged anyone new to trucking to lean the system.
“Just like you do any other business. You are going to have ups and downs just like any other industry. It does get slow at times.”
Drivers have to put effort into the job just like any other job, he said.
Trucking can be cutthroat.
“You have to be independent. There is not much communication,” Adams said. “If they know that you know what you are doing, a lot of times they don’t even hear from me.”
Where to Eat
Learning the best places to eat is strictly word of mouth, Adams said.
“You can ask where to eat and if nine people out of 10 tell you, then you can bet it will be a good place,” he said.
Adams strives to eat healthy.
“I am 63 years old. I have not been sick a day in my a life,” he said. “I look more like I am in my late 50s. I feel pretty good.
If people enjoy traveling, then being an over-the-road trucker is the industry to get into.
“You’re away from home, sometimes four weeks at a time. You have to have an understanding wife, too.
“If you like to be home, this is not the place to be,” Adams said.
Jeff Keen began working with gunnite, filling swimming pools, when he first became interested in trucking.
“I was always interested in road graders and trucks and stuff like that,” Keen said. “So, I had the opportunity to learn how to drive and pursued it.”
He started around 1982 and has been driving for 25 years.
Keen, based in Porterville, Calif., has more than 12 years and 1 million safe miles with Arrow Trucking.
Keen has been across the United States “hundreds of times.”
“You have freedom,” Keen said. “You see the sites.”
Sure, a trucker might run across the same road 100 times, but there is always something new that pops up.
Keen has been as far north as St. Johns, Newfoundland, as far south as Florida, as far west as Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He’s been to San Diego, Maine, Chicago and Long Island, New York “and everything in between.”
Keen is quick to point out that trucking “is not as easy as it looks.”
“It is a very demanding job. You work long hours and for not as much as you would be paid with an hourly job.”
But, the pay can be good. A drawback is that a truck driver will spend 24 to 28 weeks out of the year in or around the truck.
“It is not like a 9-to-5 job,” he said.
“It is not what you see on TV,” Keen said. “It is a hard job. You are away from family and friends. You sacrifice home time.”
“There are good times. There are hard times — bad times. “But, it all works out.”
Keen has been on the road long enough that he just knows where to stop and eat.
Most of the time, if he does eat out, it is where he stops for fuel.
But most of the time he brings his own supplies.
“I have a refrigerator, a microwave and a George Foreman grill,” Keen said. “So, generally, I try to eat healthy. I try to eat better than just truck stop food.”
When he does eat out, his favorite is steak and potatoes or bacon and eggs.
Some of the worst weather he’s been in includes ice and snow in Texas, a nasty downpour in New Mexico. The worst usually is when the weather changes without warning.
“I’ve been in sunshine in the morning. And, by the time you get out that night, you’d be in snow and rain.”
Keen’s dream would be to haul a road train in Australia. A “road train” is a tractor-trailer rig pulling between four to eight trailers.
“Those ice road drivers — they work hard,” Keen said. “It is dangerous,” he said. “I’ve only considered doing that in my wildest dreams.”
Australia, however, “would be different.”
“You have to carry spare parts. It would be like driving from New York to California with no truck stop on the way.
Jesse Davis has been with Melton Truck Lines 10 years and has driven 1.2 million safe miles.
He was driver of the year in 2004, beating out 900 others.
“It makes you feel good about the company,” he said.
It is a great conversation piece on the road, too.
“Customers notice,” he said.
He first rode in a tractor-trailer rig while growing up in Florida.
“I fell in love with this kind of work when I was a kid,” Davis recalled.
“My uncle, Arthur Dobbins Jr., gave me a ride in a 18-wheeler. He drove a tanker in Florida, hauling fuel to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center,” he said.
It was during the climax of the space race in the late 1960s when the U.S. was about to put men on the moon. Dobbins hauled oxygen, nitrogen and rocket fuel.
Davis was a pre-teen when he got his first taste of trucking. The experience was enough to get him hooked.
“I never went to school. The kind of school I learned from was the ‘school of hard knocks,’” he said, with a self-deprecating humor.
He got his start in California and in 1978 worked as a long-haul freight hauler between Nevada and California.
Davis has majored on flatbed trucking — hauling a 48-foot open trailer with no sides.
“I liked it because every load was a challenge. You are doing something different every load,” Davis said. “All different kinds of freight. You might be haulin’ coils this week, next week you might be haulin’ lumber, the week after that you might be hauling glass.”
Being an over-the-road, long-haul driver is a demanding business. Davis encourages anyone interested in doing it is to find out all they can about it.
“See if it is something you would like. There is lots of time away from family, your children and home. You might not see home for two to three weeks.
“Where else can you do something you love and get paid for it?” he said.
Davis and his wife, Patricia, “practically live out here,” he said. They have been together on the road six years.
Their three children are grown and they have 13 grandchildren.
“They buy into it,” he said.
Dan Siebert loves the independence trucking gives him.
Siebert, a top trainer at Arrow Trucking, has been with the company five years.
He was exposed to trucking as a young man as his parents owned their own trucking firm.
He worked his way through the organization and at age 22, began driving full time.
That was about 20 years ago.
He praises Arrow Trucking for the camaraderie.
“Arrow is a family oriented company. They take care of you.”
Once, broken down on the road, the company paid a repair bill that was thousands of dollars. Siebert has been allowed to repay it over time.
Cue Johnny Cash
Siebert has seen it all across the U.S.
He spent five years on the Alaska Highway hauling pipe. The Alcan, as it is commonly called, connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia, with Fairbanks, Alaska.
He’s hauled 200,000-pound excavators, a dozer, oilfield equipment, pipe and glass.
“I’ve been in every major city in the U.S.,” he said.
His advice to anyone starting out in trucking is to “learn everything you can.”
He admits the business can be tough.
“It can be cutthroat, even dangerous,” he said.
There is a freedom on the road, but there is a flip side to it, he cautions. Drivers are away from home for days and weeks.
“Some can’t handle the solitude,” he said.
Plus, drivers need to have mental toughness.
“It is not just a lot of physical ability,” he said.
Parked in Indiana in a snowstorm during a conversation, Siebert stressed the importance of being alert.
“You have to stay sharp. The first time you let your guard down …” he said.
Siebert tells anyone who asks about the business to find a good, reliable truck driving school.
“Learn as much as you can,” he said.
Many drivers, in their hurry to graduate and hop behind the wheel, fail to master the skills needed to avoid trouble and find success.
A new rig today is worth $130,000, “at 8.5 percent interest,” he said.
Driving is about more being able to read maps. Know the terrain. Understand road conditions.
“And, know the law,” he said. “There are 400 pages of federal laws, and a $2,000 ticket can tear up a paycheck.”
The fact that drivers are turned loose too soon on the road shows up in accident statistics, he said.
“The accident rates are outrageous,” he said.
It can cost $200,000 to right a truck and re-load it after a rollover, he said. ?