When the road still ‘set you free’
Remember when sleepers were rare, air ride and AC were unheard of? When you held back 80,000 pounds down Donner and other passes with no Jake? When no one drove in tore-off muscle shirt, shorts and flip-flops?

By Ben Nighthorse Campbell
OOIDA life member and U.S. Senator retired

As I look back  on a lifetime of on-and-off truck driving, I can still remember my first job at 14 years old driving a flatbed Model A Ford with no windshield, picking up boxes of freshly picked pears in the orchards, transporting them to a loading dock and then hand-loading them onto a big rig for their trip to a fruit-packing plant in Auburn, CA.

I had graduated from “picker” to “hauler” and how I envied the drivers of the big diesels. I distinctly remember there were very few overweight truck drivers in those days. No drop and hook, no power steering and mostly hand loads kept drivers trim and strong. Their reputation of being tough was well-deserved.

After joining the U.S. Air Force in 1951, I did some driving, mostly 6x6s delivering supplies during the Korean War. My first real over-the-road job came after I was discharged and entered San Jose State College in 1954.

The trucks of those days were underpowered beasts compared to the new rigs of today. Most engines were normally aspirated 150-horsepower Cummins or GMC two-cycle engines that were referred to as “Jimmy Screamers” because of the high rpm operating range. Some trucks were still Buda or Waukesha-powered. Who would have thought that the day would come when trucks would have so much power they could go up hills faster than down hills? 

Trailers were mostly 40 to 42 feet long. To get away from the limited trailer length, tractors were often a long wheel base with a 10-foot dromedary. Sleepers were rare while air ride suspension, power windows, tilt steering, air conditioners and all of the nice things that make new trucks of today so comfortable were unheard of.

Still, my enthusiasm never waned due to the friendship and camaraderie of the drivers. Can you believe we used to wave to each other when passing on the road and always stopped to help a broke-down rig? Most drivers wore company shirts and felt a professional kinship to other drivers. No one drove in tore-off muscle shirts, shorts and flip-flops.

The West Coast and those states bordering California were my domain. Interstates 5 and 80 as well as beltways around all modern metro areas were still a future dream, while passes like the Tehachapi, the Altamont, the Donner, the Pacheco and the notorious “Grapevine” between Bakersfield and Los Angeles kept our hair on end.

Remember, we were holding back 80,000 pounds on those passes without Jake brakes. Mostly we held them back with prayers. Dragging those loads up the grades at 10 mph allowed us to open the driver’s door while keeping a right foot on the throttle so we could stay cool. Two feet of flames would create a steady stream of exhaust fire from the stack. Speaking of the stack, more than one driver ended their career hard of hearing in their right ear from too many years of a barking right stack.

Each time I cross Donner Summit between Reno and Sacramento on I-80, I am taken back to the summer of 1956. Three drivers who were with Doudell Trucking in San Jose – including me – were assigned the duties of delivering dozens of 80-foot steel beams one at a time to Donner Pass. These beams were used to span the Truckee River and the Southern Pacific Railroad for the new I-80 freeway.

Our trucks with those beams were so long that we could not get around the two lane curves going down the old Donner Pass without having the state patrol block the road from other traffic.

I met some real characters who were always trying for more power to get over those passes. There was the guy who transplanted a WWII P51 Mustang engine into his rig (kept twisting off the drive line) and the guy who added a pusher engine under the rear of his trailer, which he could activate with a cut in-cut out switch in the cab. This worked pretty well until cresting the summit on the Grapevine late one night when he pulled the cut-off switch in the rear engine. The switch came off in his hand with the engine running wide open. He lived through that wreck, but many drivers who were slower thinkers did not.

Still, even though it was a tough job pulling the passes, my love of the road was never dampened.

Big rigs in those days had two gearboxes and two gear shift sticks. The main gearbox was usually a five-speed while the “brownie” was a three- or four-speed.

Skillful drivers rarely used a clutch when they were rolling, preferring to get the engine in synch with the gearbox and rear end and just slide them in. Many would shift the main tranny with the left hand and the “brownie” with the right hand at the same time, which was called “gear splitting.” They held the steering wheel steady with their belly or upper left arm by reaching for the shift lever through the steering wheel spokes. Most of the old-time two-stick men thought the Roadranger transmissions developed in the late 1960s were for sissies, just as most Roadranger drivers of the 1990s thought anyone using an automatic transmission was a sissy.

In those days there was very little government oversight. No logbooks, no CDLs or endorsements, no anti-idling laws, no GPS trackers or mandatory rest times, no driving tests or physicals. Catnaps on the seat during fruit harvest while driving 36 to 48 hours or more were the norm. If you weren’t willing to suffer through it, you were gone and someone else would be waiting to take your job.

There were no truck driving schools I am aware of. Mostly, if you got a job as a new driver, you got a “Class A” license and one or two days of getting used to a truck in the truck yard and one day with a training driver. Then you were on the road on your own.

Scales and ports of entry were manned by the state patrol in those days and weren’t much of a problem if you were a fast talker. If you were overloaded while working the harvest, usually a few boxes of fresh fruit off-loaded behind the scale house took care of the problem. You try that now and you go to jail.

I’m getting a little long in the tooth now, but still pass my physical and have 20/20 vision. Hopefully, the Lord will let me go down the road for a few more years. After 65 years of no accidents and ticket-free truck driving (not so lucky in cars), I look back on my driving career and trips I’ve made. What great memories.

Some of those trips were “escapes” from the U.S. Senate (1993-2005). When I could, I’d take a break from DC, go home to Colorado, and climb in my truck. At the time I retired, I was the only U.S. senator who also delivered beer out of the Coors and Budweiser breweries in Colorado.

Ah, those were the days, my friends, and how I miss them. So when you fellow OOIDA drivers cruise over that pass in comfort, think of us old-timers who drove when the “freedom of the road” still set you free. LL

Editor’s note: In November, Ben will be at the wheel of a custom decorated truck provided by Mack Trucks delivering the Capitol Christmas Tree to DC. It’s the second time he’s been chosen as the driver for the annual tree project. Watch for the report in an upcoming issue.