Truckers have found ups, downs on the road

by Joel Stottrup

Special to the Star News

Long-haul truckers Gene Manderschied, John Ahner and Harry Kluge of the Zimmerman-Princeton area have learned a few things in their many years shepherding 18-wheel rigs across the country.

Their lessons are mostly for anyone considering becoming an over-the-road, or OTR trucker. But some of what they learned as drivers could be helpful to anyone.

Ahner, the youngest of the three at 48, said he doesn’t haul as much as he used to. He spends the majority of his time now running his nearly 12-year-old business, John Ahner Express.

Photos by Joel StottrupLocal trucker Jay Ingalls.
Photos by Joel Stottrup
Local trucker Jay Ingalls.

Ahner called the owner-operator trucker a “dying breed,” explaining that more truckers are now working for a company.

“Buying the tractor, the expense to get started and the fuel will eat you up,” Ahner said.

“You’ve got to be willing to work hard. You’ve got to like being by yourself. There is a lot of alone time. It’s not a vacation like a lot of people think.

“They think you’re out to see the countryside,” Ahner continued.

In reality, the trucker is most often fixed on the traffic and where to turn off, getting to destinations on time and within regulated driving hours, and keeping the log book up to date, he said.

But it can be a rewarding job, meeting a lot of interesting people, Ahner continued. Among those, Ahner said, are shipping and receiving workers, waitresses and even law enforcement.

But trucking is less profitable now than years ago and is definitely not a get-rich-quick career, Ahner said.

One of the biggest expenses is the fuel for these rigs that Ahner says get 5 to 7 mpg.

California is the high-cost spot for fuel, Ahner said, noting that a recent price for diesel there was $4.55 per gallon. Manderschied recalled diesel selling for $4.06 in Ohio on Dec. 19.

Diesel has hung steady at about $3.75 and above per gallon, while gasoline has been dropping significantly within the past month, even dipping below $3 per gallon.

“Hopefully, as fuel goes up, the company (having the freight hauled) will increase the fuel surcharge to stay the same ratio,” Manderschied said. “But if your truck gets 5 mpg and the company has the rate set up for 6 mpg, you’re losing money.”

The three truckers also talked about maintenance costs.

John Ahner stands next to his 2007 Kenworth tractor that he owns as part of owning and operating John Ahner Express.
John Ahner stands next to his 2007 Kenworth tractor that he owns as part of owning and operating John Ahner Express.

Not only is there the cost of parts and labor, but the down time for repair is costly because of not being able to be keep the truck earning money. To get a taste of that, just ask Manderschied, 64, how the second full week of December 2012 went for him.

“It was pretty ugly,” he said.

Manderschied had already spent three days of down time to replace a bad turbocharger that was still under warranty. Then, somewhere between Philadelphia and Ohio, his “high boost” engine light went on and his windshield wiper motor went out. Applying Rain-X on the windshield was able to get him by until North Jackson, Ohio, he said.

Once mechanics had replaced the wiper motor and a couple of engine sensors, his bill was close to $800.

Manderschied’s warranty on his turbo, incidentally, was in effect because it was part of the new engine he had to install in his truck in September 2010, at a cost of $25,000. Down time for that job was 14 weeks.

Trucking expenses are higher now, with tires being one example. In 2001, it cost about $1,200 for a set of four semi truck tires, and now it is $1,800-plus, Ahner said.

Kluge, 63, who first drove truck at age 16 hauling potatoes, sweet corn and other produce, has been trucking for 32 years, with a few other jobs sandwiched in between — including a stint at Hoffman Engineering in Anoka.

He talked about excessive waiting at loading docks cutting into valuable driving time.

Kluge remembers the day, about eight years ago, when he arrived at a steel mill in Pittsburgh to load plate steel and having to wait while a trucker and his wife took four to five hours to load. Kluge said that because of that, he had to “burn 3.5 hours,” waiting his turn.

“But it’s no use blowing your top … or chewing (someone out) or giving them an attitude adjustment,” Kluge said. He said he had to “bite his tongue” not to complain.

Kluge said that was a good thing, telling how the couple left an hour before he did, when snow had begun falling. Later, as Kluge was on his way down a toll road near South Bend, Ind., he noticed the couple’s semi truck tipped over in a ditch. Kluge said it had just happened and the man was dead, and Kluge stopped and asked authorities if they had noticed a woman in the truck and they hadn’t. They then checked and found her alive in the sleeper.

It’s better to hold back when someone is an inconvenience “because you never know,” Kluge said, noting that he had visited with the couple at the loading dock. He felt he had made a friend there.

Kluge, whose trucking has been a combination of short and long hauls, talked about the federal regulations on driving hours.

According to the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) operator may not drive beyond the 14th consecutive hour after coming on duty, following 10 consecutive hours off duty. Off-duty time does not extend the 14-hour period. Also, a CMV operator is not allowed to drive more than 11 hours after being on duty 10 consecutive hours.

Ahner said he wishes the driving-time regulations were more flexible, so that if a person doesn’t sleep well in the required break period, the driver can take a short sleep break during the next on-duty period without being penalized time-wise.

Truckers are required to keep a written log of all of these hours, and also record the amount of fuel they purchase and where. Each state exacts a road tax on truckers, which can happen when they buy their fuel in that state. But if the trucker does not buy fuel in a state they are driving through, they will have to still send the state the tax due, Kluge noted.

Kluge says his wife, Pat, is his clerical worker, keeping track of his road taxes.

Manderschied’s start

Manderschied has been trucking for himself for 30 years, after deciding that hauling cattle wasn’t going to work out as a career. He was introduced to trucking by his father while growing up at Lake William near Willmar.

“All I remember growing up was wanting to drive truck,” said Manderschied, who for years has pulled a refrigerated trailer loaded with fish and other meat out of Atlanta.

Changes in scenery is one of the draws of being a long-haul trucker for Manderschied, who prefers driving east rather than west because, he said, he sees more scenery changes heading east.

One of Manderschied’s highway mishap stories took place in 1982, when his cab-over truck caught fire on Interstate 29 near Omaha. Manderschied remembers the truck cab full of smoke like a fog, with a red glow showing through where the insulation had caught fire from the burning engine, and not being able to see out his windshield. He was only able to come to a stop alongside the road, he said, because of someone coaching him over his CB radio. About the time he came to a stop, he said, the CB wires had burned through, shutting down the CB.

Some truckers stopped and helped Manderschied extinguish the fire.

Manderschied is among those bringing up the problem of people texting while driving. During the two to three seconds of looking down at the cell phone, a vehicle can travel quite a distance, he said.

Treasured memory

But the trucking story Manderschied treasures the most was in his earliest days of trucking. It was 15 or so years ago, when he stayed for a weekend at a truck stop at New Orleans, and he and three other truckers there got together and watched a movie and went to a mall. When Sunday night arrived, he said, he came to realize why some truckers don’t like to make friendships with other truckers on the road, because they may never see them again.

Manderschied was asked if the trucking song, “Six Days on the Road,” made famous by the late Dave Dudley, applies to today’s long-haul trucker. There are some truckers who will stay out on the road for as much as two months at a time, but it is by their choice, he answered. Most companies now design the runs so the trucker can get back and forth in about a day, Manderschied said.

Manderschied, Kluge and Ahner all agreed that a trucker can make a living, but they have to be careful in their choices.

Kluge said that if someone asked him about becoming a trucker, he would hesitate a second and then ask what the person knows about trucking. He then might advise them to first drive for a company for a couple of years to see what it is like instead of just jumping in with a big investment.

Manderschied, who enjoys listening to satellite radio shows of old radio programs from his youth for hours while driving his truck, says a trucker will have times when they are “blessed, making good,” but also periods of being “cursed.” For that reason, he suggests that truckers, and anyone for that matter, put away some money each paycheck, even if it is a relatively small amount. If they don’t, he said, they won’t have buying power when they want to “buy some toys.”

Despite the challenges of making a living as a long-haul trucker, Manderschied calls it the “greatest occupation.”

At least it fits for Manderschied and Ahner, the latter calling himself a “working fool.” The two said they enjoy the alone time in their truck, and Manderschied isn’t really quite alone inside his. He has Bob Hope, Johnny Dollar, The Shadow, the Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers and others from his childhood keeping him company.