Kids have been crazy for trucks since they first started appearing regularly on America’s roads during and after the First World War, and the latest generation of kids shows no signs of abandoning their love for trucks anytime soon.
“When the grandchildren come to visit, the first thing they go for are the trucks,” said Colleen Kelly Mellor, the author of a series of books intended to introduce kids to the adventures that her husband, Paul Wesley Gates, experienced over 30 years of driving the big rigs across country. “They are always saying, ‘Grandpa, tell us about the trucks.’ They’re fascinated.”
Gates, whose CB handle was “Gator,” also fell in love with trucks when he was a boy.
“I was in the roofing business when I was 18 and we needed someone to drive the truck, to place the truck so that they could easily reach the nails and shingles as they worked and I told them, ‘I can do it,’” said Gator, an Arkansas native who is now retired and living in Warwick with Colleen, a retired Cranston schoolteacher. “I also learned to operate heavy equipment but I really liked driving trucks.”
Gator came of age when there was still mandatory military service and he chose to go into the Navy Seabees, where his experience with trucks and big machines would be appreciated. He was stationed at Quonset for most of his hitch in the Navy, but his specialty sent him to a number of places to train other drivers and equipment operators. After the service, roofing didn’t hold much appeal for Gator and in 1968, he bought his first truck and started to work for Greyhound Van Lines.
“It was a Ford W1000 and I used it to haul household goods,” he said.
It was what happened on the road that the kids like to hear about, as when Gator was holed up in a motel in Biloxi, Miss., when Hurricane Camille came ashore.
“I was dead tired and I went to sleep,” said Gator. “Then I woke up and the sky and the stars were shining. I asked someone what happened and he told me, the hurricane took the roof off.”
Gator was also on the road just in time to get caught up in the biggest counterculture event of the 1960s.
“I was heading out on a trip and I was on Route 17 in New York when all the traffic stopped moving,” said Gator. “Traffic was backed up in both directions because of all the cars people just stopped and walked away from to go to Woodstock. We couldn’t move for three days.”
Gator said he didn’t lose anything but time during Woodstock, but one of the other truck drivers was hauling 1,000 pounds of watermelon and it wasn’t in a refrigerated truck.
“He knew the watermelons would spoil, so he started giving it away,” said Gator. “The kids were starving, so he just started carving up the watermelon and handing it out.”
Woodstock aside, the trucking business was booming in those days. The interstate highway system was still relatively new and long distance truck drivers gave the freight industry an economically viable alternative to railroads that offered real flexibility and freedom. The system is probably the single most important achievement of the Eisenhower presidency. Dwight D. Eisenhower was impressed by the network of high-speed roads he found in Germany and was quick to recognize its strategic importance to military and civilian life. It enabled large amounts of goods to be delivered to areas not directly served by railroads. Eisenhower was determined to build the highways that lawmakers had been talking about since the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 had authorized the construction of a 40,000-mile “National System of Interstate Highways.” The act authorized the system but provided no money for it. Eisenhower got the money for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Trucks could go anywhere and trucks now carry over 70 percent of the freight in America. By the 1960s, the public was about to become familiar with the truck driving culture. By the 1970s, the world of the trucker opened up and single-handedly exploded the use of Citizens Band (CB) radio.
The FCC began to permit citizens a radio band for personal communication in 1945 for things like radio-controlled model airplanes and family and business communications. Technical advances reduced the weight, size and cost of the radios.
The 1973 oil crisis brought the 55 miles per hour speed limit and fuel shortages. CB radio was used to notify other drivers of speed traps and gas stations and truck stops that had increasingly rare supplies of fuel. They also helped organize blockades and convoys in a 1974 strike protesting the new speed limit. The use of CB radios in 1970s films such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Convoy,” and popular television shows like “Movin' On” in 1974, brought more people to CB radio but it also publicized the issues of concern to truck drivers and the industry in general.
But kids didn’t need CB or movies to make them fall in love with trucks. The inherent power of the machines and the freedom of the open road appeal to children of all cultures, and Colleen and Gator hope that their series of books about Grandpa and the Truck will be popular introductions to the world of trucking and to give some wholesome messages along the way.
“Grandpa and the Truck” books one and two have already been published and, according to Colleen, are beginning to catch on with people in trucking, if not the rest of the world. As a retired teacher, she couldn’t resist putting a “Questions for this story” section in the books, or the list of trucker terms and their meanings at the end of each volume. But the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association had some encouraging words.
“The ‘Grandpa and the Truck’ stories focus on the hard-working men and women who sacrifice time away from home and families to make sure goods arrive on time for others,” they wrote. “As such, they’re a tribute to truckers everywhere.”
With that kind of endorsement, Colleen believes that placing the books at truck stops would be a logical next step, but she expects the appeal to be broader than that.
“I expect we will put at least a few hundred books at truck stops,” said Colleen. “When Grandpa started to tell my three grandsons his truck stories and they started asking him for them ever since, I knew this was a good idea.”
You can buy the books on Amazon.com and you can learn more about the books at grandpaandthetruck.com.