Thursday, December 22, 2011

A call from the North Pole

Two, four and nine. Those are the ages of three kids in one of the trucking families who would have had little under the tree if not for a surprise gift of $700. The cash came from an unlikely benefactor.

Calling themselves the “Christmas group,” a small troop of volunteer truckers raise money for other truckers in need. The effort has now has grown into an extraordinary group called Trucker Charity Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization with its main office located in Summerfield, IL. While Trucker Charity works all year to help needy drivers, the Christmas effort is the traditional heart of their charitable work.

Tuesday night they set up a conference line and methodically went through the process of calling 10 families and surprising them with a generous, no-strings attached gift of cash. With every call, it was announced that they were “calling from the North Pole …”

Secretary of the Christmas group is OOIDA Member Eldon McFarling.

“Words cannot describe the feeling you get when you hear the joyful, emotional response from the family members,” Eldon said later. “It’s something you have to experience firsthand.”

Eldon and Trucker Charity president (and OOIDA Life Member) Lance Wood invited me to sit in on Tuesday night’s mission. I told them later I was glad I had a box of Kleenex handy. The spirit of Christmas was shining bright last night as they gave away $7,000 worth of MoneyGrams.

“I never knew there were so many people who cared,” said one tearful woman whose husband has ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She accepted the gift on behalf of her husband, a former expediter whose disease has progressed to the point he can’t talk.

The couple had been nominated by OOIDA Members Bob and Linda Caffee, who are Fed Ex Custom Critical owner-operators and who just happened to be home in Silex, MO. Linda Caffee joined the conference call during the presentation as she navigated downtown St. Louis.

“It was one of those moments when the true meaning of Christmas really smacks you upside the head,” Linda said later.

OOIDA Member David Gilland of Nettleton, MS, was driving across the Pennsylvania Turnpike last night while tapped into the Christmas group’s conference call. He was asked if he wanted to make the call to the couple he and some trucker friends had nominated.

“Sure,” said David, aka Bullwinkle.

Trucker Charity’s Greg Manchester explained that this couple had really been struggling. He was an ex-Marine and didn’t like a handout. But the company he was leased to had cut his miles back, there were bills to pay, and the house needed repair. Christmas was virtually non-existent for them and their three kids. The couple was speechless. She was sobbing.  

“They don’t think drivers do anything for each other anymore,” said David, who was tooling down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, connected via his Bluetooth device. “This is proof that that is just not true.”

Like David, most of the truckers who were on the conference call were doing business. Occasionally one would say something like “Hold on, I got to catch a ride to the yard.” Or “Thanks to that call, I just walked through a warehouse with tears running down my cheek.”

The group called one driver and his wife and happened to catch up with them at a West Memphis truck stop.

The family was really having a tough time of it, said Greg, and the family included a 15-year-old boy who was being home schooled in the truck.

The wife said tearfully that they really hadn’t had anything good happen in the past couple years. We talked to the couple’s son, too. He was 15 and a well-spoken kid. He told us he’d rather be on the truck with his parents than home. The boy thanked the group, saying that Christmas had not been good for the past few years. His dad chimed in, saying he’d been out on the road 40 years and never had to ask for a handout. He promised when he got back on his feet, would “pay it forward.”

I heard that “pay it forward” phrase a lot Tuesday night.

OOIDA members Debbie and Jeff Zehrer, Sauk Centre, MN, are owners of Cubby Buddy toolboxes for semi truckers. They are drivers and also sponsors of the Christmas Group. Debbie was there to get the information from each family to get the money to them in the most convenient way. You could tell she was no newbie to the process.

“Where are you gonna be tomorrow? Tennessee? Will there be a Wal-Mart close by? We’ll send you $700 in a MoneyGram or put it on your Green Dot, whatever is best for you.”

One of the last trucking families that the group contacted was a couple who happened to be talking to each other on the phone when we called. She was at home; he was on the road. They were hitting bottom, overrun with truck repairs. Within seconds, we had them both on the conference call.

“If you only knew,” he said, clearly astounded and hugely relieved by the $700 gift. “Getting this at the last minute? If you ONLY knew. I was just saying to my wife, what the heck are we gonna do?”

He was going to stay out and work Christmas, but after getting the call, he said he’d be thinking about that.

“We are all truckers, too,” the selected families were all assured. “We understand what you are going through.”

The Christmas Group trucker volunteers have been doing this for four years. In those four years, Trucker Charity Christmas Group helped 59 families and dispersed over $37,000. This year, they raised $7,000 in three weeks.

They raised the funds by selling items on the Trucker Charity Christmas Group Fundraising website and via donations.  On Dec 19, a panel of volunteers, including OOIDA Member Kerry Mullins of West Lafayette IN, and OOIDA Life Member Ralph Acocella of Hickory, NC, waded into about two dozen applications and made their way through a selection process, which is done by a secret vote and based on a point system for an unbiased treatment of the families. Out of two dozen nominations, 16 were determined viable and then came the hard part – choosing the final 10.

“It was tough choosing 10, so many truckers need help right now,” said Lance.

“We are a group who cares,” was the simple explanation.

“We are all truckers and we are from – well, all over the place,” said one participant.

On Tuesday night, though, they were all from the North Pole.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shorts, flip-flops and reindeer games

You think Wal-Mart jumps on Christmas early? Let me tell you, sugar plum, they don’t hold a motorized multi-hued LED candle to Land Line.

The editors and designers start sweating deadlines long before the temps at Grain Valley fall below 90. Sunset’s still about 8:45 CDT when “Land Line Now” news anchor Mark Reddig starts testing his permanent outdoor Christmas light display. And we contributors have to pretend it’s chestnuts, not hot dogs, roasting on an open fire.

I was still in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops when they reminded me my “cracked carols” column was coming up like January bills.

Writing parodies isn’t easy, or everyone would be Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio jock who is the fallen angel atop the Christmas song parody tree.

His classics include “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Wreck the Malls,” and the irresistible “Walking Round in Women’s Underwear.” I am not worthy.

It’s even harder to write parodies when it’s not the season, but my friend and ace gearjammer Rufus Sideswipe helped by humming his favorite Christmas song – “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” – to get me in the right frame of mind. (That’s a tough tune to write new lyrics to, by the way.)

About half the time, a tune will prompt me to replace a few words with something trucking related, and that cranks the creative engine. Other times, I’ll think about something in trucking and hum until a tune sounds like it will fit.

And it has to fit. Because Senior Editor Jami Jones thinks tune is something you do to an engine, Associate Editor David Tanner checks the songs to make sure my lyrics more or less follow the same pattern as the original. I’m glad he does that, since neither Rufus nor I could carry a tune in a tanker. But I’ve had to do some deadline rewrites, counting syllables on my fingers while trying to sing new lyrics.

But these hashed-up hosannas must be popular, since I’m still invited to do them after six – or is it eight – years? And they kinda make me miss being closer to the gang in Grain Valley and to the other Land Line stalwarts like Perfessor Paul Abelson, Suzanne Stempinski and Jeff Barker and his Bionic Burrito. It’d be a great Christmas if we could all spend it together.

So, here’s hoping you enjoy the latest installment. Maybe Bobby Boofay will video one of them for YouTube.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

OK, it’s really Christmas …. My Mack catalog is here

Every morning I get mail, email, phone calls by the armload. It’s part of the job. But last week – in my daily mail, there it was … my favorite catalog, Mack’s Bulldog Basics – Official Licensed Merchandise wish book.

Not only does it have everything needed to smartly outfit the Mack truck owner, driver and enthusiast, not to mention what you need for your Mack truck to be totally lunked out – it’s pages and pages of official bling and fun stuff for truck editors.

Mack mountain bikes, die cast collectibles, Ride-On toy trucks ... it’s a catalog for all sexes, shapes and age. T-shirts, caps and little red infant creepers with an “intake” arrow on the front pointing up and an “exhaust” arrow on the back, pointing down.

The toy pages always slow me down, but the real show stopper for me is the retro pages. Vintage Mack posters from the early to mid-1900s are printed on heavy stock and suitable for framing. I like the black and white ones best, but the showroom posters are tough looking, too. I want one of those big B-model era metal thermometers, in case I ever get my dream garage.

And I also want the Bulldog oil can bank, a new item that looks just like a vintage oil can but smaller. Another item for my dream garage-mahal – maybe even my office here at OOIDA headquarters – is the 15-inch neon clock with chrome bezel. OK, it’s $70, but (hey, Mark Reddig) it has a green NEON light.

On through the pages, you can find Christmas ornaments, Mack golfballs, golf clubs, Mack backpacks, mugs and even a signature chrome ashtray with an authentic polished chrome bulldog hood ornament mounted above the cigar clips. I don’t smoke cigars, but I would like to have one of these on my corner table in my office with a big Havana there, half smoked. People might think someone really important has been visiting me. It might be a good conversation piece.

You don’t have to be driving a Mack to sport Mack stuff. There are plenty of cool automotive accessories, a Mack mountain bike and even a Mack snow sled.

Man’s best friend has its own section in the Mack catalog – leashes, pet beds, pet chews and even a leather collar with metal studs. My favorite in this section is the stainless steel dog dish with a pewter insignia of the Mack bulldog in the Mack script. If I was a Mack owner, I would have one of these, pet or no pet. It could be an ice cream bowl for my husband.

Our senior editor Jami Jones’ favorite part of the catalog is the hood ornament page. Of course, there’s the famous chrome dog – but there’s the outfits. You can outfit your dog with a black cowboy hat, a fireman outfit, a construction helmet, a Super Hero with flowing cape, a soldier outfit with USA medallion, a pink vinyl Ginger Mack outfit (smokin’ hot!) and, wow – a Santa outfit that will have ‘em talkin’.

You don’t need to have a catalog to shop for the cool Mack stuff, which is good, since I won’t be loaning mine out. You can call 800-570-4820 or go to mackshop.com.

Monday, December 19, 2011

So I walk into the Midway Truck Stop …

Anyone who has jumped off of Interstate 70 at Exit 121 knows that there are two things you can count on about the Midway Truck Stop: friendly people and never knowing what you’re going to see.

Joe Bechtold, center,  sets up the strongman competition.
My idea of Sunday afternoon fun the week before Christmas was to load up the kids (two teens and a tween) and head out to Midway for the filming of a trucker appreciation event for the show “Truck Stop Missouri” airing on the Travel Channel.

My truck show veteran, road trippin’ savvy kids were skeptical. What could a truck stop smack-dab in the middle of Missouri do that they haven’t seen before?

I laugh, even now, as I write this. They should have been wondering what is that crew at Midway going to do this time?

Just about everyone has flipped on the TV and seen the strongman and strongwoman competitions. I just hadn’t seen one up close and personal until Sunday.

Redefining "truck pulls."
Midway Truck Stop’s Joe Bechtold invited four of the strongest men I’ve ever seen in my life to hold a strongman competition that included lifting a barbell with mounted car tires as the weights for the warm-up act. Then they graduated to a “truck pull” where they pulled the Volvo tractors supplied to the event by Arrow Truck Sales.

Television will not do this justice. I promise.

These guys pulled those trucks more than 80 feet in less than 20 seconds. I figured I’d have all day to take pictures of them pulling those trucks. Not quite.

Big Foot, and its tires, were a big hit.
Later on, the “main event” was an appearance by the “Bigfoot” monster truck team to crush rows of junk cars. Even my boys who don’t get impressed by much that doesn’t involve them were amazed. Soaring high in the air over the junk cars, revving engines that hit deafening decibels, it was hard to not be impressed.

Again, television won’t do the size of these trucks justice. To give you some perspective, my son pushing the tire in the picture is about 5 feet, 9 inches tall. And, yes, I stopped him before he gave his sister a real ride.

All in all, we had a great time. And we weren’t the only ones.

OOIDA’s Norita Taylor and her son were there as well. She set up a cool area for kids in attendance to write letters and draw cards for the Truckers for Troops care packages. That was quite the hit too with the kids.

There’s just no shortage of things to do or see at Midway. As we were leaving, I swear there was some local riding around in a motorized shopping cart. Honest. My bet is, Joe couldn’t resist taking that ride for a spin. Guess we’ll have to see if that makes the final cut for the episode. And, as of right now, no air date has been set. So we’ll keep you posted once that’s finalized.

You figure it out....
While Midway is one of my favorite places to stop, it’s important to realize that “Truck Stop Missouri” is a celebration of the independently owned stops around the country. These men and women always find a way to make the experience memorable for those who come by. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to supporting the “mom and pops” out there on the road. LL’s own Jeff Barker is the driving force behind the page. Be sure to check it out.

From what I’m seeing on the Facebook page, the stops they talk about are a lot like Midway. You never really know what you’re going to find until you stop, but a lot of the time it’s a real treat.