Friday, August 18, 2017

Review: A trucker’s paean to the blue-collar life


Review of: The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road
Author: Finn Murphy
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

The heroic blue-collar worker is a staple of the oldest American myths: the cowboys, the miners, the lumberjacks, the railroad workers. John Henry and Casey Jones inspire songs (the more so, perhaps, for their tragic endings). Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan are legends. Even coal miners are extolled by their daughters. What’s been missing from the myths is the voice of the blue-collar workers themselves. Now truck driver turned author Finn Murphy steps into this vacuum, telling the inside story of his own breed of blue-collar folk hero in The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road.

Finn Murphy
It’s a story as sweaty and irreverent, as joyous and tragic, as the best of myths. But unlike most mythic heroes, truckers are also modern. Although Murphy traces the roots of long-haul trucking at least as far back as pioneer wagon trains, truckers only became a major occupation (currently employing nearly 7 percent of all U.S. workers) with the institution of the interstate highway system.

Murphy’s specialty – the movers of household goods known to truckers as bedbuggers – also benefited from the increasingly mobile nature of America as a whole. Whether chasing a new aeronautical engineering job or simply a new dream, we love to move. Almost as much as we hate the people who move us.

“To the casual observer all trucks probably look similar, and I suppose people figure all truckers do pretty much the same job. Neither is true. There’s a strict hierarchy of drivers, depending on what they haul and how they’re paid.”

And although most of the trucking brotherhood shun “bedbuggers,” and Murphy insists he doesn’t buy “the trucker myth” of boots, cowboy hats and big belt buckles, he admits to pride in his driving skills, a sense of real freedom, and “the certain knowledge that I make more money in a month than many of the (freight haulers) make in a month.”

His introduction to trucking started in high school, when he began working part-time for a local short-haul moving company. In college, finding himself “flat broke,” he spent a winter break working a long-haul move.

“I returned to (college) in mid-February 1980 with $1,500 in my pocket and the conviction that…I liked meeting and getting to know the people we moved and I like the physical labor. Driving a lot of miles wasn’t so great, nor was truckstop living, but the rewards of the work, and the money, made up for a lot.”

His parents were less enthusiastic about his plan to drop out of college and become a truck driver. They didn’t speak to each other again for years.

Murphy candidly admits that the strains of the work, including the disdain and demands of his clients, drove him to quite truck driving in midstream. He eventually returned, older and less prone to anger, to regale readers with adventures about taking a loaded truck over an icy Rocky Mountain pass (it's the going down that's the rub), the case of an ill-fated piano left out in the rain (and a description of how to move a grand piano that may dissuade anyone else from ever trying), and a Native American burial ceremony that involved 15 cartons of shattered artifacts.

Along the way, as he sips his standard “Dr Cola” energy drink (half Dr Pepper, half Coca-Cola), he expounds on roots of urban sprawl, the devolving nature of native-born white laborers, why most of his clients would be better off selling their possessions instead of trying to move them, and the love-hate relationship between people, their things, and the workers they pay to move them.