AKA “Dum Trkdivor”
Rolf Lengner served in the US Army from 1978-1999. Upon retiring from the Army, Rolf worked as a long distance truck driver from 1999-2019. He is now a full time student at Cape Fear Community College.
After getting over the shock that a twenty one year career in the military was coming to a close, I hurriedly took stock of what I thought, at the time, were my immediate, marketable skills. Then I turned around and tried to match them up with a profession that I could build another life. All of this might sound pretty dry until I tell you that being in the military was all I ever really aspired to do. I enjoyed the military very much for the raw talent, plus proper schooling, to obtain the necessary qualifications to perform a job mantra it has. An individual can change and rearrange or try out many different things in the military. It is much easier if that individual is highly motivated and doesn’t take “no,” lying down.
I was raw when I graduated high school. I always wanted to join, did so with approving parents, so I made a life that today, I wouldn’t trade for anything. I traveled the world, jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, built structures (to include a health clinic), destroyed structures, trained and evaluated soldiers in English and other languages, and as a Special Forces soldier was part of America’s elite for eleven out of those twenty one years. Getting the impression? I was wide open, for the most part, in a good way.
As one ages and advances, you might hear someone describe maturing as the theory that one is supposed to slow/calm down, think about the future, watch one’s back, and the like. At that time, for me to be like that would have been the same as winning an Olympic gold medal. It’s been a couple of years, and I still haven’t won a medal of any kind.
As I retired from the service, I was allowed to take the Commercial Drivers License training at Cape Fear Community College. I looked at it as a bonus, although looking back, I’m sure there were a few senior personnel that just wanted me out of their hair. In the end, I chose the commercial transportation path as part adventure, part paycheck, part life that I had become accustomed to (or so I thought). A living of, mostly solitary, high risk, high responsibilities, with a relatively high reward ability to provide for a family. By that time, I had met my third wife, you see, and I wanted to provide something more than a Walmart salary number could offer.
So here I am, qualified, highly motivated, ready for a paycheck, ready to work, hating the idea of being penniless. My first position was with another retired soldier. He had retired a couple of years earlier and had a couple of trucks and needed a driver. I thought God had spoken to me; at that time, I couldn’t imagine a better a better place to be. It didn’t last for six months. One the first lessons I learned about the transportation industry was that one’s earnings were always going to fluctuate greatly, and contracts to haul freight might as well be written on toilet paper for all they really turn out to mean.
But I was gaining experience with him. For instance, my first few trips were relatively local. Another driver and I spent a couple of days hauling furnishings and equipment from a foreclosed business to a warehouse in South Carolina. It was great having someone to show me the road and the little tricks of the trade. With my previous military experience, I retired with an army driver’s license six pages long. And I had taught soldiers how to travel and navigate using many different methods. Because I possessed the necessary skills, I had hoped my transition time from the military to the ordinary world might be minimal. I felt I had to get on down the road, make that money, continue on a different path to success. Like I mentioned, having someone to help smooth any possible rough edges was just what the doctor ordered.
My first real long trip was from North Carolina to California. I carried steel to a construction site in Los Angeles. It was for a store being built in a shopping mall. For the return trip, I moved manufactured room dividers from Los Angeles to New Jersey. They were long trips, from one side of the country to the other.
When I first started out on the road, my mind was consumed by time, distance, and fuel. Eating and sleeping were a distant second. I had to be on time, I had to try and find routes that balanced time and distance. Foremost in my mind, even as I started a new life, was always, “I’ve got this, I am not average. My results will speak for themselves.” Along the way and because I am mechanically minded, I was trying to take advantage of the equipment I was assigned.
As everyone knows, there are only so many hours in one day, a body can work. I’ve been asked, what can a driver do for entertainment? Well, simply put, anything and nothing all at the same time. Motoring to another destination, I’ve never had a truck that didn’t have a radio to listen to., and the last vehicle that I ordered and owned actually a relatively elaborate listening entertainment system complete with the satellite system, SiriusXM. To have a TV to watch when not on duty is not uncommon. Although, I have seen automobile drivers watching movies, reading books, and newspapers as they attempted to drive.
Some drivers I’ve spoken to like to listen to audiobooks as they drive. For me, a book brings too many images to mind and distracts me from the road. Could never get into it. However, I did, at one time, consider attempting to pursue a college degree online. Sadly, the inability to structure my day correctly to allow for classwork and studying prevented that idea from coming to pass.
I, and other operators, have taken part in various sightseeing activities during off duty periods. But those times were anticipated and planned for. I’ve been told, just as my VA counselor has mentioned, that the VA vocational rehabilitation program is not a dream fulfillment program, that commercial operators are not eighteen wheeled tourists. But it is frustrating, knowing that you pass by so much of this breathtaking country, you’ll have few opportunities to actually view any of it.
Of course, there are always the few that seem to have it made. I’ve spoken with drivers that travel with their bikes, motorcycles, and yes, even their own cars onboard, but these conductors occupy extreme niches in the transportation industry.
However, no matter which way one cuts it, to operate a commercial over-the-road tractor-trailer, you have to be prepared to drive some very long distances, over some very lonely highways, through and to some very obscure places in the United States.
There are many intangible skills one must master to progress as I envisioned. There are lots and lots of truck drivers, but not too many that feel the issues I describe here are essential. I do, that’s the critical part. I learned volumes about vehicle maintenance and even more about the American tax and legal systems. That’s what happens when one is involved in a traffic accident in New York City and sued, even though I was not at fault. And it also occurs when one has the services of a bookkeeper that was paid on time but did next to nothing. I didn’t find this out till the day finally came where an IRS agent suggested I pull over to the side of the road to speak to me directly. The number of times I suggested previously and gave the IRS my bookkeeper’s contact information was not working. I did and was promptly told that I owed over $100,000.00 for the previous year’s taxes and what was I going to do about it? Both issues were eventually solved in my favor, but they were definite financial burdens I wish I didn’t have to shoulder. But they were chances to learn nonetheless.
Every time I had an opportunity to learn, it hurt my family. And that’s the conundrum all small business owners face. Most of my chances to learn wound up, costing me hundreds, but there were a couple that cost me thousands of dollars to accommodate.
The majority of my time spent as a commercial motor vehicle operator was spent in some, or all, way owning my business. For example, as a lease operator, one may own their business but not own the equipment. Whereas the pinnacle position to take is an Owner Operator. One holds the company and owns the equipment. And the tip of the spear holds the few Owner Operators that even negotiate rates for every trip they take.
And for those issues that one believes one has mastered, some sneak up behind you. June 5th, 2015, was a rough day for me. After delivering a load of pharmaceutical products to Memphis, TN, the day before, I had the weekend to make it to Montreal to pick up another shipment of pharmaceuticals. It was a typical day. I woke up, and prepared myself, truck, and trailer for the trip. And while eating breakfast, I checked the weather. The forecast called for some rough weather between Memphis and Illinois, the first portion of my journey. I timed the trip and planned my route so that this storm front would move through and be ahead of me as I traveled. For the time of year and where I was, the weather was average, moderate rain showers, high gusty winds, and possible tornadoes. When I began to travel, all was well, and my plan seemed appropriate. I had made it almost through Arkansas, going into Missouri on I55 north when out of the blue, I began hearing about some tornadoes that had developed and could be trouble. This time they were.
The farther north I drove, the more these tornadoes turned south and were moving toward me. I planned to move over to the side of the road and take a position on the berm. But of course, I always looked for the best place, or at least a better place to position myself and my equipment to wait out the storm. This particular day, I wasn’t able to get sheltered in time. While fighting some horrible gusts, I felt my truck begin to lift up from the roadway. For a second, it felt like Santa Claus, as I was gently being lifted up. But the rotation started, and I began to be twisted as I rose. Then the wind stopped briefly, and I fell. The vehicle landed on its right side on the berm and skidded for maybe twenty feet. My seat belt was fastened securely, so I wasn’t hurt. But it was enough to total my truck (this time I was the truck owner) and ruin a lot of things.
I took this incident as a sign and struggled with this industry for four more years. After making this into another career and placing myself in a position to make decisions and live my own life, it was incredibly difficult to change back. But it did cause me to close my small trucking business and seek driving employment with another company again. I chose to do this because I was near the end of another career and just wanted to see it through. There’s another military trait sticking through, can’t quit, can never be a quitter.
This story, my story is not complete. These were only a couple of lows in my life. I had others, but I’ve also had a good number of high points. I’ve transported Ferraris, Bentleys, and other fabulously expensive automobiles. I’ve moved the Chinese National Symphonic Orchestra across the United States on tour. I’ve been part of the Broadway crew that carried the Lion King musical across the United States and Canada. I have moved cumbersome and oversized equipment. Then again, I’ve also had the owner of a True Value Hardware store help me fold and store my gear in preparation for an early morning delivery. I’ve also had the honor of transporting vegetables from California to Norfolk, VA, in support of one America’s submarines so that the sailors had fresh food underwater. And I’ve transported fire control equipment to a navy ship in Jacksonville, FL. They were docked there, making other repairs as well. Next door to them was a yacht larger than I’ve ever seen before. It turns out the captain of the ship invited me up to the deck where a helicopter was parked. We sat on the yacht, drinking coffee, and watched the navy offload my equipment.
For as lovely, dangerous, risky, depressing, or unusual as this life may seem, it takes large quantities of patience to survive. Singing songs to one’s self or whistling also come to mind. Compared to some, I had the dreary time of it. I was always concerned about my job performance, more than entertainment.
The most unusual part of my former life is how much I don’t miss it. I’ve met more people, have more friends, and have another chance to go further pursuing another career. As you’ve read, I have had some pretty sad luck at times. However, there are other times when it has been remarkable. Now is one of them for me. Count me as thankful and grateful.
By Rolf Lengner, United States Army