MIKE Parkhurst owns four guns. At least two are kept on a shelf in his Van Nuys, Calif., office. He calls the shelf his "violence center." He carried one of them, a long-barreled .38 revolver, when he rode a horse from California to Texas in 1962 to protest the speed laws. And he used to wear a belt buckle that unsheathed a triangular dagger when a tiny catch was released. His "survival knife."
But the 40-year-old head of the Independent Truckers Association, now in its sixth day of a nationwide shutdown to protest a new fuel and transportation tax law, doesn't want to talk about violence. He wants to talk about the government. He wants to talk about truckers and unfair taxes. He doesn't want to talk about reports of 260 trucks hit by gunfire, 290 others damaged by bricks and firebombs, a North Carolina man shot to death or a teen-age girl lying in a hospital in Pennsylvania after being smashed in the head by a brick reportedly intended for a non-striking driver.
"What about the violence done to the truckers who may have worked for 10 or 15 years or more and their entire lifestyle is going to be uprooted?" he says. "Isn't that a form of violence? To take someone and throw them out of their home, they lose their truck. I think that's a hell of a lot more violent than a rock coming through the windshield."
He is relaxing in his well-appointed suite of rooms in a downtown hotel. He wears a blue polo shirt with a bulldog on the left breast. It is the Mack Truck insignia. His blue jeans appear to have been pressed and his brown crinkly loafers are shined. His salt-and-pepper hair is neatly styled and he wears a gold watch on his wrist.
Mike Parkhurst calls himself the most controversial figure in the trucking industry. Others see him as an angry, egotistical man bent on winning at any cost.
"I could twist this around and say, 'Is it worth the life of a trucker for the Congress to refuse to respond to reasonable demands of the independent truckers? Is it worth all this agony in order to play some ego game?'"
Which is exactly what some say Parkhurst has done. He has already appeared on ABC's "Nightline," the "CBS Morning News" and the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report." Two days ago, he insisted on "no press." Hours later Parkhurst gave a 90-minute newspaper interview and a one-hour interview on Cable News Network, and also received requests for radio interviews. He gave a full-blown press conference the next day. On Monday, he's taping "Donahue."
"I've done a lot for truckers and I'm egotistical in telling you that, fine," he says. "I'm egotistical if you want to look at the bottom line and say I know where I'm coming from."
But Parkhurst won't say where he's coming from.
Was he born in Philadelphia?
"Could have been. I don't really know."
Where did he grow up?
"I lived in South Jersey most of my life. We lived in Atlantic City. I'm trying to stay away from being branded from Pennsylvania. I lived in Pennsylvania for a few months."
"College of hard knocks."
"Let's put it this way: I'm not sterile."
Does he keep a gun in his hotel room?
"If I did, I wouldn't tell you."
Has he received any death threats?
"Not this week."
"We helped Ronald Reagan get elected . . . Carter was a mean-spirited fellow who was not as compassionate as he claimed to be . . . I think Jerry Ford was very underestimated as a president."
He admires Jesse Helms, thinks the Moral Majority is "well-intentioned" and says his number one hero, "who unfortunately I don't know enough about on a personal level," is Thomas Paine.
But the times that try men's souls aren't always hard times. "I've been asked to write a book on my life," Parkhurst says.
Who would play him in a movie version?
He laughs. "The devil."
The product of a broken home, Parkhurst started driving a truck at the age of 16. In 1961, he sold his 18-wheeler, borrowed $300 and founded a magazine for truckers called Overdrive. He is currently the editor and publisher of the monthly, which is sold for $2.50 ("The Price of Truth") in truck stops. The February issue is a potpourri of colorful Parkhurst prose ("Let us unite, for a change, and fight these taxes 'til our very bone marrow steams in outrage. For if we don't, friends, surely we will perish separately, dropping off like Flit-sprayed flies from the ceiling"), ads for Overdrive caps, T-shirts, a Miss Overdrive poster and a collection of X-rated trucker cartoons. Every issue carries a centerfold. "Diana," wearing a skimpy nightie strewn with red hearts, is Miss February.
A year after the magazine was founded, Parkhurst formed the Independent Truckers Association. He claims to represent 30,000 of the nation's 100,000 independent truckers, men and women who own and operate their own rigs. To protest rising fuel prices, Parkhurst stirred the independent truckers to shut down in 1974 and again in 1979.
"Truckers are basically shy," he says. "To this day they're not as proud of their profession as they should be. I think I've been instrumental throughout the years in elevating their posture, giving them status. They used to say, 'I'm only a truck driver.' Now they say, 'I'm a trucker and proud of it.' "
Parkhurst doesn't say anything. He doesn't own a truck.
Dan Moldea, author of "The Hoffa Wars," served as press liaison for the National Independent Truckers Coalition during the 1979 strike. He has known Mike Parkhurst for eight years.
"When I first met him, I was struck by his intelligence and dedication," Moldea said in a telephone interview. "But now I find a different side of Parkhurst coming out. The press is responsible for setting up Parkhurst as a leader. The press has put him where he is. He keeps calling shutdowns to retain his power. But what disgusts me is his insensitivity to violence."
Parkhurst could not be reached yesterday to comment on Moldea's remarks.
The head of the ITA, says Moldea, "has an incredible amount of power in his hands. It's a case of ego mania. He views himself as being the sugar daddy to these truckers. I believe he's sincere. The only problem is a lot of independent truckers will be sacrificed because of that. I'm terrified of what will happen."
Parkhurst, says Moldea, "is not interested in money. He's interested in power and publicity."
Moldea is not against the independent truckers. In fact, he says he admires them and agrees with their fight. "I believe in what the independent truckers stand for, but I just believe there are more responsible voices [than Parkhurst's]. He doesn't compromise. He wants to see this country come to its knees, screaming."
Mike Parkhurst picks up the phone. He is calling Cable News Network. "I just hate it," he complains, "when they call you up and want you on, then never call you back."
He is speaking to one of the producers. "I don't care if you get someone from DOT [Department of Transportation] or the ICC [Interstate Commerce Commission]. The only people I don't like to debate are people that come out of the woodwork, are ignorant."
His voice rises. "I don't like to be put in a position where I have to track you down to know what I'm doing. You are? Okay. What time do you think you might call . . . Okey-dokey."
He hangs up. Before him is a map of the United States with clusters of colored pushpins stuck in cities and counties. They don't stand for truck stops. They stand for calls from the press.
"See this," he says proudly, pulling a file drawer open. "Every press call is logged." He displays a yellow sheet of paper. There are a lot of yellow sheets. On his bulletin board is a list of numbers, representing a dozen news organizations.
"Did I tell you my motto?" he asks. "Don't lie about me and I won't tell the truth about you."
Did he coin the phrase?
"Make it up? Sure. I never heard it before."
Mike Parkhurst says he's calm. He says his pulse is 60. "If we were to call off the shutdown because of the violence, then that would mean there should never be a strike of any sort involving any large number of people."
But one trucking industry executive says the shutdown is "senseless." The executive points to decreasing diesel fuel prices, and the fact that the proposed heavy use tax will not go into effect until July 1985. "It makes no sense," the executive said yesterday, adding that he believes "the majority of the truckers want to keep running, but they're frightened."
Parkhurst predicts the shutdown will be effective. He says he doesn't need to use any other tactics. "When you send a gorilla into a cage with a baby, you can't do much for an encore."
As for how long the shutdown will last, Parkhurst isn't saying.
"Did we tell the Japanese on Dec. 8 when the war would end?"