In 1949 Raymond Ling and his brother-in-law opened the second gas station in Breezewood, Pa. The sign out front read: ESSO. At Breezewood, Route 126 angled up from the direction of Washington -- 120 miles to the southeast -- and met the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In those days the intersection was pretty sleepy, and that was fine with Ling. He liked to hunt and fish. He and his brother-in-law figured that it really took only one man to mind the station. Meanwhile, the other could be off doing what he pleased.
"Dad and my uncle made life simple for themselves," says Richard Ling, who now runs the station with his father and a third partner. "When they started all they sold was diesel fuel, gas and oil. They had about 15 tires and maybe a couple of fan belts.When I came on I said: "Look, maybe you'd better carry an air filter or two.'"
He laughs briefly at the recollection. "Of course now the competition's a little keener. There are 13 stations on the block. When Dad began the rent was $225 in the summer months and $175 during the winter months."
What is it now?
"Sixty-three thousand a year."
Raymond Ling gazes out the window of his expensive gas station, past the sign which now reads EXXON. He is a kindly, spectacled, gray-haired man. His jacket and cap bear the company logo. Exxon could build an ad campaign around him.
He points at the Texaco station across the street and speaks of 30 years ago: "There was a dairy farm over there. That's where the cows were. The farmer had four cabins he rented out to make some extra money. They were up where the Holiday Inn is now."
What you see out the window -- past the idle pumps and hand-lettered signs reading NO GAS TODAY -- are bright, top-heavy signs reaching into the air like palm trees. They bear the familiar, continentwide names of an era: Exxon, ARCO, HOLIDAY INN, McDONALD'S. The architecture beneath them is low, dense, functional. Trucks and cars, as thick as lizards on a Galapagon isle, move through this maze.
This is Breezewood, Pa., the town of motels (20), the town of gas stations (13). It exists in such commercial intensity because Interstate 70 has replaced old two-lane 126 and now strikes south from the east-west swath of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This is where three directions of the compass fuse.
And at this nexus have sprung up fast food, fast lodging, fast gas -- the trappings of a mobile, prosperous country. But now in Breezewood, which has lived well of late by the wheel -- and where this neon strip accounts for 82 percent of the taxable real estate of East Providence Township -- there is worry that a way of life may be passing.
In the summer of 1979 gasoline sales were 20 percent less than summer of 1978, the motel business 47 percent less. Gas station employment was down 20 percent, and in July 1979, 38 percent fewer cars shot off the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Breezewood than did in July 1978. Karen Carstensen, who works for the state employment office in the nearby town of Bedford, says that Breezewood merchants are "down to counting pennies." She adds: "Two years ago if you came through Breezewood on a Sunday night the place was bananas. Everybody, it seemed, was on their way home from someplace. This year it's not at all like that." This winter, she says, the unemployment rate in Bedford County (which includes Breezewood) could hit 20 percent.
Through the first nine months of 1979 the price of diesel fuel rose 60 percent on a nationwide average. Now the Lings routinely exhaust their monthly allocations by the 20th of each month. The reason is mainly price, not supply. "There's no price control on diesel," says Richard. "You can charge whatever your conscience lets you go to." His conscience -- and more importantly, Exxon's relatively low price to him -- have allowed him to charge 91.4 cents a gallon. That is the best price on the block, a fact quickly remembered by truckers who pass through more than a couple of times.It stands like a beacon along the highway for men who have grown used to paying a dollar and a dime a gallon.
Diesel is a hot item these days; you can make some money off it. A wide-open market flourishes around Breezewood, but the Lings don't fool with it. It they did their pump price would rise -- and their quality might fall.
"People are storing it anyplace they can," says Raymond. One common place is in rusty old steel tanks, prone to condensation. "There's been some dirt fuel going around," says Richard, "some of it's got water in it, some of it's mixed with heating fuel." The Lings know where their curreent supply comes from, and they'd rather not risk losing their faithful clientele by selling a lousy batch of diesel.
But still, the Lings stay as long as they can on service. Business is down and their work force is two-thirds what it was a year ago, but, says Raymond, "We're still a 24-hour operation." If you had said that a few years ago the response would have been: So what? The Breezewood strip then, at night, was a river of light. Now most stations close to save a bundle on electricity. The Lings could do likewise, but they don't want their station known as a place where the door is locked, the light out. It is a matter of pride, a matter of image.
'You go up the mountain at night and see all the lights down in the valley here. You see the effect on you. The place looks like an oasis."
This is Frank Bittner, the owner of Snyder's Gateway Truck Stop, speaking. Like Richard Ling, he seems to sense a struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Out there lies the cold, dark side of the future. Here is the clean, well-lighted present. Unlike Ling, calm, philosophical, Bittner exudes urgency. "It's very important that we not come to be seen as a place where you can't get a product."
That image took a blow last spring when the fuel shortages rippled east from California like a tidal wave. Bittner winces at the memory: "Christ, we were out of diesel four days in April, six days in June, and five in July." His allocation was cut by 30 percent.
"The shortages were a complete shock to me. For the first time I had to go out on the spot [open] market." He is still doing that; looking for diesel wherever he might find it -- even in rusty old tanks. "I'm even paying before I have it." He adds, "We used to have some control over price. Now that's out of hand; that bothers me."
If Bittner sounds worried perhaps he has good cause. His business grosses around $4 million a year and employs 140 people. Richard Ling calls him "the backbone of Breezewood." A man that people look to. His uncle, Merle Snyder, started the business, and Bittner worked summers for him while in college and law school. In the summer of 1956 he was ready to take the bar. His aunt died; a week later his uncle died. The bright, ambitious nephew was thrown into the breach. In the interim, with cars, freight -- America -- taking to the road, the business has bloomed. "Yes, we've been fortunate," says Bittner, speaking with a slightly wistful tone about the past quarter-century. He is sitting in his windowless basement office at Snyder's Gateway, so named because in these parts Breezewood is thought of as "The Gateway to the South." Given the look on Bittner's face -- a look which alternates between distraction and worry -- the impression is not of a man counting his good fortune, but of a man taking refuge in a bunker. Over the past year his business has fallen "somewhere between 10 and 12 percent." He has had to lay 15 people off. "The economy is slowing down."
A tanker truck rolls past the window, catching Bittner's eye: "Another load of liquid gold." Now his thoughts fly away, halfway around the world to the Middle East, to a foreign land where they cut off thieves' hands. Then he says, with a shrug and a smile. "Of course you have to ask yourself if we had all that oil what price would we sell it to them for?"
In this war of price and supply, men like Bittner and the Lings sit a distance up the chain of command. Who then are the foot soldiers? They pass through Breezewood endlessly -- often at night -- a silent army on the march. Off the interstates rumble their rigs -- 70,000 pounds worth of light and polished armor -- growling down through the gears, making the air brakes sigh, and rolling to a long slow stop at the Ling's Exxon.
Into the station they come while their trucks sit out back inhaling 150, 200 gallons of diesel and getting their windshields washed by attendants who must stand on stepladders to reach. They wear cowboy boots, big buckled belts, and dazed expressions. They sit on the low soft-drink cooler and slug down a Coke or a cup of coffee. Ling can't believe people drink his coffee; it is awful stuff. He recalls overhearing two truckers one night: "One said to the other, 'C'mon, I'll buy you a cup of coffee. I'll guarantee you one cup'll get you to Pittsburgh, two to Cleveland. And you won't need no pills.'"
It comes time to pay for fuel; these big tractor-trailers burn a gallon every four miles. The drivers haul notes from their pockets; often the bills startle by their denominations: 20s, 50, 100s. The men fidget while the attendants figure up the bill, folding the notes latitudinally, beheading U.S. Grant and Ben Franklin, looking as if they intend paper airplanes. Then they might head over to the Gateway, a space of white light and Formica 50 yards up the road -- tonic for all those dark, lonely miles. Breezewood to this weary army is so many hours, so many miles from their true destination. It is only a milepost in the mind, nowhere in the heart.
Out at the Gateway there is a moment to relax, to think, to talk" "Being an 'independent trucker' is not like being a 'truck driver.'"
"The more we haul, the sooner we get there, the more money we get. We get paid to produce."
"You become an independent to better yourself."
These words belong to independent truckers, men who own their own rigs and contract out to the established companies, men who speak freely, proudly of being the free lances of the road. Listen awhile longer, though, and you are apt to find that pride has a bitter edge:
"This dollar and something a gallon really tears me up."
"You used to be able to make a decent living at this."
"I'd discourage anybody from getting into this business now."
That last piece of advice is offered by independent Ed Curry, who like most of his fellows lives at the foot of a mountain of debt. He pauses from herding egg yolk around his plate with a scrap of toast and motions out the window: "That's a $90,000 investment sitting out there on those wheels." Payments on his tractor-trailer, which include taxes, insurance and permits, total $2,500 a month. Tires -- 18 to his rig -- set him back $300 apiece. "I used to go out and just buy them. Now I have to finance tires."
Curry, likewise, has paid in other ways. "Going on 3 million miles," and having jounced up and down the road for 20 years, he feels the pain in his neck, in his back, in his person. He has married three times.
Still, though, he would never trade in this well-used life on a safer, more standard model. "This gets into your blood; I don't plan on ever retiring. I guess I'm nuts. Who in the hell would stay out on the road 20, 25 days a month and come home sometimes with nothing to show for it?" Now he takes a long look around at the waitresses ever filling coffee cups, the men hunched over full plates of food, the light bouncing off the clean countertops. "This place -- I can't tell you how many times I've been here. It seems no matter where I go I know people. What the hell can I say" The whole country is my home."
For Curry, age 43, handlebar mustache, western shirt, eyes as green as jade, such robust statement seems fitting. He describes himself as a conservative and a disciple of the religion known as free enterprise, which in his words "always seems to work despite government's repeated efforts to stifle it."
He is not alone in this view. Many of the estimated 135,000 independent truckers (also known as owner-operators) in America can endure the financial burden, the loneliness, the wearying work. What sticks, though, like a bone in the craw, is the ICC's regulation of the trucking marketplace.
Currently, "entry" is "restricted." If an independent wishes to haul anything other than raw agricultural products ("exempt commodities"), he must go to a trucking company ("regulated common carrier") that holds the appropriate ICC licenses and lease his right to it to gain the right to haul a load between two points. In return the company can exact a commission which usually amounts to about 25 percent of the gross revenue.
This is a fancy form of sharecropping, claim many independents -- they assert they are in the clutches of a monopoly.
Independents see themselves as a dwindling breed. Every day some stop driving or go to work as company drivers, unable to make it on their own.They are caught in a squeeze between the rising costs of owning and operating a truck, and idle, revenueless days created by spot shortages of fuel and freight. To keep pace they must hustle. Some haul "hot" -- carry freight minus the necessary ICC licenses. Some keep two logbooks. One shows that in compliance with DOT regulations they are not driving more than 10 hours and 450 miles a day. Another tells the truth: they are putting in 12-, 14-hour days; really pushing it to make ends meet.
Bill scheffer drove as an independent for 27 years. Then on Dec. 13, 1973 -- a day etched deep in his memory -- he went on strike and has since "to turn a wheel. We parked our trucks out here. All of Route 30 through town [Breezewood] was solid trucks."
In the meantime, Scheffer has become vice-president of the Los Angeles-based Independent Truckers' Association (ITA), which numbrs about 30,000. Jeff Stone, who has been studying the issue of trucking deregulation for the ICC, says that ITA is easily the best-organized, most politically potent of the handful of groups representing owner-operators. Of ITA's president, Mike Parkhurst, he says: "He can deliver."
The organization's aim, says Scheffer, is "to have the right to compete on an equal basis with the regulated carriers." The present system of granting ICC certificates gives existing licensees virtual veto over new applicants -- a closed shop. An open, competitive market, Scheffer contends, would result in lower prices and better service.
Scheffer, 51, operates out of Breezewood where he settled 10 years ago when the house he was living in north of Pittsburgh came to stand in the way of a proposed four-lane highway. He and his wife went out looking for a new place to live, and this what they found: "One night we popped up over the top of Sideling Mountain up here and saw Breezewood down below with all that light. It was just beautiful. We said, 'Boy, that's where we want to live.'"
That vision of Breezewood, a welcome blaze of light against the dark, forbidding land, is uncanny because it immediately calls to mind how Frank Bittner sees his town. The connection feels true because Bill Scheffer readily reminds you of Bittner. His office, a trailer out behind his mobile home, overflows with paper: testimony, appeals, position papers, petitions. Scheffer, like Bittner, is intent, savvy. He understands that the future of places such as Breezewood does not rest with men in blue jeans arguing over coffee in truck stops. It lies elsewhere; in glassy office buildings, in ornate legislative chambers. He knows this to be a political time.
Indeed; 120 miles down the road, deep in alabaster fastness, sits Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), a handsome, blue-suited man bracketed by a pair of flags and a wide, clean desk. Breezewood lies in his district. The carpet under the congressman is blood-red, and on a table-top across the room a television records a parade of Shuster's colleagues to the well of the House.
"A lot of independent truckers live in and around Breezewood," he says. "Hundreds of times" he has received phone calls from constituents, asking him to intercede between their trucks and a bank intent on repossession. "Independent truckers by and large have not received a fair shake historically. [He] is an endangered species."
Shuster is on the House Public Works Committee, which, along with the Senate Commerce Committee, is studying the issue of deregulation. "Total deregulation is not in the cards," he says, "but there is a need for legislative reform."
The President's Council on Wage and Price Stability estimates that a regulated, noncompetitive trucking industry costs the American consumer an additional $5 billion annually. Chuck Fields, of the American Farm Bureau, says: "If the hauling of exempt commodities came under regulations, the cost to the consumer would increase 20 percent to 30 percent." He cites the case of frozen fruit and vegetables, exempt commodities which came under regulation; their shipping costs increased 25 percent. Then he cites the case of packaged poultry, a regulated commodity which was exempted; the shipping cost dropped 25 percent.
The regulated trucking industry grosses $36 billion a year, employs 9 million people, and is immune from antitrust legislation. It is represented most formidably by the American Trucking Association (ATA), housed in eight stories of steel and stone at 16th and P Streets NW.
Ed Kiley, director of legislation and policy for the ATA, agrees that there is need for reform, but he says permitting open entry into the market is not one way to achieve it. Under regulation, he says, common carriers are obligated to serve 65,000 communities, which otherwise might get no freight service "because the railroads don't serve them anymore. Small towns," he continues, "as much as any other segment of the economy, need service. All shippers need responsible, dependable common carriage. This transportation system is available to all shippers and all communites, regardless of size, on a non-discriminatory, non-prejudicial basis."
Dr. Wesley Kriebel, an ATA economist who heads a staff of 10, adds: "[Under deregulation] the established traffic corridors," which already assure higher rates of profit "would gain. Those that would lose would be the small communities."
But across town, at the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which represents 580,000 small businessmen (and hence small shippers of freight), there is a belief that the system cries for the discipline of the free, competitive market. NFIB polled its members five times on this issue, and each time found proponents of deregulation prevailing by a margin of two to one.
Surprised by such numbers, they put their economist, Ed Zayas, onto the problem. Using Department of Commerce statistics, he found that for a service industry (as opposed to manufacturing where capital requirements are greater and bigness usually means efficiency) regulated trucking was highly concentrated and getting more so. There are 16,800 regulated motor carriers in the United States; four of them account for 10 percent of the market.
Under this system dominated by large units, Zayas says, "Many of our members feel strongly that they are getting lousy service, that the system is too inflexible to adapt to their particular needs. Deregulation will result in a more efficient utilization of the nation's trucking fleet. The large carriers, who already claim vehemently that they aren't making any money on the small town routes, will just pull out." Supplanting them, he says, will be smaller carriers with less overhead who will be more responsive to "the more specific needs" of small businesses.
"Deregulation would ultimately lessen the influence of the big profitable companies. It would change the shape of the market by letting in a lot of little people who won't be subject to organization by the Teamsters." How can he be sure? He can't. All he knows is that one of the industry's staunchest allies in fighting deregulation is big labor -- the Teamsters.
Howard Cannon, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has said that he will have a bill on the president's desk by June 1. It will be a compromise between an industry bill (S. 1496), which pretty much observes the status quo, and an administration bill (S. 1400), which would substantially ease entry into the market. Through the spring then, this issue -- in which millions of dollars are involved -- will reach a legislative boil.
For the moment, it simmers right along. Ed Kiley labels a DOT study of trucking a "fraud" done by "academic theoreticians who have no practical experience." Ed Zayas says: "There are a lot of good people over at the ATA, but on this issue they're just plain wrong." The ATA hires Abe Fortas to chart their legal course and pays a New York PR firm $2 million to make their case in the media. Deregulation proponents, meanwhile, enlist such unlikely bedfellows as Ralph Nader's Congresswatch and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Despite all this heat, it is perhaps possible to see some light in the words of Ed Curry, the man who has been on the road for 20 years and three million miles, the man who loves his freedom but must contend with a regulated marketplace.He says: "I feel that the companies take more than they should. Twenty-five, 27 percent right off the top. Now that's a lot of money. I feel that if the companies eased up a bit there wouldn't be all this fuss."
This area is an extension of Appalachia," says Bill Scheffer. "Some of our old people are making plans to move in with each other this winter so they can afford to eat and stay warm." His words seem to render moot the abstracting, theoretical arguments that crop up in Washington. Spend any time in these parts and you soon realize that no matter what kind of script is written in Washington or elsewhere the drama will go on here -- the place will survive.
Breezewood is a "village" surrounded by woodland and small farms. The postman travels a 50-mile rural route which stops at 327 houses. Inside are people who have lived lifetimes here. The fabric, as they say, is "close-knit." Last January, a run-in with a rival group of independent truckers put Scheffer in the hospital with a ruptured spleen and half a dozen broken ribs. Now, when strangers come to town and ask the way to Scheffer's house, word travels like wildfire. The community protects.
The community also focuses civic pride on the strip, on what it calls "the million-dollar mile." Here, in this hard-scrabble land, has been carved a glimmering of prosperity. One man who helped in the undertaking was Jackson Bussard, a banker eight miles down the road in the town of Everett. The bank is sterile: plate glass, Muzak, industrial-strength carpeting. But Bussard is a friendly, welcome face; a banker with his coat off, his sleeves rolled up. Behind him, country music floats from a radio.
Though he has no specific figures, Bussard says his bank's loan business is "way off." Payments are being met though, and he see no bankruptcies in the immediate future. He blames this situation on "absurd interest rates, absurd prices," which, he feels, result from government "never tightening at the top, but always at the bottom." Cut government spending, he says, don't choke off credit to the hard-working middle class, the class which "supports both rich and the poor."
Bussard steadfastly describes himself as an "optimist." He points to his own life as evidence. "I'm from a poor family. My Dad was a working man -- laborer, truck driver. He never had what I've been able to have. When I was 23 I took out a $10,000 loan to build a home. I don't think he ever borrowed more than $500."
Bussard extrapolates from his experience and sees the postwar rise of middle class as one of the greatest things to happen in the history of America. "Before it was just rich, poor. But now the middle class can drive a Cadillac and obtain credit to buy a house." Now he pauses. "I suppose I shouldn't say this, but I will. The middle class is the working class. They pay for the poor through these welfare agencies, and they pay for the rich. We all know the rich don't pay taxes."
Bussard pauses again. "But I don't think we'll ever go back to the way things were. It's one thing never to have had something, but it's another to have had it and think you're gonna lose it. You'll fight to keep it."
Elvena Swartzwelder, like Jackson Bussard, has seen a few changes in her life. Forty years ago her father owned and farmed 200 acres of the valley through which million-dollar mile now runs. "I picked potatoes many a day up where the Gateway Restaurant is now."
Her house commands a view of that valley, with its dense commercial scenery -- which she describes as "a dream; it don't seem real." In the distance rises Sideling Mountain, stripped by winter, looking cold and gray the day I visited. We stood outside gazing down into the valley with the November sun getting late in the sky. I asked her if she regretted selling the land before it became valuable, or if she regretted the way it looked now. She said neither. "I don't begrudge anybody anything. I like to see people get ahead. I like to see progress."
Swartzwelder has been widowed 23 years. she lives off Social Security and the few dollars she makes as Breezewood's notary public. She had a fire going, and the smoke drifting into the crisp air smelled good. That was her new wood stove, she said proudly. A lot of her friends had installed them; the price of oil was close to prohibitive.
She continued: "I can get by. I don't eat out. I've nothing to splurge on. We worry more about the world. This Iranian thing, crime in the cities." Swartzwelder figured she was pretty well taken care of. Her son brought her wood from his nearby farm. "If I couldn't get it free, I'm not sure what I'd do." But then she thought, and decided that she had the community and her friends around her. "People help out," she said.