It is 11 p.m. under the 75-foot Standard sign and the entire 40-acre parking lot around Alphy's Truck Stop here is rumbling in the darkness from the sound of hundreds of idling diesel engines. "Look at that," says Bob Cota as a driving schools' red, white and blue semitrailer moves haltingly through the lot, a nervous learner at the wheel and a big sign on the back that says "Earn Big Pay - Drive Big Rigs."
"That guy," says Cota, shooting a contemptuous look at the truck school instructor, "he oughta be put in jail for false advertising."
In the language of the citizens band radio circuit, this is Shakeytown, where the long distance truckers like Cota make turnarounds on their coast-to-coast runs.
Since they gained national attention by nearly shutting down the nation's highways with their fuel price protest three years ago last week. Cota and his independent trucking buddies have become legands; they are seen as hard-driving, hard-living road cowboys whose freedom knows no bounds and whose lives are an unending series of glamorous or exciting, adventures like those of Sonny and Will, the heroes of the television trucker series "Movin' On."
In fact, said Cota and others in the long haul trucking business, independent truckers are a dying breed whose lives are nothing at all like the television series or the million-seller country records or the movies that have portrayed them.
"I've got four kids and I was home to see them 15 days last year," said Cota. "I spent Christmas unloading lettuce in New York and New Year's in Chicago finding a load. It's not so romantic anymore after a few years like that."
Since the highly publicized highway blockades, the number of independents has dropped from an estimated 125,000 to around 80,000, according to industry estimates. And those who are left are, like Cota, embittered and angry. Independent truckers, they charge, have been gyped by load brokers, victimized by fly-by-night agricultural co-ops, and all but ignored by federal legislators. Even "Movin' On" was canceled last year.
Independent truckers fall into two categories: most hire themselves and their trucks out to big government regulated freight companies and haul whatever they are assigned; the rest carry unprocessed produce such as oranges from Florida or melons from California. Produce is generally exempt from government regulations - with some exceptions such as bananas - and the truckers who haul it are usually the most free-wheeling of the owner-operators. The exempt-cargo haulers, however, are also the most dependent on brokers or agricultural co-ops to supply them with loads.
"Give me one round with those folks who talk this being the glorious life," said trucker John McKinney, an owner-operator from Lock Haven, Pa., who hauls produce from here to the East Coast. "I'd love to show them what it's really all about."
Owner-operators like Cota and McKinney play a major role in nation's freight-hauling system. According to industry figures, owner-operators are responsible for 40 per cent of all the country's intercity truck-traffice and they are the primary road haulers for most of the nation's produce and furniture.
But because they are independents and, unlike the large trucking fleets, have no unified voice, the owner-operators are the first to take a beating when times get tough. In 1975, during the height of the recession, independents were the first to feel the pressure as manufacturers cut back their output.
The drought in the West and the freeze in Florida's citrus belt are likely to cut back on potential loads this year. About 20 per cent of the independents are involved in produce hauling, according to Michael Park-hauling, editor of the trucker magazine Overdrive and head of the Independent Truckers Association.
"We're talking about a situation that is getting very desperate right now," said Parkhurst. "There are truckers today who are losing their trucks and their livelihoods because they can't make ends meet. If it gets much worse, they're just liable to go on the rampage again."
Dennis Large, trearurer of Paccar Financial Corp., a large Renton, Wash., firm that lends to truckers, said the current situation is pushing many independents out of business. "We're seeing a squeeze," he said. "Fuel and equipment are going up faster than the rates some of thee truckers are getting for hauling, and it's only natural some of them are dropping out."
The more popular trucks, such as Kenworths or Peterbilts, now cost approximately $38,000 to $40,000, with another $20,000 or more for a trailer. Owner-operators put down at least 10 to 15 per cent with finance companies like Large's and pay off the rest at the rate of $1,000 or more per month.
"We're not getting any more new contracts the way we used to because they don't have the money," said Jay Sollars, an officials here of Associates Financial Services, which holds $700 million in finance contracts with owner-operators around the country.
"The truckers are coming to us now for $6,000 or so to get their engines overhauled instead of buying new rigs," said Sallars. "Before we were buying new trucks for these guys."
It isn't hard to spot the signs that times are tough for the independents. Here at Alphy's a handful of truckers sit inside the brightly lit dining room slippine coffee or munching on hamburgers. But most of the drivers are not to be seen, even though there are hundreds of trucks lined up side by side.
"Five years ago on a nice night like this you'd see bunches of truck drivers out here talking and sitting around sharing a few beers," said Cota. "Now they buy a six-pack and sit in the cab drinking by themselves. No one offers anything to anyone. Everybody's watching their pennies."
Not even the two young women cruising the long lines of darkened trucks in a dark blue Chevrolet waiting for a quick flash of headlights from a prospective customer were doing any business. The going price is $20 for a woman. "The guys just don't throw it around the way they used to," said Cota.
Owner-operators pay their own expenses during hauls and are reimbursed from produce brokers or from companies they lease their trucks and services to. Rates vary widely from week to week. Two weeks ago truckers here were getting paid $3,000 to haul to load of lettuce from Los Angeles to the East Caost. This week the going rate was $2,200.
But that is gross pay. After expenses such as fuel, maintenance, food and lodging, a trucker can end up with only a few hundred dollars. And if he has a breakdown he may lose money on the run.
The cost of truck runs has gone up dramatically since the shutdown, despite promises from legislators that efforts would be made to lighten the financial burdens on independents. Diesel fuel that cost 31 or 32 cents a gallon then now costs 59 cents at the Standard station here. Truckers said they use the facilities of big chains like Standard or Union 76 and then go somewhere else to buy fuel from cutrate stations.
Prices of permits to haul through various states have gone up also. Permit requirements and prices vary widely from state to state, and independents say they are usually the first to be challenged to authorities seeking non-permit loads. An independent from Chicago said he regularly hangs the identification of one of the big trucking firms on the side of his truck to fend off curious police and state authorities at weight stations.
"It works fine," said the truckers. "They see that sign and they just wave you right on through. It's the gypsy independent they're looking for."
Independents must also put up with fly-by-night agricultural co-ops and brokers who run up thousands of dollars in fees to truckers and then declare bankruptcy, leaving the independents empty-handed. One Texas broker went through four such bankruptcies before he was jailed recently.
According to Parkhurst, independents are also victims of licensed carriers who, he said, skim off some of the payment for a load that ordinarily would go to the trucker.
Parkhurst's independents association, which he says numbers 20,000 owner-operators, is backing a bill in Congress this year that would allow owner-operator to haul a wider variety of freight and free them from total dependence on agricultural brokers and co-ops. The bill is opposed by the American Trucking Associations, which represent 25,000 trucking companies.
Cota and his fellow truckers, however, do not see much of a future for the owner-operator. It now costs the 38-year-old Camden, S.C., trucker $105 for an oil change and a lubrication job on his 1974 red-and-white Kenworth tractor-trailer. In 1974, when Cota took part in the truckers' shutdown in Dayton, Ohio, the same bill would have come to about $46, he said.
Last week, Cota said, he gave in after running out of money on his latest haul and signed with a licensed carrier to transport heavy machinery to Dallas. "To me that represents the end of my freedom," he said. "But there was no choice. I've got four kids at home and they want to eat and I want to eat so my freedom comes second."