Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

September 23, 2013

It’s hard to double-clutch if you’re driving with one foot and a crutch

— — I lost my Freightliner because of a pop-up into short right field. I don’t suppose many people could understand that, but I was stupid enough to play co-ed softball one Saturday afternoon in Morgantown, and I suffered a severe ankle sprain when I backed up out of the infield to catch a soft pop-up, and a young lady playing right field didn’t hear me call for it. She walked right up behind me, and I twisted my left ankle beneath my body in an effort to avoid stepping on her. It cost me my truck.

When you’re making as much money as I was making back then, you don’t think about what happens if you can’t work. In 1974, I paid taxes on more than $50,000, and I’ve never come close to that level of earnings again. In the months before I injured my ankle, I was bringing home $2,000 to $2,200 per week to the truck. Only a percentage of that was earnings, because the cost of fuel, permits, maintenance, tires, repairs, licenses and loan payments siphoned off quite a bit of what the truck earned. But I had some serious money coming in at the time.

I had a load of steel on my truck for Chicago, and even though I was in pain, I knew I was going to have to suck it up and deliver the freight. As I recall, it was a low-riding load of steel reinforcement rods in bundles. I had hurt myself bad enough to go to the old Mon General Hospital and to get my ankle wrapped up. I had a pair of crutches in Claysville that I could use, but I couldn’t use a crutch to double-clutch. When I left out on Sunday afternoon, my ankle was too swollen to wear a boot. I used some extra Ace bandages to wrap up my ankle, but they only seemed to increase the pain.

When I was thinking through the part about driving a truck with a sprained ankle, I failed to factor the idea that getting in and out of my truck involved stepping up on a ladder and jumping down from the ladder after I stopped. By that time in my career, I had figured out all of the nature breaks I needed to take on the trip from Pittsburgh to Chicago, but all of those depended on me getting in and out of the truck.

Most truckers of my day shifted on RPMs anyway, and the only time a trucker used the clutch was to pull out from a dead stop. Of course, every nature break was another stop. Every intersection, every traffic light and every traffic stoppage meant the same thing. The pain of depressing the clutch was like an electric shock every time. For some reason, I thought the clutch was pretty loose, but on that trip, I realized that it was stiff.

I made it to Columbus before I realized what a big mistake I had made. In order to stay out of traffic, I drove I-70 all the way to Indianapolis, then up I-65 into the Windy City. I entered Chicago in the early morning hours and went straight to my delivery point. I was usually pretty cautious about sleeping at an unfamiliar delivery place, but my ankle hurt so bad that I remember thinking that being shot, stabbed or clubbed would probably take away some of the pain.

Nothing like that happened. I got empty, limped around the trailer to secure my chains and tarps and high-tailed it back to the ranch at Exit Two Truck Stop. I didn’t call the Chicago terminal and get on the board. I just drove straight to Claysville, Pa., parked my truck and drove my standard transmission, three-speed on the column, Chevy step-side pickup truck to my mom’s house. I made it as far as the couch and stayed there for nearly two weeks.

I never thought that two weeks of my life would put me so far behind on my bills that I would never catch back up. I’m sure Mom would have helped me with $20 or $40, but that wouldn’t even make a dent in the level of debt I had at the time. I sprained my ankle in the middle of October, got back on the road in the first week of November, and lost my truck on Jan. 12 of 1975. My trucking days weren’t over, but my brief stint as an independent owner operator was done.

The months ahead weren’t much easier. It took me two years to finally settle my debt with the Internal Revenue Service. They weren’t nasty about it, but they were persistent. I remember telling them one time that all I had left was a second-hand couch and the clothes I was wearing, and the agent answered, “What do you estimate their value to be?” When I told him, “Not much,” he said the IRS probably wouldn’t seek to seize personal property less than $200 in value.

But, Oh what a ride it was! I wouldn’t trade the time I spent as an independent tractor-trailer owner-operator for anything I’ve ever done. All of my memories are still there.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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