Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

May 13, 2013

Recalling an evening with an old trucker friend that had a surprise ending

— — During the five years I worked as a long-haul steel hauler, I didn’t meet anyone that I would consider normal. It’s probably not the same now, but at that time everyone I knew was different — not freaks — just different.

My friend Bruce Beppler was about as normal as anyone I knew who drove truck, because he and his beautiful normal-looking wife had a nice house, nice cars and a couple of well-behaved kids — a boy and a girl. We hauled steel together, but Bruce also owned a 28-foot tandem, aluminum dump trailer and put hydraulics on his truck so he could haul coal on the weekends. He wasn’t very tall — maybe 5’8” or 5’9” tall, but he wasn’t the kind of guy anyone said no to. His biceps were almost the size of my thighs, and he was one person who actually knew his own strength. He was polite and friendly, but strong and agile. I don’t think he ever played sports, lifted weights or did any body-building. He worked hard and he had hard muscles to prove it.

But Bruce’s true strength was the unassuming way he carried himself. We were loading suicide coils one night, or rather, early morning up at the J&L Plant in Aliquippa, Pa., and as I was chaining my load down, Bruce came over to talk to me about something. Bruce was first class all the way, so he had ratchet binders which were relatively modern at that time. I had the old clamp-style binders that I had to put a four-foot binder pipe on to make the chains taunt.

I was obsessive about making sure the chains were tight on every load I hauled. Regardless of the distance I traveled, I made a point of stopping every 100 miles or so to kick the tires and check the chains. But that was highway miles. After I loaded, I often stopped outside the plant entrance to check the chains again. There were any number of things that could cause a load to settle and chains to slacken up a little.

Bruce had tightened his chains as I was still finishing the process for the chains on my trailer. In a rather nonchalant way, Bruce walked up to the binder that I was about to pull tight with my binder pipe, grabbed it with his right hand and snapped it effortlessly into a closed position. There’s no question in my mind that I would have had to jump into the air and put all of my weight behind dogging down the binder, but Bruce did it with ease.

I truly enjoyed making deliveries or picking up freight at the same place that Bruce was headed to. We were laid over in Allentown, Pa., one night and decided to walk to a tavern to eat dinner and to enjoy an adult beverage with our meal. It was a nice enough place that catered to truckers and the hamburger and fries I had were great.

After we ate, Bruce and I went to the bar for another beer — Schmidt’s on tap — and to watch part of a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game on television. It’s weird how something like a beer slogan will stick in your mind. That was in 1973 or ‘74, and the Schmidt’s radio jingle then was: “Schmidt’s of Philadelphia ... Schmidt’s will ring a bell for ya. It’s the dry light beer,” as I recall, but I can’t find the tag line online.

The Phills weren’t playing the Pirates that night, but I kinda got into the game anyway. Bruce finished his beer, looked at me and said: “I’m ready to go back to the motel.” I told him that I was going to stay and watch some more of the game. One of the old truckers who taught me about driving told me never to listen to a baseball game on the radio when I was driving, because the drama of a baseball game can be a major distraction.

The old trucker whose name escapes me now, said the only wreck he ever had in his 30-plus years of driving truck came when he was listening to a World Series game. It didn’t matter who was playing. He said he got swept up in the moment, lost track of what he was doing and ran into a car in front of him that had stopped for a traffic light.

After I bought my truck, I rarely had any time to do anything other than work. When I was on the road driving 2,000 to 2,500 miles a week, I was busy and when I was home on weekends, I was changing the oil or fixing anything that was broke. I told Bruce to go on by himself because I was going to watch a little more of the game.

Bruce said: “OK,” looked to his right extended his huge right arm in the direction of the guy seated next to him and asked: “Can you give me a ride back to the motel room?” The guy reacted angrily like anyone would, but after he got a look at Bruce, he said: “Sure thing.” It was a great moment in trucking history for me.

We went out a couple of other times when Bruce did essentially the same thing to strangers. He had incredible powers of persuasion. I was proud to call him my friend.

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

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