King of the road 

As rig operators everywhere give up, Floyd Gessner chugs toward 5 million miles

click to enlarge Floyd loves his job, but like all truckers, hes concerned - about rising gas costs. When prodded, he says, I have - nothing to do with the price, all I do is haul it. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Floyd loves his job, but like all truckers, hes concerned about rising gas costs. When prodded, he says, I have nothing to do with the price, all I do is haul it.

Floyd Gessner doesn't work because he has to. He works because, after 55 years, he still likes driving big rigs. Simple as that.

"Just drivin' up the road," he says. "My wife tells people, "He's just like an old train engineer. He just likes to listen to that truck a-purrin' there.'"

At 76 and with more than 40 years at the same company, Floyd has no plans to retire. He speculates that he's driven between 4 and 5 million miles, in trips that have always begun and ended at Chief Petroleum Co.'s plant in Old Colorado City. To put that in perspective: Earth's circumference at the equator is 24,902 miles. Floyd has effectively driven around the world at least 180 times.

"Only a handful of truckers reach the 4 million mark," says Patti Olsgard, director of safety, training and accounting for the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. "He's an anomaly."

Even more so, because in all that time, he's received one speeding ticket, and has never caused an accident.

"Supertrucker" is what a mutual friend called Floyd when first describing him to me. And after spending a day riding the Front Range with him, I understood why.

A day in the life

After maneuvering his 42-foot trailer above a line of fuel tank caps at Denver's Vickery Motorsports, Floyd cuts his engine. It's midmorning and the shop's not open yet, so the parking lot, which within the hour will fill with motorcycles and recreational vehicle traffic, sits empty. Just how Floyd prefers.

As we climb down from the cab, a 20-something pops off the Frisbee-sized metal tank caps and begins siphoning collected rainwater from around the inner caps. Floyd makes a bit of small talk and inserts a long wooden dipstick to gauge the tanks' pre-delivery levels. As I'll see him do many times throughout the day, he then affixes a couple elephant trunk-like hoses to the tanks and starts pumping.

Silver hair pokes out from under his trucker's cap, holding the ends of oversized, wire-rimmed glasses above a hearty smile and wrinkles that show his age but betray his vigor. He repeatedly goes from crouching on the concrete, black suspenders pulling on his waistband, to laboring about the truck, tinkering with gear.

To borrow from modern slang: Floyd's built like a brick shithouse, solid and sturdy.

While gravity drains 1,000 gallons of B32 and 500 gallons of B33 race gas (used in boats, ATVs and other sport machinery), Floyd and another guy run through a conversation they've clearly had before.

"When you retire, Floyd," the man says, "they'll have to get two guys to do your job."

With the gas (which he had picked up a couple days prior in Borger, Texas) transferred and equipment stowed, Floyd reinserts the dipstick for another reading. He scribbles numbers in blue pen on one palm, before transferring them to a handwritten invoice. With the B32 costing over $4 a gallon and the B33 running over $6 a gallon, the final bill totals around $7,500 a solid chunk of change for a small business.

A dying breed

It's fitting that during my ride with a trucker-for-life, we haul petroleum. With gas prices high, nobody's suffering more than transportation workers truckers especially, who as of 2006 represented a $645.6 billion force in the U.S.

click to enlarge 6210_cover-27733.jpeg

The American Trucking Association (ATA) reports that in the first quarter of 2008, 935 companies employing five or more trucks folded. That's about twice 2007's pace, and Olsgard says operational costs are likely to keep claiming businesses.

As for independent owner-operators, Floyd says he's heard that 42,000 of them have hung up the hat already in 2008.

In trying to verify that, I talk to Larry Daniel of America's Independent Truckers' Association (AITA). He says that since the beginning of the year, an average of roughly 750 companies have folded per week. In his statistics, a "company" can be a single truck or an outfit of hundreds of trucks and contract haulers. So Daniel says 40,000-plus truckers doesn't sound unrealistic, adding that he believes it will take an act of Congress to buoy the industry.

How, exactly, do high gas costs sabotage truckers?

Most get paid a percentage of the freight for each haul, and that barely offsets gas costs in some cases.

Bear in mind that a newer 18-wheeler gets between five and six miles per gallon, dropping down to as little as three depending on weight, terrain and speed. The ATA says most long haulers travel 100,000 miles per year, with an average daily run of 500 miles. With diesel currently selling at close to $5 a gallon, that's more than $400 a day in fuel costs.

"Trucking is one of the last bastions of the mom-and-pop business," says Chief Petroleum manager Rich O'Connell. "Now it's going away. Independent truckers can't compete."

Much like how Wal-Mart has sucked up small retailers, big fleets with purchase power in the futures market, larger contracts and better insurance have absorbed the market of smaller, regional carriers. According to O'Connell, niche operators like Chief (which hauls a great deal of aviation fuel) have a little more security.

Why should you care?

According to AITA figures, the trucking industry employed 8.6 million people as of 2004, or one in 15 working Americans. And 82 percent of communities depend solely on trucking for delivery of goods and commodities.

If the trucks stop, you don't eat.

Mileage and gallons

Our schedule for the day is to take the remainder of the race gas to a fuel center in Fort Collins, before picking up fuel in Aurora for delivery back in the Springs. We'll drop that at a Chief filling station near the intersection of Fillmore and Nevada avenues and at the bulk plant on Eighth Street, from which we departed before 7 this morning.

All in all, we'll be out about nine hours, factoring in a stop for a late breakfast, and will cover roughly 300 miles.

By the time we reach Fort Collins, I've traced Floyd back to age 11, when he recalls one day when he drove a two-ton truck home from his father's three-acre farm in Mandata, Pa., 45 miles north of Harrisburg.

"I guess it got in my blood then," he says.

The fifth of 12 children, Floyd helped his dad raise chickens, cows and hogs ("we used everything but the squeal off a pig") as a side business to his principal occupation cutting props for deep coal mines. Floyd's father would mark timbers with chalk, and his boys would cut them with power saws.

click to enlarge A triumphant Floyd reaches the top of Pikes Peak after - being told it couldnt be done. - COURTESY FLOYD GESSNER
  • Courtesy Floyd Gessner
  • A triumphant Floyd reaches the top of Pikes Peak after being told it couldnt be done.

By his own choice, Floyd only attended school until the 10th grade.

"That's why I'm just a dumb truck driver," he says, joking.

At 18, Floyd accepted the invitation of his oldest brother who was stationed at Camp Carson (now Fort Carson) to come to Colorado Springs.

At 20, he obtained his first chauffeur's license (all truckers needed then, as opposed to the Commercial Driver's License they must renew every four years today). A year later he married his fiance, Jean. Today, they regularly attend the Methodist church where they traded vows, 55 years ago.

His first trucking gig was hauling potato chips from Old Colorado City to Safeway stores in Denver. Next, he hauled brick from Denver, helping build a men's dormitory at Colorado College. By 1957, he was still hauling brick, but for an outfit in Pueblo (which he pronounces "Pee-yeb-lo"), which was responsible for raising Penrose Hospital's main building.

In 1963, his cargo changed to dry powder for cement, then rocks two years later. During a lull in business, Floyd was laid off. He showed up at Chief in June 1967, and has been with the 21-employee company ever since.

Floyd's biggest year for Chief was 1997, when at age 66, he drove 108,396 miles. He's trimmed down a bit, dropping to 90,000 miles in '03, 80,000 in '06 and 64,000 in '07.

At the end of 2007, Floyd was at 3,444,715 miles with Chief.

Outside the mileage and gallons he's tracked in a little notebook since 1967, family seems to be the way he measures his life. Floyd and Jean had two girls, one in '53 and one in '63, to be followed in '74 by a third.

"I used to tease my mom, because she had 12 kids in the time that I had three," he says.

Working did keep Floyd away from home a lot a common problem for truckers though he occasionally brought back treats from the road and took his girls on ride-alongs. When he was home, they spent plenty of time in his lap trying to make braids in his short hair.

"I paid for schooling as far as they wanted to go," he says. "They all took piano lessons. I tried to provide for my family. And my wife tells me, "You've done a good job.'"

Top of the world

Before we arrive in Fort Collins, Floyd pulls off exit 254 at the Loveland junction into the parking lot of Johnson's Corner. Floyd engine-brakes (downshifts, as opposed to using his air brakes), the thundering gurgle drowning out the whoosh of traffic on I-25. The front row of the sleeping lot is occupied by a dozen or so trucks.

Inside, table talkers play up "world famous" cinnamon rolls. Food Network voted the way station one of the top five national truck stops in 2004.

Between bites of steak and eggs, Floyd tells me about maneuvering one of Chief's semi trucks to the top of Pikes Peak last year, on a day of 20-foot snowdrifts.

He'd shown up with the heating-oil delivery, and an employee at the gate had waved him on. But another official soon stopped him and said, "The boss is on his way down."

click to enlarge Floyd learned to drive trucks on his fathers farm. - COURTESY FLOYD GESSNER
  • Courtesy Floyd Gessner
  • Floyd learned to drive trucks on his fathers farm.

When the guy arrived and saw the semi Chief usually sends smaller trucks he nearly flipped, Floyd says. There was "no way" Floyd was going to get to the top.

"I can make it," Floyd told him.

The man finally let him go, but tailed Floyd all the way to 14,115 feet. When they hit the peak, Floyd says, the guy got out of his vehicle and basically just walked away.

Why the bravado? He could have driven back or loaded into a smaller vehicle he'd get paid either way. And imagine the expensive fireball that he'd amount to if he slipped over an edge with all that fuel.

"I just wanted to," he says. "I knew I could make it."

Gas bath

Once at Fort Collins' Team Petroleum depot, Floyd pumps the race gas into a smaller truck, from which a couple of workers fill eight large black steel drums in a hot, dusty gravel parking lot.

While chatting, one of the guys accidentally lets the gas get too high in one of the barrels. Before he can release the handle, a surge sprays Floyd and the surrounding area but mainly Floyd with a clear gush of stinky, expensive race gas.

The guy cannot stop apologizing. Floyd pulls a handkerchief from his back pocket and dabs a little bit, saying, "Don't you worry about it anymore, now."

Most of the gas evaporates long before the guy stops stammering, "I'm so sorry, Floyd."

They send him on with chocolates and a can of cold Pepsi, as always. Even doused in gas, Floyd's all smiles.

For the next hour, I experience the feeling of a rig without a load on. It's a surprisingly bumpy journey, at times like what I imagine the tumble cycle on an old laundry dryer must feel like. It doesn't look or feel like we're doing 75 mph, but when we hit even a modest bump, we're hefted skyward. On a couple of bad bumps, I see Floyd's backside literally leave his spring seat.

Supertrucker catches air. Sweet.

In Aurora, we fill up at the Magellan Pipeline terminal, which brings gas in from Kansas. The filling station a puzzle of plumbing is hard, uninviting and fume-laced.

Floyd says that since 9/11, a lot of fuel stations like Magellan have gotten all jumpy, and he recommends that I stay in the cab and not make any cell phone calls.

We take on two types of diesel one dyed red to distinguish it as road-tax-free "off-road" fuel used by farmers and the construction industry, among others and fill the remainder of the trailer with regular gas.

So we're hauling about 7,400 gallons, or 80,000 pounds, valued at roughly $34,000. Factor in the truck's cost (somewhere around $90,000 for the tractor and $100,000 for the trailer) and this is one expensive and flammable moving vehicle.

click to enlarge Floyd at, say ... only a couple million miles of driving. - COURTESY FLOYD GESSNER
  • Courtesy Floyd Gessner
  • Floyd at, say ... only a couple million miles of driving.

I ask Floyd if he ever thinks about the worst-case scenario. Could he blow up?

"Oh, you could very easily. It never bothers me. I'm awful careful and I watch what I'm doing. But these crazy drivers anymore I tell you, it's something. But in all my driving, I've had only one accident and I wasn't even charged with it."

He was east of Lawrence, Kan., one blustery day without a load when two successive wind gusts caused him to jackknife on an icy bridge. The police patrol just cited the weather, and the accident report noted no driver fault.

His boss' response: "So what? If it's happened to you ... " The implied message: It would have happened to anybody, and maybe turned out worse for a lesser driver.

Sex, drugs and honking

On the way back to the Springs now that we're acquainted I ask Floyd the sillier and uglier questions about trucker stereotypes that I'd compiled with friends' help. (I manage to refrain from asking him to lead a sing-along of "Convoy.")

Graciously, he answers directly, sometimes with an anecdote dredged from memory. Now, when Floyd tells a story, it doesn't start with the action or event itself.

"One time I took a load of oil down to El Paso, Texas, and then I went across there on [Interstate] 20 and went north there to Wynnewood, Okla., to pick up a load of solvent on my way home. Then I got over there by Denton, Texas, and I got laid over because I was out of hours driving. So I was on the front row ... "

All I'd asked was if he often saw "lot lizards" trucker-speak for prostitutes who reportedly knock at truckers' doors in the back rows of truck stops.

"Hey, can I come in?" finally imitates Floyd in a soft voice. (He follows with a loud, "No!")

There's also the "bennies" (Benzedrine, an amphetamine) that a lot of truckers will pop to stay awake, particularly if they're illegally working two log books instead of one. The law allows for 11 hours of driving and four hours of other work in a given day, and no more than 70 driving hours in eight days, or 60 hours in seven days.

He's seen a lot from on high in his rig, like people having sex in the backseat of a car with someone else driving. Those are the things that light up channel 19 (the truckers' channel) on the CB really quick.

On a different note, he mentions the time he got 12 flat tires from 60 lath nails he ran over in Farmington, N.M., and the times where he helped pull people from cars after bad accidents.

"People don't stop to help you anymore," he says.

There are also stories of truck hijackings back in the '70s, with the "manmade oil shortages" at the time. Floyd says some truckers fear those again, and it's not uncommon to hear of guys who keep guns in their cabs for protection.

The question that Floyd says he gets asked the most, he really doesn't have much to say about.

"Ever used that emergency ramp on mountain passes?"

click to enlarge Truckers do forge a special bond with their trucks. Prior to - hauling gas for the last 41 years, Floyd (left) carried loads of - brick out of both Denver and Pueblo. - COURTESY FLOYD GESSNER
  • Courtesy Floyd Gessner
  • Truckers do forge a special bond with their trucks. Prior to hauling gas for the last 41 years, Floyd (left) carried loads of brick out of both Denver and Pueblo.

"I never have."

OK, well ...

"Do you honk for children?"

He smiles real big and honks the horn for me.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah and they'll clap their hands ... "

Some things will never change in the industry, though Floyd says a lot has changed for the worse. Mainly that the four-wheelers have no respect for the trucks, and that "we have 10 times more traffic now than 40 years ago."

It's simply a harder environment to negotiate. Pair that with the gas prices, plus time away from home and family, and you can see why many don't last long.

Hang up the hat

For Floyd's 40th anniversary at Chief, owner Vic Ziemer gave him a locally crafted, hand-carved wooden tanker resembling the rig he drives for the company. As trinkets go, Floyd cherishes it second only to a scrapbook that one of his daughters made for him recently, which spans his whole career with sentimental notes explaining the images.

"He's our best driver," says Ziemer. "He never complains and never screws it up. There's nothing I can't send him on."

When I say the word "retirement," I can feel a cringe through the phone.

"I'm not looking forward to it, and I don't bring it up," says Ziemer. "It's gonna be a real hit to this company when he leaves."

Floyd makes $200-plus in a typical day at Chief. But he's been drawing full Social Security since he was 65, and owns three rental properties in Old Colorado City.

I ask Jean what she thinks about Floyd retiring.

"What would he do?" she replies. "A friend suggested he work for Silver Key [Senior Services]. But I can't see him trucking old biddies around."

She knows Floyd would have a hard time becoming a full-time bird-watcher. Her own father lived to be 102, and used to say, "It isn't the hard work that's killing people; it's the stress and strain they're living under."

"I do think about it," Floyd says of retirement. "A fella never knows what's working on him, but, most of the time I'm real healthy and I enjoy my job, so I'd go crazy if I didn't do something."


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