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Born to Truck

by Rolf Lockwood

There's a kind of person in this industry who serves as its backbone, the very foundation of trucking. Might be a he or a she. A company driver or maybe even a company owner, possibly a dispatcher or mechanic. Or, of course, an owner-operator as in the case of this month's profile subject, Mike Hluschuk of Kingston, Ont.

I call them 'pure truckers', people who simply love this sometimes difficult game, people who just wouldn't do anything else no matter what trucking throws at them. People who succeed when others fail because they're committed to getting the job done. In a word, they're professionals, and proud of what they do. Trucking's in their blood and it's going to stay there.

Big Mike Hluschuk is in that category. Though he looks like he could have been a wrestler, he's been at the wheel for 27 of his 43 years. Naturally gentle and very quiet, Mike's at his best when there's a thousand miles ahead of him and at least as many at his back. With real emphasis in his voice, he says he's never more comfortable than when he's in his big red Kenworth W900L rolling across North America. Nervous four-wheelers should feel comfy sharing the road with him too, because he's never had an accident or even a citation in those 27 trucking years.

His partner, Charlene Burns, is one key to his success. "I support him," she says matter-of-factly. "I know it's tough out there." They've been together for seven years, and it's clear that the support goes two ways.

She takes care of the business end of things and the home front. Formerly a nurse, she doesn't drive any more but joins him on his west-coast runs - along with Kramer the Labrador Retriever - as often as she can. Charlene was, in fact, well on the road to a Class A licence herself until a devastating car accident a few years back. She suffered a head injury and spent three weeks in a coma, then had to learn to walk and talk all over again when she woke up. You wouldn't know it to listen to her, but it took two years in hospital to get her back to normal, though not well enough to drive or to work at all. Nowadays she spends much of her time fostering dogs.

Mike's been with Black Top Carriers of Barrie, Ont., for a year now, hauling LTL loads to California and often Utah and Arizona as well. He loves it there because they treat him "...like a person, not a truck number." It's a small operation with just four owner-ops and four company drivers, but steady work.

Things started modestly, at a bakery in Kingston with a weekend job loading trucks. Soon, though only 16, he was driving them full-time. And 12 years later, in 1985, he bought his first truck and became an owner-operator. He's never looked back.

"It was something I'd always wanted to do," he says. "I'd go up and down the road seeing those bigger trucks, and it was just something I had to try. I started out with a Ford LTL 9000 with a little wee 48-in. bunk."

He spent seven years with Frederick Transport during that time, running out of the Montreal terminal, hauling mostly international loads save for a brief stint pulling freight along Highway 401 between Ganonoque and Windsor. The money was good, he says, but he didn't like the work and couldn't wait to get back to his cross-border routine and longer hauls.

In 1989 he bought his second truck, another Ford, but it came at a price.

"When it was time to move up to a bigger truck, my wife said, 'If you get another one, you might as well get one big enough to live in.' So one day I backed into the driveway with a brand new truck and a year later it [the marriage] was all over with."

Mike spent most of the 1990s with the Southwestern arm of McKinnon Transport in Guelph, Ont., and some of that period with one very bad new truck that provided no end of downtime and discomfort. The manufacturer finally bought it back from him, and on the way home after giving that one up he and Charlene stopped into Kenworth Toronto on a whim, just to have a look. Before they left, Mike owned a 1998 W900L with 74-in. AeroCab sleeper, 525 Cummins, and 18-speed double-over.

Then last year he got the show bug, and pretty successfully too. He took top prize in the 1984-98 combination category his first time out, at last summer's Fergus Truck Show in Fergus, Ont. Then it was two thirds, one of them for paint, against some stiff competition at the Truck World 2000 show-and-shine event in Toronto last September.

"I went a little overboard last year, about $15,000 worth of chrome, but I'm going to add even more to it this year," Mike says with a slightly guilty grin. He's already had some very classy, very subtle white lightning bolts painted on the sides of the Kenworth's nose and on the back of the bunk. And by the time his first show comes around this year, likely in May in Fultonville, NY, chances are it'll look even better. As it is, his bright red KW is a beauty, so clean that you'd wonder if it really does work every day. The folks at Black Top are happy to supply him with an equally clean trailer.

All of that expresses the pride Mike feels about both his truck and his profession, so it's extra painful for him to see the face of trucking change the way it has. If he has a complaint to make, it's that too many other drivers don't exhibit the same kind of pride in what they do and how they do it.

"My biggest beef is that there are too many idiots out there on the road now," he says. "I see a lot of people coming through school and they just think it's going to be a holiday out here, a way to see the country. A lot of companies will pay them next to nothing but they'll still haul the freight up and down the road cutting the rates for everyone else. People don't give a shit any more. Nobody will stop any more to help you. A lot of people get into it now and they last only a few months."

I'd guess that Mike's truck is always perfect, so it's no surprise that he also gets a little irritated by DOT inspection types who feel they have to find a fault to justify their jobs.

"You don't mind if they find something serious, but when they can't find anything wrong and then they start nit-picking, to me it's not right. It's like they have to get you for something, a light out or one bad line in your log," he says.

He's had his share of lousy international runs, paying his dues with drops in the seamier parts of New York City or Miami. Common sense got him through that unscathed, though not before he developed some survival tricks. Like carrying a second wallet filled with junk to throw to the animal who jumps up on the battery box waving a weapon.

Mostly, though, he's one happy trucker.

"It might be the same road," he says, "but it's different every day, like the way the sun rises. I enjoy what I'm doing and I wouldn't do anything else. I've done this too long anyway. I couldn't have a job with a 15-minute break at 10 o'clock every morning. This way I'm my own boss."

Much as he loves trucking, Mike would think twice about recommending it for a family man. You can't make enough money on a local job that has you home every night, he says, and if you're making money it means you're on the road for days on end. It's different, he says, for single guys - or maybe for those with understanding partners like Charlene.

Trucking is tough and getting tougher, but while others whine, Mike just hauls another load. It doesn't make him especially happy, but he doesn't moan about it. He and Charlene bought a house together last November, but by mid-February when we sat down together for our interview, he'd seen it only twice and didn't know the address. He didn't get home for Christmas last year, for example, but you do what you gotta do. That's how it is when you're a pure trucker like Mike Hluschuk. You just go.

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