62,496 Bottles of Beer on the Truck
by Peter Carter
To my ears," Al Brodie says as he winds his way through the streets of London Ont., "there's no sweeter sound than the raw power of a hard-working, smooth-running diesel."
While he talks, Brodie seamlessly and clutch-pedal-lessly manipulates the 18-speed Eaton Fuller that's wringing the most from the 500-hp Cat C-15 under the hood of his blue 2004 Western Star daycab.
The horsepower's handy because what Brodie's pulling is also Blue - 62,496 bottles of it - in twin 32-ft trailers.
He's grossing about 62,500 kg (slightly less than double what he weighed on the trip in the other direction, hauling empties from Toronto to London). After a third-of-an-hour switchover during which he backed the train into a slender parking space, did his paperwork, hooked up and did a pre-trip, he's headed back out onto the 401 eastbound.
The diesel has about 770,000 km on the odometer and it's growling and hitting the deep bass notes as sonorously as Johnny Cash.
Then Brodie corrects himself.
"Actually, there is something that sounds better than a diesel, and that's the sound of a steel guitar and fiddle."
It should come as no surprise that on the CB, drivers know Brodie - who boasts more than 34 years of accident-free trucking - as "The Country Gentleman."
He loves driving. When asked if he would prefer that his next truck have an automated transmission, he says emphatically, "No. I like shifting gears."
Even when he's not behind the wheel of a rig, Brodie likes playing with motors. On summer weekends, you might find him at a local fair or jamboree competing in what you might call a "mini" tractor pull.
At the moment, he's a member of the Big Creek Tractor Pullers club - a collection of enthusiasts who tour the province putting on demonstrations with their little tractors. His current ride - called "Hell Ya" - is a small replica Ford farm tractor, but there's nothing small about its powerful four-cylinder Mustang engine or four-speed transmission.
"It's one of those things that make you forget the big bad world while you're doing it.
"I think there's a little boy in all of us, and it's that little boy in me that loves the tractor pulls," says 58-year-old Brodie.
He also loves country music. All the pre-sets on his in-cab radio are set to C&W stations. When he visited Nashville last year he went up onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to have his photo taken. "It was electrifying. That place talks to you."
He has a pair of prized boots signed by American singer Mel McDaniel and he once shared a few pints with Stompin' Tom Connors at a bar in Belleville, Ont.
Brodie even looks like a Country & Western bass player.
The only thing he adores more? Family.
Brodie is dad to Reena, 23, recently engaged and working towards her nursing degree. When she earned her four-wheeler licence, the tester commented that he could tell she'd been taught by a trucker because she parallel-parked the Chevy Suburban using only the rear-view mirrors.
Son Wade is going on 18. He's following in his father's bootsteps with a flair for heavy-equipment operation as well as his participation as Al's co-conspirator in the mini tractor pulls.
And you will doubtless hear more of Brodie's middle one, daughter Brittany. She's a country singer, she's six foot one with a lovely voice, and perhaps the only thing in the Brodie's hometown of Mount Forest taller than Brittany is her ambition. Al himself recently made his stage debut, singing back-up for Brittany at a recent jamboree. Says it gave him new respect for her. But he's not going to give up his day job. (Want to hear her? Click on www.brittanybrodie.com. You can hear her singing.)
Brodie's been married to Jeanna for 25 years. They met in a snowmobile shop when she was 17.
Our Country Gentleman drives for Labatt. Has since July '84.
And the Labatt fleet sparkles. The company has long prided itself on how adroitly they push their brands on their iron - Classic, Blue, 50 - the trucks are rolling billboards.
In Brodie, Labatt couldn't have a finer ambassador. When highwaySTAR went for a spin with Brodie it was on one of those blah grey March days when the weather consisted of intermittent road salt mixed with windshield-washer fluid. Brodie didn't like it one bit.
"I'm really kinda ashamed when the truck's dirty like this," he says. "If you're going to represent your industry - and drivers are ambassadors for trucking and the company they're driving for, you have to do it well.
"I like to keep a clean truck. I set the bar pretty high for myself.
From the time he hauled gravel around Gray County and ore from Chibougamau in Northern Quebec "where the roads were wild and there was no power steering or air-ride," Brodie has embodied the proud trucker.
One of the trailers parked in the London lot where Brodie turned around had "Lucky" written on the side. Sure it's a beer brand, but lucky is also how the Labatt brass should feel to have guys like Al Brodie at the wheel.