By Greg Grisolano, staff writer
Let’s begin with 1973.
On Jan. 1, CBS broadcasting company sold the New York Yankees for $10 million to a 12-person syndicate led by George Steinbrenner.
On Jan. 14 the Miami Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins 14 to 7 in Super Bowl VII, capping the National Football League’s only unbeaten season.
On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Roe v. Wade, overturning state bans on abortion. A three-to-one underdog from Marshall, TX, nicknamed “Big” George Foreman demolished then-undefeated heavyweight boxing champion “Smokin’” Joe Frazier to capture the heavyweight crown in a bout that would be immortalized for Howard Cosell’s “Down Goes Frazier!” call. And former U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson passed away at his home in Texas.
In the midst of all this, in the small farming community of Grain Valley, MO, east of Kansas City, an owner-operator named Jim Johnston was making a living trucking up and down the road in his new Freightliner cabover.
“We were making a pretty good profit in the early part of ’73,” he said. “I was hauling meat out of Emporia, KS, to the East Coast, and usually whatever you could get, hauling back. In those days, a lot of companies only had operating authority to run one direction. You would end up having to trip-lease to another company to get a load back.”
By the end of ’73, British rock band Pink Floyd’s album, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” would be well on its way to a record-breaking run at the top of the Billboard charts. William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” would become one of the most popular films of the year. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” would be released. “The Waltons,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “All in the Family” would be the top television programs.
The Watergate burglars would all be sentenced, and the fallout from the congressional investigation would lead to then-Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation and a subsequent guilty plea of income tax evasion in his home state of Maryland. Congress would confirm Gerald Ford’s appointment as vice president, replacing Agnew. The testimony of former White House Counsel John Dean would be appointment television. President Richard Nixon would tell a pool of reporters “I am not a crook!”
Oil embargo On Oct. 6, 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt, Syria and Jordan launched a surprise invasion of Israel in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War. Fighting lasted for 19 days and saw both the United States and the Soviet Union sending arms and supplies to their respective allies. A United Nations cease-fire was brokered on Oct. 25.
While combat operations on the battlefield may have ceased, the economic battles were ramping up. On Oct. 16, the Arab nations of OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo, striking back at the U.S. for supporting Israel.
At the same time, the Arab members of OPEC decided to use their leverage over the price-setting mechanisms for crude oil, setting off an upward and far-reaching spiral in fuel prices.
Johnston recalled his first taste of the higher prices when he pulled into a full-service station in Stroudsburg, PA.
“That was back in the days when they actually had service attendants who would fuel the trucks,” he said. “You didn’t have to get out and do it yourself. I looked down and saw the price on the pump was 33 or 31 cents per gallon.”
When he looked down and saw the price, Johnston said he told the attendant to “Get that thing outta my truck!”
Diesel had been running about 28 cents a gallon until then. From that point on, prices rose steadily. And at the same time the nation’s now-rationed fuel supply began drying up.
“You’d pull into a truck stop and get 30 to 50 gallons of fuel at a time,” he said. “In those days, your truck might average between 4 and 4.5 miles per gallon. So you would have to stop at the next truck stop a hundred or so miles down the road and buy more.”
Johnston recalled the long lines of trucks and waiting hours sometimes to get his ration of 50 gallons of fuel. In many places, you couldn’t buy fuel at all.
‘A little fire’
The situation put a huge pinch on working owner-operators like Johnston. He recalls hearing a lot of grumbling about the price spikes and the rationing, on the CB and over the road.
One trucker in the Northeast briefly blocked a road. Then another.
But it wasn’t until Dec. 4, 1973, when a truck driver from Overland Park, KS, named J.W. Edwards pulled his rig across Interstate 80 outside of Lamar, PA, that the demonstrations of the truckers became too big to ignore.
Edwards, who had the CB handle “The River Rat,” blocked all lanes of traffic on eastbound I-80, refusing to move until he got to talk to somebody in Washington.
While Edwards was blockading the highway in Pennsylvania, Johnston was at home in the Kansas City area, preparing to run a load up to the East Coast.
“I saw it on TV, and I thought ‘Man, I know that guy!’” he said. “At one time, he was driving for somebody that was leased to the same company I was.”
“I figured it was about time somebody did something,” he said. “But there wasn’t anything organized about any of it. It was sort of spontaneous stuff that started with a little fire and then ignited into a bigger fire.”
The fuel dilemma ignited shutdowns of historic proportion, but it was not the only issue frustrating truckers. The overall inability of too many truckers to operate efficiently was the actual spark in the tinderbox.
Edwards’ blockade made national headlines. Walter Cronkite himself interviewed Edwards for the CBS Evening News. Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp descended on the shutdown via helicopter to the truck stop to help break up the blockade. Shapp also promised to set up meetings for Edwards and other truckers with policymakers in Washington, DC.
Johnston said he went ahead and took his load to New York. While he was on the road, more protests were occurring across the country, primarily in the East. On the way back from his run, “probably four or five days” after the blockade, Johnston said he stopped at the truck stop in Lamar, PA, and ran into Edwards there.
After the shutdowns started, there were huge delays and shortages nationwide. The Pennsylvania incident was a trigger that led to sporadic shutdowns across the nation for months after. The movement of goods slowed down, which caused shortages at grocery stores and even some factory closures.
It’s not clear what happened to the truck Edwards was driving, but he needed a ride back to Kansas City and Johnston obliged. On the way back, they talked about the problems and the issues.
“J.W. was in over his head,” he said. “And was overwhelmed because he had really set something off –something big. He had gone down to Washington, DC, and had an initial meeting with the Secretary of Transportation (Claude S. Brinegar) and didn’t really get anything resolved.”
At that time, the trucking industry was heavily regulated. Johnston recalls that the Teamsters Union was representing many employee drivers and the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers was doing a great job of representing steel haulers in the Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York area. Johnston said at that time, there was no national organization speaking for the independent owner-operators and non-union drivers.
As they made their way back to Kansas City, Johnston and Edwards stopped at truck stops and held informal meetings with other drivers. That trip was the beginning of what was to become the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
The original name was The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association of America Ltd. (OOIDAAL, or OOIDAA Ltd.) The “of America Ltd.” portion of the name was subsequently dropped. Edwards became the first president.
“We spent a lot of time trying to come up with a name for it that was as all-inclusive as possible,” Johnston said. “We weren’t distinguishing between employee-drivers and owner-operators. We wanted all truckers involved.”
When they returned to the Kansas City area, Johnston and Edwards parted ways. But it was only a few days later, when the phone at the Johnston house rang. “The River Rat” was heading back to Washington, DC, for more meetings with lawmakers, and he needed Johnston and a few other truckers to come along.
Those meetings, and the waves of protests and shutdowns by truckers, would continue through March of 1974. They would serve to galvanize thousands of truckers like Johnston to take their issues to Capitol Hill, and culminate in the formation of an organization whose mission would be to tackle those issues. LL