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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 02:20 pm

Diesel in the blood

Four generations of truck-driving men are memorialized in a Staunton museum

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Hubert Henry and his father Joe Henry, 1937

Rich Henry is intimately familiar with the early history of the trucking industry on Route 66. His family had four generations of truckers who plied their trade on the historic highway, and today he operates a museum of sorts dedicated to the subject.

Henry's Route 66 Rabbit Ranch in Staunton is an adjunct to his insurance business. On the side of the main building sits a chain-link rabbit hutch, and scattered around the drive is a collection of VW Rabbits in various stages of disrepair. The place is easy to recognize by the two original Campell's ("Humpin' to Please") rigs parked out front. The interior is packed wall-to-wall with early trucking memorabilia. Its connection to the rabbits is less apparent.

"I'm always glad to talk about trucks," Henry says, as he moves a stack of Route 66 souvenirs out of the way of Montana, a giant stuffed brown bunny perched on top of the counter. "Outside in the hutch we have the Dakotas. I always tell people that Montana comes from the Dakotas. Where do you think the Dakotas come from?"

"Minnesota?"

"No," he says. "St. Louis." He laughs and the long money says he's used this gag more than once.

"They used to say about Dad that his heart didn't pump blood, but diesel fuel," says Henry. "He just loved to drive trucks. He used to say that he had a hobby that paid real money." Henry laughs again. It's hard not to be affected by his enthusiasm for big trucks, and by his deep affection for his truck-driving father. He points to a row of three photos, each showing men posing with their rigs.

"That first picture is of my dad, Hubert, with his father, Joseph. That was taken in 1937, and those are gas-powered trucks. Their first trucks were only maybe 100 horsepower. The next picture is me when I was three and my dad standing by his truck. The last picture is in '97, with his last truck and me in it, taken just when he retired. He drove 61 years and loved every minute of it.

"My earliest memories are riding with Dad on his run from St. Louis up to Chicago and back. Back in those days the truck companies let you take riders. We lived in St. Louis then and starting when I was three I would ride with my Dad every time I got the chance. In the summer I'd go all the time, and when school was on just when he'd get a weekend trip.

"It was a different route then," he says. "It took four to five hours to get from St. Louis to the Dixie, and the same from there on in. It could be a ten-hour trip to get all the way up. It was part of why my Dad never liked company trucks. The company trucks had governors and they'd only go maybe 60, 62 miles per hour. My Dad's truck would go maybe 75. When you get paid by the mile, you like to make time.

"We didn't have a sleeper in those days, but the passenger seat was wide enough to seat two. I used to curl up in the passenger side and sleep all the way to Chicago. Once my dad had two St. Louis to Springfield turns, back to back. I slept through the first trip, and Dad took me to the house and carried me in before the second trip. I woke up in my own bed and didn't know how I got there." Henry looks at the pictures and smiles. "He used to ask me why I even went, I'd be asleep before we hit the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which was only about 5 miles from the BeMac yard. But I loved to go with him. When I got bigger, my dad made a stool that kind of extended the seat so I could still fit. But as I kept growing he would say my feet would get tangled up in the gear shift.

"We'd leave at nine or ten o'clock at night and make it to Chicago by morning. He worked for BeMac for the first 30 years of his career, and they had a terminal on Ogden Avenue. We'd go up there and drop the trailer and bobtail to a motel. He'd have to rest 8 hours before we could come back. And there was no air-conditioning then. We just rolled the windows down, and there were some motels that had fans in the window with little trays of water. Seemed like the water really helped. I guess we just didn't know any better." He laughs.

"I remember the Dixie was exactly half-way between St. Louis and Chicago," Henry says. "A lot of companies would use it as a turn-around. They'd send one driver down from Chicago, and another up from St. Louis. They'd meet at the Dixie and switch trucks. That way you could be back home the same day you left.

"You know what I remember about the Dixie?" he asks. "The food. I'm still like this. You know what my favorite food is? Breakfast, lunch, or dinner--hamburger and fries. There's just something about these little places alongside the road, these little diners. There's just something about how they do the burgers--there's that road flavor.

"The Dixie in those days was a common stop. You'd see the same people and get to know the other drivers. There were no cell phones, but people would use the phones from there. Wives and family could call and leave a message."

He takes out a map and points out the various "alignments" of Route 66. "The road was a lot different then," he says. "It was two lanes and not really engineered for safety. I remember a place coming in to Hamel, Illinois, where the road made a zigzag to get over the track. It was too tight to make the turn, so big trucks would just go straight through the middle, you'd have to go off on either side to get through. Driving was a little bit more of an art form. I remember my Dad talking about how he never got stuck. The secret was to not slow down, he would say, you just had to keep your momentum and you'd get through. There was only one time--up by the Dixie, in fact--up around Bloomington. It was the mid-50s. There was a terrible snow storm and he would have gotten through if he could have kept going, but he got fouled up by traffic in front of him. He had to stop and then they were all stranded in the snow. There was a lady stopped with a new-born infant. She had a bottle of formula, but she had no way to get it warm. My dad took the bottle and put it on his exhaust manifold. He kept testing it until it was just right and the lady could feed her baby."

You get the sense that this must have been how the Henry boys were nursed. Four generations of truckers--Hubert and Joseph, Rich and his son, Rich Jr.--all with diesel in their blood.

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