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Going His Own Way

by Rolf Lockwood
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Sitting on a green plastic lawn chair in Merlin Jay's shop, a fire burning in the wood stove right behind me, I find myself smiling a lot during two hours or so of conversation. He's an interesting guy, a carbon copy of nobody else, a rather cynical veteran with an almost boyish sense of adventure. And he can stop me in my tracks with his answers to the questions I pose.

Like, what do you enjoy most about trucking? "Nothin'," he says.

Hmmm... we'll come back to that one.

It's a high-ceilinged garage and sitting way up under the rafters are a pair of brightly colored kayaks. When I notice them and say that I'm a kayaker too, Merlin tells me he can't swim. Worse, he's deathly afraid of the water.

Before I can ask why the heck he likes kayaking, he points over his shoulder to a river we can't actually see through the closed door of the garage, though I know it's just beyond the dirty 10-foot-high snowbanks across the road. We're just outside Charlottetown, P.E.I., and it's sunny but still cold on the last day of March.

"That river's a mile wide," he says. "It took me 18 months before I could work up the courage to paddle across it."

A bit earlier, in fact just a couple of seconds after I walked through the shop door, Merlin asked me if I liked bikes. He meant motorcycles, and pointed to a glistening white - and very big -- Yamaha. I responded by saying I like bikes a lot and have always had the urge to try one but I've never bitten that bullet.

"Neither have I," he says. "Never ridden one. But I just got that thing."

My jaw drops slightly, again. Then he proceeds to tell me about the long ride he hopes to take to New Hampshire in June with some friends who are rather more experienced bikers. That's not quite two months away so he figures he has time to learn.

You should be getting the picture here. Merlin Jay is a guy who loves challenges, thrives on them. And rather than waiting for them to come along, he makes 'em up.

Now in his late 40s, driving truck since 1981 when he attended Nova Scotia's Commercial Driving Safety College, he treats his life at the steering wheel in much the same way. He just plain likes the many challenges involved, specifically the challenge of doing it perfectly - delivering the freight on time and undamaged while making a buck in the process. No small feat these days.

Merlin is an independent with his own authority. These days he has a weekly run hauling mussels from Atlantic Mussel in Point Pleasant, P.E.I. to Montreal, and engines back, but they're the first regular runs he's had since going on his own several years ago.

His first job was driving for John Gunn Transport in Charlottetown, but that job disappeared when Gunn dissolved the company a year or so later. "John saw the writing on the wall with deregulation coming on," says Merlin. "Freight rates were already being slashed. But 20 years ago he was getting paid what people are being paid today in Atlantic Canada."

So the young man went west, spending the next 10 years in Manitoba, driving company trucks for the likes of Arnold Bros. Transport, Tri-Line, and Shell Oil. He came back to his native P.E.I. in 1992, having essentially flipped a coin as to whether he should head home or go further west to Alberta. He kinda wishes he'd gone west because, to his surprise, he found a new challenge on his return - nobody wanted him as a truck driver despite his extensive experience.

"No one would hire me," he says with a certain bitterness. "I'd been driving 11 years, all across Canada and the U.S., pulled all different kinds of equipment, never had an accident, and still no one would give me a job."

Nobody even offered a helping hand, Merlin says, putting it down to some sort of jealousy and resentment towards people who have gone away. "P.E.I. people like to see others get beaten down," he claims. "They don't like to see people succeed."

After working for a couple of years on his brother's potato farm, he finally got a part-time driving job on the spare board with Seafood Express. And that led to a new career for his wife Bertha as well. They've been married for 24 years ("I couldn't have done any better," he says with feeling).

Despite having made the Dean's List at the University of Manitoba and having two degrees to her name, she too was having trouble landing a job on their return to the island. So Merlin taught her to drive while at Seafood, they ordered a new International tractor, and soon went on the road together with Brookville Transport and then Sunbury Transport. Next came the big switch to running on their own authority.

As Merlin sees it, if you already own your truck, there's no good reason not to take that next step.

"I figured that all a carrier is doing for me is getting a load. But I could do that. You pick up a load, you deliver it, and then you get on the phone. I wish I could convince every driver of that.

"I've been paid for every load I've ever hauled. And I've never had to take the baseball bat out of the truck," he says, somewhat colorfully.

Does he use load brokers? Rarely and reluctantly. In fact he'll come home empty if the price of the available backhaul isn't right. He brought one load back to Nova Scotia that took over seven hours to get off his trailer, for example, and never did it again.

Does he have to answer to anyone? Nobody but the customer, and since he services the heck out of them, that's pretty much never a problem.

One of the best parts of the way he's got things working now is that he hasn't had to haul freight into the U.S. for several months, and that pleases him no end. "As long as this mussel run continues, I have no intention of crossing the border again," he says, adding that DOT personnel in Maine have been getting more and more difficult to deal with.

Bertha doesn't drive with him any longer, incidentally, and in fact she's got a managerial post with a bank nowadays. So it's just Merlin and his 2000 Peterbilt 379, a truck he loves. Powered by a Cat 550 hooked to an Eaton Fuller 18-speed and 3.36 rears, it's a long-legged beast that pulls a matching reefer trailer. As Petes go, it's not too flashy, with a 48-inch stand-up bunk sitting on a 244-inch wheelbase.

So we know Merlin likes his ride, but what's that business about liking "nothing" about trucking?

Right after saying that, he qualified it. "Well, if I drove somebody else's truck I probably wouldn't like much about it. But in my own truck I'm the boss, and I like the challenge of that. It's hard not to like being your own master."

And since he advocates true independence for owner-operators, what advice does our veteran have for others who might like to follow in those footsteps?

"Talk to the old guys with fat bellies," he says, "guys who learned the hard way. They'll be blunt but they'll tell you what you need to know.

"And learn how to dial phone numbers. The phone is a lot easier than selling yourself face to face."

Perhaps most importantly, Merlin believes that truckers shouldn't pay any heed to what others seem to think about them.

"As a truck driver it's drilled into your head by the DOT and others that you're not very smart," he says. "They assume we're almost idiots. And a lot of guys who become owner-operators then just stay there because it's been drilled into their heads that they can't do anything else."

Not so, he says with real passion, adding that the way to beat that bad rap is to be a perfectionist, whether you drive a company truck or your own.

"Mistakes cost money," he says. "Mistakes piss people off. Nobody's perfect, but you just can't afford to make mistakes."

That appears to be Merlin's own formula for success in both trucking and life at large, along with determination and being ready and eager to take on a challenge or two. Like piloting that big 1700cc Yamaha Roadster that he's never ridden down to New Hampshire in June. Wanna bet that he won't be a first-class rider by then?