Been There. Done That.
by Duff McCutcheon
Chances are good that Buck McCallum’s been driving for longer than you. Chances are good that the Highland Transport owner-operator has been driving since before you were born, because he’s 69 and has been driving truck since age 16.
He remembers when Highway 401 was known as the Toronto Bypass, a short stretch of blacktop from Highway 27 to Kingston Road that allowed drivers to circumvent all that 1950s-era traffic along the Lakeshore. He remembers when all the truckstops were family-owned affairs that serviced both sides of the two-lane highways of the day.
And he remembers a golden age of trucking when everyone behind the wheel was proud to be a driver. “When I started driving, everyone did it because they really liked doing it,” he said recently, over a plate of steak and eggs at the Chalet Truck Stop in Milton, Ontario. “Nowadays, it’s just a job to a lot of people.”
Not so for McCallum. When he was in the second grade, growing up in what was then a suburb of Toronto – Weston, he recalls writing an essay; one of your standard ‘what do you want to do when you grow up’ variety, “and, of course, I wrote I wanted to be a trucker.” He used to hitch rides around Caledon, a few miles north of Toronto, on the sand trucks, just for the sake of riding along in a truck. When his family went up to the cottage in Collingwood on Georgian bay for the summer, Buck hung around a driver and his ’47 Studebaker, delivering freight around town instead of going swimming with his friends.
He bought himself a Model A Ford for $10 – yep, ten bucks (not exactly small change back in the 1950s) – out of his paper route money when he was in Grade 8, and within a few years had moved up to a 1946 International “with a five speed and two speed rears,” says McCallum. He was all of 16 and hitchhiking to the unemployment office when a farmer picked him up and offered him a job delivering peat moss. “Away I went,” he says.
The job lasted just long enough for McCallum to get a feel for driving a truck – he taught himself how to drive – before another farmer down the road stole him away with the offer of driving a decidedly nicer truck. Being 16, it wasn’t hard to lure him with the promise of driving a brand new Ford 800, with a tag axle. The farmer supplemented his income from the potato farm by buying up bush lots and cutting logs. It was McCallum’s job to draw them out of the bush and haul them over to Wellington Wood Products in Mount Forest where they were made into fruit baskets.
“That company’s still around today,” he says. “Not long ago dispatch asked me to run over to Mount Forest and I asked him where. When he told me the company, I said, ‘well I haven’t been there in 50 years, but I know where it is!’”
From there McCallum drifted from driving job to driving job, hauling general freight around Toronto with Midland-Superior, driving gravel trucks in a ’51 Mercury, cutting his teeth on a tractor-trailer hauling salt between Caledon and Goderich, and running stateside with a firm hauling cement from Port Colburne, Ont. to Erie, Pa. During the 1960s, he went back and forth between Phillips Transport and Zavitz, depending on his whim, shuttling freight back and forth between Toronto and Hamilton with one firm, and doing longhaul Eastern Seaboard runs with the other. He also managed to get himself married and divorced, rearing three kids in the meantime.
The early 1970s, heralded two momentous occasions in the life of Buck McCallum. He became the 91st owner-operator with Highland Transport, then a broker division of Smith Transport; and, one day, while picking up his daughter at her new job at the Fifth Wheel in Milton, he met Joanne, his soon-to-be wife and soulmate. She was his daughter’s boss at the time, “and things just sort of went on from there,” she says. “We’ve been together for 28 years and we’ve got six kids between us, fifteen grandkids and one on the way.”
He started out with Highland with a 1960 B51 Mack, “and when I applied, the first thing Vic Deluca, the operations manager, asked me was ‘how much is your truck payment?’ If they were over $400 a month, he told you that you’d never make it.”
Evidently Buck made the cut because he’s been there ever since, mostly hauling around the province. His eldest son’s been driving for Highland for the last 20 years as well, a fact McCallum’s immensely proud of. “A lot of guys say they would never want their kids to drive. Me? I was very pleased when he decided to go into trucking.”
50 Years In the Air Chair
So after 50-plus years on the road, what have been the biggest changes McCallum’s seen traveling the highways and byways of the country?
“Well, there’s more superhighways for one thing,” he says. “Before, most of my trips took me along Highway 2 and all the smaller regional roads around the province. Back when I first started, you ran on the same, two-lane roads, and everybody would meet at the same restaurants. The food was good, they were easy locations, and you knew the same guys were going to be there at the same time. Didn’t matter if you were going east or west because it was a two-lane road and you just pulled off.”
“And then there’s containerization – we’d never heard of anything like that when I started out. When I first started at Highland was the first time I’d hauled containers. I thought that was wonderful. You go someplace, back up to the dock, and the receiver’s responsible for unloading. You didn’t have to be there, didn’t have to count freight, and you weren’t responsible for damage.”
McCallum’s pleased with the evolution he’s seen in truck technology – “they’re a lot more comfortable nowadays,” he says. But of the many trucks he’s driven and owned during his career, it’s the old-timers that stick out in his mind. His favourite truck? “My 1958 Autocar – the second truck I had at Highland. It had an integral sleeper, 5/4 transmission, and 20 speeds. It was geared to run 75 mph at 2,150 rpm, but it only had a 200 hp engine. They used to call it the Old Stove because of the smoke that came out of it. At night it had a fire about six in. high coming out of the stack.”
These days McCallum’s still going strong in his ’95 International 8200. “It’s not glamourous but it does me fine,” he says. Most of his runs take him around southern Ontario so he’s back home for dinner at night with Joanne, but still leaves him plenty of time to ruminate on the road on all the changes he’s seen across the province.
“I go by buildings that they’re tearing down and I remember when they were building them. Take the Terminal Warehouse at the foot of York Street in Toronto. That state-of-the-art warehouse could handle trains, trucks, and ships. I remember going there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and now they’re turning them into condos.”
Advice From a Veteran
And for all you young bucks just starting out, McCallum’s got some advice gleaned from years of blood, sweat, tears, engine oil, and grease:
“If you’re going to buy a truck, don’t get in over your head on it,” he says. “Just spec what you need. And make sure you find yourself a reputable mechanic – someone who’s going to get [to] know your truck. Try the smaller shops where the owner is a mechanic as well. I’ve dealt with the same guy since day one. He did work on my Autocar as an apprentice back in 1971.”
And as a longtime trucker’s wife, Joanne’s got a few sage words for all better halves out there, be they the husband or wife back home.
“My advice for younger people, especially for guys doing longhaul, is when you call, if there’s problems, you have to keep things upbeat,” she says. “There’s absolutely nothing you can do when they’re away. If the bill collectors are coming at you, don’t bother your spouse with it while they’re on the road – all they’re going to do is drive all those thousands of miles worrying about it.”
And they both agree that communication is key. The cell phone has made both their lives much easier since of the days of Buck pulling off the highway in search of a payphone. “Make sure you set a time each day when you can chat to your spouse when you’re on the road,” says Joanne.
When the conversation turns to retirement, McCallum dismisses the idea instantly. “That’s a dirty word,” warns Joanne.
“I don’t plan on retiring. If I can’t pass my A licence anymore then I’ll take the fifth wheel off my truck, put a platform on it and keep on going,” he says.