Monday, October 23, 2006

Local truckers take pride in driving for dollars

At 5 feet and 105 pounds, Helen Dame of Bedford doesn't look like someone you'd expect to see driving a tractor-trailer.

But the grandmother of four has been a truck driver for the last 22 years, 19 of them with BSP Trans Inc. of Londonderry, ever since she decided that, as a single mother with two children, she could make good money by driving a truck.

"I wanted to drive locally, no long trips, so that I could be home at night with my kids,'' says Dame, who has been driving every working day from Londonderry to Boston for the last 21 years, picking up trailers there sometimes twice a day.

Dame is active in NH Professional Drivers Association, which yesterday held its 11th annual Convoy for Kids at New Hampshire International Speedway. It's an event she has chaired twice.

It was Dame who persuaded the association to become involved with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), an organization that helps physically and sexually abused children, as one of the charities it supports.

"She's our goodwill ambassador,'' says Michael Greany, executive vice president of BSP, of the company's longtime employee who several years ago was featured on television.

About 65 truckers, including some from Maine and Connecticut, took part in the convoy, according to Mickey Rafeal of Pittsfield, who organized this year's event.

One driver, David Paul, also known as "Animal," who drives for Pike Industries, held two car washes during the summer to raise money for the event and other drivers sought out donations from businesses in their home towns.

Yesterday, drivers brought toys and games for the Concord area Salvation Army, food and cash for the New Hampshire Food Bank, as well as money for CASA, said Rafeal, who drives for Roadway Express in Concord and has been a driver for 33 years.

He said Pike Industries sent 14 trucks yesterday and many of the companies represented had matched the dollar amount their drivers raised.

Randy Cowles of Chester, a million-mile driver and one of the founders of the association, said the group was formed so drivers would have a voice at the state level. It started the Convoy for Kids as a way to show its commitment to the communities in which the drivers live.

"We wanted to show that we do more in life than drive trucks,'' says Cowles.

Lance Rickenberg of Henniker, a truck driver for Pike, says he's about to join the association because he likes the kinds of things it does.

"This is a great way to do it, to help people out,'' says Rickenberg, who has been a truck driver for 25 years and has done everything from hauling produce, plowing snow and driving a propane delivery truck.

He says trucking would be a lonely job were it not for the constant chatter of drivers over the CB radios, something that enables them to share information about road conditions as well as to form friendships with people they've never met before.

His favorite trucks are dump trucks and he's still getting used to his new one, which has an automatic transmission.

"There's no shifting, there's air conditioning, air ride seats and a CD player. It's really comfortable,'' says Rickenberg.

But driving still requires constant attention. "You're always thinking. You have to think ahead, especially when cars pull out right in front of you and don't seem to realize that a truck weighing 23,000 pounds can't just stop on a dime,'' he says.

Ray Miller of Franklin, a driver for 41 years who has handled everything from cattle trucks to double trailer semis in all 48 of the lower states, says he still likes the manual shift trucks the best.

He now drives for GMI Asphaltics of New Hampton and was at the event bringing toys in a Peterbilt 359 tri-axle that his granddaughter, Jessica Arteaga of Northfield, had helped him decorate.

Miller says he tried to make the switch away from driving several years ago. "I tried mechanic-ing'. But every time I heard one start up, I wanted to be behind the wheel."

And he's glad that he's been a truck driver all these years. "I've gotten to see quite a lot of this country. I wouldn't trade what I've done for any other kind of life,'' says Miller.

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