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Three kids with a big toy haul no-touch freight. That’s a perfect description of the Beavercreek (Ohio) High School Marching Band’s big rig and its band of merry drivers.
Earl Ake, Norm Beebe and Donn Johnson are anything but your average truck drivers. For one, they don’t do it every day, so when they climb into the cab of their 1990 Peterbilt 372 cabover they’re all smiles, and a little giggly. After all, the trio isn’t earning a living, they’re just “playing” truck driver. But that doesn’t mean they don’t take their jobs seriously.
By day, Norm supervises a team of intelligence analysts at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. On weekends he practices another type of intelligence: navigating a big rig safely and on time to high school football games, band competitions, camps and special events. Sounds like cake to most drivers, but it’s quite a feat for these weekend warriors.
They take Manhattan
One of the toughest and most rewarding runs was their trip to a Veteran’s Day parade in New York City after 9/11. “I said if they wanted, we’d get there,” Beebe recalls, hanging his head and shaking it reverently. “It was an experience. Thank God we didn’t have a hood on that thing!”
Ake, a senior software engineer at the base, adds proudly that many marching bands were invited to appear, but only Beavercreek made it. “They were overwhelmed to have us come and put on a show,” he says.
So how did a trio of desk-bound shirt-and-tie guys get the 18 wheel, open road itch?
“Kids,” answers Johnson, who manages an aerospace program atWright Patterson. Though his son now attends college, Johnson still can’t kick the habit. “I’ll have to admit it’s a lot of fun,” he says, grinning. He especially enjoys the reaction he gets from co-workers. Most think his side gig is pretty cool. And some don’t believe him.
But Johnson’s got the same proof the others do: photos of the rig proudly displayed in their offices alongside those of family. In true geek style, Beebe also has a screensaver of the Peterbilt on his computer.
The cabover came into their lives in 1996 when the band outgrew a fleet of buses, vans and trailers that transported equipment for its 250 members. “We found it and decided to buy it, cash in hand,” Ake explains. “When Victory Express (now U.S. Xpress) found out what we were doing they said take it for free.”
The three talk about the truck with obvious affection, as they conscientiously inspect it, wiping scuff marks off the extensive decaling they installed themselves. The drivers hand wax and polish the rig from top to bottom often.
The Cummins 285 engine with an Eaton 8- speed delivers close to 400 hp — more than enough to pull the 46,000 pounds of trailer and $600,000 in instruments, electronics and uniforms.
The fleet was completed with a 45’ Matlock furniture trailer which was promptly customized. It carries a custom floor-to-ceiling rack system, generator, lighting and cooling systems and a stereo system with an MP3 input.
“One of the guys almost got a divorce over spending time with the trailer,” Ake says with a laugh. “But it all worked out.”
In for the long haul
Ake, Johnson and Beebe have logged 53,000 accident-free miles on the rig. They’ve travelled to Florida five times, Chicago, St. Louis, Michigan, Tennessee and Pittsburgh and say they’re aiming for a million mile team safety award. Even if they’re in their eighties when they get it.
Oh, and what about those CDLs? “A lot of time in parking lots,” assures Beebe. “A few truck drivers took pity on us and helped us learn.”
“I backed up for miles and miles,” exclaims Johnson “It was a genuine challenge.” He admits it took a different kind of focus than his regular job. “I’ve a tremendous amount of respect for all truckers,” he says.
When asked if there was anything they had trouble with (besides blind-side backing), they looked at each other sheepishly “It took us awhile to figure out how to jack up the cab,” Beebe admits. Then all three break into laughter. In unison Johnson and Ake yell, “Oh yeah — and remember to empty out the sleeper before you jack it up!”