By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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As job titles go, "trucker" lacks a certain professional cogency.
And so, on the citizens band, Davie Metzger goes by Applejack. His buddy Jeff Jones is Rabbit. Truckers are commodity relocators; flatbeds are skateboards. Owner-operators are bed-buggers. And on it goes: CB commentators are shitstigators. Cars are four-wheelers. Empty trailers are kites, and truckers who don't load freight are derided as steering-wheel holders. Weigh stations are chicken houses, truck-stop whores are recreational reptiles, and traffic cones are tire toys.
And every passerby's a fishbowl.
"They forget that we can see everything up here," says Metzger, peering down from his Sterling cab at a woman astride her man's Harley.
Davie Metzger has driven 1.6 million miles without incident. His last fender-bender was in 1988, and the way he sees it, that wasn't his fault. Just outside the St. Louis city limit in an I-270 snowstorm, Metzger's eighteen-wheeler was crawling along some ice at about ten miles per hour when he slid into a median. No harm, no foul -- except for his driving record. Metzger appealed, but Con-Way's corporate jury held its ground. Had they seen things Applejack's way, his otherwise unblemished 33-year record as a commodity relocator would be at 3 million miles and counting.
About a year ago, Metzger was called into his supervisor's office at Con-Way -- the fourth-largest trucking company in North America, whose local headquarters are downtown, near the St. Louis City Workhouse on Hall Street -- to receive a simple dictate.
"We want trophies," said the boss, who informed Metzger that he was to prepare a team of Con-Way drivers for the state truck-driving championships in Joplin.
After many Sunday-afternoon practice sessions in a Baden parking lot, the Con-Way boys delivered at the beginning of June. They took home a half-dozen trophies, including the team title. And while there's no "I" in team, there's one in "Davie" -- Metzger walked away the tournament's grand champion with a ticket to the Tampa Convention Center, where this week he'll drive for the distinction of nation's best trucker.
"Some people golf," says Metzger, who lives with his second wife on some unincorporated rural acreage near Alton and counts vegetable farming as his lone hobby, aside from trucking. "I'm not going down there for the company. I'm going down there for me -- to see if I'm better than the rest of those guys.
"But if I win," he continues, "Con-Way will give me a full-size Ford extended cab and a rig with my name on the side. And nobody can drive it for a year but me."
To become the nation's road king, Metzger will have to notch a higher cumulative score than 49 other state grand champions on an obstacle course, written examination, personal interview and ten-minute pre-trip inspection. He's been studying like mad for the written exam, which is why he can tell you that trucks move a full two-thirds of the nation's cargo, and that one-third of all car-truck accidents are caused by a four-wheeler lingering in the big rig's blind spot.
But what the written test won't tell you is that the comfort level for Metzger's daytrip to Oak Grove, Kentucky (an hour shy of Nashville on Interstate 24), is about the same as riding a mechanical bull for 518 miles, or that a nagging governor on his speedometer prevents him from going any faster than 65, even in the passing lane. Or that the fried bologna sandwiches -- "the Arkansas state dinner," according to Applejack -- at Uncle Joe's Deli in Ina, Illinois, are one minor miracle away from culinary sainthood.
Or that $12,000-a-month driving schools won't teach you what Metzger can teach you about navigating the land's largest twin-trailer sled for free in one day's time. Or that Illinois has the worst roads and the best farmland. Or that the most accurate job-market barometer is the amount of colleagues Applejack spots along the way.
"I can always tell how the economy's doing by the by the amount of trucks out here," he says. "Right now, it's doin' good. It's movin'."
You'd think that 518 miles a day, five days a week, would dull Metzger's appreciation for the great wide open, but you'd be wrong. When he sees ice on the trees alongside southbound 57, he always wishes he'd brought a camera along. And when he swings through Clark Kent's hometown of Metropolis, Illinois -- just short of the Kentucky border (a.k.a. the Ohio River) -- it's not Superman painted on the town reservoir he notices, but that the cattle at mile-marker eight have been relocated to another pen on the farm.
"You see what they're spraying over there?" says Metzger. "That's pig shit."
Metzger is certain of this, because after his father's death and a stint in Panama with the Air Force, he tended to his mom's 720-acre pig-and-cattle farm in southern Missouri. Then he entered the trucking trade -- an occupation he's never seen fit to abandon. Where some drones lack fulfillment, Metzger's gig is as tangible as they come. If he don't get there, they don't get theirs.
"Without trucks, America stops," says Metzger, reciting a popular industry mantra. "It's just awesome the way we move freight."