OVER AND OUT
By ANDREW MCGINN
There’s one photo of Bill Kafer that pretty much sums up an entire era.
The cowboy hat on his head says “East Bound and Down.”
An extended middle finger shouts “Take This Job and Shove It.”
A lifelong Greene County resident, Kafer started his trucking business at a time when heavy truckers loomed large in popular culture, like Paul Bunyan-sized James Deans.
Rebels with 18 wheels.
Even as Kafer lay dying in January at home in Grand Junction in the care of hospice, his heart and kidneys slowly losing horsepower, it was obvious he would “die with this fever in my soul,” as Merle Haggard once lamented in his classic ode to trucking, “White Line Fever.”
One day while in hospice, Kafer detailed to the aide just what, exactly, his wife of almost 50 years was to do with his ashes once he finally pulled into that great truck stop in the sky.
“He said, ‘I want her to take me to the weigh station in Ames,’ ” grandson Jon Strabley recalled last week, “ ‘and throw my ashes right through the front window.’ ”
Kafer’s family will instead honor their father and grandfather in a way that stays true to his love of trucking without having to commit a misdemeanor.
His ashes will soon be loaded into the trailer of a scale model of his favorite rig — a silver, late ’70s Freightliner cab-over adorned with green and white stripes.
Kafer, who passed away Jan. 27 at age 68, loved that type of truck so much, he owned two of them over the course of his career.
“He was conceived in it,” son Robert Kafer said of his younger brother, Wayne, as their mom, Diane, mustered a knowing grin.
Every inch of the 1:32-scale diecast model, made by the Franklin Mint and no longer in production, is as detailed as the real thing, complete with the sleeper cab where the Kafers would have, ahem, 10-4 good buddy.
“He would’ve loved it,” Robert said of his dad’s nontraditional urn.
Bill Kafer, unfortunately, never got the chance to see the model, which was purchased from the U.K. and split three ways between Robert, Wayne and their sister, Annette Strabley.
The fact that the model had to be shipped across the Atlantic was especially fitting considering that the Kafers once sent their actual 1978 Freightliner to Europe aboard a container ship.
In 2004, after several years in service with Junction-based Kafer Trucking, Diane Kafer listed the family’s flat-faced Freightliner cab-over for sale online.
A potential buyer emerged from the unlikeliest of places: France.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Diane said. “I didn’t believe it at first.”
Initially, the family was convinced that some kind of scam was afoot.
But, no, the buyer was real, and his offer was serious.
“He always wanted a truck like this,” Diane said, recalling correspondence with the buyer’s wife, the only one who spoke English. “He wanted it the way it would’ve been in the ’70s.”
They don’t get much more quintessentially ’70s than a cab-over — so named because the cab was located over the 600 hp engine.
The customer shift to long-nose trucks would come in the mid-1980s.
The now-late Bill Overturf, one of the Kafers’ many drivers through the years, was the one tasked with transporting the silver Freightliner from Grand Junction to the Port of Baltimore for its trip across the Atlantic, through the English Channel and up the Seine to the Port of Radicatel in France.
If you’re wondering, it only costs $4,468 to have a semi shipped to France.
But the buyer’s final request was the best.
“He wanted to keep our name on it,” Diane said. “I thought, ‘That’s really kind of strange, but OK.’ ”
Pictures of the fully restored silver Freightliner in its new country showed “Kafer Trucking Inc.” and “Grand Junction, IA” on the door.
The most recent picture of it that can be found online was taken in 2016 at a truck show in England.
The semi would still look right at home rolling down I-35 except for the weirdly narrow license plate reading 212 DED 78.
It’s clear that what the Kafers had, and what the buyer in Europe wanted, was a big, silver slice of Americana.
Coincidentally, Bill Kafer had started the family business in 1976, the same year “Convoy” topped the music charts and made everyone want a CB radio.
The ensuing craze — in which cops were forevermore known as Smokeys — romanticized the guys who drove 18-wheelers as outlaws.
“Everybody thought it was cool,” Robert Kafer, 45, said. “Everybody wanted to be a trucker. You’d put your cowboy hat on and go.”
In other words, there was no shortage of men to heed the call of the open road.
“Most of the drivers we had hated going East,” Robert said. “Everyone liked running out West.”
“Bill didn’t like going East either,” Diane added. “Different breed of people.”
These days, it’s much harder to find a good driver, said Wayne Kafer, 35, who has kept the family trucking business alive. It’s so hard, in fact, that Wayne Kafer doesn’t even bother anymore. He’s the sole driver and keeps only to the Midwest.
Guys will talk a good game, Wayne said, “but then they complain from here to Omaha.”
What’s clear is that the best years of trucking are in the rearview mirror — and that was even before the threat of self-driving trucks on the horizon.
By law, truckers now get 14 hours to do 11 hours of driving, Wayne said, not including a 30-minute inspection and a mandatory break.
“Once your time starts for the day,” he explained, “it don’t stop.”
Adding insult to injury, it’s harder than ever to find a place that still serves pancakes the size of a tire.
“It’s all fast food and chain (expletive),” Wayne said. “All the good mom and pop places are going away.”
Before his retirement from the road in 2014, Bill Kafer could tell you which truck stops between here and Arkansas had the least cockroaches.
Robert Kafer, who used to accompany his dad on runs growing up, remembers being told once not to put the suitcase down on the floor at one place.
“Then why are we showering here?” Robert remembers thinking.
Bill knew the road so well he could drive in his sleep — like, literally.
He suffered for years from sleep apnea.
“He probably drove just as many miles asleep as he did awake,” Wayne Kafer said.
But as the years progressed, truck stops gave way to travel plazas.
Mud flaps that once might have boasted “Haulin’ Ass” became signs asking “How’s My Driving?”
CBs transformed into smartphones.
“Nobody wants to be gone anymore,” Robert said.
That includes himself. He’s more than happy to stay home and man the shop as the family’s in-house diesel mechanic.
“It’s kind of a lonely life,” said Diane Kafer, whose marriage to Bill would have hit the 50-year mark in June.
Bill Kafer was often gone for a week at a time, only multiplied by years.
Like Haggard once sang, “The years keep flyin’ by like the highline poles.”
“He missed out on a lot,” Diane said, “and he would’ve told you the same thing.”
But for him, there was no shaking the white line fever, whether it led him to a rendering plant in Chicago or the Golden Coast of California.
In 2002, Diane tagged along, fulfilling a dream of seeing California.
They took a trailer full of empty pop bottles out and brought copy machines back, she recalled.
“I was disappointed,” she confessed.
“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” she said of California.
So where in California did they go?
“Compton,” she said.