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RoadKing Magazine

"Always A Lady"

Marlene Marling helped blaze the way for future women truckers.
September 14th, 2000, by Paul Abelson

One of the wonderful things about working in the trucking industry is the interesting and unique people you meet. At a recent truck show, I was walking the aisles in search of new products, wearing my "Road King Magazine" golf shirt, when a charming lady approached and asked if I were with the magazine.

"I am," I said. "Well, I'm probably one of your earliest readers," she said.

Marlene Marling, now a recruiter for Priority Transportation, Olive Branch, Miss. (just across the state line from Memphis), started driving in 1959. In her 35 years of driving, she accumulated more than 5 million accident-free miles.

Back in the earliest days of what became the "76" Auto/Truck Plaza chain, now merged into TravelCenters of America, Road King magazine got its start under the Pure Oil banner. Marlene was the first woman in what was then called the Pure Oil Road King Drivers Club. She still has membership card Number 9. She also has the belt buckle the club gave when you signed up.

Marlene learned to drive in an H-Model Mack that belonged to a family friend. It was a high-riding, short wheelbase cab-over. "In those days," she said, "they didn't have driving schools. I was fresh out of high school, but you could drive at 18. You just needed a chauffeur's license. It was long before the days of the CDL. I always wanted to do something different. I guess I was somewhat of a tomboy, and driving trucks fascinated me. It let me do something else I always wanted to do - see the country.

"My first job was hauling ice-packed chickens for R. W. Harrison of Harrison Grain and Produce," she said. "I was there 'til 1964. There weren't any other women doing this that I knew of. I'd be driving down the road and people would point and say, 'Look, a woman!'

"There were three things Mr. Harrison told me that I'll never forget. One, you can be a lady and still drive a truck. Two, drive any truck like you are making payments on it, whether you are or not. And three, if you're going to be late, pick up a phone and let someone know. If you do those things,' he said, 'you may have to look for a job, but you'll never have to hunt for one.'

" Back in the '60s, at the old Jarrell's Truck Plaza Union 76, in Doswell, Va., you needed a card to get into the Driver's Den, their drivers-only area, she said. "I had card number nine," Marlene said proudly.

"When I had to use the facilities, either someone would stand guard or I'd prop a chair against the door in the men's shower room. There were no ladies rooms back then. When I'd go to the drivers' sections at the old Pure Oil truck stops, 99 times out of 100 someone would say, 'You'll have to move. This is for drivers only.' I'd tell them to look outside where my truck was being fueled and count the wheels. I could see people at the restaurant windows, staring as I got back in and drove away."

When asked about her experiences, Marlene replied, "I've hauled livestock, poultry, swinging beef, produce and oversize loads. I enjoyed that more than anything else, and I've done everything except a tanker and a log truck.

"Back then, people would accuse me of taking a man's job. I'd answer with 'When you find someone who can do it better, you let me know.' If a man took five tries to back into a dock, they'd say, 'That guy is having an awful time.' If I took two pull-ups, they'd say, 'Look at that dumb broad. She can't even back up.' "

Asked about what is now known as sexual harassment, Marlene said drivers would ask her out regularly. Her standard reply was "Next time I see you, we'll see." Most drivers would just kid about it. "You were treated the way you asked to be treated," she continued. "If you acted like a lady, that's how they'd treat you. Unfortunately, there were a few women (drivers) who acted like tramps, and that's the way they were treated. It's the same today."

No conversation with Marlene would be complete without some comment on her remarkable safe driving record. Although she didn't have any accidents, she came close several times. "Back in '72 or '73, I was on a two-lane road near Big Timber, Montana. There was black ice, and a car was doing loops coming straight at me. I had a 45-foot reefer that I turned completely around and never hit anything. There wasn't a scratch on my truck. The car wound up sitting in the middle of a field. By the time I got back, the police were there.

"To this day, I don't know what I did or how it happened. When I got back to the truckstop, my legs turned to rubber. It took 15 to 20 minutes for me to argue myself back into the truck. Someone besides me was driving that truck. You don't have to go to church to believe in God. Something like that will make a believer out of anybody."

The second incident took place in 1980 near Red Deer, Alberta. Highway 2 was one of the few divided roads back then. "There was a sudden whiteout. You couldn't see anything for what seemed like forever, even though it was probably only 10 seconds or so. A Greyhound bus had just passed me. When we came out of the snow, the bus was still up ahead, but traffic was blocked on the other side. There was a 15 car pile-up, including an RCMP car."

Marling also recalls how truckers used to communicate. "Before CB radio, we used hand signals and light flashes. We'd show a 'wind it up' then point to the left.
"That meant there was a cop on the left. CBs are good when they tell you what's going on, but the bad side is that so many people say things they shouldn't, that families and children hear. That's not good for truckers. I also remember what fuel prices were a few years ago. I found a fuel receipt in the attic from The Outpost on Old Highway 30 in Laramie, Wyo. Back in '70 or '71, I bought diesel for 12.5 cents per gallon," she says.

"My daughter, Marla, used to travel with me back when she was five years old. She'd been in 44 states and Canada before she started school. She would proudly say to strangers, 'My Mommy drives a truck.' When they'd ask if it was a pickup, she'd answer 'My Mommy drives an 18-wheeler and hauls swinging beef. How 'bout that!'

"Then people would ask if she was going to be a truck driver like her Mommy. 'Not 'til I grow up,' was her standard reply." Marla is now a police officer in Chesapeake, Va., and still proud as punch of her Mama.

© Reprinted with permission from Road King Magazine, September/October 2000 :www.roadking.com


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