THE SILVER SLIPPER: A LADY TRUCKER IN NORTH GEORGIA

THE SILVER SLIPPER: A LADY TRUCKER IN NORTH GEORGIA

It's 2 a.m. on a crisp, dark winter night at the Fuel City truck stop on Interstate 85 near the Georgia-South Carolina line.

On one of the eight big rigs being fueled the hood is pulled back and a diminutive woman in a blue work vest is barely visible as she leans in to check the oil. Over the door of the gray Kenworth, scrolled diagonally in large script, are the words Silver Slipper.Geri Thiltgen has been a trucker for 10 years and an owner-operator for eight. She says even though her citizens band radio handle is second driver - a reference to when she rode second seat - she is often addressed as Silver Slipper. On this late December night Ms. Thiltgen is headed for Atlanta with aluminum coils she picked up a day earlier in eastern Pennsylvania. She's been away two weeks and is hopeful her next load will take her west, toward home in Kansas City.

Of the 1.6 million big trucks on the nation's highways, less than 10 percent are driven by owner-operators. Of these 150,000 entrepreneurs no more than a relative handful - perhaps 5,000 - are women. And most of them are part of a husband-wife driving team. It's still rare enough to see a woman driver in this archetypal macho business that heads turn when the Silver Slipper goes by.

Over truck stop coffee and a plate of tuna fish and crackers, Geri Thiltgen reflects on a business she never dreamed of entering when she graduated from the University of Minnesota. A home economics and business major, she spent seven years teaching and in retail management. Bored and wanting to travel, she decided that driving was the best way to see the country and still make money. After two years, she borrowed the $5,000 down payment from her farm family parents and at age 32 bought a cab-over Freightliner.

Less than two years later in 1982, the truck was stolen and she essentially had to start over. Her current truck, a two-year old aerodynamic Kenworth, has a stand-up sleeper and hot and cold running water. In 1987 Geri Thiltgen drove 110,000 miles and netted close to $35,000.

Like most owner-operators, Ms. Thiltgen sees mixed results from industry deregulation. She wonders if cutthroat competition and constant industry turmoil really serve a purpose. She worries about the trend to lower-paid company drivers and believes that as freight rates have fallen some companies are trimming costs by cutting truck maintainance. Safety, she says, is a growing problem because there are so many used trucks on the road with rookie rivers at the wheel.

To succeed as an independent trucker, says Geri Thiltgen, you must have stamina, fortitude and be organizationally minded. You have to manage your time and fuel and be prepared to be away from home most of the time. You must pace yourself and avoid the frantic fits and starts that burn out so many drivers. Run steady, she says, and you can run long.

By her own admission, diesel fuel is in Geri Thiltgen's blood. Like so many of her male compatriots, she shifts by ear, relishes the throb of the engine and admires the look and power of a good truck. Her truck is her home.

Life has improved for women truckers over the past 10 years. In part

because so many wives travel with their husbands, most truck stops now have showers for women and menus list lighter fare in addition to biscuits and gravy. It is less frequent that a receiving dock worker admonishes Geri Thiltgen to have her husband back the load into such and such bay.

Unloading, concedes Ms. Thiltgen, is the one area where women drivers remain at a disadvantage. At 130 pounds I just don't have the arm strength to

throw a load. So I've got to hire help, she says.

But to save time at grocery warehouses, most male drivers also will pay the $50 or $60 for a lumper (casual worker) to unload. It's a scary thing, says Ms. Thiltgen, to see the lumpers rush the trucks when the warehouse gates swing open.

Geri Thiltgen says she avoids burnout by making sure that at least three times a year she takes a two-week break during which the truck is parked, and as much as possible, out of mind. She cooks, sews and catches up with friends and relatives. The problem she faces now, she says, is that she is good at her job. And she can't easily turn elsewhere and earn the same money while being her own boss and retaining her independence.

With the truck stop clock approaching 4 a.m. and the country music still playing, Geri laments that trucking is a hard life. Truckers, she says, are a breed apart. You've got to be a little crazy to be doing it. I sure don't want to be driving in 10 years when I'm 50.

Crossing a parking lot crowded with idling trucks with sleeping drivers, Geri unlocks her door and deftly swings up the two steps to take her place behind the wheel. It's a clean, unusually tidy truck with a stuffed toy animal on the passenger seat and a clothes line slung across the back of the sleeper. Where, she is asked, did she get the name Silver Slipper? It wasn't planned. But when I looked at the rounded features of the truck - with the air passing by - that was the slipper; the silver was the gray metallic paint. With that the door slams shut. The lights flick on. The throaty diesel revs. The air brakes hiss. And the Silver Slipper, 48-foot trailer in tow, wheels out into the predawn darkness in the direction of Atlanta, 80 miles away.