Shoreside Logistics Driver Allen McKnight is the 2019 recipient of the Mike Garvey Award for Distinguished Service in Safety. He began his truck-driving career almost 50 years ago on Aug. 29, 1971.
Shoreside Logistics Driver Allen McKnight was born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His father was a mechanic; his mother worked 25 years for the local cigarette factory.
“When I was coming up if you lived in Winston-Salem, you worked at a factory, whether it was tobacco, cotton, or the furniture factory. I knew I didn’t want the factory life, so I quit high school and joined the Navy when I was 17 years old.”
In his rich, southern drawl, from his home in High Point, North Carolina – just 20 miles from his hometown – McKnight explained that to join the military so young, a parent’s signature was required.
“My mom or dad had to sign for me – and mom was out of the question. My daddy, he didn’t want to sign. The Army was my first choice. I had a first cousin, Roger, come home from the Navy on leave. He told my Daddy, ‘Don’t sign for him to join the Army or the Marines. There’s a war heating up on the ground and I know where he’s going to have to go and what’s going to happen to him.’ So I had to choose between the Navy and the Air Force and I said, ‘Daddy, it’s going to have to be the Navy,’ because I didn’t like the Air Force’s uniforms,” he laughed.
McKnight joined the U.S. Navy in 1964 as the Vietnam War careened toward its climax.
“I was what was known as a ‘Kiddie Cruiser:’ in before your 18th birthday, out before your 21st,” he said. “I pulled a year in Iceland and was discharged in 1967. I realize now I was lucky not to be on the ground during those years. I enjoyed my military service, but it wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of.”
Twenty-one years old and back in Winston-Salem, McKnight went to work at the cigarette factory, then worked in retail. At 23, he married and quickly became a father to two little girls.
“I was working for my daddy at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital doing maintenance work, and I remember one day he told me, ‘You’ve got to get out of here and find a job somewhere else. There ain’t no money here,’” he said. “I started looking for a job, but I couldn’t find anything. My wife’s daddy was a driver and he said, ‘Why don’t you go to school and learn to drive a truck?’”
In 1971, the only way for McKnight to become a driver was to go back to school. The closest program, located more than an hour away in Charlotte, offered a 160-hour course costing $500.
“My then-father-in-law paid my tuition, and my daddy paid for my room there in Charlotte and made sure I had money to eat and stuff,” he said. “I had to stay there all week – I went to school 40 hours a week for four weeks, and then I went to work as a driver.”
McKnight began his truck-driving career on Aug. 29, 1971 – almost 49 years ago to the day – and is the 2019 recipient of the Mike Garvey Award for Distinguished Service in Safety, having driven more than 5 million miles accident-free. He received his last moving violation on April 13, 1980, and has driven in 40 of the 48 continental United States.
“When I drew my first paycheck, I thought I’d hit the jackpot: I cleared more in one week than in two weeks at the hospital. I’ve never looked back. I’ve tried to quit two or three times, but it didn’t work,” he laughed. “It’s an occupation that’s habit-forming; it becomes a way of life. It takes a special breed to do it and do it for any length of time.”
‘I’ve hauled a lot of bananas’
McKnight began his trucking career on a route through West Virginia. He remembers a particularly precarious winter in the late ’70s when the state ran out of road salt and began treating the highways with coal dust.
“It didn’t matter what color truck you had, it was black when you got back home,” he laughed.
His next route, pulling a flatbed from upper-state New York to Wisconsin all for 18 months and through a long winter was “terrible.” It wasn’t until 1973 that he found a job he connected with, joining the small produce company P&I Wholesale Produce.
“It was small in size, but it was a heck of a business,” he said. “P&I sold more produce than anyone east of the Mississippi at the time. Heck, all the fresh produce in the Virginias came out of Winston-Salem and went over that mountain.”
McKnight spent much of the year in warm-weather destinations, driving produce from Florida, California, and other growing states back to the company’s hub in North Carolina.
“I’ve hauled a lot of bananas,” he laughed. “I’ve hauled more produce than I have anything else.”
He worked for P&I “on and off” for 17 years.
“Every once in a while, I’d quit and go haul cars, but I’d always come back. P&I laid me off in 1987 and went out of business the next year.”
He took a local job at Pony Express in the ’90s so he could be home every day and take care of his aging father, who died in 1995. A stint at Space Savers led to his first container job in 2002 for a partner carrier pulling for Horizon Lines and Sea Star. He’s worked for Spectrum/Interstate/Shoreside for roughly a decade, though he’s six years into his latest official tenure.
“For more than four years, I had a dedicated run: two trips a week to Norfolk, (Virginia),” he said. “I’d leave on a Monday afternoon, go to Norfolk, come back to Jacksonville, then go back to Norfolk, then back to Jacksonville, and be home on Friday for the weekend.”
The company has since moved off dedicated routes, but McKnight said he still gets a Norfolk run some weeks.
“Sometimes I get Norfolk and a Raleigh, or a Norfolk and somewhere up around Atlanta. The week before last, I got talked into going up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A year and a half ago, they talked me into going up to Newcastle, Delaware. All I know is I haven’t been to California in 40 years. I keep telling them, ‘I don’t go no farther than Richmond, Virginia,’” he laughed.
‘You have to be constantly aware of what’s happening around you”
When he was a new driver in the ’70s, McKnight acknowledges that he received “quite a few tickets.”
“I remember I got one in Ohio and it was for $50,” he said. “Fifty dollars in the ’70s is like $250 in today’s money. And I thought, ‘You know what? This is crazy.’ Then two weeks later, I got a ticket in Virginia for $150. That ended my tickets right there.”
McKnight said he thinks about safety more than he used to.
“I’ve seen a lot of people lose their lives up and down the road,” he said. “I’ve seen two or three very bad wrecks up close. I’ve had a couple of friends killed in trucking accidents. Most of those deaths could have been prevented – 90 percent, if not more. I started thinking more about it when my kids started growing up. My advice to new drivers is to take all your handheld technology and throw it on the floor and leave it. So many of these young guys rely on electronics to do everything for them. That’s what gets a lot of them into trouble. You have to be constantly aware of what’s happening around you.”
‘I’m as careful as I can be’
“I’ve tried to quit trucking several times,” McKnight repeated.
Once, when a heart attack led to open-heart surgery in a Texas hospital. Most recently during the opening weeks of the pandemic.
“I’m 74 years old. Sometimes I like the thought of retirement. I’d like to get one or two more years in. Though I took 12 weeks off when COVID-19 started up and I learned quickly that staying home ain’t for me,” he laughed.
McKnight’s been back on the road for the past six weeks.
“I’m as careful as I can be,” he said. “Sometimes they look at me funny at the truck stops in South Carolina and Georgia because I wear a mask and people don’t have to there, but I’m just in and out to grab a cold drink. It’s nice that we’re not even required to go into the fuel stations to get a receipt anymore – I try to minimize my exposure as much as I can.”
If he was 20 years younger, McKnight said he’d love to ride on Alaska’s infamous Dalton Highway.
“I’ve thought about doing that one time – just to say I’ve done it,” he laughed.
He’s also contemplated a trip back to Iceland, and a drive through the 10 “lower 48” states he hasn’t visited, including “both Dakotas,” Montana, Utah, Nevada, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest. He said there’s very little in his past that he would change.
“I would have tried to get more of an education,” he said, adding that he did obtain his GED in his late 20s.
Divorced with three grown daughters, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, McKnight said driving is also his hobby.
I’ve got a vintage race car at home, a ’37 Ford,” said McKnight, who’s rebuilt half a dozen vintage race cars during the past 30 years. “We run it on short tracks. The club that we run with uses mostly early-NASCAR rules from the ’50s, modified for safety, of course. I’m a huge NASCAR fan.”
McKnight said a lot has changed in the industry during his almost 50 years in the driver’s seat – and more changes are ahead.
“I think on the West Coast, you’re going to see electric trucks real soon,” he said. “On the East Coast, I bet somewhere in Jersey you’ll have to unload and drive freight into the city in straight trucks. There are such strict laws on the semis going into the boroughs (in New York City). I’ve driven in all five boroughs and you can’t even take a 53-foot trailer into Manhattan now.”
McKnight said his father initially wasn’t a fan of him driving a truck.
“But he knew I’d be successful,” he said. “I’ve always loved to drive. I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve made a lot of friends up and down the road. I’ve got people who – if I needed help – I could get help in almost every state than I’ve ever run in. And I’m proud of the fact that I could afford for my children to have what they needed all their lives. Trucking’s been good to me.”
He said he’s honored to be the 2019 recipient of the Mike Garvey Award for Distinguished Service in Safety.
“I’m very proud of the award,” he said. “It’s a lifetime achievement. If my daddy were alive, every one in four counties would know I’d received it.”