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When Truckers Shut Down America to Protest Oil Prices—and Became Folk Heroes

January 7, 2019 in History

By Joseph A. Williams

The strike started when one driver, mad as hell about the OPEC oil crisis, turned off his engine and got on his CB radio.

At 10:00 p.m. on December 3, 1973, a 37-year old trucker from Overland Park, Kansas named J.W. Edwards stopped his rig suddenly in the middle of Interstate I-80 near Blakeslee, Pennsylvania and picked up his CB radio microphone. The insurrection he was about to start, using his now-famous handle “River Rat,” would give America’s independent truckers their first national voice and, along the way, elevate them to folk-hero status.

Edwards was beyond frustrated and scared for his livelihood. His job hauling meat from the Midwest to New York had become an agonizing slog because an oil embargo—levied by the Middle Eastern petroleum-producing cartel OPEC against the United States for its support of Israel—had dramatically jacked up diesel fuel prices. With rationing imposed, he was stopping at every virtually filling station along his route. Worse still, the federal government was considering a national maximum speed limit of 55 m.p.h. For long-haul drivers, time lost meant money lost, and oil geopolitics had made Edwards’s $12,000-a-year job even more precarious. Near Blakeslee, his tank reached empty. Out of fuel, but full of frustration that truckers were the forgotten little guys in the global fossil-fuel wars, Edwards decided, on the spot, to take to his CB and make some noise.

1977 CB radio.

In the 1970s, truck drivers commonly used Citizens Band (CB) radio to alert their fellow big-rig drivers to traffic conditions, choice fueling spots and lurking police traps. Without proper FCC radio licenses and reluctant to announce their real names over the airwaves, truckers assumed fanciful “handles” and developed colorful slang. They called diesel fuel motion lotion. They dubbed toll booths cash registers. Police became bears: Smokey bears for state troopers who wore campaign hats like Smokey the Bear, bears in the air for police helicopters. Feeding the bears meant paying for a ticket—something more truckers were doing due to new speed restrictions. The OPEC embargo accelerated the CB’s popularity, mostly because it allowed drivers to share places to find motion lotion.

The protest goes national

As other truckers stopped to help Edwards, he broadcast via CB that he was blocking the interstate to protest high gas prices, limited fuel supply and the proposed speed limit. Instantly, he found sympathy. One trucker stated, “If a man is going to …read more


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