No, that’s not “about me,” but about M.E.—Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen Dempsey.
Mary Ellen Dempsey came of age in the early 1960s when little was expected of women other than being a wife and mother. She graduated from high school completing the requisite shorthand and typing classes expected of all girls in the 60s; however, she says, “I sucked at both. It was abundantly obvious I wasn’t cut out to be a secretary.”
Mary Ellen’s road to the big rigs began after she moved from her California home to her husband’s home of Canfield, Ohio, where they had four children together. Serendipity had them making a final move to Wilkesville, a small town in Southeastern Ohio. When her daughter, the second of her four children, was 18 months old, she took a job as a school bus driver in order to have her own spending money. It was a trial by fire for this Central Valley Californian who had never driven in snow prior to then. With a quaking heart, she learned to drive her forty-foot school bus on roads that never saw a snowplow.
After fourteen years of marriage, the couple divorced, and Mary Ellen found herself a single mother trying to support four children. She moved back to California, and went to work for the San Juan School District in Sacramento as a school bus driver. She had accidentally fallen into driving a bus for a living, and she loved it. Sadly, it didn’t pay enough to cover her expenses as a single mom, and she began to consider alternatives.
An out-of-the-blue meeting with a female truck driver at a social event sent her to the company that trained Mary Ellen to become a truck driver. As a single parent and woman of color, she found her only marketable skill, driving, propelling her into the all-male bastion of driving an 18-wheeler in order to support her family. She applied, and was hired to work on the dock for this company with the sole intent of taking advantage of the free truck-driver training they offered its employees. Although it took nearly nine months to earn her Class A license because the company had difficulties finding someone to run the training class, Mary Ellen succeeded in passing all her written and driving tests on her first try. She earned her Class A license in September of 1990.
Once Mary Ellen became qualified to drive, she was put on the “line board,” a seniority system of assigning drivers whatever loads needed to be taken to the transfer point in Kettleman City, CA. This first job was hauling doubles, two small trailers connected by a “con” gear, not the easiest type of truck to gain experience on, as she was to find out later. Doubles have been named “wiggle-wagons” because they tend to wander into adjoining lanes easily. Because Mary Ellen had proven to the men that she did the share of the work assigned her without complaint, they helped teach her excellent driving skills.
All went well for the first eighteen months until there was a change in management. The new terminal manager didn’t want a woman driver on his fleet so he began a passive-aggressive campaign to get rid of her by giving her shorter runs and thus less pay. It was the first time Mary Ellen faced discrimination, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Her next job, team-driving for a tanker company, was a test in fortitude. Mary Ellen found hauling a tanker filled with liquid offered a whole new set of problems in handling a big rig. She faced discrimination here also, and was let go because several of her male co-workers told Mary Ellen’s boss, a woman, that they would walk out if they were made to drive team with her. Her boss capitulated, and sent Mary Ellen packing.
It is these types of experiences over the next thirteen years that became the grist for Mary Ellen’s first book, Silly Woman, Big Rigs Are for Men, independently published in June 2011. She has also written a screenplay based on the book. Now she is using her background to write a novel about a female trucker, which will be released in installments as an ebook. She is in the process of writing a second memoir called Flush Toilets and Pulling the Plug dealing with the years that preceded her life as a truck driver.
She is currently the on-call Bookmobile driver for Placer County. Surprisingly, this driving job has a whole different set of tests. While the vehicle, at 40 feet, is just shy of half the length of an 18-wheeler, it’s considerably heavier than a school bus of like size. That makes the occasional run into the very small gold-mining town of Iowa Hill at a wide-spot in a road that clings to the side of the mountain like a tenacious tree. The road, a real challenge, was all downhill to the town. It’s a single lane is peppered with dips that make her heavy vehicle lean precariously toward the drop-off before settling back to a level position. There are a handful of places for passing with great care that, thankfully, she’s rarely had to use.
It is this single run that compares to any of her more difficult drives in an 18-wheeler. But she has been tested by fire and made it through. She tackles this challenge with the same resiliency she did learning to drive a truck.
As she traveled the country, she developed her photography skills, a passion she continues to pursue. She is an avid reader, and sews and crochets when she has the time. In addition, she is very active with the Gold Country Writers located in Auburn, CA. Now a grandmother of five, she makes her home in a small Northern California town with her dog, Lady.
Sam, her beautiful trucking dog, an Akita -Chow mix, grew up in her truck and is featured in her book as a charming, friendly companion who looked anything but friendly to strangers. Mary Ellen never had to worry about anyone bothering her truck when he was sitting in the driver’s seat waiting for her return. Sadly, he passed away the summer of 2011.
Mary Ellen still drives a truck, not a big rig, but a riotous purple Dodge dually pickup.
An addition to this bio, I had one more go ’round at yet another driving job. In 2015 I moved to Tulsa, OK to live with my daughter. Circumstances made it necessary for me to look for a part time job. Fate was on my side once again, when a neighbor told me his company was looking for drivers. He wanted to know if I might be interested in a job. I said yes and the rest is, as they say, “is history.”by