Retired trucker still in driver's seat
With his CB, he helps steer big rigs down the right path
By Jason George, Tribune staff reporter.
Tribune staff reporter Dave Wischnowsky contributed to this report
April 23, 2006
He's known as Penthouse 13, the Driver in the Sky and the Angel of I-57.
Morning to night, he guides truckers around traffic accidents, road
construction and weight-restricted bridges that could buckle under
"Backing up bad at 3-3-7," his husky voice cautions all on the
airwaves, referencing the highway mile marker.
The lane-jamming Dan Ryan Expressway construction project that began
this spring has made his advice to "avoid that Ryan" that much more
helpful to out-of-town drivers.
Mainstream America might have sent CB radios and eight-track copies of
"Convoy" to its curbs decades ago, but the inexpensive devices have
remained a trucking mainstay. And so, Earl Wieringa, who first crammed
his 6-foot-5 frame behind the wheel of a truck in 1946, now sits
behind the microphone on channel 19, calling out to every CB within 40
miles of Kankakee.
From there, the 76-year-old retired truck driver uses his 13th-floor
apartment -- hence the handles Penthouse 13 and Driver in the Sky -- to
impart a lifetime of driving knowledge.
"Drive careful. Be safe. And have a good trip," he ends the countless
conversations he has during about seven hours per day in front of the
Leaning back from a large silver microphone that would've looked at
home on the desk of Edward R. Murrow, Wieringa flashes a toothy grin
before lighting up one of his Grand 100 filter cigarettes.
"I love it," he says.
So do the truckers. Wayne Reynolds, who hauls retail merchandise out
of nearby Bradley, admits that even he, a local driver, has been saved
a time or two by Penthouse 13's over-the-road omniscience.
"The guy is knowledgeable," he said, taking a rest at a Monee
truck-stop diner, mile marker 335.
"There are a lot of people that have base stations around the country
that will help you, but Penthouse is a retired trucker," Reynolds
said. "He knows it all."
Wieringa's one-bedroom apartment is sparsely decorated -- a few
seashells on top of the small television, a Hooters poster that he
swears was a gift from a niece. Back by the bay windows in his living
room, his electronics spread resembles a Radio Shack.
Connected to a suitcase-size CB unit sits his silver microphone. He has
stacks of phone books and maps to assist the wayward driver. A flashlight, a
strobe light and white Christmas lights that form a "13" in the windows all
allow him to signal to truckers that he is more than just a voice in their
"I've got a good view up here," he said, looking north. "I can see all
the way to Mokena," about 30 miles.
Born in 1929, Wieringa grew up in Chicago Heights, where his love
affair with all things truck began. At 16, he drove his first one
professionally, hauling garbage at the Olympia Fields Country
Club. "We were making $1.10 an hour," he said. "Heck, in the '40s that
Two years later, Wieringa shipped out to the Pacific with the Army,
where he remained until 1952, driving trucks and Jeeps. "Anything that
had wheels or an engine I drove it," he said.
After returning home, Wieringa eventually left Illinois and headed
west to California, where he lived for 37 years. "In '63 everybody was
out of work so I thought, `I like driving,'" he said. "So for 16 years
I drove a bus" in metropolitan Los Angeles.
In 2000, divorced and childless, Wieringa decided to move to Kankakee
at the suggestion of his brother, Archie, who drove trucks there.
Finally retired from decades in the driver's seat, Wieringa got a
small CB unit and a window magnet antenna so he could talk to his
brother, whose routes passed his apartment.
"If I leant out on the edge, it could go a mile or a mile-and-a-half," he
said of its weak signal.
He has since upgraded in a serious way. His CB unit is now twice as
big. And it's wired to 150 feet of coaxial cable that runs up to the
roof, where a 17-foot antenna pole makes the signal as strong as a
small radio station.
"The antenna upstairs took me six months to get the OK," he said
Gerry Kilbride, who manages Wieringa's independent-living building for
residents 55 and older, admitted that at first the idea of the massive
antenna made him raise an eyebrow, but after repeatedly listening to
Wieringa's pleadings, it was impossible to deny the request.
"He loves talking to these truckers," Kilbride said.
Talking is about all Wieringa said he's prepared to do these days. "My
driving days are over," he said, before confessing that he recently
took a buddy's tractor-trailer for a brief spin.
"It was fun," he said. Just the same, he's now happier steering
drivers from the bar stool in his living room.
"One time it was real icy and snowy, and they couldn't stay on the
road," he recalled of an incident last winter. "The semis were sliding
all over the place, and I guided about eight or 10 of them into the
flea market parking lot" in Kankakee.
He said that he never chitchats on the airwaves, believing that CB
talk should be professional, G-rated and always as brief as possible.
"If I can help them find things or let them know there's a tie-up, I
like to help," he said. "I know what they're going to come up
About 4:30 every afternoon, Wieringa drives his Crown Victoria about a
mile down the road to his girlfriend's house for an hour or two. There
she cooks him a hot meal.
"And you can't refuse that," he said, laughing.
Wieringa never strays far from his radio though. He has installed one
in his car, and put another in his girlfriend's vehicle. When asked
how she handles sharing him with the CB, Wieringa cracked a laugh that
sounded like Waylon Jennings' and just shook his head.
"She's a lovely woman," he said.
Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune
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