Octogenarian trucker has spent his life on the road

By on July 24, 2019

Alan Ehnat has spent his life on the road.

But even the spry 87 year old shook his head in surprise when he added up the years and found it had been more than six decades behind the wheel. Asked about mileage? Let’s just say millions.

A Long Island, N.Y. native, Ehnat says he wanted to drive a truck since age five. He actually started behind the wheel in 1956 at age 24, shortly after returning from military service as a Navy

Seabee in Morocco and Cuba. Over the course of his long career, which, by the way has not ended, he has driven pick-up trucks to rigs that were, with the tractor, nearly 70-feet long.

Just out of the service and engaged to Mary (his wife for the past 64 years), Ehnat needed a job that paid a living wage so he could purchase a home and start a family. That job turned out to be right in his home town of Locust Valley, N.Y. — driving a truck for Keyco Motor Freight, where he worked for 19 years delivering general freight into New York and New Jersey.

Ehnat didn’t imagine then that some 64 years later, he’d still be hauling himself into the cab of a delivery truck and spending hours — thank goodness not days, as he had done for years — on the road.
“You just get used to it, and it becomes a way of life,” said Ehnat.

Aging U.S. workforce

He may be right. Today, more individuals in their 80s are working than ever before. According to the 2016 U.S. census, some 255,000 people ages 85 and over (4.4 of the population that age) were working, a number that doubled since the recession. Even though the average age of truck drivers is 46, there are, according to that census, still around 1,000 to 3,000 individuals age 85, or older, driving trucks. Maybe 70 is the new 60… and 80 the new 70?

Over the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported in AARP magazine, seniors will be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. Among 65 to 74-year-olds, labor force participation is predicted to hit 32 percent by 2022, up from 20 percent in 2002. At age 75 and up, the rate will jump to 11 percent. Meanwhile, it is predicted, workforce participation rates among younger age groups will be flat, or even fall.

Octogenarian trucker Alan Ehnat, a resident of East Earl, is ready to make a Virginia delivery for Honey Brook Custom Cabinets, Inc. Photo by Art Petrosemolo.

In Lancaster County, with multiple retirement communities attracting younger residents and a new Active 55 communities being announced monthly, more and more seniors — just before or after normal retirement age of 66 — are choosing to work part- or full-time well into their 70s and 80s.

Ehnat says he probably would have stayed a lot longer at Keyco if the traffic didn’t finally get to him.

“Mary and I were Long Island natives,” he said, “and were happy there, but the traffic on the Long Island Expressway (a misnomer) and over any of the bridges to access New York’s five boroughs can be a traffic nightmare.”

And many times Ehnat’s ultimate destination was New Jersey, and that included a trip across the George Washington Bridge with its own traffic.

The way Ehnat described it: “I just had enough and decided to move.”

Headed to the country

Ehnat, wife Mary,and two of their three daughters moved as far away from New York traffic as they could in the mid-1970s and still stay on the East Coast. They relocated to West Charleston, Vt., close to the Canadian border, where Ehnat spent 12 years driving for the Ethan Allen Furniture Company, delivering across New England and into the mid-Atlantic states.

Gone for a week or more, he would deliver a 40,000-pound load to Erie, where he would switch trailers and deliver south as far as Delaware.

“I’d be gone six days a week and my wife understood it was my chosen profession, but it was hard on her for sure,” Ehnat says. “If you have ever lived in Northern Vermont, you know winter comes early and stays late, and it added an extra burden on my family.”

Like every truck driver, Ehnat says he got a yearning to own his own rig and be his own boss. Over the course of several years he owned two “big rigs” and started hauling meat for Shanno Transportation out of St. Paul, Minn., taking loads to every state east of Denver.

In 1990, still owning his own truck — a Marmon 10-wheel tractor, the Cadillac of over-the-road rigs — he moved his family to Pennsylvania (Elverson, Morgantown, and then East Earl) and worked for Ned Bard in Leola, delivering building products up and down the East Coast.

Like boat owners who say their two best days are the one they buy their boat, as well as the day they sell it, Ehnat felt the same in the early 1990s when he sold the Marmon and began driving large tour buses to Florida, New Orleans, and other vacation destinations for Beiber Bus Company in Kutztown; and then limos to New York City.

Back in the big rig again

But the call of the open road returned, and in 2007, at age 75, he hooked up with Honey Brook Cabinets to drive their 28-foot straight truck, delivering several times a week to Virginia, New Jersey, and into New England.

“I am up at 1 a.m.” he says, “and out on the road by 2:30 a.m. getting me to Northern Virginia before 6 a.m., where I unload at job sites and start back to Lancaster County getting me into the plant yard by 4 p.m. It’s a long day,” Ehnat smiles, “especially for someone 87, but it’s what I do.”

As it turns out, there are very few national and state regulations governing a truck driver’s age. Ehnat says he must pass a Department of Transportation physical by a DOT certified doctor every two years.

During his most recent physical in 2018, the doctor said to him, “You are 87, so I guess I’ll give you a one-year certification.”
Ehnat says he looked the doctor in the eye and said: “Did I pass the physical?” When he got an affirmative response, he said to the doctor “Well? I might want to drive until I am 90.”

He was given a two year cert.

The octogenarian driver with millions of miles under his tires in 60-plus years on the road just might decide to drive until age 90.

“We’ll see,” he smiles.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net. 

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