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Trying to find what drives US truckers

Michael Agar prepares for his class in ethnography at the University of Maryland in his usual way: He rolls up a couple of pairs of battered blue jeans, some lumberjack shirts, and his tape recorder. Then he jumps in a 42-foot tractor-trailer and hits the road with Red or Ike or Carl and 40,000 pounds of pears or 35,000 pounds of sheet plastic, riding the concrete rails of the nation's highways coast to coast to study American independent truckers.

As Margaret Mead struck out for Samoa or Richard Leakey for Africa, anthropologist Agar finds the civilization he wants to study in the metal cabs of the 18-wheelers that roll across the USA. ''Dr. Truck'' rides again, looking for clues to the trucking culture he studies in the book he has just written, ''Independents Declared: The Dilemma of Independent Trucking.'' The book is to be published soon by Cornell University Press.

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Along the way, Dr. Agar the anthropologist, whose business is studying mankind, has picked up a foreign language. He speaks the lingo: ''lumper,'' a pejorative term for the person who helps unload the truck at its destination whether the driver wishes it or not; ''palletized,'' said of a load that's been arranged on wooden pallets for easy removal by forklift; ''deadheading,'' traveling without a load; ''bobtailing,'' a tractor driving solo with no trailer tailing it.

Agar is one of a rare new breed of anthropologist-practitioners, one who specializes in ethnography, a fancy academic term for fieldwork. ''The term really is just translated as 'folk descriptive,' ethno and graphic,'' he says. ''Ethnography was really the kind of research that anthropologists like Margaret Mead did.''

Recently, he points out, ethnography has become important in several fields because it emphasizes the learning role of the researcher rather than the scientific testing role. ''What ethnographic research is about is an attempt to understand the human situation by apprenticing yourself to a group. You become a student of that group's life, ... you try to learn from them as they talk in their own words in any way they choose, how they think about the world, how they make decisions in it. It's got relatives: some certain kinds of reporting, some kinds of writing. 'The Right Stuff,' for instance, Tom Wolfe's book.'' But as an ethnographer he moves to conclusions about the culture he's studied, giving the reader the evidence and how he reaches those specific conclusions.

''A lot of people talk about these guys (independent truckers) as the last of the American cowboys,'' says Agar, ''and by that they mean they represent a continuity with the tradition of the open-range cowboy part of the country's history.'' But the reality, he says is different: ''Most of them think of themselves as small-business people, they think of themselves as part of the trucking industry. A lot of the people I talked to went into the business because it represented an interesting alternative to assembly-line type work, a chance for some autonomy. In that sense it is about independence, an opportunity to have your own business, to get away from the 9-to-5 drudgery, of doing mindless repetitive tasks in factories....''

But the real theme that emerges from his taped conversations with truckers on more than 40 cross-country trips is different. ''The real theme is dependence, not independence. They depend on trucking companies for their freight and for setting the rates; they depend on shippers who get the truck loaded; they depend on the customers who get it offloaded; they depend on mechanics who repair their truck; they depend on federal, state, and local regulatory agencies.

''So what you see is a bunch of people caught in a squeeze play where on one hand, they're supposed to represent the old national frontier image. But on the other hand, they're just as caught up in dependencies on others for their livelihood as the rest of us. The image through movies like 'Convoy' and 'Smokey and the Bandit' has really done them a disservice.''

When he joined the Maryland Truckers Association, of which he is now acting secretary, they cheered on Dr. Truck. ''They said it's about time to correct this image that's on TV and in the movies. People think we just drive up and down the road and have a party. Here we've got a $100,000 tractor-trailer and rates are declining, expenses are increasing, we're caught in the same cost-revenue squeeze that any other small-business person has.''

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Whether he's on the road or in class, Agar does not lead a pin-striped Washington life. He is a mellow-looking dude with chestnut hair and matching beard, both verging on blue eyes and even, Irish-American features. He pads around his town house wearing a tan and navy plaid shirt and tan corduroy pants.

Dr. Truck talks in a fresh, eager voice about what he learned at the loading docks: ''What was hard for me as an outsider to understand was that there was a sense of independence; the trouble was, it wasn't what I expected. The sense of independence that I finally learned was real independence in terms of the details of the organization and the life, the way you think of time and space. Independence as distinction; you're distinctive. You stand out from the pack. OK? Your organization of work is in trips, not in shifts. And you control that organization. Your sense of space involves states, rather than your home and your office or your home and your factory. You're in an 80,000-pound vehicle when it's fully loaded with freight, on the Interstate. Your community is not defined, like a town, but it's a bunch of stops, distributed all over the country, into which you can walk in anytime in a 24-hour schedule and have a conversation with people about a lot of esoteric things and you and they know all about and no one else does. So there is a sense of independence about being an independent trucker, but it's about being distinctive, it's not about being autonomous....''

Agar admits that the anthropology of trucking is no easy subject: ''I tell my anthropological colleagues that I used to think south India was complicated until I started studying trucking.'' Agar has done fieldwork with the Lombardi in a village in the Carnatic region of south India; with heroin addicts in San Francisco and New York; with German-Slovenian bilingual villagers in south Austria; and with urban drug users in Houston. This summer he traveled on a grant and lectured in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, and in Athens.

He has written several books from his experiences as an anthropologist. Among them: ''Ripping and Running: A Formal Ethnographic Study of Urban Heroin Addicts''; ''Cognition and Ethnography''; and ''The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography.''

His present fascination with the truck culture may spring from a job he had as a teen-ager in Livermore, Calif., working as a truck dispatcher in a gravel pit after school. He majored in anthropology at Stanford University and got his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. Along the way he was married and divorced.

In the summer after his freshman year at Stanford, while working for the state Department of Agriculture to pay his college bills, he was assigned to inspect a property ''in the middle of nowhere. Turned out it was a ghost town with one well-kept house in the middle of it. On the porch sat an elderly gentleman'' who invited him to have a cold drink. And we talked for some time. He was a retired stockbroker from San Francisco who'd decided to go back to this little town where he or his wife had been born. We chatted for a long time and when I got up to leave to go back to my truck he said, 'Be sure to take a course in cultural anthropology.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Cultural anthropology, just remember that, promise me you'll take a course when you go back to Stanford in the fall.' I said OK, I signed up for it, had no idea what it was. And the first day of the lecture I said, 'This is it. This is what I'm going to do,' '' from now on.

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