Truckers seek out 'The Chaplain Man'

November 26, 1990|By Doug Birch

His "church" is a motel security office, with a view of some diesel pumps in East Baltimore. His pulpit is a desk piled with electronic equipment, including police scanners, a couple of microphones and a 40-channel citizens band radio. And his congregation includes "The Rubber Duck," "Low Rider," "The Destroyer" and "Bandit."

Meet the Rev. S. Anthony Battaglia, better known to his flock as "The Chaplain Man."

Mr. Battaglia, 60, was hired three years ago by the Baltimore Port Truck Plaza, a truck stop off O'Donnell Street, to use a CB radio to give truckers directions around the city. And, of course, he was supposed to make sure they could find the plaza's fuel pumps, motel, vending machines and restaurant.

But the ordained Baptist minister has gained notice up and down the East Coast, his listeners say, for dispensing spiritual as well as geographical guidance.

"He's one of the most famous people that I know of," said William Bess, a Baltimore-area trucker who has never met Mr. Battaglia but tunes him in frequently. Mr. Bess, known to his CB good buddies as "Rubber Duck," described The Chaplain Man as the unofficial "air traffic controller," free-lance "dispatcher" and all-around guardian angel for truckers.

From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, Mr. Battaglia -- dressed in Fire Department blues and wearing a gold tie-tack in the shape of a cross -- is on duty, sitting at a microphone next to a shelf full of atlases, maps, back copies of Popular Communications magazine and his Bible.

He listens to Channel 19, the truckers' party line, and tells drivers who want to chat to "go to Channel 17, the Good Samaritan station."

Mostly, he gives directions. "When they come from out of town, believe me, Baltimore is just one big maze of streets," he said.

He notifies drivers of backups in the harbor tunnels. He calls company dispatchers on behalf of truckers whose rigs have broken down or been ordered off the roadway by police for safety violations.

He also lends a sympathetic ear. Truck driving has always been a lonely profession. A lot of independent drivers are suffering from the faltering economy and having a hard time meeting payments on their rigs, which can cost more than $135,000. They tell The Chaplain Man.

Some have more personal problems and stop by Mr. Battaglia's office for counseling. He has advised cheating husbands to go back to their wives and suicidal truckers to stay off the highways until they get more help.

"The truck drivers will say, 'Are you really a chaplain?,' " he said. "And I'll say yes, and they'll come in and I'll talk to them, give them some counseling. . . . That's really what they need. Somebody just to talk to them. To listen."

A few weeks back, a teen-age girl running away from home with her older boyfriend wound up at the truck stop motel and sought The Chaplain Man's help. A few hours later, the teen-ager's mother -- who hated the boyfriend -- and her father joined what became an impromptu group therapy session.

With the help of Mr. Battaglia, the teen-ager and her boyfriend agreed that she should move to South Carolina, where her family was headed, and not see the boyfriend for a year.

The Chaplain Man acts as a guardian of public morals. He helps his employers prevent prostitution and drug dealing at the truck stop by monitoring truckers' conversations and telling the police about suspicious activity. "We try to keep the air clean, too," he said. "There's a lot of language on there that needs to be dealt with."

When the chatter gets X-rated, he whacks a brass ship's bell next to the microphone that he normally taps to mark the hour and half hour.

"If they get out of order, I ring the bell also and tell them they're down for the count," he said. "I tell them they can't talk that way. . . . It keeps it clean, really. They say, 'Oh, you know there's a chaplain there? You shouldn't be talking that way.' "

He sometimes shares his pulpit with a layman, William Henry Grizzly White, known as "Grizzly Bear," a 49-year-old retired federal law enforcement officer who stops by regularly to chat with the truckers. "Being a CBer's a brotherhood," said Mr. White, an American Indian who was born in Broken Bow, Okla., but has lived in Baltimore most of his life.

The preacher, a Baltimore native and cousin of the former city police commissioner, Frank J. Battaglia, started working at the plaza three years ago when he answered an ad in the newspaper seeking a CB buff.

Mr. Battaglia said he worked 30 years as a barber, then switched to real estate sales and was making $60,000 a year when he quit and spent four years taking care of his elderly parents.

Along the way, he entered the ministry and became one of 12 volunteer chaplains with the Baltimore County police and fire departments. Although he does not have his own congregation, he is licensed to the chaplaincy through the Catonsville Baptist Church on Frederick Road and is a member there.

He was looking for a new direction in his life when he spotted the truck stop ad. But he threw it in the trash, convinced no one would pay him to do the two things he likes best -- preach and broadcast on his CB. His wife fished it out and urged him to apply.

He did and discovered a match made in heaven.

"I had the job within a half-hour," he said. "The Lord opened the door, that's what he did."

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