Convention honors `cowboy' industry

Towmen: An annual gathering includes a truck pageant and seminars on health and negotiating prices.

November 24, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

It's never a good day when the tow truck rolls up. Your engine has stalled. Your tire's gone flat. Or someone has smashed up your brand-new ride.

But there are times when the towman arrives like the cavalry. Like the October night last year when Barney Jones and Jesus Ortiz, of Tornquist Garage in Hightstown, N.J., were called to a wreck on the New Jersey Turnpike. Two tractor-trailers had collided, and one of the drivers was pinned between the dashboard and his seat.

Throwing a chain around a window post, the two men managed to pry the wreckage apart, allowing paramedics to extract the driver and save his life.

"That's beautiful," said Ortiz, in Baltimore yesterday for the American Towman Exposition at the Convention Center.

His colleagues thought so, too. He and Jones received American Towman's medals for "courageous professionalism." They were among 19 towmen honored for their lifesaving work, often done at risk to their own lives.

The annual gathering of 10,000 tow truck owners and operators is one of Baltimore's most faithful conventions, making its 15th visit to the Inner Harbor this year. They gather to gawk at the latest trucks and towing gear, compete in a tow truck "beauty pageant," and attend seminars on how to negotiate rates and calm customers.

"This industry is the last of the cowboy industries," said Steve Calitri, president of American Towman, which organizes the annual convention.

Towers have resisted consolidation -- surviving as mostly small, owner-operated businesses with a few trucks. "Ten or 20 is considered a big fleet in this industry," he said. "In a sense, it's a mom-and-pop industry, very much family-oriented, passing generation to generation."

Carl Moore, 66, has been towing for 44 years. He has five trucks running day and night out of Moore's Garage in Felton, Del. His son helps out part time.

"Every day, everything's different. It's a challenge all the time," he said. "That's what's kept me going."

On Friday he pulled a stolen car out of a marsh after state police chased down the thieves. He marveled at the damage the thieves managed to do with primer paint and a brush.

Some experiences go down hard. On a tow he ran 40 years ago, he said, a motor home had turned over after being struck by another vehicle. "The grandparents got out, but the grandchildren burned up. That's stuck in my craw for a long while."

The public perception of towers is frequently stained by stories of sky-high fees and the occasional towing scam.

And "it's hard to earn a living," Moore said. A third of his earnings last year went to insurance.

"The perception is towers make a lot of money," Calitri said. "It's not true. A tiny percentage of towers do well. The average tower just gets by." Most are squeezed between rising costs and the towing rates set by municipal authorities or the big automobile clubs.

Driver turnover is also a problem. "Somebody who enjoys being in a truck knows he can make more money in the trucking industry," Calitri said. But the work has its compensations.

Michael Blittersdorf, 21, is following in his father's and grandfather's tracks, managing Blittersdorf Towing and Recovery, in Toughkenamon, Pa.

"It's just nice to get in a truck and go out, be your own boss," he said. "I don't like to be in an office all day. When a tractor-trailer's tipped over, and you get it upright, you feel like you've accomplished something. It's a big job."

And towmen do love their trucks. Blittersdorf and his co-workers have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars customizing and showing their company's 1995 Peterbilt wrecker.

The 40-foot, 21-ton behemoth can lift 40 tons. But they have made it a sleek and spotless thing of beauty, festooned with gleaming metallic paint, mirrorlike stainless steel, 60 feet of purple neon lights, 145 parking lights and a hardwood floor in the cab.

Why? "Just to look good," Blittersdorf said. "Coming down here, I got compliments from other truck drivers on the CB [radio]. They said the truck looked good."

After they got to Baltimore, he and his crew worked for 11 hours cleaning the truck to compete against 70 others entered in the convention's truck pageant.

Roy Carlson, Sr., 54, who operates a fleet of 32 trucks out of St. Paul, Minn., is urging his fellow towmen to take as much care of themselves. He writes "Roy's Remedies," a monthly column on natural remedies in American Towman Magazine.

Tow truckers typically keep irregular hours, get too little exercise and eat too much fast food, he said. The paunches at his nutrition seminar yesterday testified to that.

Carlson -- a trim 6 feet and 189 pounds -- did not nag his audience to quit their bad habits. He just urged them to add more cinnamon, honey, vinegar, oatmeal, fresh fruits and vegetables to their diet. And more spring water, too. "You can't dehydrate."

"What about beer?" somebody shouted from the audience.

"Beer is OK," Carlson said. "But too much beer is not good."

Instead, he pushed garlic: "It sedates and stops cancer cells. It also increases power." The pyramid builders were fed garlic, he said.

Towmen need onions, too: "It's a kind of a natural antibiotic. There's a guy in this room who eats raw onions every day. Maybe his breath isn't the greatest, but he hasn't had a common cold in 20 years."

Carlson didn't say how much repeat business the towman gets.

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