Journalism grad publishes novel about truckers and life on the road

by Alexander Sabatini

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Jack Kerouac

AfflerbachThe road represents an idea embedded deep inside all of us.

For many, it’s an opportunity to see the world you’ve only read about before settling down and starting a career. For a select few, however, there is no settling down. For these few, it’s a way of life.

In a new book “Roll On,” 2007 Texas State graduate Fred Afflerbach used his personal experience as a truck driver to pay homage to the trucker drivers of old, who only felt comfortable while on the move. It is Afflerbach’s first novel.

“It’s in your blood; something innate. Goes all the way back to cowboys, mountain men and explorers – put them in civilization and they’d be miserable,” Afflerbach said. “There’s always that restlessness with those people who don’t fit in. Truckers are those descendants. Those misfits I call them.”

Afflerbach on the road

Working for Allied Van Lines throughout high school, Afflerbach “got a little taste” of the trucker lifestyle, and once a week he would help the “old-time” truckers unload their rigs. Afflerbach said these truckers held an allure because they came from all over the country, and he hadn’t yet been outside of Texas.

“These rigs were awesome to me. We spent the day with them and their stories,” Afflerbach said. “That was the seed that was planted. I thought maybe I’d want to do that.”

After high school, Afflerbach came to Texas State University for a semester but decided that the timing wasn’t right for college.

“I wanted to be out there and see what it was like on the road,” Afflerbach said.

At 19 years old, he went to work for Bekins Van Lines, a moving company in Austin. Afflerbach spent three years, finding out what he was doing and giving himself time to save up for his own truck.

During summers at Bekins, Afflerbach hired his older brother Tom – who was in need of a summer job while in college.

“Fred was always determined and focused,” Tom said. “When he set a goal for himself, he would achieve it.”

Afflerbach eventually bought his own truck. He made it six years living out of his rig, seeing the entire country, until he decided to settle down and have a family.

By 1984, Afflerbach was no longer living out of his truck and traversing the country. However, he remained a driver for the next 20 years, mostly doing day-trips in and around the Austin area.

“I’ve seen the long-term toll it takes on the drivers, the family and their kids,” Afflerbach said. “That’s what my story’s about.”

Afflerbach admits that on occasion he’ll slow down and admire a nice looking rig driving down the road, but fully understands that the life is no longer practical for him.

Trading the road for writing

Growing up in a literary family and writing throughout his years as a trucker, it made sense that the void trucking left would be filled with the passion he had for writing.

“Trucking is a lot like writing, so it was easy to segue into,” Afflerbach said. “You have to have a good imagination and you have to be able to be alone for long periods of time.”

In 2004, Afflerbach enrolled in night classes at Austin Community College to improve upon his craft. He was still driving locally.

“There’d be times when I’d be driving a semi-trailer into an empty warehouse three blocks away. I must have been the only student driving an 18-wheeler to class,” Afflerbach joked.

Afflerbach attended class at ACC for a year, and then transferred to Texas State University.

Kym Fox, journalism professor at Texas State University, was impressed by Afflerbach’s willingness to learn and his ability to seek criticism so he could improve as a journalist.

“He was a fixture in my office,” Fox said.

Fox remembered one piece of work in particular when Afflerbach took the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial “Our Tom,” and made it his own by applying the concept of the editorial to a present issue.

“It came to him the way creative work comes to you. He had this spark and just went after it,” Fox said. “Eventually, the San Antonio Express-News ran it as a guest column.”

Afflerbach said that professor Fox helped him realize that he was indeed on the right track.

Newspapers and publishing

In 2007, at the age of 50, Afflerbach graduated from Texas State University with a journalism degree, and a minor in English.

Afflerbach went to work for a small newspaper in Marble Falls and then for the daily paper in Temple. While beginning his career in journalism, Afflerbach used whatever spare time he had to begin writing his novel.

book“Roll On” is a cross-country trip from California to the East Coast and up to Boston. Afflerbach said once he got to Denver he knew he’d finish it. He described the experience of writing a novel the best way he knew how, with a trucking analogy.

“It’s kind of like driving at night with your headlights on. You can see only so far down the road, but you can’t see all the way,” Afflerbach said. “Just keep the headlights on and keep driving. You’ll make it.”

Afflerbach made it and, after sending out countless query letters, he finally got the response he was looking for a year later from the Academy Chicago Publishers – they responded, simply, we’ll take it.

Afflerbach dedicated his novel to his second wife, Diane, whom he met in a local gym eight years ago.

“I’m so proud of him,” Diane Afflerbach said. “It’s an incredibly exciting experience that none of us have been through before.”

It began as a kid, when Afflerbach looked up to the “old-time” truckers, the same way a kid today might look up to an athlete or a movie star. They were folk-heroes.

Writing about these truck drivers gave Afflerbach a chance “to give them their say and include them in American literature.” It also gave him a chance to reflect on his life on the road — when he bought his first rig at the age of 22 and getting in touch with somebody meant stopping off at a pay phone.

Afflerbach said it was the time of his life and that it will always be with him because, like the misfits before him, it’s in his blood.

“I may have left the road,” Afflerbach said. “But the road has never left me.”

Roll On: A Trucker’s Life on the Road,” by Fred Afflerbach, was published April 3, 2012 and is available at Amazon.com.

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