One of my best summer jobs was driving a Ford L-Series beverage truck for Pepsi in Kansas. It was for a rural route that ran from Wichita north as far as Little River and every place in between that wasn’t a mega-store. Originally I was to be a ride along helper, but I was given a solo route that opened up right after I was hired. So I joined the Pepsi People and caught that Pepsi Spirit.
I was given new personalized uniforms, and trained to do everything needed to deliver twenty-six different Pepsi beverages. Until my experience at Pepsi, I had no realization of the involvement in having soft drinks show up in pop machines, corner drug stores, supermarkets and even churches. As a route driver, I had to have the right product in the right container when my truck left the distribution facility each day. Luckily, the 1987 Ford L700 I drove as a daily working truck was one tough machine. Pepsi ensured that their fleet of beverage trucks was perfectly maintained. These trucks were vital to their continued success and no expenses were spared.
The L700 was not fancy, although it had a huge 7.3 liter V8 engine in it and was only a few years old. It came with a heavy duty five-speed which, having over 170,000 miles on it, was barely broken in by the standards of the fleet. The cab was painted Pepsi blue and the box was painted Pepsi red, white and blue, with a Mountain Dew logo across the back end. Every night my truck was scrubbed inside and out. Every product bay was blasted and disinfected before it was reloaded. The entire Pepsi fleet was maintained on site by a squadron of mechanics and a platoon of college kids, and my truck was always in perfect order when I arrived at dawn every morning.
My L700 was one of the smaller trucks. Eight full bays would hold an entire six foot tall pallet of Pepsi products. There were four more half bays over the wheel wells that were connected to the other side of truck. These were for returnable glass bottles in wooden racks and glass disposables. As the day went on, they emptied depending on my route’s needs and orders. Total weight was about 9-10,000 pounds of product on average, if my memory serves me well. It wasn’t unusual for me to “throw” over 2000 cases a day. There were also days I had to return to the warehouse and reload to later build case displays in stores.
At 185 pounds, I was the lightest thing in my Ford L 700. From six in the morning after I counted up my products on the truck, until my final delivery, I manhandled each case from the truck onto shelves or into coolers. On busy sales days, this meant twelve hour days of intense manual labor. I did it wearing a full Pepsi uniform and the best damn boots I could afford. Eat? No. I was lucky, if I could get enough liquid in me each day to piss and would usually sweat out everything I drank. After a few months of this work you end up sinewy, skinny and deeply tanned from the hot Kansan sunshine. It is not a job for anyone out of shape.
The last thing you need is an undependable truck or a truck that makes doing the job even harder. The Ford L700 was perfect for its duties. The cab was no-nonsense and bare-bones, with no radio, no air conditioning, no carpeting and not a single soft surface to be found inside, except for the flat, black vinyl bench seat. Since I climbed up into it throughout the day and often did so reaching up and grabbing the steering wheel, the Ford’s tiller was simple, hard and rugged. The entire interior of these trucks had to be able to handle a sweaty man, so everything was washable and the night crew cleaned up the inside of the L700 like a gym crew would clean locker rooms at a YMCA. We had to be presentable to the public every day.
A Kansan summer will see temperatures reach the 90s and above, so the windows were always down, except during heavy rains. More than a few times, I would stand inside an empty open bay during a thunderstorm. With its no nonsense interior, the Ford didn’t have to be babied when the rain poured in through the open windows. And regardless of the weather, the vent windows were always opened as far as possible to catch the wind and blow it into the cab.
With so much on my mind, I didn’t give my truck much thought, and that was a shame. Like any totally dependable partner, that big old L700 was an invisible friend who always had my back. It never complained about the heat, the dust, the storms, the traffic, my end-of-the-day nasty, sweaty self, the distances we drove, or all the leaks that failed cans and bottles would spill inside of it. The Ford L Series was a damn good, simple truck that was indispensable to those whose livelihoods depended upon it. I owe it a lot.
I’ll never forget the summer heat beating down on both of us as we rolled down empty Kansas highways towards the distant grain elevators which marked co-ops, general stores, or gas stations. The weekly arrival of the Pepsi truck is a highlight for some of these little crossroads and the Kansans I met on my route were great people. Although I worked like a dog, I had time between stops to climb into the Ford’s lofty cab, feel the hot wind blow across the flat treeless wheat fields, and savor my work. The next time you reach for a soda, think a moment about the grunts who got it there. It is their pleasure to serve you.