By Jason George, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Dave Wischnowsky contributed to this report
April 23, 2006
He's known as Penthouse 13, the Driver in the Sky and the Angel of I-57.
Morning to night, he guides truckers around traffic accidents, road construction and weight-restricted bridges that could buckle under heavy freight.
"Backing up bad at 3-3-7," his husky voice cautions all on the airwaves, referencing the highway mile marker.
The lane-jamming Dan Ryan Expressway construction project that began this spring has made his advice to "avoid that Ryan" that much more helpful to out-of-town drivers.
Mainstream America might have sent CB radios and eight-track copies of "Convoy" to its curbs decades ago, but the inexpensive devices have remained a trucking mainstay. And so, Earl Wieringa, who first crammed his 6-foot-5 frame behind the wheel of a truck in 1946, now sits behind the microphone on channel 19, calling out to every CB within 40 miles of Kankakee.
From there, the 76-year-old retired truck driver uses his 13th-floor apartment -- hence the handles Penthouse 13 and Driver in the Sky -- to impart a lifetime of driving knowledge.
"Drive careful. Be safe. And have a good trip," he ends the countless conversations he has during about seven hours per day in front of the dials.
Leaning back from a large silver microphone that would've looked at home on the desk of Edward R. Murrow, Wieringa flashes a toothy grin before lighting up one of his Grand 100 filter cigarettes.
"I love it," he says.
So do the truckers. Wayne Reynolds, who hauls retail merchandise out of nearby Bradley, admits that even he, a local driver, has been saved a time or two by Penthouse 13's over-the-road omniscience.
"The guy is knowledgeable," he said, taking a rest at a Monee truck-stop diner, mile marker 335.
"There are a lot of people that have base stations around the country that will help you, but Penthouse is a retired trucker," Reynolds said. "He knows it all."
Wieringa's one-bedroom apartment is sparsely decorated -- a few seashells on top of the small television, a Hooters poster that he swears was a gift from a niece. Back by the bay windows in his living room, his electronics spread resembles a Radio Shack.
Connected to a suitcase-size CB unit sits his silver microphone. He has stacks of phone books and maps to assist the wayward driver. A flashlight, a strobe light and white Christmas lights that form a "13" in the windows all allow him to signal to truckers that he is more than just a voice in their cabs.
"I've got a good view up here," he said, looking north. "I can see all the way to Mokena," about 30 miles.
Born in 1929, Wieringa grew up in Chicago Heights, where his love affair with all things truck began. At 16, he drove his first one professionally, hauling garbage at the Olympia Fields Country Club. "We were making $1.10 an hour," he said. "Heck, in the '40s that was good."
Two years later, Wieringa shipped out to the Pacific with the Army, where he remained until 1952, driving trucks and Jeeps. "Anything that had wheels or an engine I drove it," he said.
After returning home, Wieringa eventually left Illinois and headed west to California, where he lived for 37 years. "In '63 everybody was out of work so I thought, `I like driving,'" he said. "So for 16 years I drove a bus" in metropolitan Los Angeles.
In 2000, divorced and childless, Wieringa decided to move to Kankakee at the suggestion of his brother, Archie, who drove trucks there. Finally retired from decades in the driver's seat, Wieringa got a small CB unit and a window magnet antenna so he could talk to his brother, whose routes passed his apartment.
"If I leant out on the edge, it could go a mile or a mile-and-a-half," he said of its weak signal.
He has since upgraded in a serious way. His CB unit is now twice as big. And it's wired to 150 feet of coaxial cable that runs up to the roof, where a 17-foot antenna pole makes the signal as strong as a small radio station.
"The antenna upstairs took me six months to get the OK," he said proudly.
Gerry Kilbride, who manages Wieringa's independent-living building for residents 55 and older, admitted that at first the idea of the massive antenna made him raise an eyebrow, but after repeatedly listening to Wieringa's pleadings, it was impossible to deny the request.
"He loves talking to these truckers," Kilbride said.
Talking is about all Wieringa said he's prepared to do these days. "My driving days are over," he said, before confessing that he recently took a buddy's tractor-trailer for a brief spin.
"It was fun," he said. Just the same, he's now happier steering drivers from the bar stool in his living room.
"One time it was real icy and snowy, and they couldn't stay on the road," he recalled of an incident last winter. "The semis were sliding all over the place, and I guided about eight or 10 of them into the flea market parking lot" in Kankakee.
He said that he never chitchats on the airwaves, believing that CB talk should be professional, G-rated and always as brief as possible.
"If I can help them find things or let them know there's a tie-up, I like to help," he said. "I know what they're going to come up against."
About 4:30 every afternoon, Wieringa drives his Crown Victoria about a mile down the road to his girlfriend's house for an hour or two. There she cooks him a hot meal.
"And you can't refuse that," he said, laughing.
Wieringa never strays far from his radio though. He has installed one in his car, and put another in his girlfriend's vehicle. When asked how she handles sharing him with the CB, Wieringa cracked a laugh that sounded like Waylon Jennings' and just shook his head.
"She's a lovely woman," he said.
Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune
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