18 wheels and a Shabbat shalom

Neal DuBro in front of his big rig.  Photo: Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

That semitrailer driver you just passed on the highway might do a pretty decent job chanting the Shabbat blessing. That is, if the trucker is Neal DuBro.

DuBro, 34, is a big-rig driver and the son of Cantor Paul DuBro. Neal never wanted to a rabbi, but he was drawn very early to the open road.

“I’ve always loved trucks,” he said. “I remember sitting on my grandpa’s lap while he was driving semis down Hall Street.”

DuBro’s grandfather and uncle once owned a local transportation company. Growing up, DuBro played with toy trucks. When he turned 16, it wasn’t a car that he wanted to drive.

“I remember going with my cousin in the summer playing in the truck, learning how to drive the dump truck, and that’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said.

What’s the best part of being a long-haul trucker? DuBro quickly offers a one-word answer: “Freedom.”

“I don’t have anybody breathing down my neck, and there’s no office,” he said. “My view changes every day. I’ve seen some beautiful sunsets. And some ferocious storms, too.”

Threatening weather is probably the biggest downside of the job, he said.

“I’ve driven through wind that’s so strong it can literally blow my trailer over,” DuBro said. “All you can do is fight it the best you can and hold on. I usually don’t stop unless it’s really bad. If I can’t see two feet in front of my hood, then I’ll shut her down.”

This is a far cry from driving a sedan in a storm, or even a delivery truck. DuBro’s rig consists of two 28-foot-long dry vans, known in the trade as pups. He also regularly hauls trailers as long as 70 feet. The cab, trailer and cargo can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. If that’s not an imposing enough task, the driver must have intense concentration and quick reflexes. That’s because other drivers pose an ever-present risk.

“It’s not as easy as people think,” DuBro said. “It’s not as simple as just getting in and driving. You’ve got 10 gears to shift through at a minimum. You’ve got to be on guard all the time. Other cars on the road are my biggest hazard. You don’t know what the drivers are thinking. Then there are deer, dogs, people falling asleep. I’ve seen plenty of people fall asleep and go off the road, even other semis going off the road.

“When I first started trucking, I was up in Minnesota. I was new, and I was on black ice, and I didn’t know it. It started to drizzle and the rain turned straight to ice. A Ford Explorer spun out in front of me. I hit my brakes, going side to side, and came one foot from T-boning them. I can still see the look on the driver’s face.”

If you want a cushy desk job, driving a semi might be a poor choice. Consider how physically demanding it is.

“Sometimes I have to move freight without the forklift, and pick up 100 pounds of weight,” he said. “And even though we have air ride suspension and air ride seats, it’s still not very smooth. I bounce all over the seat and all over the road, especially in Indiana, which has horrible, bumpy roads.”

DuBro’s workday with Estes Express Lines begins in the evening. He picks up his rig at 7 p.m. and starts driving east, arriving just north of Indianapolis about 1 a.m. He helps offload the cargo and gets another full load for the return trip, which begins at 3 a.m. The next morning, he returns to St. Louis at 8 a.m. After about seven hours of sleep, he starts the cycle again. 

Following in his father’s footsteps was never a consideration for DuBro. The closest he’s come to a chazzan experience was his bar mitzvah. Of course, he had a little coaching.

“I don’t think they’d let me be a cantor with my tattoos,” he said. “I fit the mold of a trucker.”

The tattoo on his upper arm of skin ripped way to expose muscles, veins, spark plugs, wires and gears does give him a trucker image. DuBro says people are often surprised to learn that he’s Jewish. He’s only aware of one other Jewish semi driver who used to work for his company. That driver, he said, was Orthodox, and the firm set his schedule so he didn’t have to drive on the Sabbath.

DuBro’s mother Betti Blumoff is also a longtime member of the St. Louis Jewish community. Blumoff teaches at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. In fact, it was her side of the family that owned Blumway Trucking, the company that started Neal’s fascination with trucks.

A truck driver who’s the son of a cantor sounds like a weird twist on the film “The Jazz Singer,” in which Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) sings a different tune than his cantor father. But the elder DuBro, who was formerly cantor at Shaare Zedek Synagogue, harbors no regrets that his son isn’t carrying on the family tradition.

“He never wanted to be a cantor, and that’s fine,” Paul  DuBro said. “My philosophy is I’m proud of him, whatever he wants to do.”

He remembers when Neal first gave him the news.

“It was a long time ago, and he was in engineering school,” the cantor said. “He called me one day and said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. I want to be a truck driver.’ He is good at it, and even though he has that gruff exterior, he is a kind individual and extremely bright. I’m proud of him.”

Neal DuBro’s wife, Beth, is proud of him, too, even though she always assumed she’d get married to someone with a more traditional occupation. Paul DuBro actually played matchmaker, introducing his son to Beth when she was managing the spa at the Jewish Community Center. 

A former professional ballet dancer, Beth DuBro is a certified yoga instructor. She also teaches at Congregation Shaare Emeth and keeps an eye on their son Aiden, 3  (who’s name means “paradise” in Hebrew). Would she want him to be a truck driver … or a cantor?

“I want my child to do what makes him happy,” she said. 

If he likes trucks, that’s fine. She’ll be as protective of him as she is of her husband when people are dismissive after they learn what he does for a living.

“Some people think truck drivers are white trash and they’re rednecks and they’re not educated, and their job is easy, but that’s not the case at all,” she said. “There are lot of things involved in it. He’s a go-getter, and he’s a leader. He makes an honest living, and he supports us, so what difference does it make that he drives a truck?”

Neal DuBro certainly looks like a truck driver. He’s a rugged, outdoorsy guy. He loves boating and barbecuing and he plays softball at the J. 

But he also breaks a few stereotypes. He doesn’t listen to country music on the road, favoring alternative rock. He attended college at the University of Missouri-Rolla. 

And, he’s a cantor’s son.