Old school

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Turning wrenches is just what I love to do.” –Steven Custode, second generation diesel mechanic, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

There was a time when the skills needed to drive big rigs and meet their maintenance needs were learned the old fashioned way. Like journeymen of old, driver and mechanic wannabes worked side by side with a veteran for months – if not years – to learn the necessary skills by watching and then doing, repeating the process until they got it right.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with today’s school-based environments for training truck drivers and technicians. In fact, one reason the old title of "mechanic" is headed for retirement is due to the complex computer-controlled systems on trucks today – stuff that requires a vastly different kind of knowledge than what was required of mechanics in the past.

Schools also help standardize training, in that they allow everyone to (hopefully) learn how to do things the most efficient and safest way possible, eliminating the possibility of incorrect information being passed along.

All that aside, it’s still refreshing to meet guys like Steven Custode – a product of the old school, taught how to repair trucks by his father Jerry. “I am a very proud second generation diesel mechanic,” he told me from his home in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. “I learned everything I know from my father, who has been doing heavy truck repair his whole life.”

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And when he says “diesel mechanic” he means “bumper-to-bumper” diesel mechanic – able to work on anything from axles and wheel hubs to transmissions, clutches and engines, you name it.

“There are a lot of great technicians out there, but so many of them today specialize in just one area – Cummins engines, or transmissions,” Steve told me. “Also, a lot of our customers out here are owner-operators and about 30% of my work is emergency repairs. So there isn’t time to work with – our customers want us to get them back on the road as fast as we can at a fair price so they can get back to making money.”

The Custode’s story starts like many in this great nation on ours, via immigration. Jerry Custode, Steve’s father, came to America from Sicily, settled in the cold climes of Chicago and got to work making a living – first learning to repair trucks, then drive them.

Jerry eventually established his own trucking company – JJMS Trucking – back in the 1970s, but by the 1980s wanted to leave the frigid temperatures of Chicago behind. Thus he sold his company, relocated his family to Hawaii, and stuck to turning wrenches for a living.

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Steven literally learned the diesel mechanic’s at his father’s side, working with him when he turned 16 and kept right on at it after finishing high school. Yet Steve also wanted his own business, so he got his CDL and lucked into a nearly brand new Kenworth T-800 back in 1999. He also bought and fixed an old dump trailer and quickly got into the business hauling cinders for a living – using the moniker “S & K Hauling” for his company (short for “Steve & Kim,” Kim being Steve’s wife).

They were heady times, Steve recalled to me – hauling heavy loads up and down 18% grades, maneuvering in and out of tight construction sites. He loved being at the helm of a big rig, especially his own. But he got a scary reminder that being a truck driver isn’t all fun when he crashed and flipped his rig one afternoon in 2002 – rolling it over a couple of times. Though he walked away without a scratch, the crash made changes in Steve’s approach to trucking.

“It was a horrible experience – scared me to death,” he told me. “But I learned so much from that. I learned to be so much more careful, to appreciate just how fine a line separates you from disaster at times.”

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It’s when Steve became a father, though, that the writing showed up on the wall for him (his daughter Jillian is now five, and his son Nick is now three). Early loads that got rolling at 3 a.m. followed by late evenings on other days, combined with the hazards of the road, convinced Steve to return to his hard-earned roots as a mechanic.

He sold his trucking business in 2005 and re-joined his father working on trucks to make a living. Yet right away he encountered a new issue – the mobile service trucks he and his dad used were just too small to adequately serve their customer base.

“We were using F-350s with 10,000 GVW chassis, and they were just too small – we couldn’t carry all the parts or tools we need,” Steve told me. “We needed something bigger yet designed for our business.”

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He saw an old Peterbilt truck for sale one day and instantly, an idea came to him. Steve snapped it up, brought it back to an old gravel plot of land he owned, and started getting to work.

Using all of his mechanical knowledge, combined with his trucking experience, he rebuilt that truck by hand with parts from other wrecks he’d bought – creating a heavy-duty mobile garage, for lack of a better term.

The primary frame is a 1987 Peterbilt 357, equipped with tandem rear axles, a rebuilt 18 speed transmission, a wireless remote-controlled crane, and a “Triple 4” Cummins that is soon to be replaced by a 3406 B Caterpillar engine cranking out 425 horses.

Steve overbuilt the frame and the tool boxes so the truck could take a pounding and then some, resulting in an empty weight of 7,000 lbs. Altogether, it took Steve nine months to build his one-of-a-kind vehicle, including the home-made heavy-duty service body.

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“This truck just carries so much more – brake shoes, turbochargers … I even had a spare engine in the back once,” he told me. “The point is, when you are out on a breakdown run, trying to get a guy going again, you can’t stop and go back to the garage for a part – you’ve got to have everything with you. I’ve got to be as prepared as possible.”

About 70% of Steve’s work is scheduled maintenance, with 30% emergency road service on all makes and models of commercial trucks.

He does everything – clutch repair, engine repair, even welding. “It’s really rewarding when you show up and get someone back on the road fast,” Steve said.

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For now, Steve and his truck are making a good living but he foresees a “reverse migration” in his future one day.

He and his wife bought some land in Utah as they plan for an eventual return to the U.S. mainland – largely to make sure their kids get opportunities that aren’t available on the islands.

“I can do just about anything – turn a wrench, drive a truck, and even build my own truck,” he said. “That confidence comes from my dad – he was a tough teacher, but those lessons are paying off now. I have strong values in America and its trucking past. I work hard every day and know it will pay off some day.”

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