Trucking had not been a decision so much as a necessity. I’d heard one thing twenty years ago when I got my Commercial Driver’s License – now that you have it, you always have options. I guess it was true in the barest sense of things, as I did have the option of unemployment, but generally speaking, hitting the road was all I had left.
The government made me take a refresher course from a driving school before I could be hired by a transportation company. It went well for the most part, once I got the hang of things. I’d never pulled a van, driven a sleeper semi, or done it in Atlanta traffic, but with a few minutes of acclimation managed to provide my instructor the requested (required?) smooth ride.
Another week of classes at my new employer’s terminal brought me up to ‘employable’ status, and a couple hundred hours with a trainer got me considered ‘road ready’. So, the day came – it was time to be issued a truck of my own.
Or a reject from the boneyard – whatever you wanted to call it.
She had a set of what we’d always called ‘speed stacks’ which were leaned back from vertical (probably because she’d hit something). The paint was faded and battle-scarred from a long life already lived on the highway. At six hundred thousand miles and change, it was an ‘experienced’ rig, and none of the doors in the sleeper closed completely.
The interior was kind of disgusting.
Yellow and black paint greeted me under the hood, which elicited a smile none of the other details could erase. Blessed with an old-school, non-emission restricted Caterpillar Diesel engine, the truck had possibilities that eclipsed all of her other faults.
I was still a rookie, but even I knew you couldn’t get a truck down the road without a good engine.
This one was better than most.
When you’re a rookie, trucking is very much about proving your capability. Part of that means proving that you’re stubborn enough to stick it out, smart enough to survive, and yes, able to drive the truck.
I remember my first drop – the store manager took me into the parking lot, pointed, and said, “Put it over there by that other trailer.”
Thinking but not indicating it was the one that would require a back to the truck’s blind-side within about twenty-five percent of the room I feasibly needed, I assured the guy I’d pull it off – and an hour later, I did have it dropped. After a mix-up getting my next load, I was back in the yard at the terminal getting yelled at by my dispatcher for pulling in there at all, because my truck had been declared unsafe by the company’s safety people in one of the industry’s little ironies.
And that’s how it was. I’d think that’s how it is, too – I doubt it’s changed at all. Being a rookie meant mostly always being wrong in some fashion or another. It meant that getting carped at was a cost of business, something to get used to, and a rite of passage for one that was back at the bottom of the barrel again.
The best thing was that usually within a few hours of finishing a run, the satcom unit would alert with the instructions for the next trip. That simple beep meant a new adventure, and another chance to do it right, or at least better than the trip before.
I don’t remember anyone in all of the classes and instruction time telling me that trucking is a series of chances to do better.
There’s hope as long as the wheels still turn.
Trucking might have been full of drugs and rule breakers up until the early nineties or so, but it had really gone to great strides to clean up its act by the time I started driving professionally. Even my hours were monitored by satellite. Back then, it was new technology, but it’s become the industry standard. As a rookie, there was no hiding your capability or lack thereof.
Even finding a place to park is a challenge. Transportation by train, to a large degree, is dying. A train is great if you’re hauling hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo that’s exactly the same to one destination, but for smaller quantities – like you’d put in a truck, they’re unreliable, expensive, and cursed by a lack of American infrastructure.
Trucks have been on the rise to fill the void, probably since at least the seventies if not earlier. They’re just a more versatile way to move cargo around. To make this happen, there are a lot of trucks on the road. So many so, in fact, that there aren’t enough parking places for all of them at the same time.
That simple fact created the biggest conundrum of all. It’s a federal rule that you only get to drive for a maximum of ten hours a day. There’s no mercy – a minute over is a minute over. While you’re trying to maximize the use of your hours, you live in constant fear of not being able to find a spot to shut it off when you’re out of time.
It made life…interesting.
It feels important to say this wasn’t my first experience with trucks, as a whole. I may have wound up driving because of a lack of better options, but I’d actually learned close to twenty years earlier for a different career. I still remember my first teacher, Bobs. Incidentally, I did always call him ‘Bobs’, but that is a story for another time. At any rate, I was working in Kansas at the time, and I had to get my license renewed and he insisted he was going to teach me.
So, I sat in the passenger seat of a 1982 Freightliner conventional reading the driver’s manual, asking questions, and watching on the way to Garden City, Kansas. The first day, I drove through town after we stopped at the elevator to refill the truck.
On the second day, after a stop at Bobs’ favorite afternoon pie restaurant, I drove the rest of the way home – forty miles or so. The truck engine shelled out the harmonic balancer on the way home the third day, so I didn’t drive at all. Day four was my ‘final exam’ – I drove from the feed yard outside of Garden City all of the way back to the house (including a stop for pie, of course).
All of this instruction was 100% illegal – I didn’t have a learner’s permit and he wasn’t a registered instructor in Kansas, I’m sure. I’d just be getting out of jail about now if I would have had an accident. I’m pleased to say that never happened.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was probably my happiest memory trucking. I hadn’t seen that much of the gulf, and never South Florida. The bridge is an engineering feat – it’s big and long. It was a sunny day, the water was blue and the truck was running good. I still have this strange desire to go back and drive over it again, just to see if it was that much fun.
I was going into Tampa to pick up a load of garden pots. That was actually the beginning of a trip that would take me to Morehead, Kentucky via Arkansas, Denver, and a few other places. Hauling freight is a funny thing – it usually means there are five steps between any two places you really want to get.
I’d been excited about Kentucky when it happened, as I was a relief driver in a dedicated fleet. At least at the time, it had felt like a teeny bit of a promotion, and I’d found that exciting. It also felt like it meant there might be a small measure of predictability, which had its advantages.
At least to me, the hardest part of trucking wasn’t getting down the road – it was stopping. Stopping meant parking, and at least to me, parking was the challenge. Most parking spots meant a ‘right-angle’ or ‘jackknife’ back into a space with maybe a foot or two of clearance at the most. I definitely didn’t take to it very well.
So, was having an understanding of things like where the good places to park were a benefit?
It wasn’t anything serious, but I did have some problems during my driving career. You can actually buy a GPS that’s specially designed for oversized vehicles. It’s supposed to route you around things like low bridges, railroad tracks, and even traffic issues. I missed a turn once, and followed the next one I came to. Soon, I found myself on a very narrow tree-lined street. I didn’t sneak under one branch as carefully as I should have – it broke a light on the top of the trailer and cost me a very large amount of trouble with the company’s safety department.
The dumbest thing, by far, was the day I forgot to lock the truck when I ran inside the store I was delivering to during a quick bathroom break. I couldn’t have been inside three minutes, but it was obvious I’d been robbed when I came back out. All in, they probably did a thousand dollars worth of damage to replace everything, and all because. I was careless.
Backing through a water puddle right before I shut the truck down one night was right up there. It was November in Kentucky – it got cold at night. Semi truck brakes have a lot of surface area, so that gave the water a lot of brake surface area to freeze to the drum. The result is, when you start the truck up the next morning, the brakes won’t come off – you can’t go anywhere.
When it gets right down to it, the most complicated piece of equipment in a semi is the driver’s brain. If the driver keeps their eyes and ears open, pays attention, and stops and thinks, even a little – it goes pretty well. I can’t be accused of this (obviously). Things would have gone even better if I’d been a little more on the ball.
Even at that, my luck wasn’t so bad.
I was hauling a load up North for a big, well-known department store once. The place was big enough that they could make their own rules – rumor had it, if you were ever late, you’d never haul to one of their warehouses again. As a rookie trying to get started, getting blacklisted from anywhere would have been really bad, yet, I realized that was exactly what was going to happen as I was doing the math after parking one night.
There wasn’t any way to cross the ‘T’. I could only go on duty at a certain time, there was a certain number of miles between me and the warehouse, the truck maxed out at a governed top speed – I was going to be ten minutes late. It didn’t seem like a lot to an outsider, but late is late in the trucking business. I’d been told in my training that once you were going to miss a delivery, it was best to let people know as soon as you realized the problem.
My dispatcher was good about it; he understood I’d done everything I could to land where I needed to when I was committed to – sometimes things just didn’t work out. He did admonish me to do what I could to minimize my tardiness and told me to get some sleep.
They’ve closed the gap, but back then, the satellite that pinged the truck only hit every seven and a half minutes, and then only if the truck was in motion. In theory, you could drive all of the way across the country as long as you did it in seven minute and twenty-nine second intervals.
That left me two and a half minutes.
Remember the yellow and black paint on the engine I told you about?
I needed it to do in eighteen minutes what most trucks would do in twenty.
Between the trick with the satellite and Caterpillar power, I pulled into the warehouse right on time. It was a small victory, but it was a big enough one to catch my dispatcher’s attention.
It worked out like I’d hoped it would. Weirdly enough, Moorhead Kentucky, Detroit Michigan, and all places in between were almost comfortable. Even with my limited sense of direction, I learned to navigate at least a little bit by memory. It wasn’t a great time by any stretch, but it was better than some had been.
I think it was natural to wonder what was going on at my own home. I spoke to my wife every day, and was thankful for that. I never once wondered whether she was faithful to me. I wondered all of the time how she’d done her hearing, what she’d gotten at the grocery store, and what the neighbors’ Christmas decorations looked like.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my introduction to routine effectively placed me in the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. I was living, but it was the same day repeated over and over. Other people were having lives, seeing friends and family, experiencing new things – it wasn’t until I finally got off the road that I realized I was effectively the same person I’d been when I started.
That sounds pretty fatalistic, I know, but let’s keep it in perspective for a minute. I was warm, fed, and although the work could be a little brutal, I wasn’t breaking rocks in the desert sun, either. My wife was well, surrounded with family and friends and not unhappy except for my absence.
On the whole, while I still needed to get some experience as a driver, there was hope every time the engine started and I put the transmission in gear. It may not have been the best, but it wasn’t the worst time in the world, either.