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Knights of the road
April 21, 2011 - Stephen Browne
In between journalism jobs, I drove a truck for a while.
Things had come to a point financially where I couldn't continue working at the small community paper in North Dakota. (There were other reasons as well. Perhaps another time.) I had just gotten a 10 percent raise, the largest given at the paper within any current staffer's memory. It still wasn't enough to support my family minus the rental income from our Warsaw apartment, and I realized I'd topped out there.
We could continue to improve the paper, but what we couldn't do was increase the population of Barnes County. (About 12,000 people in an area 20 percent larger than Rhode Island.)
My wife asked me to try and find something local for the meantime, because she loved the small university where she was studying. Employment being what it is in a severely underpopulated area, what occurred to me was truck driving. It pays well even at the bottom scales, and even in this economy the demand for drivers only goes up.
So, I enrolled in a technical school with truck driving courses in Fargo. This is a month-long course, half days, four days a week. At first I wondered how we were going to fill that time. After the driving part of the course got underway, I wondered if three weeks practice was going to be enough.
If you know how to drive stick, a semi tractor is a whole world more complicated. You up-shift when the speedometer, rpms, and engine noise tell you it's time. But downshifting is not like up-shifting. You put the stick in neutral, then rev the engine a pretty specific rpm speed above where you are before shifting. We were taught the double-clutch method. Later I learned most drivers free clutch, without ever touching the clutch pedal. And there are a lot of quite different kinds of shift controls on different model trucks.
Then there’s turning, straight-line backing, backing into a 90 degree turn, and all this in a long tractor-trailer combination with a lot more blind spots than a car. If you deliver to stores, you might have to stick the back end of that articulated trailer into a narrow space, at an awkward angle, completely blind on one side.
But I got it done, got my CDL and tried long-hauling with a major trucking company for a few weeks.
It was horrible. I missed my family like to die while crisscrossing the country north-to-south. I passed within a few blocks of some of my oldest friends in Oklahoma and Texas - and couldn’t even stop for lunch. (If there’s no truck stop, where are you going to put the thing?)
To give you an idea, long-haul companies think a good driver should be home 2-3 days, every 2-3 weeks.
Plus I was assigned to a trainer who talked incessantly - about his wife, his kids, their problems, emotional and financial, and the most intimate personal details of their lives. Everything but how to drive the truck, while I was screaming inside, “Shut the blankety-blank up! I do not want to know these things!”
A trucker friend later told me, “That’s you in five years.”
Well, maybe so or maybe not, but long-hauling is definitely hard on families. A lot of long-haulers I’ve met started after their kids were grown. A few actually teamed with their wives. And a lot of them were divorced.
Next I tried ag hauling, mainly sunflower seed, occasionally canola, and a few times corn for the ethanol plant. This was quite a bit better. I slept in the cab, but was at least home weekends and driving mostly on state and county highways. In North Dakota you pretty much have these to yourself most of the time, so it was a great environment to practice in.
That’s where I learned the things teach-the-test trucking courses don’t teach you.
For example I learned what it means when the truck drives sluggishly, and the trailer brakes start to smoke and eventually catch fire. On that occasion I managed to get the rig to a garage. A young mechanic puttered around and came up with a couple of theories. Then an older guy who’d been a trucker came over and glanced at it briefly.
“You nudged the Johnson bar turning,” he said. “Happens all the time.”
(The Johnson bar is a lever on the steering column that controls the rear brakes on the trailer. It’s easy to hit without realizing it when you’re a greenhorn.)
But all in all, it was actually kind of pleasant. I brought a picnic cooler filled with the healthiest food I could find that would keep. Professional truckers often kit out their rigs with a mini-fridge, microwave, hot-plate, coffee maker, Sirius radio, TV, and even Gameboys. If you have a laptop, truck stops often have wireless connections. I figured I’d do all this eventually, and in the meantime I had books and a Kindle to keep me company nights.
Then winter set in.
The romance of trucking begins to pall the first time you lose all visual contact with the road surface during a ground blizzard. You experience moments of stark terror when you feel the rig slip on the road surface at pretty low speeds. And though the rock formations of the Dakota badlands are eerily beautiful, you don’t really have time to appreciate them herding a rig across two-lane highways with no hard shoulder at night in a blizzard.
Climbing in and out of the rig, or up on top of the grain hopper is no fun when all the surfaces are iced over. That’s when it occurs to you that on an isolated stretch of road, you could fall off and freeze to death before anybody passed by.
Trucking is rated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as one of the top ten most dangerous professions, right up there with high steel workers and aircraft pilots.
And it’s not very healthy either. Aside from the difficulty of eating well, a driver is usually sitting down for all of his legally allowed hours of service, eleven hours a day driving, fourteen on duty.
I found truckers to be a diverse lot. For example, I'm not the only trucker I know with a Master’s degree. There are young guys who grew up on farms who started trucking as soon as they were old enough to drive off the farm. I met retired businessmen who couldn’t stand the idleness and took up trucking as a retirement job. I once met a young lady trucker with fashion-model looks, who traveled with a big dog.
And mostly I found out that most any trucker will help you out when you need it, with advice, the loan of some tools, or the shirt off his back. Because he knows it could be his turn next time.
So when you encounter a semi on the road, try and keep out of his blind spot. (As a rule of thumb, if you can’t see his side mirrors, he can’t see you.)
And you might consider, everything you eat, everything you buy, was brought to you in a truck by a guy working long days at a man-killing job.
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