(Note: This is part four in a series detailing the fall of my small retail music store followed by a one-year vacation fueled by the funds derived from my going-out-of-business sale. Part one was: My Shemp Howard Obsession). Part two was: Fly Like a Buzzard. Part three was: Pawnshop Nightmare.)
After returning home from truck driving school with my newly issued Class-A CDL, I picked up a newspaper and saw that the classified ads were full of trucking companies looking for qualified drivers. My first interview was with Bulldog Trucking located in North Charleston. At the completion of the application process the interviewer asked me if I could start immediately. I replied that I could be there first thing tomorrow morning. He responded that, by “immediately”, he meant right now, dress clothes and all. In retrospect I guess that Bulldog was desperate for drivers and didn’t want to risk letting me wander around town filling out applications at other companies. I agreed to start then and there and jumped on a truck with an experienced driver as my trainer.
I spent the next two weeks learning how to tarp the load on a flatbed trailer. For those of you who don’t know what a flatbed trailer is, it is one that doesn’t have an enclosed box…an open, flat platform which carries everything from boilers to steel, from shingles to bricks, and much more. All we did for two weeks was go back and forth from the terminal to the warehouse of a roofing shingle distributor a few miles down the road. After a forklift operator placed the product on the flatbed, we would unfold and secure these very large, heavy tarps to the trailer with bungee cords.
Once this initial training was completed I was partnered with an experienced over-the-road driver who taught me the ropes. I learned all about how to falsify a log book, how to spot the hos at the truck stops, how to avoid the DOT weighing stations, where to eat, where not to eat, how to cuss and argue on the CB radio, and more. After two more weeks of training I was given the keys to my own truck and, with a hearty pat on the back and a trailer load of manhole covers, I was on my way to Knoxville.
That first trip was easy and uneventful and I hoped for more like it. Being a new driver, however, I was mostly assigned the crappy, low-paying runs along the dusty backroads of the various southeastern states (with occasional trips to Indiana and Ohio). I was off and running for two weeks at a time.
One of my most memorable runs was to a steel mill in Roanoke, Virginia. I got the directions from the onboard computer and drove to the site, arriving at the factory gate at just before noon. I was elated when I arrived because I did not see any other trucks. I could load up quickly and get back on the road. The guard at the gate told me that the truck entrance was about a quarter mile down the road. I turned my rig around and proceeded to the correct gate. As soon as I turned into the correct entrance I found myself on a one-lane private road at the tail end of a line of trucks that stretched over a small hill. Parking my rig, I got out and walked to the front of the line. There were twenty-one trucks ahead of me…this was going to be a long wait.
The line was moving slowly and I couldn’t get any shut eye because every 30 minutes or so I had to move up one truck length or risk the ire of the drivers piling up behind me. Finally, at midnight, it was my turn. By the time the load was slapped on the flatbed and chained securely it was almost 2 AM. I was exhausted and needed to find a rest area or a truck stop so I could get some sleep. These places of respite were filled to capacity so I finally pulled over on the shoulder of an Interstate entrance ramp. I wasn’t there for 10 minutes before a Virginia Highway Patrolman was pounding on the side of the cab with his baton and hollering for me to move on down the road. At the time, Virginia was not known by truckers as a friendly place. I went through all of this crap for a load that paid less than $100 for about 17 hours of work.
During the three months that I drove over-the-road I grew to despise everything about this job. The cheap retread tires would occasionally blow out, requiring me to find the nearest truck stop and go through the long process of calling the company, getting an authorization code, and waiting my turn for a repair. The authorization codes were unnecessarily complicated with a bizarre combination of 25 or so letters and numbers…(“Was that a capital Z?”, I would ask. “No, that’s a small z. The D is a capital letter. The code is: 146tD4zD57fm2glmnop65432FUx2. Got that?”)
The ever present tire debris that you see along the Interstate is the result of retreads falling apart. Truckers have a term for this material. They call them “alligators” because of their resemblance to these scaly critters. On one occasion I was driving on I-95 near Savannah and the shoulder was littered with truck tire remnants. I saw one of them moving and, as I passed by, recognized that this was a real alligator. Maybe it was mating season and the critter was confused.
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On another occasion I was assigned a load at a lumber yard in some small town in North Carolina. When I got there the yard was empty except for a few employees. I spoke with the forklift operator who told me that he would load up my order ASAP. There were no other trucks and no retail customers so I figured this would be pretty quick. He drove his forklift to the other side of the lumber yard and started moving piles of lumber back and forth to no place in particular, while my load sat right next to the truck awaiting his divine presence. He did this for a solid hour and a half while I just sat there. Idiot. One thing you learn very quickly as a big truck driver is that forklift operators exist solely to make your life as miserable as possible
The worst part was that I could never figure out how to securely tarp a load. All of the training that I received was based on nice, evenly fitting pallets of roofing shingles. Most of the loads that I was assigned to carry were anything but uniform and, as a result, my tarping efforts looked pretty sloppy. On one occasion I was hauling a load of construction materials down the Interstate and noticed that passing drivers were waving frantically at me. I looked back and saw my tarp fluttering through the air like a huge yellow banshee or some sort of wayward parachute.
I quickly grew to hate truck stops. Many of these operations are huge and can acomodate hundreds of big rigs. I don’t know which was worse…the toothless meth and crack hookers beating on my door wanting to know if I needed some “company”, or the crowded restaurants and retail stores therein. Entering a big truck stop is like walking down the fairway of a loud, cheesy carnival. Every square foot of the hallways are jammed with video games, poker games, and machines that took money for no particular reason that I could discern. They shared one thing in common, however, in that they all had bells, whistles, buzzers, and horns. Not one of the big truck stops which I visited had a room that was designated as a quiet area…a place where one could just sit in peace to read a book or a newspaper. I guess there is no money in solitude.
Almost all of these giant truck stops had small theaters where movies were playing but there was always at least two drivers who carried on loud conversations during the show.
On one occasion I accidentally bumped into a big biker-looking dude who immediately turned around and asked me if I “wanted to get my ass whipped.” I replied yes, but that I was a bit short of funds and would he accept a Visa card? I offered him the option of meeting me on the playground at recess. Sensing my mood, he wisely backed off.
One of the most disgusting habits of over-the-road drivers is the plastic jugs full of urine that they leave in the parking lots of truck stops and alongside the highway. Some of these guys are in such a rush that they don’t pull into a rest stop to pee. They just whip it out while they are driving at 70 mph and urinate into one-gallon plastic containers. I can’t really blame them for surreptitiously leaving them on the curb because who wants to walk into a truck stop carrying a gallon of piss?
Hoping for a better experience, I tried some smaller family-owned truck stops. I found one such place in Kentucky near the Ohio border. There was a restaurant, a small gift shop, and space for about thirty trucks. I parked my rig and entered the restaurant where I sat in a booth and waited for the waitress to come over to my table. She must have been 85 years old. When she asked for my order, I told her that I needed a few minutes to look at the menu. Hard of hearing, she said “WHAT?” I repeated that I needed a few minutes. She still looked confused. I then asked her for ice water. A few minutes later she returned to my booth, smiled, and put a fly swatter on the table.
I looked back at the window leading to the kitchen and saw the cook. She looked like the stereotypical grandmother kitchen whiz so I ordered the house special…chicken fried steak. It wasn’t just awful…it was gross beyond description. The meat was tough as an old shoe and the gravy had the color and consistence of used motor oil. It stunk as well. I pushed it aside and walked to the counter to pay my bill and get out of there. I knew better than to complain because my truck was parked outside and I needed some rest.
While standing at the check out counter, I glanced over at the Grandma Cook From Hell through the kitchen window. My mind started to wander. I pictured her as human from the waist up but having the lower extremities of a giant slug or a squid-like cephalopod. A gravy-like liquid oozed from her scaly stink crotch and spilled onto the floor. This foul concoction was scraped up and tossed into the pot by her chicken-headed offspring who clucked The Circle of Life from The Lion King until they were filleted by old grandma and thrown into the deep fryer…still pooting out four part harmonies even while they were turning a crispy shade of brown. The mind works in mysterious ways…especially when it is sleep deprived.
I will never forget the day that I quit this job. After a rare weekend off, I was back at company HQ at 4 AM on a Monday morning and was given my load assignment. I had to go out in the yard and find a couple of tarps to take with me. It was pouring down rain and lightning was striking very close by. I searched and searched, finally spotting two tarps in the middle of a large puddle of water between two flatbed trailers. They were covered with mud and, as I was dragging one of them out, a bolt of lightning struck so close as to temporarily deafen me and raise the hair on my neck. That was it…finished…kaput…I walked into the office, put the keys on a dispatcher’s table, walked out, and drove home…unemployed once again.
Postscript: In all fairness I should add that the folks at Bulldog were all friendly, helpful, and well-meaning. They have an important job to do. I was simply not suited to the rigors of over-the-road driving, especially with two young daughters at home.