I signed up for one year as a lease operator and I only have one more week to go before I get out of “truck prison.” The meaning of this term will become clear. Keep reading.
As I’m sure the company knew, the CDL school and brief TransRam training program were woefully short of teaching me what I needed to know. Instead, and probably like most of the new drivers, I learned through “on the job training.” This means that “little (but pricey) incidents” happened while out there moving this rig around. For me, it rarely involved another vehicle. Rather, it was stationary objects that sometimes got in the way of the rear wheels of the trailer when I miscalculated the angle of that trailer dangle. I’ve flattened a few stop signs, side-swiped a very solid railroad crossing device, banged into a concrete protector at the gas pumps (long story), and dinged a light pole trying to make a U-turn under pressure. Each time the trailer wheels got banged up, my paycheck got docked $500 ($100 per week for five weeks). This hurts when your average take-home pay is less than $700 per week – and that’s for 12-hour days/ seven days a week! Try to pay a mortgage and send money home to the wife on those earnings and you’ll soon be viewed as quite the loser.
For being a little weak at backing a rig, I can proudly say that I never had an incident while backing – well, almost never. Toward the end of my illustrious career, I was backing at a 45° angle around another truck into a dock door. How was I to know how far his custom bumper protection extended? My trailer just barely touched and scratched the corner of this “cow catcher.” Luckily, the driver was no shithead and he good-naturedly let it pass. But the humiliation of being such a neophyte at backing-up is always a drag.
One day I was buzzing right along, coming up from Florida and making good time. I was in “the zone.” The “zone” is the same for driving as it for any activity: you find yourself in a sort of time-suspended state of ease and lucidity. As I was making my way around the Atlanta Perimeter, I suddenly found myself in a right lane that was supposed to merge left. I don’t recall there was much warning of the merge, and I still don’t think there was proper signage. Anyway, I was quickly running out of roadway. I put my turn signal on, then glanced into my left mirror. I saw a small pickup truck that couldn’t seem to decide whether to speed up or fall back. I tried to use my weight to help him decide – I moved gingerly left to induce him to fall back. Too bad for me I moved just a skosh too much to the left. My rear trailer tires scuffed up the side of his truck – no dents, mind you – and the passenger side mirror got flicked back. We both pulled over. I re-positioned his mirror – nothing broken there. The driver was an older fellow and he handled things like a real gentleman. There was no police report and no ticket issued. But we traded info and I reported the incident to my company’s “Risk Management” division, as I am supposed to do. I guess the insurance companies decided that he had the right-of-way because I got docked $500.
The most horrific and heartbreaking thing that happened occurred on the morning of February 1. I was trudging semi-cautiously along I-70 in Missouri, going east at about 60 mph. The sun was rising but it was not yet light. It had been drizzling and there was some light ice on the sides of the highway. I was on a rural stretch that was not lighted. There was a slight fog and visibility was OK but limited. I had just fiddled with the radio and glanced quickly in my left mirror. But when my eyes returned to the road in front of me there were two large dogs standing right smack in the middle of the road. There was nothing I could do. We’re trained not to veer to avoid animals. I remember turning slightly to the left, toward what looked like a well-fed Lab/Golden Retriever mix that looked up fearfully and slunk back a bit just before being scrunched and run over by my left tires. I don’t know, but I may have avoided the dog on the right. Still, it was a terrific jolt to the truck and very traumatic to me, a dog lover. Right afterwards I slowed slightly but didn’t stop. I couldn’t see the point. That one dog, at least (and the other if I hit it too) must have been killed instantly. At the next exit I pulled onto the ramp. My bumper was broken and the radiator warning light came on. At first I thought the radiator was damaged. It turned out that a hose extruding from a fitting at the bottom of the coolant reservoir had come loose – nothing that a good rubber band couldn’t fix.
I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be saddled with the $500 deductible, seeing that the damage from this accident was unavoidable and not due to any negligence on my part. Wrong. Another $500 assessed against my pay. But the worst part of this tragic incident was that the scene kept re-playing in my mind, and each time I felt extreme sadness, grief, and regret. It gave me a sense of what post-traumatic stress disease must be like because this tragedy haunted me for a good month or so. I still wince whenever I think about it.
Other on-the-job trainings included the following: I was never properly warned about two things – (1) turning so sharply that the tractor’s faring gets bent, and (2) making sure that when you hook to a trailer that the trailer is not too high. Of course I committed both errors. The bent faring happened when I was trying to extricate the truck out of a very cramped area. Of course I learned to never do that again ($500). Also, not long into my truck driving career, the back of the tractor got dented up when the kingpin failed to catch on the fifth wheel and the front of the trailer came gently crashing into the tractor. After that, I usually made sure the fifth wheel and trailer plate were making contact before backing all the way to hook into the kingpin ($500). But there were a few times that the kingpin ended up in front of the fifth wheel before I learned to exercise more caution.
Oh! There’s one other thing you don’t learn until you’re out there driving – in the snow especially. That is, how to use the engine brake or jake brake. I learned to use it on the hills of Pennsylvania. Instead of using your brakes, you can slow the truck by flipping some switches that reverse the pressure of the cylinders, thus slowing you down. This saves your regular brakes and reduces the chance of skidding. First you have to hit the brakes to turn off the cruise control, then you engage the jake brake. You may pick up speed none-the-less if you’re going down a steep grade. Applying pressure to your regular brakes will slow you back down. When you level out, you must remember to disengage the jake brake and re-engage the cruise control. It doesn’t sound all that terribly complicated, but it takes some focus, especially at night when it’s snowing and there are lots of hills.
During the winter there were some icy roads. It is terrifying, particularly when all the traffic slows to a crawl and then you come upon an overturned tractor trailer or a few of them. You instantly imagine that “that could have been me!” It sobers you right up and you watch your speed. One frigid morning I picked up my meat load in Cactus, TX. The four-lane state road was a sheet of ice. You couldn’t even see the lines on the road because of the ice. You start out at five, ten miles per hour and just see how you do – fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. Eventually the road got better. But the first 20 miles were nail-biting.
Fog is another stressor. When you can’t see more than 20-30 feet ahead of you, you are bounding headlong into the unknown with a hope and a prayer. The reasonable thing to do is to slow down. But some of the other truckers just go the speed limit, figuring (I guess) that as long as you can see the lines to keep you on the road you’re all right. It’s best to wait until the fog gets burned off, but sometimes it comes up on you and it’s safer to stay on the road than to pull off in an unsafe place and maybe get hit by some cowboy.
“Vampires” are an apt metaphor for those globo-controllers who are sucking the life and liberty out of humanity. Trucking companies can be viewed as enablers for those vampires because their fleets deliver the processed crap that huge factories pump out at a frenetic pace to satisfy our mindlessly self-indulgent and dumbed-down consumer society. The whole system is a chain of fools. It is built upon a deficient consciousness that serves to foster and preserve a materialist reality that is in bed with the fraud known as (subverted) Western culture. The truck drivers are just the poor bastards who do the work of hauling the freight from shipper to receiver. What the heck? – it’s a job, right? These much less powerful folk at the lower level of the food chain only do what they can to get by, whereas the culpability for vampirism is strongest at the top of that chain-of-fools. (In fact, those on the very bottom of the bottom (not truck drivers) can be viewed as “zombies,” another apt metaphor – the undead, searching aimlessly for the living so they can chomp on their brains (if, indeed, any of the truly living, with brains intact, are still around!)). But I digress...
My short experience as a truck driver has taught me a lot about the plight of the trucker. I now have an appreciation for what they do and what they go through in order to do what they do. It is not an easy job. It takes a big toll on your health and well-being. Being deprived of sun means being deprived of vitamin D. Many smoke and over-eat, out of stress and boredom I suppose. Just sitting causes health problems, never mind that the food available at truck stops clogs the arteries – from hot dogs on roller grills, fried food, pizza, and huge cups of soda pop, to energy drinks, chips and candy. Then factor in the lack of exercise and this completes the disease-inducing cycle brought on by gross obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure.
Truck stops, rest areas, service plazas and WalMarts are about the only places you can go, other than the bleak and foreboding distribution centers and warehouse yards where you must wait while picking up or delivering. This is your truck prison. These are no places to take a brisk walk. They are dirty, noisy, smelly places, not meant to accommodate strolling pedestrians. Unless you want to sit around a drivers’ lounge, where a TV is blasting the same old mind-control idiocy, you are confined to the four walls of your truck.
The “road” is a liberating concept and you do feel free as you roar down the interstates. But the paradox is that you are rolling along in a prison from which escape is not possible. If you take a break and go home, you better not stay very long. You still have a weekly lease payment of $565 and other fixed costs. If you are not careful your next paycheck or two can be negative or so miniscule as to be meaningless. The break-even point is somewhere between $1600-$1700. At 84¢/ mile you better try to get at least 2800 miles per week to get any kind of paycheck at all.
If you drive a reefer, as I did, the refrigeration unit is droning on in a machine hum almost continuously, competing with the noise from the APU generator. These sounds also emanate from other trucks around you and they do not exactly lull you to sleep. Ear plugs do not help. You “get used to it” of course, but it cannot be doing your mental state much good. In fact, it is not so easy to focus on much of anything after almost 11 hours of driving. The tendency is to eat something and then collapse into unconsciousness. Forget reading, writing, researching…
And so, for God’s sake – who in the world would take on a job such as this? Is all of the degeneration of the body and mind worth the romance of being “on the road again”? Maybe some are more disciplined than I am. Some may be like Steve McQueen in the film, Papillon, relentlessly doing push-ups and sit-ups in their trucks to stay in shape. I don’t see very many truckers doing exercises outside of their trucks or jogging around rest areas. It could be they are younger and more resilient for the time being; it could be they become used to the debilitations and accept them; or it could be that they really are clean livers and have devised strategies to remain that way. I honestly don’t know. It might be something akin to what the bluesman says, “This night life – it ain’t no good life – but it’s my life.”
I do love moving on down the road. Even if you are not moving your body, you are moving through space and time, and movement is life. When I first started on the road with my TransRam trainer in early May, I remember seeing the corn and soy just peeping up from the soil in long row-after-row of endless fields in the Midwest. By late June the fields were lush with corn stalks and the soy plants were busting out all over. (I try to forget that these are all GMO crops now.) Down South, the cotton stays on the plants in the field until early Fall, looking like a field of snow. And you are treated to overwhelming, immense fields of some kind of yellow-flowering crops early in the growing season as you putter along the interstate highways in Iowa and Nebraska.
So many cattle, and sometimes the noble bison, graze in the pastures and hills along the roads. There are also horses, sheep and goats, and even llamas to be seen. And there are deer too, herds of them sometimes. My eyes are always drawn to these creatures as I whiz past them. In early Spring there are lots of wild turkeys to see. Hawks favor fence posts and tree limbs and you can see them hunt the grass for their prey. Sometimes these magnificent birds can be seen just standing on the ground. Crows and buzzards are there too. Along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains I’ve seen wild, long-horn sheep grazing. In Florida there are cranes and pelicans aplenty, and I saw a feral pig once. Seeing live animals sure beats seeing dead ones – deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, porcupines, armadillos, dogs, cats. foxes, coyotes – the bigger it is, the more it resembles a horribly re-arranged version of itself; the smaller it is, the more it looks like just a red blob of ground-up goo.
I would even search out animals in the livestock trailers as they passed me by. These unfortunate, caged animals were more likely raised in factory farms, not on hillsides. One day I had to sit all day at a meat processing plant in Illinois, waiting for my load. I think I counted about 30, double-decker semis arrive stuffed with pigs. They’d go in and soon go out again, empty. Another time, I was at a rest area, half asleep. I heard a racket outside of my cab and wondered what it was. I got up and peeked through the curtains. There to my left was a truckload of cattle. They were packed in tightly and shifting around nervously, hoofs clanking on the metal flooring, while the driver took his sweet time doing God-knows-what. In the Spring the trucks are full of lambs going to slaughter. It is so sad to see – made sadder still knowing that they are likely laden with antibiotics and growth hormones and raised on GMO feed of some sort.
One morning I was looking for a mailbox to mail a letter home. Just before sun-up, I came across a WalMart on a state road in southeastern Oklahoma, just over the Arkansas border. (This area is where the Choctaw Nation is located.) Sometimes you can find a mailbox at a WalMart. So I parked and went in. I saw a WalMart employee, a slim, elderly gentleman with white hair and a weathered face. After inquiring about the whereabouts of a mailbox I asked if I could use the restroom. He walked me over and then pointed the rest of the way. When I came out I asked, “are you Choctaw?” and he said, “Yes, are you?” I said, “No. I belong to an ancient seafaring tribe known as the Phoenicians.” He looked puzzled and asked, “Where is their home?” And I replied, “In the eastern Mediterranean.” His face relaxed then and he seemed pleased. “So you’re Mediterranean.” “Yes,” I said. There was something about him, something spiritual in his eyes. They were clean, kind eyes and I felt that we connected in some special way.
I left the store and went back to my truck, started it up and continued down the road. As I proceeded, I thought about the old man and I had the strangest feeling, as though he “came into me” and was looking out the windshield through my eyes.
Before long the sun was up. Out of nowhere a snake wriggled really fast across my path in the road ahead. Then I came across a turtle crossing the road. Luckily it was in the space between the wheels and I didn’t run over it. Suddenly a bird flew into my trailer. It hit hard and fell to the ground. A little further on, a small dog darted across the road, but it was just far enough ahead that it was safe. Encountering these many animals in succession was eerie and added to the strangeness I already felt about my interlude with the WalMart Indian worker...prior to this I had never come this close to animals on the road.
Just after Christmas I was at Kenworth in Olathe, KS for some maintenance on my truck. While there, I fell into conversation with another truck driver. He had long black hair that hung to his shoulders and, like the old Indian, he gave off a similar vibe. Sure enough, after some small talk I found out he was half Comanche (and half Italian!). I related the above story about the Choctaw Indian in the WalMart and the aftermath. This guy understood something about it immediately, although he was not that forthcoming about what he was thinking. Anyway, from there on there was no subject too far afield and we had a very satisfying “meeting of the minds” – a pow-wow, you might say. When we parted I felt as if I had known him like an old friend. We traded phone numbers, though we have not spoken since…Funny, I thought later, he was half Mediterranean. Whatever.
There is artwork out on the road, too. On I-70 near Exit 99 in Nevada there is a small tree in the median strip decorated with shoes, tied together and hanging by their shoestrings. Lots of people seem attached to their old vehicles. Vintage ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s cars and trucks can be seen, left as “display pieces” in fields or on lawns along the interstates. Especially down in Mississippi it seems that almost every yard has an old vehicle – vehicles that look like old friends. Even billboards can be “artsy.” There’s one advertising “foot-high pies.” – or billboards might be kind of weird, like the one near Wentzville, MO – “Got a bra problem? Ann’s Bra Shop.” Just west of Chicago, I-80 traverses a HUGE stone quarry pit. In the 30 seconds or so it takes to pass over it you get a sense of weightlessness; you wonder as you observe the roads down there, cut along its steep sides, and the Tinker Toy-sized trucks that navigate them. I’d call this "installation land art," done up to the max.
TransRam induces you to stay with your contract by promising you a bonus of 3¢ per mile for all the miles you’ve driven during your contract – but you can’t collect your bonus until and unless you finish the contract period. I could have signed up for a six-month contract, but I wanted to drive in all seasons and get one full year under my belt. I will have driven about 140,000 miles by the time I turn in my truck next week. That should be a nice little booby-prize-of-a-bonus. You also get the balance of three accounts that they keep for you, not the least of which is the maintenance account. If they don’t deduct anything to fix something that you haven’t already paid for, you’ll leave with even more scratch. It’s nothing but a numbers game.
Trucking is one of the top ten most dangerous occupations in the country. With this year’s decrease in fuel prices (brought about in order to punish Russia) I hear trucking companies have bought more trucks and are looking for more drivers than ever before. Try it, you may like it. You’ll suffer, but in the end you’ll be one, solid brother-trucker.