Wednesday, August 20, 2014


It was late April, 2014. I stood on the cusp of my truck driving career, bags in hand, google-eyed. And, with a wooosh, the Kansas City Airport doors opened to the outside world and the great American Midwest came at me like a bum’s rush.  Invisible curtains parted, imaginary gates lifted.  With my first step I was enveloped into that wide, flat openness of big-domed sky. A prairie wind tugged and yanked me in.  I was here, ready to get going with my company training. 

I had taken a job as a driver with TransRam, a large, over-the-road trucking company.  Later I would find out that they were the biggest hauler of meat – beef and pork – in the country.  So I would be driving “reefers,” refrigerated trailers. 

Company training consisted of filling out forms, getting piss-tested, plodding through their driver manual, and making a fair showing of driving and back-up skills. (I was still suffering from a major inferiority complex concerning my backing abilities.  I dreaded doing the back-up exercises – and it showed.  Still, they waved me in.) 

Following this, there were 10 days of one-on-one, over-the-road training with an experienced driver.  Yes, we were to bunk with a total stranger in the truck’s double deck sleeping berth and hope everything would go swimmingly.  For me, it went fine; for others, it was not so good. Of course we had already been assigned roommates (other trainees) while staying at the hotel during the initial 10-day training, so we were getting used to this sort of thing.  

In my case, I was assigned to a Brit with a Liverpool (actually, Manchester) accent  who had over 20 years of experience driving “lorries.”  Besides being a seasoned vet, Larry was a good man and a fine instructor.  He showed me how to read various features on the GPS; how to send in my messages to the company; how to make sure I enter the proper status on the electronic “Treq” system, depending on what I was doing (driving, not driving, fueling, sleeping).  I learned to preserve as much driving time as I could by going into “Off” status as soon as the truck came to a stop.  He taught me that you can stay in “Off” status as long as you don’t exceed 15 mph.  This is helpful when you get to your destination and are only puttering around to the staging area or dock of a freight yard – or around a truck stop. Before each day’s driving, you need to do a “Pre-trip” (essentially an electronic ‘trance-dance’). And at the end of a day’s driving you must do a “Post-trip,” another ‘dance electronique’ (but this one has to last 10 minutes). Theoretically, in both instances you do a visual inspection of all the systems of your entire truck. But in practice, unless the gauges indicate something’s amiss, it’s a pro forma exercise.

Though he did not have to, Larry paid for all of my meals.  He, in turn, got credit for all of the miles I drove. (The company paid me $50 per day during training.)  It was essentially team driving, with him getting little sleep as he monitored my driving and parking.  I must say, Larry was a hardy and resilient fellow.  He taught me to ‘aim high in steering,’ to always be aware of where the trailer is by checking the mirrors, particularly on turns and exit ramps.  He taught me how to approach a long-standing green light – i.e., moderate my speed and keep my foot just over the brake pedal in the event the light suddenly turned. 

To fuel up, we stopped at the mainstream truck stops: TA, Flying J, Pilot, Love’s and Sapp Bros. The company gives you a fuel card and you swipe this along with your loyalty card for the particular truck stop.  You enter what you want to purchase – tractor fuel only, reefer fuel only, or both, and possibly, DEF (‘diesel exhaust fluid,’ which controls emissions and has to be filled about every third fill-up). Next, you enter your tractor number, trailer number and trip number.  Then, making sure to wear some heavy duty gloves, you fill the tanks on either side of your tractor. (There’s another pump on the other side that is activated by the main pump.)  While fueling you normally pick up a long-handled squeegee that sits nearby in a 5-gallon bucket of soapy water and clean your windshield.  After you top off your tanks and screw the caps back on, you pull out another hose to fill your DEF tank, if you need that.  The pump remains on for a few minutes, ready for you to fill your reefer.  If you need reefer fuel, you replace the diesel nozzle, pull the truck up about ten feet, and then get back out and fill the reefer tank with that same diesel nozzle.  The convention is that once you are done, you can pull your truck up to a line painted on the ground and park it here temporarily. There is enough room for the next trucker to get to the pump, while you run in quickly to use the restroom, fax in your paperwork, grab a snack or whatever. 

Each time you fuel up, you accumulate shower credits and points on your loyalty card.  Showers usually cost about $13.  But you invariably have shower credits, so your showers are free. (Points can be redeemed for food or other merchandise.)  The shower system is pretty ingenious.  You get a ticket with a number.  Usually right away the number holder is directed to a designated shower.  This is a private room with a sink and toilet.  You are provided with a fresh, clean towel, wash cloth and bath mat.  There is even a soap dispenser if you have no soap.  These truck stops have personnel who go right in afterwards, clean up the shower room and prepare it for the next patron.  Yes, this bit of well-oiled efficiency really epitomizes the great American trucking system. 

Truck stop food is another matter.  Suffice it to say, “it varies,” within the fairly strict, generally unhealthy parameters of typical American ‘food.’  It may be worth mentioning that Love’s often has large, fresh fruit cups of cold pineapple, watermelon, grapes, etc., sitting out on ice, $2.99 each or two for $5.  To economize and eat more healthfully, I try to bring as much food as I can with me and prepare it myself.  But one might occasionally get seduced by a Wendy’s ‘Baconator,’ a Burger King shake, or a bag of Lay’s Kettle chips.  But I digress… 

Larry showed me the finer points of hooking to a trailer.  That flat, saddle-looking thing on the back of the tractor is called “the fifth wheel.”  When hooking, you want to make sure your tractor is lined up straight to the trailer. You want to check to see that the landing gear isn’t sunk into the dirt or whatever, so that your trailer is at the right height to allow the tractor to get under it.  (Also, the wheel and the locking mechanism have to be sufficiently greased.) You want to back up with just enough force to cause the kingpin on the trailer to engage the slot in the fifth wheel so that the locking jaws will wrap securely around the kingpin shank. To verify that you are hooked, get out and look at the latch handle, located on the side of the fifth wheel; if it’s not still sticking out, then it is in the closed and locked position – and if there is no daylight between the fifth wheel and the trailer plate – you are hooked.  Of course you can always climb under the trailer and take a look, just to make sure. 

Next, you attach your electrical line and both brake lines.  Then you raise your landing gear by turning the crank counter-clockwise (or as Larry would say, “ante-up” <= i.e., ‘anti-clockwise,’ a clever pneumonic device to remember which way is up) and secure the crank.  Once hooked, turn on your lights and flashers.  Make sure the trailer lights are all working.  Inspect the tires, trailer door latches, mud flaps, etc., then send in your trailer form message and you are good to go. 

When hooking, the biggest thing that can go wrong is if the kingpin misses the fifth wheel slot and slides up over and ends up in front of the fifth wheel.  If this happens, you need to crank the trailer up as high as you can, then you take one of your load locks and use it as a lever to pry up and hold the fifth wheel, while you then move the tractor forward and get that kingpin back behind the fifth wheel – a royal pain, to say the least.  (A load lock is an adjustable “pole” that goes from wall to the wall inside the trailer to keep the freight from shifting.)

To unhook from a trailer, put both air brakes on, unhook your lines, use your grab-bar hook to pull open the latch handle on the side of the fifth wheel, then lower your landing gear by cranking it clockwise.  Stop cranking just before the landing gear feet touch the ground and secure the crank.  Now you are ready to unhook from the trailer.  Just get in and drive forward.  The trailer will drop a bit and off you go (bob-tailing but remembering to stay below 15 mph). 

Larry also touched upon the fine art of adjusting the tandem axles.  When loading or unloading you are often asked to put the tandems all the way back.  When loaded, you’ll need to adjust the tandems so that there is no more than 34,000 lbs. on either the front or rear axles.  To do this, you put both air brakes on, then get out and push in a button located on the tandem frame.  The air pressure will cause two big, steel pins to recess.  Then you go back to the cab and release only the tractor brake.  Going in reverse will cause the tandems to slide forward; going forward will move the tandems toward the rear.  There are holes along this sliding tandem platform.  There is usually one hole marked with paint around its circumference.  This is referred to as “the meat hole” (or as Larry the Brit would say, “the love hole” – in any event it’s not a “bung hole”). In general, this is the hole into which you’ll want the forward pin to lock.  You get that pin as near to the meat hole as possible and then pull the button back out.  The air pressure will push the pins back out.  You then return to the truck and release only the tractor brake and go forward or reverse, as the case may be.  The steel pins will automatically go into the nearest holes.  Each hole will shift about 250 lbs. of weight, forward or back.  Usually you’ll want to be in the meat hole, or in a hole or two in front or behind the meat hole.  The art of knowing, with a fair degree of certainty, which hole it is likely to be, is based upon experience; a function of the total weight and how far forward the freight is loaded on the trailer.  It can be trial and error, having to weigh and perhaps re-weigh at a certified Cat Scale, until you get the tandems just right. 

Most truck stops have a Cat Scale.  As Larry showed me, you weigh out by getting the truck onto the scale, then pressing the intercom button.  You say “first weigh” and give your truck number (or “re-weigh” and the special code on your ticket, as the case may be), then go inside and give them your company name and trailer number.  They present you with a signed, certified weigh ticket.  It usually costs $10 for a first weigh and $2 for a re-weigh.  At TransRam, if you are a lease driver you must pay for all weigh-outs. 

In sum, Larry took very good care of me.  I felt that I learned a lot (even from just observing his own driving habits) and we had some laughs.  One night we managed to park at the nation’s only downtown truck stop, located in Nashville, TN.  Only a short walk over a bridge from the truck stop and you find yourself in the bustling downtown Nashville bar scene.  In fact, as luck would have it, this was the night of my 60th birthday, so Larry treated me to a steak dinner.  I was tempted to let my hair down and have a few beers, but I stuck to my ‘sobriety-of-the-road rule’.  Larry was partial to Michelob Light. 

The day soon came when I was given the key to my very own (leased) truck: an electric blue, 2014 Kenworth T-680.  It had 20,000 miles on it when I got it.  Overall it was sweet. It had an automatic transmission and a state-of-the-art engine and in-cab technology.  It was outfitted with an APU that ran on diesel from the fuel tanks (a generator that keeps the cab cool in the summer and warm in the winter).  All I really knew was that it was new and everything worked.  But, as they mentioned in one of the last training sessions, when you are finally alone in the driver’s seat you are overcome with a sense of sheer terror, knowing that it is only you (in this case a rookie who is not-so-good at backing up) controlling this 65-foot long, 13’ 4” high, near 80,000 pound (when fully loaded) behemoth. 

Over the first three weeks I had lessons to learn. These lessons mostly revolved around one thing: maximizing driving time.  To do this, proposed trips that are sent for you to accept or reject have to be scrutinized very carefully.  By this I mean – you first consider how long will it take to get from point A to point B and how that jives with the load and unload appointment times?  A TransRam driver gets no pay for waiting at each end of a trip, unless it’s for more than 24 hours (a mere $115). That can really eat up a driver’s paycheck. 

Your calculations must be tempered by knowing how much driving time is available to you.  Yes, you can drive up to 11 hours per day (or 14 hours of driving + non-driving time, whichever comes first) – but you can only drive up to 70 hours in a given 7-day period.  On first blush, simple math tells you that you can really drive only 10 hours per day. But this is not necessarily so, either; after your seventh day your hours get re-set as you are credited for the hours you drove on the last day of your previous week. Thus it is that in this way you squeeze out more driving time and need not wait a day or so to let your clock re-set.  I’m still trying to figure this one out.  The bottom line is, on most days you shouldn’t drive more than 8 or 9 hours and don’t accept trips with obvious down time, where you are waiting and waiting. A driver only makes money when moving. The number of miles driven + time management = $$. 

Over my first three-week period I had to wait 30 hours at one place, 29 hours at another – even waiting 5 or 6 hours to load or unload can easily mess up your driving time and drastically decrease your pay for the week.  Granted, the company will pay you $115 if you have to wait more than 24 hours, and this mitigates the loss somewhat. But a driver could be making a whole lot more money by not having to hurry-up-and-wait like that. 

Regardless, as a lease driver you always have your fixed costs: the lease payment, three different insurance payments and a host of smaller deductions, all of which add up to quite a chunk of change.  You have to drive close to 3,000 miles per week to earn around $1,000 per week.  And this is being in the truck 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.  If you value solitude, it’s an OK life.  If you read and research and write, as I do, it can be tolerably enjoyable too.  After all, it’s as if you have an office-on-wheels and nobody to hassle you (except of course the company, from time-to-time ). 

If you run down your 70-hours-per-week clock, you can also find yourself sleeping a lot more than your mandatory 10 hours in the sleeping berth within any 24-hour period. The 70-hour clock gives you back your pick-up hours at midnight. I found that out the hard way, my clock re-setting at midnight three days in a row, giving me only 6 hours of driving time per day. Imagine that!  You can drive for six hours, a bit over 300 miles, and then you need to shut down, and then sleep for well over 10 hours, while you wait for the midnight hour to pass. That’s a colossal waste of time and a big loss of money.  Believe me, it really sucks. 

So what’s it actually like, driving a tractor-trailer? 

Well, it’s not like driving a car.  You can’t just go anywhere. When fully loaded you weigh almost 40 tons.  The thing is so big, you have to think twice about how and where you can turn.  All turns have to be WIDE so the trailer has enough space to clear whatever you are turning around.  The right is your blind side.  When turning you have to use your mirrors to see where your trailer is. 

On my very first night on the road I turned off the Ohio interstate to get some fuel at an oddball-type truck stop.  When I missed the truck entrance, I attempted to turn around by turning left on a street I should never have turned onto, then another left down a street with a “No Trucks” sign.  I didn’t see it; visibility was not so good; it was 3:00 AM, raining, and I was nervous as hell.  To my horror I found that it was impossible to make my third left turn and I suppose I woke up the whole neighborhood trying.  Soon a state trooper was on the scene.  He guided me as I backed up for about two blocks down a narrow, residential street.  Then he gave me a ticket for going down the wrong street. (My Legal Shield attorney was able to get the citation reduced to an equipment violation. This carried no points, but the fine and court costs were $85. Oh, and the attorney cost me $300 because I had procrastinated about joining Legal Shield until I actually needed some legal representation.) 

It doesn’t take much of an impact for that weight to crush or scrape whatever is around you – and you sure don’t want any dents and scrapes on the tractor or the trailer.  So, it’s stressful, especially on narrow, residential-type streets and in tight spaces.  And don’t forget to consider what’s above you.  If it’s lower than 13’4” you’ll hit it, whether it’s a bridge, tree branches, low-hanging wires – or, as in my case, glass light covers in an overhead canopy as I was trying to navigate out of an auto fueling area.  These rigs need lots of space, to the left and the right and above to maneuver.  Breaking those two, 12”x12” glass covers cost me my entire deductible of $500; the total casualty was estimated to be $1,000, despite the fact that these glass covers probably cost no more than about $10 apiece.  My company took $100 per week out of five successive paychecks. I wrote them a letter, saying I was paying under protest, and copied the Pilot fueling station. I asked for the basis upon which the estimate was calculated and for copies of the invoices for the actual repair. Neither TransRam nor Pilot ever responded. 

Because you are sitting up high in an air-cushioned seat, traveling long distances over long periods of time is easier than it is in a car.  You are king of the road around you.  But you better be vigilant about watching the road ahead – way down the road ahead – so you’ll know what’s coming and you’ll know where you need to be when you are supposed to be there.  And you better check your mirrors and signal when it’s safe to change lanes.  Missing a turn, especially after getting off the interstate system, can be extremely vexing; you don’t know what is ahead of you and you need to turn around – you may have to drive for miles and miles before you find a spot where you can safely do that, all the while being on the lookout for signs indicating “no trucks” or “caution: low clearance.”  Unless you are on the interstate, at a truck stop, rest area or freight yard, you are an alien truck in a car world. 

During my first six weeks, everything that I was warned about in CDL school seemed to happen to me: I drove almost an hour beyond my legal driving time after getting caught in the Atlanta rush hour traffic with no truck stop or rest area in sight for miles; at a weigh station one of my axles was 1,000 lbs. overweight (an oversight with extenuating circumstances) and this caused a full-blown inspection (I passed) and, thankfully, only a warning ticket that had to be forwarded to the company; I dropped a trailer pulling out of a dock at a freight yard (luckily it landed on my tires and I was able to extricate myself out of this embarrassment relatively quickly; when attempting to hook onto a trailer, the kingpin ended up behind the fifth wheel – twice.  There were a few other close calls, but nothing too traumatic (only close enough to put my heart in my throat). 

So, is it fun to drive an eighteen-wheeler?  Fun is hardly the word for it.  It’s a tough life.  It takes its toll on the bodies (and I imagine, the minds) of truckers.  Most just don’t look right.  Many have grossly distended bellies and seem to walk a little funny.  Surely, not being in the sun, eating poorly nutritious food, and getting little, if any, exercise takes its toll.  Sometimes I feel a camaraderie with other truckers and at other times they seem like a bunch of ill-mannered hyenas, even some of the guys from my own company.  Still, from time-to-time I meet a kindred soul out here on the road, like the mechanic-turned-truck-driver with the Filipina wife back at home who took the time to give me some pointers on greasing up my fifth wheel and checking the air in my tires and polishing up the chrome.  And we shared some food and hung out together waiting for the shipper to send us on our way.  Or the drivers who have volunteered to guide me into docking doors who can see that I am struggling to back-in my rig.  Or the occasional kind and well-tempered fellow in a freight yard willing to engage in a friendly chat. Interludes like these make trucking worthwhile. 

So far I’ve been to a lot of places across the country, from the little hamlet in New Hampshire where Stonyfield Farms yogurt comes from, to out in Cheyenne, Wyoming and down in the old cowboy town of Dodge City, Kansas and the high plains around there.  Throughout Oklahoma I drive through lots of Indian nations. I’ve driven the back roads of Mississippi and Alabama and gotten the frenetic stress of runs to New Jersey and New York.  Mostly, as I plod along, I’m getting a feel for the topography of the country and the different flora native to places like Nebraska, or Michigan, or upstate New York, the flat Florida Everglades, the hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  I see dead deer and all manner of mangled little critters along the roadsides.  Down south this includes armadillos.  

I’m in my fourth month of over-the-road trucking.  And I guess I’m a pretty good trucker because I haven’t been late yet, picking up or delivering; I haven’t gotten another moving violation; in fact, I’ve been rated as a Top Performer in safety by my company every week for the past two months.  I’m still not much good at backing up, but doggone it – I’M GETTING BETTER!


Martha Witte Suss said...

Wow Jack! Very impressive and detailed account of your experiences so far. I am going to send this to Rosie. Captain Rose would be impressed also, because it a sense it appears that you have a lot in common. Your job demands a lot. Take care and blow a kiss to Olivia when you are passing through Alabama!

Anonymous said...

Reefer madness!

Anonymous said...

Rose Witte says.....

Yikes! So truck driving blues is a real thing. I like your descriptions. I hope you never miss another exit, dont eat any more baco burgers and stay out of the tight spots! I look forward to hearing more about the characters you meet on this odyssey.