Orientation, Merlin, and a Plumbing Misfortune: Part 4

Before this, I had never traveled out west, and I was enjoying the majesty of Big Sky country. The sunsets out here looked as if they had been painted directly from the hand of God. As we traveled along I-80, the vast open spaces of Wyoming would be suddenly interrupted by a series of multi-colored buttes. Bearing witness to this kind of breathtaking beauty made me feel that I had finally discovered what trucking was supposed to be like. I didn’t know it at the time, but this feeling would plant the seeds for a future decision. I had also never seen a tumbleweed blow across the interstate, but I not only saw one, I succeeded in getting a piece of it lodged in the grill.

            We made our delivery to Green River and then got a load that we T-called (split) in Ottawa, Illinois. From there, we got a load going to Kansas City. This meant that we would be going to Merlin’s house in Cross Timbers, Missouri for a 34-hour restart.

            Cross Timbers is a tiny rural town in Hickory County, Missouri that boasts a population of 185, but it does have its own Post Office. Merlin joked that the only thing you can buy in Cross Timbers is a stamp. After seeing Cross Timbers, I saw that he wasn’t far from being right.

            I met Merlin’s family, his wife, Rita, his two daughters, Amy and Melissa, and his son, Ronny. His other son was away serving in the Air Force. All of his children were young adults, so everyone spent the first night playing poker and consuming various beverages. It was my first time playing Texas Hold ‘em, but I wasn’t fortunate enough to have beginner’s luck—I was the first one busted.

            The next morning, I got up and walked to the town square where the Cross Timbers auction was being held. A fast-talking auctioneer was attempting to sell what looked like a horde of junk to me so; it didn’t take long for my interest to wane. Merlin had wanted to be home for the auction to bid on a piece of land to park his truck on. I returned to Merlin’s house and left him to his business.

            When I returned, I encountered an unfortunate situation, and I’m certain that it gave Amy, Melissa, and Rita something to laugh at and to remember me by. I exited the restroom and coyly entered the living room where the three ladies were sitting. I turned to Rita and said, “There are certain questions that one hates to ask when they are a guest in someone else’s house, but I find myself in a position where I am forced to ask one of them. And that question is: ‘Do you have a plunger?’”

Orientation, Merlin, and a Plumbing Misfortune: Part 3

From Montana, we would be delivering small arms ammunition to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Although this is a French name meaning “Prairie of the Dog”, Merlin referred to it as “Prairie Chicken”. I drove through Montana, across South Dakota, and into Minnesota before I ran out of hours.

            On the first night I had driven, my gear shifting had been pretty good. On the second night, it was almost as if I had forgotten how. I was grinding gears like a little old lady in a Dodge Dart, and often missing them on the first attempt. This trend would continue through the third day until I finally started showing some signs of improvement on the fourth day.

            From Wisconsin, we got a load of sporting goods going to North Platte, Nebraska. North Platte is home to Bailey Yard, the world’s largest rail yard. During the 1930’s, high crime rates and corruption caused North Platte to be infamously known as “Little Chicago”. Mobster Henry Hill once worked as a cook in North Platte. I feared that Merlin might have the desire to “whack” me after I made my first attempt to back into a dock in this truck. I finally got the job done but suffice it to say—it wasn’t pretty.

            When Merlin coached me during a maneuver, he often tended to get a bit overzealous—sometimes to the point where I perceived it as yelling. I had already politely asked him not to yell at me, and he explained that he did not mean to be yelling; he just had a high-strung personality. I knew this to be true, so I took him at his word. After that, he seemed to be making an attempt to tone down his passion and I, in turn, made an attempt to overlook it when it spilled out.

            At this point, it may seem that Merlin and I struggled to get along, but regardless of the minor disagreements we’d had, I found him to be a very congenial person. He had a terrific sense of humor, and he provided a constant source of entertainment. During our time together, we would essentially share one another’s life stories, and I would come to respect Merlin and think of him as a friend. We discussed everything from fishing and poker, to Shakespeare and Kierkegaard. While Merlin did not have an academic background , he had the inquisitive mind of a philosopher, and he never seemed to tire of discussing it. It gave him infinite delight when he felt that he had “bested” me on a philosophical point.

            After North Platte, to my delight, we got a load going to Athens, Georgia. I would have the opportunity to stop by my house to check on Kitty, and to pick up my permanent driver’s license. It had been necessary to have a Hazmat endorsement added to my license before going to work for this company, and I was currently driving with a temporary license on which the expiration date was rapidly approaching. Unfortunately, the Georgia run was not to be.

            Merlin found out that Mona had fallen ill on the road and had been taken home for medical tests. He called Calvin and offered to swap loads so that Calvin could be at home with his wife. So, we swapped loads at a truck stop and now, we were headed to Green River, Wyoming. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to stop at home, but I could not fault Merlin for being a good friend to Calvin.

Orientation, Merlin, and a Plumbing Misfortune: Part 2

I shook Bill’s hand and thanked him, and then returned to the terminal to wait, fill out additional paperwork, wait some more… wait even more, and finally, go to the doctor for my physical.

The next two days would be comprised of the standard orientation rhetoric—some of it useful, some of it sleep-inducing. The dark-haired girl, whom I’d gotten to know on the shuttle ride, sat at the table behind me throughout orientation and had a habit of constantly crunching ice cubes. Regardless of this annoying routine, I got to know her during the breaks, and she turned out to be one of the nicest people I would meet there. Her name was Mona, and once she found out who my trainer was going to be, we had a lot to talk about.

My new trainer was a good friend to Mona, and to her husband, Calvin. Calvin was also a trainer, and he would be training his wife after orientation. On the final day of orientation, Calvin and my new trainer, Merlin arrived. The four of us all went out to dinner together.

At first glance, Merlin looked as if he might have jumped right out of the pages of Easy Rider magazine. He was 47, and of average height. His shaved head was adorned with a biker’s beanie, and a graying Fu Manchu moustache framed a frequent smile. A cherry-flavored Swisher Sweet could often be seen bouncing in his lips, as he was never at a loss for chatter. On the day we met, he was wearing a black sleeveless tee shirt and a faded pair of jeans, which held the dangling chain of a biker’s wallet. As truckers go, Merlin looked to be in pretty good physical condition. He had avoided falling victim to “trucker’s physique”. His gregarious and playful personality made it impossible not to like him on first impression. Since I also fashioned myself with a shaved head, this evoked immediate joking from Calvin and Mona.

“You guys are going to look like the Cue Ball Brothers going down the road!” they laughed.

Our first delivery would be to Helena, Montana, but Merlin’s truck required some repairs that would not be completed for 24 hours. In order to make Helena on time, we would have to drive as a team rather than trainer/trainee. This is not a practice that I, personally, endorse but, since I had a whopping 5 months of experience under my belt, at least I had more confidence than I would have as a wide-eyed rookie fresh out of CDL school. We slept in the truck that night and I was glad that I had savored my final night in the motel. Although the Freightliner was much roomier than my old Mack, it still didn’t compare to a real bed.

Merlin and I ate breakfast in the cafeteria the next morning where we watched the rain pelt down in violent torrents. He asked if I would prefer the day or night shift, and I opted for the night shift since I had no desire to familiarize myself with a new truck in the midst of a mad rainstorm. I did not know whether I’d be able to sleep in a moving truck, but I discovered that fatigue, in the proper amount, could inspire me to sleep anywhere. We drove through Nebraska and Wyoming and made it to Helena on time.

Helena was originally called “Crabtown” after John Crab, one of the “Four Georgians” who discovered gold along Last Chance Creek. Helena’s main street is named Last Chance Gulch, and follows the path of the original creek through the historic downtown district.

I was exhausted when we arrived at the customer; so, Merlin took mercy on me and did all of the backing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Merlin would continue to run us as a team. By week’s end, we had logged over 7000 miles. Merlin became excited and challenged me to “break the record” next week. I told him that I would probably be more enthusiastic about all this mileage if I weren’t doing it for trainee’s pay while I was making him rich. After that, he frequently offered to buy my dinner.

In fairness, however, Merlin had been spending a lot of time up front with me while I was driving. He seemed to require little sleep, and he would always remain up front for 3 or 4 hours after his shift to offer training and to “shoot the breeze”. Merlin had been on the road for 25 years, and I was confident that he could help me to polish the skills that I had, and learn the ones that I didn’t.

Orientation, Merlin, and a Plumbing Misfortune: Part 1

Ringo gave me a ride to the Huntsville airport on Saturday to pick up my rental car. He may have been a little disappointed that I had quit, but he was being very supportive. One of his sons would be feeding Kitty while I was gone, and Ringo would check in on her on the weekends. I hated to leave the little critter alone, but I couldn’t bring her with me, and it would have cost a fortune to board her for an unspecified amount of time. I did not know how long it would be before I got back home. After orientation, I would be immediately going on the road with my trainer.

I thanked Ringo, picked up my rental car, and I was on my way. I stopped for fuel somewhere in Illinois and discovered that my credit card had reached its maximum limit. I would have to rely on my dwindling cash from here on out. I spent the night in an unsightly motel in a small Missouri town about 80 miles east of Kansas City, even though I had been tempted to sleep in the car to save money. Despite my worries, I slept well, and headed out early on Sunday morning.

I arrived at the Day’s Inn in Lincoln, where I would be staying for the duration of orientation, and was greeted by a friendly desk clerk named Chelsea. Before I arrived in Lincoln, I’m certain that I had never seen such an abundant landscape of cornfields. It was obvious why Nebraska was nicknamed, “The Cornhusker State”.

After getting settled into my room, I returned the rental car to the airport and, since it was only a mile from the motel, I decided to walk back. The walk would have been enjoyable if it hadn’t been so darned windy. There were still remnants of snow splotched about from a storm that had passed through last week. As I observed the aftermath of the storm melting away, I hoped that it would serve as a symbolic representation for what lay ahead of me.

The shuttle bus arrived at 6:30am on Monday to take all of the new Crete employees to the terminal for physicals. At least 20 people crammed into the small shuttle, and I thought that it might be appropriate to add a little mustard—we were packed in like sardines. A petite, dark-haired girl was practically sitting in my lap.

When we arrived at the Lincoln terminal, it was not what I had been expecting. It was an absolute palace compared to any of my former company’s terminals. The huge three-story building was kept impeccably clean, and the maze of corridors seemed to invite the newcomer to become disoriented and lost. The building contained a large cafeteria, and even a gym. I was taken aback at the contrast between this, and the small, dusty terminals to which I had grown accustomed.

My first moment of horror came when I discovered that we would have to take our road test before orientation, and before going out with our trainer. The Century Class S/T Freightliner had a 10-speed manual transmission, and I had been driving an automatic before. I had not driven a shifter since riding with Ringo, and I had expected the road test to happen after getting some practice with my trainer. I was already sprouting nervous beads of sweat.

The man who would administer my road test was an old fellow named Bill. Bill was 79 years old, and still did a dedicated run from Lincoln to Canada and back every week. Bill’s calm and friendly manner set me at ease immediately.

“If you don’t wreck it, you pass!” he croaked.

My road test went surprisingly well. The Meritor gear-shifter in the Freightliner operated more smoothly than the one I had worked with in Ringo’s truck. I even managed to back into a small hole when we returned to the terminal yard. The first thing I noticed was that the closely positioned dual axles on the dry van trailer caused it to react more quickly than the split axles on the flatbed trailers. This was going to take some getting used to.

Greener Pastures

After I quit on Monday, I did nothing for the rest of the week except sit around the house and gain about 10 pounds. My money was starting to run dangerously low, so I knew that I’d better get on the fast track to becoming gainfully employed again.

I went online and put in a single application to multiple companies on a trucking website. Within 15 minutes of submitting the application, my phone rang. Over the next week, I would be bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from no less than two-dozen trucking companies. Despite my limited experience, I was beginning to believe that my worries might have been unwarranted. Not only did it appear that getting another job wouldn’t be much of a problem, I’d even get to pick and choose a little. This was showing me that the demand for truck drivers is real. I would learn that if a driver gets a little experience under his belt and, most importantly, keeps a clean record, the ability to locate employment would be the least of his worries.

I researched some of the companies that had contacted me and narrowed it down to four. I had intended to stay with flatbed, but the flatbed company that I was most interested in could not give me a specific date on which a trainer would be available. Since I had less than 6 months experience, they would require me to spend 2 weeks with a trainer. However, my financial situation was becoming dire, and I didn’t have time for the uncertainty of a waiting list. Upon further research, I discovered that the other flatbed company on my short list had a poor reputation among many drivers, so now, there were two companies remaining on my list.

I spoke with representatives from both companies and ultimately decided on a company based in Lincoln, Nebraska. I would be switching from flatbed to dry van, so my new company would require me to spend 6 weeks with a trainer. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of riding with a stranger for 6 weeks again, but I was excited to be going back to work. This was a large company, but they had a good reputation in most trucking forums, and even a rival company had conceded that they had a good reputation. I had no illusion that any trucking company would be a walk in the park, but I felt that I had made the right choice… I certainly hoped so.

I encountered a few potholes during the application process, but everything was finally ironed out, and I was scheduled for orientation class. The company would supply me with a rental car on the following Saturday to drive to Lincoln for orientation. I had expected to go to their Marietta, Georgia terminal for orientation, but going to Lincoln was fine with me. I had never been to Nebraska, so this would be a new adventure. Unlike my experience at my former company, I would have the rental car all to myself, and I would not have to share my motel room with a stranger. So far, I already liked this company better.

I had signed on for a southeast regional Coca Cola/Minute Maid fleet, but I would be running nationally while I was with my trainer. I was about to be on the road again.

Week 13: Take this job and…

 – One of these days I’m gonna blow my top and that sucker, he’s gonna pay. I can’t wait to see their faces when I get the nerve to say…  

– Johnny Paycheck

As I had planned, I had a serious conversation with Mr. Jack Daniels when I got home on Saturday. I was confused and depressed, and I questioned whether I was cut out for a trucking life. At this company, I felt like little more than a mooing piece of cattle. I had already cleaned out my truck when I’d gotten back to Bridgeport, so I think that I had already unconsciously made my decision. Be that as it may, I spent the weekend thinking that, perhaps, I’d just accept getting screwed out of my check and tough it out awhile longer. I had only been with this company for about 5 months, and I didn’t know how difficult it would be to find another job.

On Sunday, I decided not to invite Mr. Daniels over again because it felt like he’d hit me in the head with a sledgehammer the previous night. I spent the day pondering my options, and nursing my hangover. When I went to bed on Sunday night, I was still unsure as to what I would do when I went in to talk to my terminal manager on Monday.

When the alarm rang on Monday morning, my decision became crystal clear as soon as I got out of bed. There was no question in my mind that I had absolutely no desire to drive this week. My mind was made up.

I went to the terminal and quit. It was not an ugly scene; I even shook hands with my terminal manager as I left, and he said that he would give me a good reference. I had already learned a hard lesson in regard to “burning bridges” in my former career. Also, a trucking company can make it difficult to find new employment if they are so inclined. A vindictive terminal manager might put misleading or false information on a driver’s DAC report. A DAC report is somewhat like a credit report for truckers. Like a credit report, few drivers ever send in for a copy of it, and the employer does not provide one. It is necessary to jump through some hoops to get a copy of the DAC report but, like a savvy consumer, the savvy trucker will always know what is on his DAC report.

I was glad that my parting had been painless and friendly, but now, my future was uncertain again. As I drove back to Scottsboro from Bridgeport, my mind reflected on the positive aspects of trucking. I actually liked the smell of diesel as I walked into a truck stop after shutting down for the evening. The rumble of the powerful engines served as an odd lullaby for me. I often enjoyed sitting at the end of a long day and drinking in the aroma of the night, and watching the traffic pass by as it left only time in its wake. It was relaxing and cathartic to watch the nocturnal activity as the cool wind caressed my face. In rare times like those, no matter where I was, I had felt as if there was no place else I’d rather be, or nothing else I’d rather be doing. Like a “runner’s high”, this was a type of “trucker’s high”. The occurrence of it is rare but, when it happens, you just sort of feel at one with the universe. I realized that I already missed the crazy life that I had left behind only moments ago.

The stark reality of uncertainty interrupted my reminiscence, and the insecurity of being unemployed cast its shadow over me.

Detour: A View from the Cab: Part 3

The trucking industry sheds a bright spotlight on the fact that there are often ethical conflicts between making money, and doing the right thing. A description on a trucker’s website paints the trucking industry as: “…basically a slave industry with truckers working on the average of over 70 hours per week, many of [whom] are not paid while sitting in shipper’s parking lots for, sometimes, 8 hours or more (a whole workday for average Americans!) Truckers are not paid overtime as others.”

            I probably wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “slave industry”. Any driver is perfectly free to quit at any time, but the trucking industry certainly, in my estimation, lags behind in affording the basic amenities for drivers enjoyed by the majority of the American work force. Trucking, certainly, is an industry in which you have to stand up for yourself, or you’ll have footprints all over your face.

            On a few occasions, I have been asked to offer an insight by people who are considering a career in trucking. The following is the advice I would give to any prospective new truck driver:

  • Trucking is a lifestyle more than it is a job. If you are not prepared to make a MAJOR lifestyle change, save your CDL school money and forget about it.
  • Research the companies. Check them out online, talk to experienced drivers, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Interview the company. Yes, you heard me right. Prepare a list of questions for a company that you are considering and do not be shy about asking them. Any recruiter worth his salt will be glad to indulge you. If he isn’t… run like the wind. Join a trucker’s forum to get straight answers and to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, be wary of excessive negative reports of a company from a handful of sources. Disgruntled drivers who were fired or denied employment often write negative reviews about their former employers as a tactic of revenge. Do your homework! A recruiter isn’t going to tell you that the company he is recruiting for has a 130% turnover rate among drivers. Research the companies!
  • Your first trucking job will probably not be with a blue chip company. The genuinely good companies only hire experienced drivers and few of them use recruiters… they don’t need to. All but the most fortunate have to pay their dues before they have a fighting chance to get hired by a really good company that will treat them with respect.
  • Even the “good” startup companies are going to treat you like a piece of meat. They care about the freight being delivered… period. Your home time, your quality of life, and your job satisfaction are purely secondary concerns. Be prepared for it.
  • If you are thinking of becoming an owner/operator, educate yourself as to what this entails. In short, it entails being both a small business manager AND a driver.  I’ve seen plenty of new owner/operators who were desperate to sell their truck after 6 months because, quite simply, they were drowning in a sea of debt and cluelessness. I’d recommend that anyone start out as a company driver to ensure that trucking is actually what he or she wants to do for a living. I cannot stress it enough… Educate yourself!
  • Even with this being said, trucking can still be what you make of it. It affords a freedom and autonomy that most other jobs cannot come close to. Trucking can be a rewarding career, but it doesn’t come without major sacrifices. If you aren’t prepared to make those sacrifices, don’t waste your time and money. 

Right, wrong, or moot, this is just my humble view from the cab.