This morning as I headed into work on our wonderful Interstate highway system, I found myself behind a little Honda that scared the crap outta me.
Having been trained as a professional driver, one of the things I constantly do while driving is scan the area around me, the other drivers and vehicles and terrain, for potential road hazards. I also scan for emergency routes.
If something happens unexpectedly, you need to see it coming and you need to know where you can safely go.
As an example, say you’re in the center lane of a three lane highway in medium traffic. If a car on your left decides NOW is the perfect time to merge into your lane without a signal and without looking to see that you are there, you CANNOT count on honking to save your ass. Honking is a passive warning trusting in the other driver to realize they are being stupid and to respond in time. No, YOU need to be the one to take action to achieve safety.
So, you have to know where stuff is. Is the car behind you back far enough that it’s safe to slam on the brakes without causing a rear end collision? Is there enough room in front of you to floor it out of the way? Are you able to accelerate fast enough? Is the area to your right clear right this second for you to safely swerve, or is someone there? Is there a gravel shoulder, or would you flip your car if you swerve off the paved road? Is there a stanchoin or bridge abutment coming up that you’d crash into?
You have no time to check all these things at the precise moment that car is swerving into your lane. You have to know what act you can take NOW that will safely get you out of harms way without killing someone.
Here’s a chilling thought: It used to be that some states had an ‘at fault’ policy, where if you hit another car from behind, no matter the situation or speeds or following distance involved, the person that drove the car that hit another from behind was automatically at fault. I don’t know if some still do, I don’t know the traffic laws of all 50 states. Most I do know of have swutched to ‘no fault’ policies now, though.
Anyway, people actually took advantage of this to set up teams of drivers, usually using three cars, to box you in. One car in front of you, one to the side and one behind. They’d box you in with a concrete divider to your side so you’d have nowhere to go, creep up to you so there was no safe place to swerve to or brake to, and then the driver in front of you would slam their brakes on, forcing you to ram SOMEONE in trying to avoid an accident.
Then they’d sue you for rear ending ‘em.
It’s a crazy world out there. I wish it were simply paranoia, but when your job is to drive full time, you learn just how scary it can be.
This post isn’t about how to avoid being mousetrapped or how to drive safely. It’s about how when I drive, I’m looking around me all the time, checking everything out.
As I said, I pull behind this Honda this morning, and what I see is the right rear tire on the car is wobbling. WOBBLING. Like, the other tires are clearly spinning just fine, a smooth rotation, but this one tire is wobbling side to side with at least an inch of play at the hub.
Have you ever driven by a vehicle parked on the side of the road, and one axle is jacked up missing a tire, but there ain’t even a hub there to mount a tire rim to? You ever wonder how that happens?
THIS is how that happens! Some dumb son of a bitch driving in a car with a tire that is either completely loose on it’s lug nuts, or with a hub about to come right off the damn shaft! With a wobble like that, at 60 mph his car had to have been shaking inside like he was sitting on a jackhammer, AND HE WAS STILL GOING!
In the middle lane at full speed, no less!
Just, WTF R U thinking?
When that tire goes, we’re not talking about a flat that you limp over to the side of the road. We’re talking about losing the tire at the hub, having the car drop a foot and a half to the axle on that side, and tearing into the asphalt or concrete.
I saw that, and I immediately got out of that lane and slowed down, I put a LOT of space between me and that fruitcake.
Seeing that reminded me of some of the other WTF things I’ve seen on the road over the years, and thought it would be fun to share just a few.
The first one that comes to mind is the car I saw with four bed mattresses strapped onto it’s roof with bungie cords. The car was a green hatchback Gremlin, and the stacked mattresses were both taller than the car, and longer/wider than the top of the car’s roof. Much longer than the car’s roof.
I saw this in South Florida on I-90 just north of Miami, doing about 80 mph, and about 30 seconds after I saw this and moved the HELL out of the same lane, the mattresses (that were being pushed up by the wind) suddenly got pushed DOWN… blocking the windshield. The driver, suddenly blind as a bat doing 80 mph, spun out and then OFF the road onto the gravel shoulder and down into the ditch.
To this day I wonder how the heck the bungie cords held that long, but once off the road the magic was gone, and mattresses went flying.
Another one. I was driving my semi in Wyoming, on I-80, past Laramie headed east for Cheyenne.
Strait stretch of highway, lots of ranches out that way. I saw an old pickup truck come up an onramp behind me, with a bed stacked high with hay bales. And I mean high. The top hay bales on the stack were about 6 bales above the level of the bed.
Yeah, you know where this is going.
The hay bales were clearly lashed down to the bed with plenty of twine, because while the whole stack was listing to the left, they weren’t falling off. Instead, I started wondering what was keeping the truck from flipping over onto it’s side.
I sped up, because I wanted to keep that pickup WELL behind me. Maybe that driver knew something I didn’t know, maybe those wise old ranchers are just flat out smarter than me, but to my eye, it looked like those hay bales were eyeing freedom, baby.
About 30 seconds after the pickup got onto the interstate and up to top speed, the twine must have broke, because hay bales EXPLODED off the back of that truck, raining down on the road and the cars that were right behind him. Kaboom!
Now, here’s the kicker.
By that time, I was about a half mile ahead of the action. I couldn’t exactly turn around on the interstate and go back, and that stretch of road has few offramps. There was plenty of traffic behind the scene, so I wasn’t concerned that people weren’t gonna stop. Fact it, people weren’t going to have a choice but to stop until the road got cleared.
I saw the hay explode off the pickup bed, and I had seen that there were several cars immediately behind the pickup right before it happened, and then the road was obstructed by a mountain of hay.
The pickup truck KEPT GOING. Never even slowed. Those bales came off and detonated on cars and highway like depth charges on dry land, and that bastard just kept right on going.
You understand, I’m not recounting all the times I’ve seen people driving the wrong way on a highway, or doing U-turns in the middle of the highway, or anything like that. I saw that stuff so often that it’s not even worth mentioning.
No, what blows my mind is knowing that each one of these incidents and others just like them represent someone thinking, “This sounds like a good idea”, then spending time and sweat muscling that crap up there onto their vehicles, lashing it down, looking at it and thinking “Yep, that will be just fine”, and then going out on the road like that!
For something like going the wrong way, hey, it can take a millisecond distraction, didn’t see a sign, and boom, wrong way on the road. Then yo’re just trying like hell to get back off without dying.
For these, there were multiple opportunities for sense to smack them in the face. Plenty of chances to stop, take a good long look, and say to themselves, “You know… that kinda looks stupid. Maybe I need to rethink this plan.”
What scares me most is the idea that the next thought they had was, “Nah, fuck it. If something happens and someone else dies, what do I care?”
Welcome back, my friends, to Tales from the Truckstop.
For those of you just tuning in, and expecting some kind of WoW post, this is another one of my Storytime style posts, where I tell you a tale from my ill spent youth. These are true tales, but since I can’t prove it, hell with it. Call it a ‘no shitter’, if you wish.
This is a tale from my truck driving days that I wasn’t actually ever expecting to post.
You see, I figured if I told this tale, nobody would ever believe it. After all, it’s ludicrous. It’s stupid. Nobody would ever do what I’m gonna describe. The litigation risks alone would mean that I had to be making it up.
But today… today is a different day.
Today, I have a video to show as an example that, yes, this ain’t your normal town. This isn’t your normal place of business. These people… they don’t think like you or I do.
This? This is New York City!
First, the video that made me decide I could tell my story. It’s a video that went viral this morning, you might have already seen it, showing one tow truck trying to drag free a stuck snow mover during the current NYC blizzard dig out. And along the way… well, shenanigans. And some ugly ass legs. Seriously, dude, you couldn’t have edited your ugly legs out of the video first? Or put on some pants?
I ain’t gonna apologize for the quantity of profanity in it, since, first, it’s not me speaking, and second… it’s New York. Profanity is just punctuation in New York, just as it is in Miami, where I grew up, because of the cultural contamination of all the New York snowbirds that flutter down there every winter. Yes, swearing like this is how I and everyone I ever knew (including my mother) spoke. Yes, it is. Except teachers in schools, amusingly enough. Talk about swimming against the tide. I sure do respect teachers in Miami. I have to now, I never showed them any back then. :)
So, now that the video has primed you for reality, lets’ talk about trucking in New York City, shall we?
To recap, back in the day I drove an eighteen wheeler cross-country for Dick Simon Trucking. They specialized in refridgerated loads; almost every trailer was equipped with a diesel-powered chiller (or ‘reefer’) unit.
This meant that I hauled a lot of groceries, food products, vegetables and occasionally flowers all over the continental United States.
Most of my runs would start at one coast, pick stuff up, then begin hauling it across the country, maybe starting in Los Angeles, dropping and picking up a new cargo in St Louis, shipping up to Chicago, darting down and over to Atlanta, and then up to finish in Newport News. Then, time to start working my way back.
I typically didn’t shuffle back and forth between two points much, my dispatcher would route me all the way out, and then bring me all the way back. Their terminal was in Salt Lake City, Utah, so most runs would have me going through there at some point, I do love the mountains between Denver and Salt Lake City, but we had trailer yards and secondary terminals with facilities in Georgia and California as well. I’ve even had the pleasure of being out at the big Coors plant north of Denver, and hauling some silver bullets of beer all over. Good times. Amazingly enough, they didn’t slow me down, either. Imagine that.
One place that I had never been sent into for my entire first year, though, was New York City. For whatever reason, I never got a load that sent me into the Big Apple.
I heard a lot about it from other drivers, but I hadn’t been through there myself.
Some of the advice I was given by other truckers was, first, don’t head solo straight into the city. People hijack trucks running solo into there all the time, with a guy hopping up on your running board and sticking a gun in your face, and then telling you where to take the truck to. Since there are so many narrow streets with sharp corners, there are plenty of places you have to slow waaaay down, plenty of opportunities for a fast guy to get up on your cab. So, what you do is run into one of the big truck stops in Pennsylvania before you head into New Jersey, and hook up with other truckers planning to enter the city, convoy in as a group. Safety in numbers.
Second, you do not, do not want to get into New York City during the day as a trucker. You’re just screwed if you do. You want to be heading in way late at night, like midnight or later, and hope like hell you can have your trailer unloaded and your next load picked up and your ass headed out of town before four AM.
Because people driving in New York City are f’ing insane, that’s why. They do not give a shit what they do, and will go anywhere, dart into any opening, leap into any perceived breach in the logjam snarl of traffic if they think it’ll get them one car length in front of the next asshole in line.
When you drive a truck, you ain’t driving a Ford GT or a nimble minx of a Mini. You’re a land whale worse than any Cadillac, and all you’ve got in your favor is the fear you inspire in people who care about their cars getting crushed.
New Yorkers HAVE NO FEAR, apparently their balls are just too damn big to allow any fear, and thus lies the core of the problem. They honestly drive like they cannot believe you would dare to mess with their car.
Yeah, so, I get a load of something heading out of the Purina plant in central Pennsylvania near Allentown, destination: New York City. WOOT!
Just call me Mr Big Time.
I then promptly proceed to blow off all advice, because while that shit may apply to other people, well, I’m me. I’m cool. Water off a duck’s back, man, I’ll experience no problems. Zero defects. Right?
Anyway, New York City! And after I drop off there and pick up my next load, they’re sending my ass to Niagara Falls in upstate New York! Are you shitting me? How cool is that!
It was news to me that there was a city there. Somehow, I always pictured Niagara Falls as being remote… inaccessible. Because all honeymoon destinations require a sherpa and pack mules, apparently. Yes, sometimes I’m an idiot.
“Niagara Falls at last! Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch… and then? I let him have it!”
So I blow through Pennsylvania all night, and enter New York City first thing in the morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed after driving all night, my hands wet on the wheel. Or, well, not so much. More like eyes burning as two glowing pits of fire in my skull. Cities on flame with rock and roll, man.
There are only so many things Mountain Dew can take you through, and driving through eastern Pennsylvania all night leaving you eager and alert for the Big Apple ain’t one of them.
Yep, that’s me, right on time for the rush hour influx early in a weekday morning, I enter New York City.
I’m not completely stupid, so I’ve sat in a truck stop poring over my trucker’s edition massive map of the country, analyzing my optimum route through the city, eyeing height restrictions, one way roads, construction updates and toll bridges. This is long before GPS devices and cell phones in cabs, sadly. I had a paper map and my Qualcomm satellite keyboard to ask questions of my dispatcher, who, sitting in Salt Lake City, knew exactly jack and shit about driving anywhere.
But here we go, crawling carefully along my pre-planned route in New York City.
I’ve gotta admit, it was exciting. It was thrilling! Baby, if you can drive a truck here, you can drive a truck anywhere. This is the big time.
As I neared my destination, guess what happens?
If you guessed a jackass jumped up on my running board and stuck a gun in my face, why, you’d be right!
I had my window down, because weather permitting, I always rolled with my window down. I always do, even now. I love redneck driving; dead of winter, heater on full blast on my feet and my window open gusting frigid air in my face. I’ve always loved it.
I’ll drive with the rain pouring down and my side window open, and move rear windows up or down to get the perfect side draft suction so as to pull the rain away and back so it doesn’t get in my face too much.
My wife, bless her, hates having the windows open because it messes up her hair. Sigh.
So yeah, my window is wide open, and this dude jumps up on my running board and sticks a gun in my face. Was he a mob guy? A goombah? A mafiosa? No idea. they don’t carry cards, all I know is, dude was white, looked like a dirtbag, and had a shiny metal thingie with a barrel pointed in an uncomfortable direction for about a millisecond.
And I had a completely awesome knife stuck, sheath down, in the handle pouch of my door.
As Emo Philips might say, I juxtaposed the two.
It was an awesome knife, I really loved that thing. It was one of those Hibben designs I love so much (yes, that link is actually to the knife design I had, by the way, the Double Shadow), as a former knife collector and maker. Totally impractical for knife fighting, but from a fantasy and science fiction reader’s point of view, freaking cool looking. I’d bought it in a truck stop somewhere along the line, along with a gorgeous real meerschaum pipe carved in the shape of a saber toothed tiger’s head (which I still have), and kept it in the cab of my truck with me.
I want to say, I did not keep that knife for personal protection. Not hardly. I bought it and kept it because it was cool.
For personal protection, I had a tire thumper. What that is, is simply a wooden handle with a steel head on the end that you use to ‘thump’ all eighteen of your tires to check that they’ve got air pressure. You spend so much time dropping off and picking up trailers, that you’re all the time checking to see if some jerk dropped a truck off with a flat tire and left it for some other guy to deal with. So, you hook up to the trailer, hop out and thump the tires to check ‘em for pressure by sound and the feel of the impact.
They may be meant for thumping tires, but I’ve found in my experience that there are lots of other things you can thump with them, too. Pro tip; Thumping non-tire objects does not void the warranty on a piece of steel-reinforced pine.
I also sometimes tucked a tire iron alongside my seat, but hey… that’s traditional, you know?
So, back to the guy.
The flow went exactly like this, and about this fast.
I’m driving, I slow to make a right turn, I’m looking in the direction of the turn, a guy jumps on my running board on my left, grabs my rearview mirror with one hand, sticks a gun in my face with the other, my left hand drops down, grabs the Hibben knife, comes straight up and then straight out, sticking the knife out the window in his face, and bam, he’s no longer on my truck.
That’s about it.
When my hand went out, it had a knife in it.
When my hand came back in, it didn’t.
Before you ask, no, I did not stop and turn around to ask if the kind man would help me find it.
Um, no. No, I kept on trucking, my friend. I kept on trucking and I didn’t look back.
Let me check… uh huh, yep, been over fifteen years, pretty sure nobody is gonna call the cops on me for an unsolved crime for reading the post. It’s not exactly as though the knife would have been hard to track, anyway… screw DNA, it had my fingerprints all over the damn thing. As I said, not meant to be a weapon… it was just for fun.
So, after that, I was wide awake. Oh, yeah. Let me tell you, adrenaline is a mighty fine thing to get pumping, AFTER all the damn excitement is over and done with.
I continued on, made my delivery, went on a little further to make pickup, and then prepared to get my ass out of the city before something else happened. Like, I don’t know, Godzilla attacked or something. Martians, maybe.
I mean, it happened that morning. I can sit here NOW and know it’s been over fifteen years, or more actually, but back then, it was hours away, and I did not want to explain to some mildly pissed polive officer why he had to fill out paperwork because my knife ended up, well, wherever the heck it ended up.
You know, it’s another funny thing. You can tell yourself that there is no way anyone could know it was you what did it, but in the end, your gut tells you that someone somewhere had a video camera, you dropped your wallet at the scene, or a grandma wrote down your license plate number just in case some nice gentleman from the police ever asked her if she remembered a truck with, oh I dunno, a 5 foot tall, totally inconspicuous SKUNK waving a skull and crossbones flag painted on the side of it?
I picked up my cargo and made a beeline for freedom… or for New Jersey, anyway.
New Jersey… the garden state. You know your life has taken a turn when you find yourself praying you make it to Jersey, don’t you?
I made my way at top speed for the border for all of, oh, ten minutes, when I hit, guess what?
That’s right, my failure to take trucker advice number two, the traffic. And the New York drivers.
These people are bug shit insane.
The roads are mostly one way in the sections I’m driving through. They are packed in like sardines. There is simply no room. No gaps. it’s a flood of lemmings, landlocked between canyons of glass and steel.
I’ve got my route planned in advance, because the very last thing I ever, ever want to be doing is driving in the downtown of a big city, moving a massive piece of steel on eighteen wheels through the sea of teeny tiny breakable smooshable cars, while trying to read a map to figure out my next turn. I did that once in Chicago, and the experience still leaves me shivering.
Here we go. I approach an intersection where I’m going to have to make a tight right hand turn to catch my next street.
I have planned this route in advance, so I knew I was going to be turning right. I made sure I’d moved over very early into the right most lane. I am prepared!
But there are two obstacles approaching that threaten to harsh my mellow.
The first obstacle is geographical features. The second is physics.
In New York, each corner is fairly sharp. They’re not exactly pointed corners with a sharp 90° angle, but they come damn close. On this particular corner was a lamp post with walk signs and street name signs and other stuffs, right on up there near that point. That’s the geographical feature.
The second obstacle is the physics of turns and angles, specifically the fact that the tires on the back of a trailer do not actually follow the curve the tires on the front of the truck make when taking a turn. They instead cut across the angle in the direction of the turn.
If a truck with a long trailer were to make a sharp right hand turn, what you would see is the front wheels and even the rear wheels of the tractor make the turn just fine, but the rear most wheels of the trailer will cut across the corner instead of continuing on in the original direction first.
You can adjust how sharp the trailer cuts the corner by sliding the trailer wheels forward or back. Most trailer wheels are on sliding racks with a pin to hold them in position. No kidding. You can balance the weight of your trailer’s load on the wheels in this way, by sliding the trailer forward or back on the wheels. It’s easy to adjust; you just pull the pin to unlock, engage the trailer brake, and then move the truck forward or back. The rear tires stay in position while the trailer slides forward or back on the rack. Once you’ve got the trailer where you want it on the wheels, you jump out of your truck and walk back to slide the pin into place. Most truckers use it for load balancing across axles for weigh station scales. You’ve got to make sure no single axle is too heavily laden; it’s worth a ticket.
But there are limits. The fifth wheel provides a pivot point that no amount of sliding can eliminate.
When faced with a sharp turn, and especially one with objects on the corner, such as, oh, a big f’ing lamp post, what truckers use is the manuever called the fishhook turn.
This is also physics. You move the line of the front tires that the trailer tires will be following out away from the corner, so that by the time they begin cutting that corner, they’ve gotten a lead out in front.
Here’s how it works, and it’s dead simple. The truck approaching the turn, in this case a right turn, starts out going straight ahead. Then, before you reach the turn, you swerve out to the left. How far varies depending on the position of the rear wheels and the sharpness of the turn, but generally you’ll go halfway into the left lane next to you for proper positioning on a sharp turn.
Then, once the front wheels of your tractor are actually past the corner and halfway into that left lane, you make your sharp right turn, completing a full, wide curve that eventually brings your cab into the lane heading right… but your rear trailer tires, trying to follow your original wide curve, son’t begin cutting the corner until they’re already a bit past. When done right, The tractor itself swerves out to the left before darting back in to the right, and the trailer swerves out to the left but just closes the corner, the rear wheels brushing but never coming onto the curb.
It’s called a fishhook because it looks like one… a straight, then a loop around ending with the point going the new direction.
End result; no run over corners, or destroyed lamp posts.
The one downside? For a brief moment, while your tractor is making the hook part of the curve, there is a small gap between the center of your truck and the corner of the curb.
One brief, fate filled moment.
I am fearful of this approaching corner.
I’ve got to swerve out into the left lane to begin my turn, and there are cars there. There are cars everywhere!
And, omigod, there’s a cop car just two spaces behind me, behind that crappy green BMW! OH SHIT!!!!
Why, lord? Why me? I know instant karma is a bastard, but really?
I reach down, grab a pair and make sure they’re still with me, and begin to make the fishhook.
I swerve oh so gently into the left lane as I pass the right corner, making DAMN sure I am following the precise line, to the inch, to be able to clear the corner with my trailer but NOT touch the car in the left lane.
I am a freaking master. I’ve got this shit nailed.
As my trailer follows the line of the truck, and pulls away from the right hand curb., leaving that little gap of daylight for the split second before my cab blocks it off… the little son of a bitch in the shiny new BMW that is behind me jinks AROUND my trailer on the right between me and the sidewalk, making a mad dash for the corner, for all of four feet before I have the corner blocked off with, you know, my truck making the turn, and my trailer tires close the gap of behind him.
I now have a BMW cradled in the small gap formed by the angle of my tractor and trailer making a turn.
That son of a bitch.
The sea of traffic immediately inches forward, preventing any possibility that anyone in the entire universe is going to be backing up any time soon.
I… I am screwed.
Oh God, am I screwed.
I am now stuck, immobile, in the heart of New York City, with a sea of traffic around me, no room to manuever, wrapped around a corner, the cab of my truck in the cross street, my trailer in the street I was leaving, with a shiny new BMW tucked damn near under my trailer.
That son of a bitch tried to dart into the opening my trailer made, not realizing I was turning. You know, because the HUGE BLINKING TURN SIGNAL DIDN’T GIVE IT AWAY.
And right behind the BMW… a New York City police officer.
And my knife is probably sticking in some guys’ face on the other side of town.
Oh man, am I screwed. I can’t even believe this.
I wish, at this moment, that I had a beer in the truck. If you’re gonna go down, might as well go big, right?
The cop, I shit you not, turns his blue flashers on.
Where, exactly, am I supposed to go? Are you kidding me? Really? WTF was that supposed to accomplish?
It’s not like anyone behind him is going to come barreling down the road.
The cop gets out of his car. I can clearly see this from out my right side window, which is how I saw the moron in the BMW cut inside my line in the first place.
I get out of the truck myself, and come around the right side to try and fiture out how to dig my way out of this landslide. Ticket? Hell, I’m hoping to avoid jail time. Who knows how the hell they treat truck drivers with salt lake City driver’s licences in NYC? you hear things, ya know? Rubber hoses and stuff, man.
The cop walks up to the front of the BMW and gazes in, then looks at where the truck is, and I’ll be blunt, the expression on his face is one of total disgust at the sight of the BMW with it’s front end tucked into the underside of my trailer.
I almost get up to where he’s standing when he looks up at me and sticks his hand up in a big palm out ‘stop’ signal, and yells at me, saying “Get yuor ass back in your truck and get moving.”
I, having a stupid moment, keep coming, trying to figure out what I’m going to say to get my ass out of this. I can’t see how there was anything else I could do, but I’m blocking the entire street in the middle of downtown New York City. My ass, by definition, is grass.
The cop actually yells even louder, pissed this time, saying, “Get your ass back in your truck and get your ass moving, now!”
I look at the car, I look at my truck, I look at the trailer and the corner and the surrounding traffic. If I move forward so much as a foot, my rear tires are going to drive OVER the BMW.
Oh damn, the cop wants me to complete the turn, driving over the BMW. But… shouldn’t we wait for a tow truck? I look at the lamp post and the traffic… there is simply no way I can see to get the BMW out of the way. The cop is right. I’ve got no choice.
I’ve got to drive over the BMW. Oh my God, I am sooo screwed.
I get back into the cab of my truck, I release my brakes, I rev the shit out of the engine, and then I pop the clutch and, well, I complete my turn.
As the truck moves forward, I drag the fully laden trailer forward, the tires move forward…. meet the side of the BMW right behind the wheel well, touch the side of the BMW… crunch INTO the side of the BMW… rise up ONTO the hood of the BMW, crushing the shit out of it… and then fall off the other side of the now fully crushed BMW hood, with the rear trailer steel crossbeam that serves as a bumper making a final ripping gut wrenching tearing sound as it comes down into the sheet metal. I move forward a little more to get out of the way and fully pull over to the side, completing my turn, and then park and get out to pay the price.
I swing down out of the cab, and head towards the cop, my heart heavy with foreboding. The cop sees me coming, and with serious anger in his voice now, he says, “I told you to get your ASS back in the TRUCK, and get it the FUCK out of here. NOW!”
I stop dead, and my brain shuts off. I turn my ass around, veritably leaping into the cab. I rev that sucker up, and pop the clutch. The last thing I see, as I ride off into the sunset, is the cop standing next to the BMW, pulling a ticket book out of his back pocket, and lifting one foot to plant it firmly on the crushed right fender of the BMW as he began to write the driver a ticket.
I got the hell out of there, and never looked back until I reached Jersey, what the hell do you think I did?
While driving my White/GMC rig for Dick Simon Trucking in the winter of that year, I found myself hauling a trailer load of bulk cheese picked up in Boise, Idaho.
Green Bay, Wisconsin, by way of Illinois. The load of cheese I had on board was headed for the big Kraft Foods processing plant in mid Illinois near Champagne-Urbana, and from there I was going to be hauling bulk Kraft Cheese straight up the pipe to Green Bay.
Now, the first reason this run is still memorable was the sheer amusement in hauling cheese INTO Wisconsin, a state that prides itself on the awesomeness of it’s Wisconsin Cheeses.
Apparently, the secret ingredient in Wisconsin Cheese is… Idaho dairy?
Just kidding, just kidding. Whether or not Kraft Cheese counts as actual cheese is open to debate.
Okay, so Boise, Idaho with a load of cheese, headed eastbound for Illinois, in the dead of winter.
These days, you can use Google Maps to give you a least-mileage set of directions or a least time, and have two different results based on average posted highway speed, number of lanes, number of stop signs or street lights, even construction, all that kind of thing.
Back then, the internet was in fledgling days. We might have had satellite communications with dispatch via a text based Qualcomm keyboard, but for route planning, you had a paper map in your cabin, and you plotted your routes based on your own experience with the terrain, the roads, and the latest construction reports you collected as you went.
The name of the game is making your scheduled delivery and pickup times, having spent the least amount of money on fuel and wear-and-tear on your vehicle.
That means, whenever possible, going for the least mileage, except where a similar route might bypass lots of stop-and-go driving conditions. Taking a 15 mile detour can be far more cost effective in both time and fuel if it allows you to use nonstop freeway miles rather than going down the heart of a city full of stop signs and traffic lights.
In this case, I had a minor dilemma.
On the one hand, I had a very solid route through wide open freeway that I could take, following I-86 East to I-84 South to Salt Lake City, and then East on I-80 barreling right along. Pros; all interstate multi-lane, with dedicated road clearing equipment for snow. Cons? Not exactly the most direct route, and lots of mountain climbing.
On the other hand, I had a least-mileage route I could take over the Idaho/Wyoming border, following I-86 to I-15 South, and then taking US route 30 cutting across the diagonal. Pros? A far more direct route. Cons? Single lane roads with questionable conditions through back country cowtowns miles from support… and if stuck in a snowdrift, a Donner Party/Deliverence scenario was not only plausible, but likely.
Even so. It wasn’t quite a no brainer. I had no personal knowledge of road conditions on the US-30 route. I’d never traveled that way before. And the weather was threatening storms. Severe winter storms. Sure, those storms weren’t really due until the next full day, but… this is a weather service prediction, I’m listening to. Which means, if they say snow tomorrow, expect the blizzard tonight. Or no snow at all.
Or a full lunar eclipse with rain of frogs, rain of frogs, back to you, Phil.
In the end, I decided to hedge my bets. I took I-86 East, passed the I-84 S turnoff and just kept on trucking East to Pocatello. From there, I could hole up in a truck stop for a few minutes, get some scoop on the conditions.
In Pocatello, the word was good. Truckers headed West coming through US-30 said the roads were clear and, best of all, there was no traffic because everyone was afraid of the impending storm. In that kind of coutry, in winter, storms aren’t idle bullshit. You take that stuff seriously when all that stands between you and hypothermia is the propane tank you (hopefully) got filled last week.
Truckers LOVE clear roads and chicken motorists. Little bastards in bimbo boxes drive around trucks like you’re big stationary islands with retrograde thrusters rather than multi-ton engines of mass, momentum and kinetic destruction.
Guess what? If you cut in front of a truck into that itty-bitty little one-car-length space right in front of his bumper and then slam your brakes on, the truck behind you does NOT fire all thrusters in reverse to stop on a dime. Welcome to Splatville, population:YOU.
While I was getting coffee and munchies for the road, some of the other truckers who had had the same idea I did, including another Dick Simon driver (coincidentally the driver that had run with me during my one month training qualification) all decided to take the same shortcut to I-80, and we decided to convoy over the route together.
It’s not that far as the crow flies, but some of it is pretty flat, some of it is very curvy, there ARE hills, and it’s all very remote. we’d be driving all night, hands wet on the wheel… oh, [ahem] sorry, and that big old snowstorm was looming out there… somewhere.
But what the hey, traveling together in a convoy, chatting on the CB, it all helps keep you awake. Right?
We headed on out, and by the time we left, the sun was setting. The colors were turning, and the world was putting it’s blinds up for the night. Before long, it was dark, the air was still, and it began to feel like a good night to drive for 8 hours straight.
Sometimes, maybe it’s just me, the road just seems to get in your blood, and nothing else feels as good as driving all night, letting the miles pass for hours on end. Letting the miles bleed out of you, and letting a nice relaxing calm seep in.
This felt like it was going to be one of those magical nights.
And it was.
We headed south out of Pocatello, a string of semis headed for the open road.
Traffic was light as we drilled a corridor into the wind. Before long, we left the interstate to blast onto the US-30 turnoff, with nothing standing between us and I-80 except for a few spots on the map that probablyweren’t big enough for a gas station, and hundreds of miles of open prairie and curvy canyons.
And a maybe kinda not really gonna happen tonight snowstorm.
An hour into the run, mild rising elevation most of the way, and the sky abrubtly turned black. The stars went away, and all there was to see were the tail lights of the truck in front, and a chill seepiong through the windo cracks.
Minutes later, the snow hit. Hard.
It came out of nowhere, in the back of beyond where radio signals aren’t to be found, and the storm that was supposed to hit the next day showed up early, snapping it’s fingers like Sinatra, impatient to get the show on the road.
Visibility plummeted along with the temperature. The road was a single lane both ways, no median, with steep shoulders. Nowhere to turn, nothing to break the wind howling across flatland, and no choice but to keep going and pray we could barrel on through the storm before the roads iced up so bad we couldn’t keep traction against the sideways wind.
It felt like a snowy, dry version of driving through high hurricane conditions, something I’ve done before during Hurricane Hugo while stationed in South Carolina.
The wind was fierce, driving across the lane of travel, the snow came thick and fast, but it didn’t stick to anything like wet muck would have done, it was like driving through white sugar sand. Everybody tightened up until we were nose to butt, headlight to taillight all the way down the line, letting the lead truck cut a tunnel into the wind that we all rushed in to fill, cutting down drastically on the turbulance we all had to endure.
We were still doing over 45 mph, there were over 15 trucks in the convoy at this point, and you could tell from the CB chatter that everybody was getting really tense. The situation was not good, and getting worse by the minute. The weather conditions could go either way, lighten up or spin into a blizzard, and we were in the middle of nowhere.
As the night wore on, we rotated who pulled lead truck duty, but no matter who was in the lead, nobody had much room to relax. The worst of the tension came from being so damn close to the truck ahead, as the slightest problem for one truck up the line could easily result in a series of bumper to bumper collisions through the entire pack. But to split apart and increase the gap between trucks meant each truck would suffer the full force of the crosswinds, and for the trucks running mostly empty it was getting hard enough to throw them a full lane across sideways when the gusts hit.
We traveled like this for quite some time. There was very little chatter on the CBs. After a bit, with mile after mile of white tunnel and tail lights burning into our eyes, the night seemed to get all wrapped up, to tighten up into kind of a cocoon of stillness.
There came this point in the worst of the storm, when everything was just a solid blanket of white, and we were riding in the wind tunnel formed by the previous trucks’ passage, that even though we were barrelling along the highway, at scary speeds, it felt almost as if we were standing still. As if the engine noise, and the hum of the tires, all of it didn’t matter; all was still and calm.
It was a very dangerous illusion. The atmosphere was calm… almost hypnotic, and it could be very easy to lose concentration.
As in; “Oooh, the heater is so warm and cuddly! Is it sleepy time now? I think it could be!”
Me, I had my window cracked a good bit to let the howling cold in, which just barely counteracted the warmth and hypnotic effects of the whiteout.
We were maybe 4 hours into the run when suddenly, the stillness was broken by shouts, screaming and chaos squealing from the CB speaker.
I began a gentle braking immediately, oh so damn gently, in the hopes I wasn’t going to get rear ended, looking left and right and gauging the position of the truck in front of me, desperate to try and guess which way he’d swerve, because if he slammed his brakes down, whichever way he went, I was damned well headed for the other lane.
If he took his half down the middle? Well, I guess I’d just be screwed, now wouldn’t I? Thems the breaks in Naval Air… they call ‘em air brakes. And boy, did I wish I had some right then.
Almost immediately the idiot in front of me did slam his brakes on, and the trailer in my front grill began fishtailing from side to side, violently, as he swerved this and way and that, like a complete bloody moron, and my swearing filled the cab of my truck as I manuevered and downshifted, jake brakes punding like a jackhammer, fear gripping my throat. I could just SEE going off the side in this storm and being dug out sometime in February, still clutching the wheel with a pissed off (yet cynical) look on my frozen face.
My truck finally eased to a stop, as did all the others. The shouting and yelling was still coming through the CB speaker, but nothing could be made out in the babble.
Occassionally, though, the word explosion could be made out.
What fresh hell is this, then?
I left the truck in idle so the heater and defrosters would blow, and hopped down into the snow to find out what the HELL was going on.
I trudged up the road, the wind and snow just miserable. I was in jeans and a lightweight Marine Corps jacket, I wasn’t dressed for this shit. Still, an explosion… hey, that’s something I’d like to see. If there’s gonna be an explosion in this story, by God I want to be able to say I saw the thing burn to the ground later, know what I mean?
As I head up the road, all the other trucks’ cabs are popping open, and truckers in various states of all kinds of pissed off descend to join me. Each of us eyed the others as the truckers joined the growing mob, as if to ask each addition, “Were you the one responsible for this cluster fuck? No? Well, all right then. It wasn’t me neither, so let’s go find the bastard together.”
We kept going up the line, and we were almost to it when somebody fired up a multi-cell maglite, and speared the side of a tractor with the beam.
My heart sank in my chest as I saw the truck all the attention was on, sure as shit, was the other Dick Simon truck.
As we got closer, we could clearly hear the yelling, and while the words were still indistinct, the tone was an unmistakeable mixture of scared and pissed off.
We all got up there next to his cab, and the wide open door. His truck had jacknifed, his trailer mostly off the road on the right side and a bit twisted on the fifth wheel, but he was riding empty so he could power that back on the road no problem…
That is, if he was able to reclaim the cab of his truck from the terrorist that had seized power and seceded the truck rather dramatically from the convoy union.
My fellow skunk truck driver (the logo of Dick Simon Trucking back then was a big fat skunk holding two crossed flags – a rebel flag and a skull and crossbones. Please, dear god, don’t ask. Wait, I’ve got a picture of a skunk truck toy, hold on.)
Anyway, as I was saying, my fellow skunk truck driver, this real conservative, straight-laced older (50’s) married black guy with a rather stern demeanor and almost no sense of humor whatsoever (Hey, I shared living out of the cab of a truck with the guy for a month, I visited his house several times in Murray, Utah, and while he was a great guy, I’m here to tell you – no sense of humor whatsofreakingever) is standing outside the cab of his truck, staring inside the truck, white as a ghost and shaking like a leaf.
He has no jacket on, but that’s not why he’s shaking. He’s shaking ’cause he’s had the shit literally scared out of him.
Inside teh cab of the truck, the terrorist is screaming demands at the top of his lungs. The wind is howling, and snow is streaming into the cab through the massive hole blown through the windshield.
Finally, someone reached in and grabbed the little terrorist, risking serious bodily injury from the razor sharp blades he wielded, and tossed him out of the cab, where he flailed around shrieking in anger on the blacktop, before taking off like his tail was on fire into the storm.
So, here’s what apparently happened. Bear with me as I reenact the scene from within the cab of his truck.
We’re barrelling down the highway, through a calm tunnel of swirling snow, the trailer of the truck ahead and it’s tail lights all that can really be seen while floating serenely in a sea of white.
Floating along… floating… floating….
The windshield on the passenger side of the truck EXPLODES in, shower safety glass fragments everywhere including right in your face, you brake in a dead panic and drop back from the truck ahead, losing the windbreak and the full force of the storm suddenly releases it’s hidden fury, sending driving snow and furious wind, heightened by your trucks’ forward speed, straight into your suddenly freezing cab.
But that’s not what’s really got your attention, because in the midst of all this chaos, a body has launched itself through the windshield into your car, and is now sitting in your passenger seat next to you, screaming and flailing and flashing it’s razor sharp knives and howling it’s rage and pain into your ear.
As your many years of training take over, even in your panic, you bring your wildly fishtailing semi under control before you flip it right of the road, get the damn thing shuddering to a halt, shut it down and lock the brakes, and then fling your door open in a panic, anything to get the hell out of that truck!
Then you stand there on the pavement, shaking and sweating and freezing all at once, and stare into the cab of your truck, your home, your very livelihood, still gripped in adrenaline and terror, and wonder how in the hell you’re going to get that owl out of there without getting killed.
Dude is driving right along in the middle of a whiteout, and this owl came cruising on by, doing owl things, thinking owl thoughts, came in between two trucks in a convoy, and BLAM! right through the windshield.
That was one righteously pissed off owl, man.
I can’t remember who did it, but somebody with heavy leather gloves reached on in there and grabbed that pissed off whirlwind of feathers and talons and beak, and just yanked it right on out of the truck to land on the road with a plop.
Owl kinda settled down once it was out of the truck, checked it’s six, and poof! Instant Casper.
Once we all did our “there there, it’s all right, no really, man that must have sucked” routine, we helped tape some cardboard over the shattered remains of his windshield, and then, hey… off we went back into the storm.
By the time we got to I-80, he was one frozen block of ice. I mean, the cardboard may have cut out some of the worst of the snow, but get real… it was cold in there.
But when he got out of the truck at the end of the run, he was still shaking, and it wasn’t from cold. I never did see him stop shaking, but of course I had to keep on going. I heard what finally happened, though. He quit trucking later that same week. He just sat out there with his truck at a dinky little truck stop for a few days trying to get up the nerve to get back in, and finally gave up. He got a ride back with another trucker, and yet a third trucker had to deadhead on out as a passenger to drive the rig back to Salt Lake City to get it to the yard.
I’ve mentioned a few times here that I spent two years immediately after leaving the Marine Corps as a cross country truck driver. CDL, 18 wheeler, the Bear with the most rolling along coast to coast.
During those two years, a lot of things happened that could be blog fodder, if looked at in the right way.
I’ve got two different types of trucker stories to share.
I’ve got the ones that I personally saw or did and thought “WTF”, and then there are the ones that were told to me in truckstops by other truckers over a cup of coffee that sounded great, but who knows if they’re real or not?
Hence, Tales from the Truckstop.
On this lazy Friday I’d like to share one story in particular, a story that I can personally verify as having actually happened.
It remains in my mind as one of the biggest “WTF” moments of my life.
It was a fine, sunny summer day in Illinois. I was driving my skunk truck north, rolling along I-57 after having spent a hellish morning making deliveries and pickups in the back alleys of St. Louis, on the west side of the river.
I was heading on north through southern Illinois, heading generally towards Chicago, but my intention was to cut over towards and around Indianapolis before reaching the I-80 corridor and barrelling on through to my eventual destination, a pet food processing plant near Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Perfectly placed along my path is the oasis of truck stop heaven known as Effingham, Illinois.
Effingham is to truck stops as Wal-Mart is to rednecks.
What I’m saying is, you see a LOT of bad flannel and too tight tube tops over stretch shorts in flourescent colors.
Oh, wait, no that’s not it. Oh well, whatever.
Back then they had a Petro travel center, a Flying J, two of the biggest truck stop chains around, and a ton of smaller mom and pop outfits all around that area. Acres of parking lots around central trucker facilities, facilities so large they had their own movie theater for truckers, I think at the Petro.
Yeah, that’s right, after a long day of trucking most truckers sleep in their trucks, they don’t get motel rooms. But you still want a nice meal, a shower, a place to relax and watch TV or movies, and socialise. The really big truck stops not only have the “free shower with fill up for truckers” that is pretty standard, but they’ve got movie theaters in the truck stop, TV rooms with stadium seating, massive video arcades and you name it.
Basically, a big truck stop is kinda like a massive shared apartment where your roomates work different shifts. You pop in, get a meal, take a shower, do your laundry, sit down and chill out watching a movie, hit the gym, and then back out to your truck for some sleep before hitting the road.
These days, what with satellite phones and internet and cheap laptops and T1 connections to the truck, it truly is a good representation of college dorm life. Minus the booze.
Effingham is a trucker mecca. As a major crossroads for over the road travel, with multiple main highways running through or nearby, at any given time hundreds if not thousands of trucks can be found parked amongst the lots with more trucks going in and out all the time.
I decided to take a break for a bit, get some rest and let my hours roll over on my log before I hit the next stretch of road. The US government regulates how may hours a professional driver is allowed to drive in a given 24 hours period, you have to maintain a continuous rolling logbook clearly listing start location, stop location, time spent driving, miles driven, and hours not driving, subject to audit by the DOT at anytime. You get audited and are found in violation, your ass is grass. But that’s another story, and it never happened to me. :)
I decide to roll into the Petro at Effingham, my favorite of the chains. I like their food, used to have a really nice beef brisket on the menu.
As I’m rolling into the big truck entrance following the continuous stream of trucks, I do notice one of the trucks heading out.
It was a big yellow semi, one of the trucks run by JB Hunt.
JB Hunt was famous back then, around ’95, for having some of the most inexperienced and ignorant drivers on the road. True story or industry myth? Who knows?
I noticed this one in particular because I saw that the small side accessory panel door was open, and flapping in the breeze as he drove out the gate.
Note: Not the exact truck, photo is just to show you what door I mean.
The little accessory area there is for holding tools, tire thumpers, road flares and emergency signs, rags, that kind of stuff. It’s got a lock, and typically they open on side hinges like any other door. It’s not accessible from inside the truck.
Like I said, as I’m driving in, he’s driving out, and I notice his side accessory door flapping away.
I keep going in, not much I can do, what, I’m gonna flag him down? Chase him down the highway?
But one thing I CAN do is try and raise him on the CB.
I, like all other truckers, had a CB radio in the cab. I normally kept mine off, because truckers in my experience were for the most part illiterate, ignorant hate filled bigots. Not exactly the kind of people I felt like sharing a nice, lively debate with.
You still needed a CB, because most large companies used them in the shipping/receiving office to tell trucks when a dock door was open, and which one to back into.
Anyway, I flip on my CB to try and raise Mr. JB Hunt truck, when right away I hear another trucker break in and say something along the lines of, “Hey JB, you got a side door flapping there, son.”
Okay, mission accomplished, someone let the poor guy know already. Time to gather my shit and head in for a shower.
I’m parked and getting my stuff together, towel and shampoo kit, clean clothes, but the CB is still on in the cab.
I’m not really paying attention to it, I’d just forgotten to turn it right back off.
Suddenly, I hear this excited voice break in the channel, yelling “Holy shit, JB get your ass back in your truck!”
Next thing I hear, literally the next thing is a different voice yelling “What the hell is he doing outside the truck?”
A brief pause.
“OMIGOD HE FELL OFF!!!!”
The radio went bugnuts after that.
I sat for a while listening to the panic, the screams, the confusion and uproar, but it was all a mess, no useful data buried in the noise, and after I started hearing sirens out on the highway roaring southbound, I shrugged and headed indoors.
Here is the story as pieced together by all the folks in the truckstop after the fact, with the assistance of some nice Highway Patrol fellas that were kinda curious wtf he mighta been thinking.
It turned out that good old Mr. JB Hunt driver, heading south from Effingham on I-57 at a high rate of speed, heard his fellow trucker warn him that his side panel door was swinging in the breeze.
At this point, a few miles away from the next exit and apparently having the f’ing Hope Diamond or something in his side panel that he just COULDN’T risk falling out, what he decided to do was place his rig on cruise control, open his driver door, and, while standing there and hanging onto his door frame and the steering wheel, swung his body out of the truck on the driver side and tried to kick the door closed.
Apparently, he took a few really good kicks at it and couldn’t quite reach, so he reaaaaaaally extended himself out there… and fell off his f’ing truck.
The truck, of course, was on cruise control, and blithely unaware of the fact it was now a flying dutchman, a rolling engine of death, doing 65 mph southbound down I-57.
Picture this with me, as I relive that moment in my minds’ eye.
A fully loaded 18 wheeler, dingy faded yellow, 80,000 pounds (40 tons) of steel and rubber, barrelling on down the interstate at 65 mph… with nobody at the wheel.
Just, holy shit.
Inevitably, not long after the idiot fell off, the truck drifted to the right, caught a bump, jack-knifed and flipped, coming apart in a nice graceful tumble down the right shoulder of the interstate, flinging debris and customer product into the treeline.
Now, obviously I never got to follow up and find out the whole story, but at the time, the driver was being reported as okay, banged up and scraped bad, but basically fine.
Forever after, I will be driving along, and I’ll see somebody do something stupid on the road, and it will remind me of the all time stupidest driver I have ever seen or heard of in my entire life that managed to walk away from his accident.
I’ll remember that excited, anxious voice on the CB for the rest of my days.
“OMIGOD HE FELL OFF.”
That, and of course my immediate thought… “What a f#&(ing idiot.”