Truckers, Earn While You Learn by Guinotte Wise

(Or, how I escaped government work and became free as the breeze)

  Sweltering day on the Oklahoma/Texas border, bridge job, late 1950’s. Hot and humid, maybe 105 degrees, It was the kind of day where you could lose eight pounds, make it back up that night with a big steak and six beers. It would be 110 by afternoon. They hadn’t yet devised a “comfort index” to make us feel worse, but we knew it was hot. We made frequent stops at the galvanized Igloo for cool water and salt tablets. When I looked out at the big lake, Lake Texoma, sweat would sting my eyes and the vaporous view would shimmer. I held my hard hat under the spigot, splashed water into it, and put it on. Blessed relief for a few seconds, then back to sanding well points.

  Without getting into a long explanation of what well points are (boring) they’re long tubes with a perforated end that suck water out of the ground around cofferdams (deep holes with pilings in them, that have to stay somewhat dry for awhile) and they require sand around them to remain functional. So, another laborer and I were assigned the idiot work of walking from a large pile of sand with a shovelful of said sand, dump it into the well point hole, repeat. Once that hole was full, you’d go to the next one. There were many. I’d rather be at a rock fight.

  About an hour into this, what the older guys called government work, I had resigned myself that my day was to be nothing but this, good lord. I searched my memory for the kharmic disturbance I’d made to deserve this. 

 Then one of the foremen yelled,”Who can drive a truck?” My hand shot up. He handed me some keys. It was a right-to-work state, so though I was a laborer, I became a teamster. Booyah.

  The only truck I’d ever driven was the pickup variety; this was a much larger truck. It was a big rig with a flatbed and an extension trailer for hauling steel. You had to climb over a fifty-gallon saddle tank to get up in the thing. I was told to drive to a neighboring town and pick up some generators; off I went. I shifted up and up but it seemed to remain in low gears, and I couldn’t get it to go more than about ten miles an hour. I looked around for clues. There was a handle on the gearshift which I fiddled with but that just played havoc with what I figured must be the airbrakes–lots of whishing noises and a gauge needle fluttered. Then I spied a red pull button on the shifter, and pulled it–the truck leaped ahead, freed of its surly lower gear ranges. Another on-the-job discovery.

  I was now hauling ass over a country road. It bounced me so badly I hit my head on the roof; luckily I was still wearing my hard hat. I slowed a bit. Once I got to the highway though, I punched it again, up to about 75.

 A sign said Weigh Station Ahead. This meant nothing to me. I blew past them like the Wabash Cannonball making up time to Atlanta. Some in the glass enclosure waved, somewhat frantically it seemed. I waved back. On the return trip I was loaded with seven generators all chained down (another on-the-job educational session–they had these “boomer” chains with ratchet handles and you tightened them making sure the chains wouldn’t crush parts of the generators–I was ignorant but not stupid, big difference).

  Once again I waved at the friendly guys at the Weigh Station as I screamed past them, the rogue trucker who didn’t just break the law, but shattered it and left it laying on the roadside. I mean they could see what I had on the bed, right? Why waste time stopping. 

 Back on the job site, I casually asked the foreman, “Am I supposed to stop at the weigh stations?” His eyes bugged out. “Are you shitting me?” He stopped what he was doing and gave me his full attention.

 “Just kidding,” I said. I would stop from now on, empty or loaded. But I was now a marked trucker, with the construction company logo emblazoned on the doors. The highway patrol had been alerted.

  Sitting up high in the cab I was privy to what I called lookee-downs. I could see into vehicles that passed me, and became aware of what people will do on road trips, maybe to pass the time. Or sometimes to tease truckers. Whatever their motives, they persisted in antics that would dilate my eyeballs, whether they were alone, or in twos and threes. A naked women passed me and waved. Couples would…couple in various ways. Threesomes would use their imagination to keep their boredom level at bay. Things to do besides play license plate poker.

 On a bright cloudless day, hot wind blowing into the cab, I heard the siren, looked in the rearview at a trooper closing the distance. Me? I thought. Nah, he’ll pass. But he didn’t, so I pulled over. Earlier I had delivered a borrowed piece of equipment called a fair lead to another construction site. This fair lead was used on a big drag line excavator and was heavy enough to require a crane to unload it. My part of this was to lean against a tree, smoke a cigarette, look truckish. I loved this job. Whole days would pass without any real physical labor and I was racking up good money for college tuition. What fun!

 The trooper’s mirrored sunglasses reflected two of my smiling faces.

“Yes sir?”

He said nothing, surveyed the empty flatbed, walked around back, reappeared writing in his ticket book.

“You loading or unloading anything on this vehicle today?” This could be a loaded loading question. I decided to evade it altogether.

 “No sir.”

 “If you hadn’t lied to me I might have gone easy. I saw you unload that equipment over on the construction site. And a truck looks a lot like this likes to play games with the weigh stations. Speeding, too. And you’re missing a mudflap, right side. I can only get you for that and the cartage, which is illegal with outa state plates. Here ya go.” He ripped the ticket from his book, smiled tightly.  

 I studied the ticket. It looked like hundreds of dollars. Was this on me? I didn’t know. I was crestfallen, driving back to the job.

  I gave the ticket to the timekeeper fully expecting to be docked. He just said, “Yeah we should’ve gotten plates changed. Tell the foreman to get a welder to fix that mudflap.” And that was that. I will stop at weigh stations, I will not exceed the speed limit. I will drive with courtesy and good will to others. I will do what it takes to avoid government work. My mantra. 

 An added benefit to driving the truck; when the labor union guy showed up to pressure me to join, I was able to tell him I was no longer a laborer, but had joined the exalted ranks of truckers. He sighed and left me alone.

 I learned other things as I drove. I ran out of fuel, for instance. On the side of a highway, I wondered what the heck to do, calling AAA wasn’t an option. Another trucker saw the flashing lights and pulled up behind me. I told him my plight. He climbed over the back, looked into the other tank and turned a valve. It was the connection to the other saddle tank. 

 “Try it now,” he said.

 It started after a couple of tries. I avoided his eyes as I felt my face redden.

 “Thanks,” I muttered.

He just smiled, swung back up to his cab. But I was learning. The process is sometimes painful, but lessons learned on the road stay with you. By the end of summer I wasn’t quite as dumb as I had been. College would be a snap. This other thing wasn’t as easy as it had first appeared, far from it.

  A serious thing happened toward the end of summer, serious as in life-threatening. I was returning from a city with some equipment and it had rained during the day. Not much, but just enough to make the dusty dirt road back to the site greasy. I approached the big hill carefully, paused at the top and looked down. A rickety slat bridge with angle iron side rails crossed a draw that, though dry, was deep. I started down the road in a higher gear than usual so as not to break what little traction the truck had and aimed for the center of the bridge. The truck yawed sickeningly and I let off the accelerator too late; I was headed for the bridge side or worse, on the driver side. It was going over. I slid to the other side, yanked the door open and jumped. landing on the wood slats of the bridge. It all happened so fast, that, as I regained some breath, I was aware of the truck seesawing slightly to my left, the right rear duals in the air. I smelled fuel. The bridge surface was muddy, and I slipped, slid as I found my footing. The truck bobbed in the air at an odd angle. Some angle iron had pierced the headlight on the left, and another piece had punctured the fuel tank.These flimsy pieces of rusty steel were the only restraints holding the truck from plummeting down into the canyonlike draw.

Shaking, I walked back to the jobsite and into the timekeeper’s shack. I was aware of the fans buzzing in there, riffling papers. I told him I had come for the two checks you get on the last day, and told him why. 

 “I wrecked the truck,” I said. “It’s hung up on the bridge.”

 He said something I’ll never forget. “You didn’t wreck it because you don’t know how to drive it, did you?”

“Yes. I mean no.”

  “Well, let’s go take a look, see what we can do. That short rain screwed up more than that truck. I’d rather have mud than that slippery skim type stuff.”

I see it even now. Clearly. They positioned a big Caterpillar, maybe a D-9, to one side of the bridge, another, smaller one to the job side. Cables were fastened to the rear axle of the truck, and the front frame. The Cat operators pulled backwards, the angle iron creaked and complained, and the truck slammed down on the bridge surface, rocking. The big Cat pulled it backwards off the bridge. I switched the tank over and drove it back to the site. Shaking.

  The damaged tank and the headlight were replaced. The truck sustained some creases and dents; they left them. Battle scars. The bridge was repaired, strengthened. And I drove until summer’s end when I had to return to school. 

I learned more that summer about life, about myself, than at school. Those lessons are harder to define.  And I have a definite respect for real truckers, over the road drivers. 

Guinotte Wise writes and welds steel sculpture on a farm in Resume Speed, Kansas. His short story collection (Night Train, Cold Beer) won publication by a university press and enough money to fix the soffits. Five more books since. A 5- time Pushcart nominee, his fiction and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals including Atticus, The MacGuffin, Southern Humanities Review,  Rattle and The American Journal of Poetry. His wife has an honest job in the city and drives 100 miles a day to keep it. Some work is at http://www.wisesculpture.com

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