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Chapter 2 of Meat in a Seat: A Trucking Adventure
After three weeks of Hall N.S. training, which my classmates and I referred to as Truck U., I had to pass two tests (written and driving) to earn a Commercial Driver’s License.
The written test proved easier than beating a chimp at checkers since the questions matched word for word with a sample test provided by the company recruiter. I absolutely owned it.
The driving test, on the other hand, was like trying to land a triple-axle at the Olympics. And I would have landed on my sequin-unitarded can if the tester hadn’t asked, “You’re not going to pull out in front of that car, are you?” right before I almost pulled in front of that car at what I thought was a four-way stop.
I often think about how much my life would have changed had the tester not warned me. But it didn’t matter. The fact is, I passed the Missouri test for a Class-A CDL and became a member of the Truck U. Class of September ’98. I couldn’t have been more thrilled!
I know. A class that takes three weeks to graduate probably lacks prestige, but I celebrated as if I’d finished medical school to become a urologist – and I wouldn’t owe a college thousands of dollars or have to look at a grown man’s donk.
The next evening, I reported for duty at Hall N.S. And as I drove my car through the parking lot, I noticed something that nearly suffocated me.
They were huge.
Like tipped-over skyscrapers on wheels.
Somehow in Truck U., I hadn’t fully appreciated the enormity of an 18-wheeler.
A panic attack crippled me and I almost turned my car around and sped home. I feared that Missouri, and by extension the entire transportation system, lacked sound judgment by allowing me to command a 40-ton truck.
But in the end, I clung to my faith in the D.O.T. And I needed the money.
So I parked. And with a pioneering spirit and the type of anxiety that induces diarrhea (but thankfully didn’t), I walked to truck 5250 to meet my driver-trainer, Bill Carman.
Bill, 67, had trucked the highways for over thirty years. He looked like the world’s first trucker, too, and welcomed me with a smile and a handshake, wearing a black Bass Pro Shop hat that defied gravity. Well, I say “wearing,” but it was more like the hat rested on his head, as if it had fallen from heaven like a leaf, meandered earthward, was tossed around by the wind, then landed gently on his dome.
As he ratcheted the load locks to secure the cargo inside the trailer, I couldn’t stop staring at it. I kept thinking, How does it stay put?
In our three months together, I never understood how his hat so brazenly defied the laws of physics and eventually came to the only conclusion left. Bill’s hat was magical.
Bill also wore the large rectangular eyeglasses with rounded edges that a lot of men and women wore in the early ‘80s – the unfashionable kind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet still wear despite their obvious means to procure updated frames. Seriously, guys, is that a windshield on your face or are you just happy to have corrected vision? Please don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m vainly concerned about something as shallow as appearance. It’s more of a safety issue. You simply don’t have to wear transparent dinner plates over your peepers anymore. That’s dangerous glass just inches from your eyes! Please, plate faces. Do yourselves a favor and check out what ophthalmologists have done lately.
When I expressed my anxiety about piloting the monstrosity to Bill, he laughed.
“Wahhh hah hah,” he said, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other in the pocket of his faded blue Dickie overalls. “There ain’t nothin’ to worry about, Chris. You’re gonna do fine.”
His laugh reminded me of the trusty chuck wagon operator in old westerns who rustled up meals (aka beans) for the cowboys. The guy with a low threshold for sass and sometimes called Cookie.
After a bee buzzed past my ear under the plum purple twilight, I asked Bill what we were hauling. He glanced at the paperwork and said, “Potatoes. A full load, too, so we gotta watch them hills.”
He squeezed the brim on his hat, pulled it down, then flicked it back to its previously precarious position with enough force to catapult it from his head, yet it stopped just in time.
“Well,” he said, slapping his hands together. “I guess we better get ‘er on down the road.”
He walked along the side of the truck and kicked the tires – thunk thunk – with the heel of his cowboy boots, jiggled the latch on the trailer doors, thunk thunkedsome more along the passenger side, walked around the front – thunk – then hopped in the driver’s seat.
As Bill and I left the Springfield yard, he assured me that there was nothing to trucking and that he’d teach me everything he knew.
A few miles outside of town, he turned on the radio. “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain had just begun. He cranked the volume while bobbing his head to the beat then said “All right!” as in ‘Now the party’s starting!’ My head bobbed in time to the music, too. Nothing crazy. Just enough of a postural echo to express that I knew how to have a good time, too.
As we moved to the rhythm, I smiled his way, hoping to telegraph a few sentiments. I wanted him to know I couldn’t wait for our journey to begin, that I’d work hard, and welcomed his guidance. The springs in my seat squeaked as Shania sang.
Bill shouted over the music to tell me that our three-month training period together would be his last run with the company before he moved to Georgia to help his brother manage a trucking business.
For nearly an hour, we listened to country music and shared our histories on the planet. When our conversation ended in a comfortable lull, Bill said, “You think you can take ‘er from here?”
At first I didn’t know what he meant. Take what from here? Panic set in when I realized he wanted me to drive. My palms went sweaty.
Driving wasn’t something I’d planned on. Not so soon, anyway. I mean, I knew I’d drive eventually — of course – but hoped he’d at least work a full shift before handing me the reins.
Suddenly, the road looked ominous. Cars seemed to drive faster. A bridge in the distance appeared too low to clear. I felt woefully unprepared.
“Uhhhhhhhh,” I heard myself say, stretching out the word and sounding like Butthead. I felt like a reality show contestant and expected to hear a narrator say, “Just look at his face. Did he really think he’d be prepared after only a three-week course?”
Eventually, I formed intelligible words.
“You really think I’m ready?” I asked.
I contemplated excuses as to why I couldn’t drive yet.
Didn’t feel well?
Nothing sounded convincing.
“Well of course you’re ready,” he said as he pulled off at the exit. “You got your license don’t you?”
His breezy reply had a soothing effect that essentially stopped my inner whimpering. I was making too big a deal out of everything. Again.
When we switched seats, I sat there and had forgotten all I’d learned at Truck U. My hands clutched the steering wheel as if somehow the connection would transmit instructions. Nothing happened. My mind often blanks when I’m nervous. Point a news camera at my face and I’m Lennie from Of Mice and Men. My I.Q. drops 80 points. Guaranteed. I especially abhor social situations, fearing someone whose name I should know might approach. In those cases, my memory often evaporates. And they may even be someone important to me. Someone with a simple name, too, like “Uncle Jim.” One time in an introductory situation, I blanked on my mother’s name. You may think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m completely serious.
“You all right?” Bill asked.
And as he said that, one of the blanks in my mind finally filled with instructions: Inspect the truck before departure.
“Yeah, man,” I smiled back. “I should probably inspect the truck first, right?”
“That’d be a good idea,” he said.
So I stepped out of the truck to do so. As I climbed down onto the pavement under the pitch black sky of rural Missouri, the truck appeared huge and menacing again. I sort of looked the cab over with a flashlight, thumped a tire, wiggled the wires and hoses.
When I reached the back of the trailer, anxiety gripped me as if I were a stuffed squirrel being chomped on by a dog. I feared I might simultaneously cry, throw up, and crap myself.
For a few seconds, I actually considered making a run for it. No joke. I thought, What’s the worst that could happen? I wouldn’t go to jail or be shot simply for quitting. This isn’t North Korea. I could be home in a few hours, watch some TV, maybe ask for my roofing sales job back in the morning. Screw this.
From my vantage point behind the trailer, Bill couldn’t see me in either mirror. A few buildings squatted nearby – perfect for hiding — and I could get a running start. I pictured myself tiptoeing away while watching for his face in a mirror. The combination of his cowboy boots and age would give me a distinct advantage.
In retrospect, Bill should have leashed me with one of those harnesses bad parents use on kids at the mall.
Then I considered his magic hat. What was the extent of its power? Could it transform into a weapon and incapacitate me, like Odd Job’s hat in Goldfinger? I didn’t want to chance it.
Mostly, I didn’t want to owe Hall $3600 for breach of contract.
As I walked along the passenger side toward the front, Bill’s smile greeted me in the mirror. God his glasses were huge.
I walked around the front to the driver’s side door, and, after taking the deepest breath ever then exhaling as if to expel all my fears, I climbed the steps, opened the door, and jumped into the driver’s seat.
As we rolled down the ramp and onto the highway, my palms sweat so profusely I thought they’d slide right off the wheel. But eventually, the training kicked in.
Bill and I chatted about our favorite food (me, Indian; he, Mexican), movies (me, too many to list; he, westerns and war), and music (pretty much everything; country) as we headed east. The stars beamed around us in panoramic glory.
An hour later, Bill unbuckled his seat belt and said, “Well, it looks like you know what yer doin’ alright. Guess I’ll try and get some sleep.”
He stood. Yep. Straight up. A lot of people don’t realize how spacious the inside of those cabs are. They’re tall and you can stand, walk around, do jumping jacks. It’s not like strolling around an apartment, of course, but they’re quite roomy.
“If you need anything, just holler,” he said as he walked toward the sleeping area behind me. I asked where I could pull over to pee in thirty minutes or so. He looked sidelong the way a person does when pondering the kindest way to answer a dumb question, turned, walked to the back – I could hear a few drawers open and close – then plopped a few Ziplock bags next to my seat and said, “Here ya go.”
I glimpsed at what he’d dropped on the floor and figured he’d simply misheard me. I wasn’t planning on making any sandwiches. My face must have appeared as one big question mark.
“Trucking lesson number one,” he said. “Unless you need to go number two, you’ll have to learn to use those bags.”
Or a milk jug. Or my container of choice. Whatever captured liquid. His point was that we couldn’t pull over every time one of us needed to whiz. At first, I thought, You must be joking. But he wasn’t.
Noticing my horrified expression, he explained, in a soothing tone.
“Okay. Here’s the thing, Chris. Every time you gotta go to the bathroom, it takes ten minutes to slow down, find a spot, park, get out, do your business, jump back in, get on the highway and up to speed again,” he said. “We just can’t afford to pee like civilians.”
Ha ha, I thought. Civilians. Apparently we were enlisted men. I wanted to ask if we could expect a parade upon return from our mission, Operation Potato.
Bill added that all drivers did this, though I figured “all” was an exaggeration. He said some truckers actually cut a hole in the floor, rigged a hose, and peed right on the road.
Anyway, I couldn’t believe he expected me to urinate while piloting a truck at 70 mph. Driving proved difficult enough with both hands on the wheel, and now apparently I’d need a free hand? Obviously, an important part of my training had been omitted. But to be fair, only so much information can be conveyed in a three-week course.
He sensed I was over-thinking again.
“Trust me, Chris. You’ll get used to it,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Impulsively, I wanted to ask him if “anything” might include his holding the bag for me but realized it might be too soon for sarcasm as he stepped behind the seats and closed the curtain that separated the cab from the sleeper berth.
Thirty minutes later, my bladder pulsated with pain. I figured Bill had fallen asleep since I hadn’t heard a peep back there and could see his boot tips jutting under the curtain. Technically, I couldn’t see above the tips, so for all I knew he might still be his boots, standing there, but I convinced myself that if he’d been standing there creepily staring at a curtain for thirty minutes, I had more urgent concerns than a man seeing me whiz in a bag.
I eyed the boots one last time. They didn’t appear to be filled with toes, so I retrieved a Ziploc bag and officially left civilian life behind.
The procedure wasn’t that difficult. And I realized Bill’s wisdom. I needed to pee a lot. Normally ten to fifteen times a day. I think I had diabetes, or an enlarged prostate, like the guy on the TV ad at a baseball game who leaves his seat multiple times to use the restroom, annoying spectators each time he apologetically scoots by. How inefficient to pull over every time I had to go! By the end of each day – with my bean-sized bladder – we’d lose the running time of Titanic.
* * * * *
We sailed smoothly until Highway 60 narrowed into a two-lane road near Charleston, Missouri, just minutes from crossing Mark Twain’s river – the Mississippi. America’s burbling backwash. I got lost in old-timey thoughts of jazz, steamboats, and white lacey parasols, and dumbly stared too long in the direction of a car’s headlights to the point that I could barely make out the yellow and white lines of the road. When my vision cleared, everything turned eerie. Tufts of fog stretched across the road and swirled around trees like ghosts. Headlights of distant vehicles bobbed in the vapor, like the torches of Frankenstein’s mob.
After a 20-mph curve, the ghosts parted to reveal the mouth of a bridge and the aquamarine braces supporting it. The bridge appeared impossibly narrow and I couldn’t comprehend how our truck would slide past oncoming traffic. I suspected an elaborate trap-door prank afoot, constructed by Kentuckians across the river who’d howl in laughter when we plunged into the Mississippi. But, as I would many times in the early days of my trucking career, I clung to faith in the D.O.T. that everything would be okay.
When the first big truck approached, I stiff-armed the wheel, held my breath, and tried not to cross the middle line. In the right mirror, I could see my trailer tires just two feet from scraping the concrete shoulder. In the left mirror, tires hugged the middle line. As the truck passed, I inhaled deeply and bit my lip. A blur of windshield and face ripped by. The wind snapped between our mirrors but somehow they didn’t collide and shatter.
It seemed that every approaching vehicle would clobber us, yet each passed without incident.
Near the end of the bridge, I cringed through a ridiculously tight 15-mph curve. The Citizen Band radio crackled to life.
“Hey driver. You a little scared or what?”
I hadn’t the wherewithal to pick up the microphone and answer. From behind me, I heard Velcro rip as Bill emerged through the curtain. I finally exhaled as we escaped the narrowest bridge I’d ever cross in all my years of trucking.
“You found the bridge, huh?” he said, sitting in the passenger seat holding a loaded Ziploc bag and wearing only underpants, socks, and a white t-shirt. His appearance added to the surrealism of the moment.
He rolled down the window and launched the bag at a Welcome to Kentucky sign. The bag somersaulted a few times then – Ping! –hit the sign nearly dead-center.
Bill often tossed urine bags at signs. And he almost always hit his mark. His favorite signs to soak read Welcome To… and Adopt-A-Highway. Occasionally, for a real challenge, he’d aim at the skinny mile markers, and his accuracy was impressive.
I sometimes wondered if his filling the bags was less about time saving and more a pretense to pursue his athletic endeavors. If a trucker Olympics debuted, Bill could certainly compete for the gold in the Urine Bag Toss.
As he rolled up the window, I peeked at the mirror to see the narrow bridge fade into darkness and fog.
“Lemme know if you need anything,” he said, then stood and disappeared behind the curtain and closed it, starting from the top of its Velcro edging. I continued east on Highway 60, motored through Wickliffe, Barlow, and Kevil, reached Interstate 24 in Paducah, then pointed south. For a while, I felt at ease.
Until Monteagle, Tennessee, happened.