Monday, January 12, 2009

Nothing . . . to be afraid of

Sometimes what is not there is scarier than what is. Sort of the devil you know from the other perspective. Long ago, I sold plastic parts in Florida. I was based in Tampa and went to the Southeast Coast about every three weeks.

It was faster, especially during the perennial road construction, to cut across the swamp. I would take FL-70 through Arcadia. If I was headed to West Palm Beach, I would stay on 70 and go around the North Side of Lake Okeechobee; to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, I would take US-27 around to the south.

Out past Arcadia and around the lake is Florida's cattle country. Cows and Steers with Cattle Egrets on their backs, lolly-gagging in verdant paddocks, sweating and switching flies with their tails. From Arcadia to US-27, there was very little evidence of human occupation - few houses, the occasional farm truck or tractor. One of the few places to find a Cadillac with bullhorns on the hood outside of Texas or Oklahoma.

One trip through this part of Florida, I got behind a guy in a pickup truck eatin' chicken wings. Every couple minutes, he would fling a bone or two out his window. With sinew and bits of skin hanging on each end, they arced through the air and bounced off the windshield right in front of my face. The wings must have been plain as he just left me with little grease marks and no sauce on the window to wipe clean.

On another trip, I drove past the Clock Restaurant on the east side of town, where their sign said: "Try Are Pies".  Just down the block, a garage sale sign advertised a "Hudge Sale." I was surprised they were having the sale while Mom was at work waiting tables.

Yet another trip, I was driving across in the dark. Shadowy visions of pastures and clumps of Live Oak trees ghosted along beside me under a full moon. For miles, it was just me, the road and a ditch on each side, barbed wire undulating on the outer banks. And then, I had to pee.

A smile turned up into my cheek. I hadn't seen another car for a long time. I popped on the four way flashers and stopped; just stopped in the middle of my lane. It's a guy thing -- alright, a little boy thing -- but there I stood in the middle of a state highway, peeing on the yellow center line and chuckling.

It would have been a pleasant Florida evening, but there was no wind; just the moon and a clear cloudless night. And no other sound. No buzz of an insect, no clunk of a cowbell, no steer grunting in disapproval, no rustling of the Spanish Moss. Just the pitter patter of me peeing in the road

... which suddenly stopped.

Had I known, I would have left the car running. There is something unnerving about stone silence. A full moon, the barbed wire, Live Oaks across the pasture but not a sound. In any scary B-movie, this same silence precedes something really bad happening. It is also hard wired into our fight or flight instincts; obviously the flight side. Just nothing. Scary, spooky, chilly, nothing.

Flip! Zip! Slam!!! I was back in the car - scared out of my wits . . . at nothing -- I don't know why! I'm a fairly rational guy but gooseflesh, hairs-on-end and fingers fumbling with the ignition - I'm outta here!!

This week it happened again. Somewhat more civilized as I'm driving familiar roads and know where the rest areas are.

Just west of the Portage River, west of Port Clinton on OH2, there is a little rest stop. One side serves both directions of highway. Just behind it and over a field or two is Lake Erie. I like the trip through here; especially in summer. I had just driven through an early winter storm -- fog and torrential rain -- which luckily stopped a few miles back.

I approached the Rest Area in the slick metallic wetness of a recent rain at night, past the Air National Guard Base and turned to the left. A lonely car passed me on the right. Just past the Rest Area is a low slung "No Tell Motel." It was probably quite a place in the days before the Interstates. Now it did weekly rentals. I've lived by the week. I know the kind of crowds that live there. Check out Dave Alvins' "30 Dollar Room" if your not sure.

I'm not paranoid, but on this job it pays to be alert and aware. As the air brakes sighed and I climbed down from the cab, I scanned the lot. Especially in the direction of the motel: 15 or 20 rooms, 5 or 6 vehicles, no obvious activity. I glanced back down the road as I walked around the front of the cab. Nothing. A car rolled by on the highway like a long pan in a Hitchcock movie.

Coming out of the Mens John, the rest stop lobby was all glass, lit from the inside with the Governor and his Lieutenant smiling down from the bulletin board, and I couldn't see outside at all. Stupid, but there's that icy finger on my spine again.

I pushed the door open and looked around; motel one way, air base the other. Nothing. Not a sound either, like the storm had drug all the sound away with it. I walked toward my truck with forced nonchalance. Herky Jerky as one leg wanted to lift too high too fast; left brain wants to run, right brain is faking cool. I look left and right as I cross the curb from the Car Lot to the Truck Lot. The wind comes back but I feel it more than I hear it. That icy finger tickles my ear.

The spooked left brain reminded us there could be someone hiding on the other side of the truck. I peaked under the trailer as I walked toward it. Rounding the truck, I casually got my keys out to unlock the door. SLAM! I was up and in the driver's seat, locking the door without remembering the climbing of the steps. My heart was racing . . . and for what! Stupid Human Tricks, I guess. I think I would have been better off if the lot was full of Harleys and lowrider Cadillacs.

I started the truck and checked my mirrors -- still no one around. I pulled out and started heading east again; chuckling at my self.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ice Dancing

It was clearly a night that I should have called in sick. Or at the very least bailed as soon as it started to go bad. We had had a slight warming and then a ferocious cold snap. The drop yard was thick with ice and full of ruts and clumps and holes from the last traffic before the freeze.

Creeping along in my pickup, I bounced and shimmied and shook across the lunar lot. Occasionally, the violence of falling in a hole or clammering over a ridge was almost painful. My forward progress interrupted enough that I wasn't sure I could get moving again.

Dispatch had given me a tractor number to use. After two painful trips around the yard, I was convinced it wasn't there. Calling back in, I got "Well, let me see here . . . damn, someone else is in that one." Armed with a new, and successful, truck assignment, I started packing. I've got a duffel of clothes, a cooler, a tub of truck stuff and another tub that serves as my pantry. As usual, I also have a 12 pack each of water and Diet Mountain Dew. This week, I didn't bring my guitar. All that and a broom to hang on the back of the cab; I'm ready to roll.

It takes a couple more trips bouncing around the lot to find that the trailer my load is on rests across the street. I get hooked up and check the paperwork. I am 1200 lbs. over gross; not legal for the highway. The previous driver thinks its the ice on the roof. He's probably right but this load is very heavy - bottled water for a warehouse store somewhere in Illinois.

This is where right and wrong, risk and reward, get paved over for a new Bypass to maintain economic activity. I could call in and refuse the load. More politically, I could call and ask for advice. They can't tell me to go around the DOT Scales but they would really rather that I did. It is unspoken and retains the Clintonesque plausible deniability. Anything I do, other than drive away with the load, is going to cost me a couple hours and damage my working relationship with dispatch. I craft a plan.

I've got 7 hours to make a 2 1/2 hour trip. Its a set appointment, so getting there early won't do me any good. There is only one scale between them and me. If I leave now, and get past the Indiana Scales, I can take a nap at a truckstop and then go in for the delivery. At this hour, on Dec. 26th, the scale is likely to be closed up tight. I take the gamble and drive off.

The trip goes fine. I run down the West side of Michigan. In the summer, I can smell the lake from the highway. I scoot through Michigan City, past the Scale and stop at Burns Harbor. The forecast is for warmer weather with the possibility of freezing rain. All I need is a three hour nap and I can roll again.

Halfway through my nap, I wake just enough to hear the rain. It must be getting warmer. I roll over.

When my alarm goes off and I climb out of the truck to make a pitstop, the last meddling detail of the forecast slaps me awake - Freezing Rain! The entire earth, as far as I can see in all directions, has been glazed over like a Krispy Kreme Donut. I can barely walk.

My well planned, half executed, plan has gone to hell. Rumors are that the State Police have closed the highway. I need to fuel up and get on down the road. I gotta go!

I break out my Motor Carrier Atlas and paw to the State Road Conditions page. I call Indiana and Illinois. Each prerecorded message gives weather conditions that sound hours old and cheerfully better than what it looks like now. Neither mentions any highway closures.

To get to the fuel island, I have to pull forward and off to the left. There is a small ridge of leftover snow right in front of my steer tires. Ice is everywhere.

I back up to nudge my way over the ridge with a running start. It seems to work, steer tires, then drive tires, both axles, lumber over the ridge. The trouble comes when I have to start turning right at the moment the first trailer axle reaches the ridge. It stops me cold, like a cow looking at a new gate. I back up and try to hit it a little harder, but the acceleration causes the drive tires to spin. The lot is so slick I can't turn and clear the ridge at the same time.

A driver steps out to repeat the rumor that the highway is closed. I know its a mess out here, but I don't want to shut down on hearsay alone. I back back into my parking space.

After a few moments' contemplation, considering the lot is only two thirds full, I decide if I back up, there is no ridge to intercept my turn. Trouble is the parking lot imperceptibly cants down toward the back row. When I back up to come around the other way, the weight of my load takes over. Now I don't have enough traction to pull the load up the slope. Back was easy; downhill. Forward is now impossible. Luckily no one is behind me, and I back into a slot in the back row. Now I've got to call this in. I'm not going to make my appointment.

Dispatch gives me to the shop and they call a wrecker to winch me out. The shop calls back to tell me the wrecker is two hours out if the highway remains open. The day is shot and I've driven 137.5 miles.

I jump out and slither my way across the lot to get a newspaper. About halfway across barely able to stand, let alone walk, an icy finger runs up my spine. The keys I confirmed were in my pocket are still my personal keys. I've just made my morning even better - I've locked my rig keys in the cab. It's then that I notice the trucks sitting out on the highway. The State Police have shut it down. The wrecker can't move.

Six hours, three newspapers and four cups of coffee later, the highway is open and the wrecker arrives. The ice has melted enough I could drive out, but I need him to pop the lock. I spent the entire time in a booth at McDonalds and milling around the truckstop, chiming in to complain about the ice, not letting on that I would rather be in my truck reading or sleeping but for the lack of a key!

Things were looking up for a minute or two. Then I learned the customer won't take the delivery late. The warehouse store concept calls for deliveries after midnight but not during store hours. Dispatch has me take the load to a drop lot in Hammond. Someone else will take the load in tomorrow night.

Everyone on the highways is still a little skittish but they are moving along. The exit is fairly well groomed. The service road is pretty sloppy. Around the curve, first drive past the International Dealer, the drop lot is slick and white; like the underbelly of a great fish. Ice all the way back between the buildings, beyond the parked trucks - some waiting for Monday, some rusting hulks.

If I don't pause, don't hesitate for a split second, I can move over the ice. I see another of our trailers and turn toward it. My forward motion doesn't even change. There'll be no turning here. As I coast to the last curve before the fence, there is just enough traction at this speed to go around to the right. Carefully positioning the truck, I back into a hole next to my sister trailer.

I can't get out from under the trailer. Traction, or lack thereof, still devil's me. Dolleys are down, king pin unlocked, but my tires just spin. I try taking weight off, putting it back on to no avail. For traction, I decide to pull out and back in a couple feet to the right. There is snow there where no tires have travelled.

Halfway back in the lot, the trailer is not traveling with me! It has followed me out but is lolling side to side on the fifth wheel. When I bumped the trailer to re-lock the kingpin, the lack of traction psyched me. Luckily, the dolleys are still mostly down. If I'd have lost the trailer it would still be standing. I manage to get out from under the trailer but it is in the middle of the yard. Amazingly, the truck slips back under and I back in over the snow.

The snow offers no help - no traction. I've spun the drive tires a couple times. I might as well be on a lake Ice Fishing.

Over by the back of one of the warehouses, a skid with a built up crate of 2x4's and big thick cardboard rest akimbo at the edge of a pile. The long sides are three foot by four foot pieces stapled on. I yank them off and skitter back to the truck. Stuffed under the drive tires, they might offer some grip. My Kingdom for some traction! Of course, my Kingdom is 8 or 10 boxes in my parents basement, mail at my sister's and a boat that doesn't float yet.

Easing the clutch out as slow as I can, in a gear just a notch too high to prevent spin, I eye the cardboard in my convex mirrors. Sweet potential savior cardboard, hear my croak; my anguished plea for mercy.

The tires begin to move, is it?!?!? Come on! And Zip!! . . . the cardboard slips under the first drive axle and curls up in front of the second. Like a Cash Register Receipt paper jam - my transaction could not be completed. Plenty of traction on top of the cardboard; absolutely none on the bottom. I call dispatch for my second winch out of the morning.

Same company, same model wrecker, new driver. A wrecker to haul semis is a special beast; one huge animal. He has little trouble on the ice. The wrecker is part crane for trucks in ditches. He backs in front of me, hooks a cable and pulls forward.

The crane part has feet that fold out to stabilize like cranes and overhead lifts do. Rather than folding the feet out flat, he stomps the toes into the ice and pulls the cable taut with a dip of the crane - like a Transformer doing the Macarena.

I'm literally yanked out from under the trailer. He left me in a spot of ice, so there's a second yank. I crawl under the empty sister trailer but can't get out. This time he connects the cable and tows me all the way out to the road. I'm back on the lake, but Water Skiing rather than Ice Fishing.

I sign his ticket and get on my way. A glutton for punishment, now I'm chasing the storm into Michigan with an empty trailer. What a week and its only my Tuesday! Two days in, I've spent $385 of the company's money and, for me, I've driven less than 150 miles; about $50 before taxes.

The very next day, I made it to Ohio and sat for four hours to get a twenty minute fuel filter change. Things are looking up! It'll cost you a case a beer to hear that story.

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