By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 260
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Monday, September 9, 2002

By morning I had received my trailer ID and load assignment. I was going to Phoenix! (Actually, Buckeye, about thirty miles west of Phoenix.) And, after that, my first long-distance run: to Oakland, California! I would be able to spend the night at home. Not exactly the world traveling I had been expecting; on the other hand, it would give me a chance to exchange laundry (dirty for clean) and to sleep in my own bed. Well—my other bed; I will be sleeping far more nights in the truck than at home from now on; so I may as well think of that as "my" bed.

I got up early enough, but by the time I had showered, had breakfast, and visited with my STL, it was already nearly noon. I coupled the trailer to the truck and off I went.

When coupling to a trailer, we use the acronym "PAL" —Pin, Airlines, Landing gear. When uncoupling, we use "LAP"—Landing gear, Airlines, Pin. I always had trouble remembering which was which: PAL for coupling or uncoupling? Something else I had trouble remembering, was which way to crank the landing gear. Finally, I added to the mnemonic and now, it's no longer a problem.

The "Pin" is actually a safety release lever on the "fifth wheel", the big round thing that serves as the tractor's "trailer hitch". It automatically engages when the tractor is backed until the trailer, but has to be manually released if the tractor is to be uncoupled from the trailer. Wouldn't want that happening spontaneously, now, would we!

The airlines are two, for the service brakes and the parking or emergency brakes; but in the coupling and uncoupling procedures, they include the electrical connection for the trailer lights. Since the "A" is always in the middle, for both PAL and LAP, these are easy to remember.

The landing gear is the structure near the front, on the bottom of the trailer. It consists of two pads, a crank, and the internal gears to enable the crank to lower or raise the pads. It wouldn't do to forget to lower the landing gear, but to release the pin and pull out from under the trailer! (And it has happened.)

So, I just added a little romance to the mnemonic. "Coupling" is when one gains a PAL. (The trailer is already waiting, with landing gear down; slide beneath it, which connects the Pin, then connect the Airlines, and finally, crank up the Landing gear. Which way do we turn the crank? Well, falling in love—coupling—makes one seem younger; so we turn the handle in counter-clockwise motion, to signify that time is going in reverse.

When uncoupling, one Loses A Pal—in other words, LAP. Put the landing gear down first (by cranking clockwise, since one will have to look forward to a new romance), detach the airlines, and pull the Pin.

I can tell that something I'll have to adjust in my mind is how long it takes to drive places at 63 or 55 mph. (In California, the maximum speed limit for trucks is 55.) By car it's just a five hour trip from our house to the Fontana OC; but by truck it's closer to seven. So it was quite late by the time I had delivered the trailer I was towing to the Buckeye Wal-Mart and finally met up with Michael.

Of course, with Michael, it's never too late for a gourmet dinner. Even though it was after midnight, he fixed me some Shrimp Scampi, which we ate before I tumbled into bed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

I got a bit of a late start, but according to my calculations, I had five hours to spare…so why worry? Michael and I dumped a few things into the truck I needed, including my stereo speakers from my desktop computer and a pair of scissors. Then I kissed him goodbye and took off.

For a change, it didn't take long to find my pick-up: A condiments manufacturer a few miles away, in Buckeye. It was easy to find and the yard had plenty of room in which to maneuver. I dropped off the empty trailer, coupled to the pre-loaded trailer, and was about to leave when I realized the tandems (the trailer's wheels in the back) had been slid all the way to the rear for loading. A couple of days previous, I would have left them there; but now I knew it was just for loading and slid them forward so they would be legal in California, my destination.

(The tandems are positioned, generally, for weight: The further forward they are, the more evenly weight in the trailer is distributed between them and the drive wheels on the back of the tractor. The fifth wheel can also be slid for a similar purpose, except it shifts weight between the drives and the steer wheels in front. All this adjusting is necessary for a heavy load, to keep the weight on each set of tires legal. For a light load, like my few pallets of mustard, weight isn't an issue but a few states, like California, specify that the tandems must be no further back than five holes on the tandem-adjusting rack. So, I had to "slide the tandems".)

"Sliding the tandems" means getting out of the tractor, pulling the "tandem release pin" (some pin—it's more like a girder) until the locking pins have retracted, getting back in the tractor, releasing the tractor brakes but not the trailer brakes, moving slowing forward or back the estimated number of inches needed, getting out, checking to see if the locking pins are near the desired location (and, if not, getting back in the tractor and re-adjusting), finally releasing the tandem release pin, getting back in the tractor, and moving a bit forward or back, as needed, so that the locking pins snap into place.

I was sweating by the time I was done.

One reason I was sweating, besides the obvious, is that it had actually rained a lot in the Phoenix area the previous two days and even that morning; and the humidity was high. So, I gratefully got back in the truck , cranked up the air conditioning, and headed for California.

A storm paced me as I drove, towering ominously over my left shoulder. I could see areas where rain had fallen; the desert was puddled.

When I was a kid in Vermont, our teacher told us that when it rains in the desert, immediately flowers bloom profusely. I've lived in Arizona for over six years, now…how come I've never seen that happen?

As I neared the California border, I saw a wall of creamy white approach. It didn't quite look like rain. What was it? Suddenly I realized, it was a sand storm. I'd been in one when I was kid, when our family made our first trip to Arizona. With the windows closed, it wasn't a problem except for visibility.

But, immediately following the sand storm was actual rain. It fell in sheets; I couldn't see far ahead and what I could see of the traffic was moving erratically. When I spotted the sign for a rest area, I pulled in. Amazingly, there was room for me! So I parked to wait out the storm. After all, if it began so quickly, it would be likely to end the same way.

That gave me time to arrange for decent music.

The car stereo in the truck receives radio stations all right, but of course that doesn't work well over-the-road: As soon as you find a station you like, it begins to fade. (Why is it I never tune into a station just as I coming into its range, instead of leaving it?) The unit also plays cassettes, and I brought a few; but the fidelity on a cassette is dreadful, compared to the sound quality of FM stereo.

I had originally brought with me a little device I bought years ago. You plug it into a portable CD player headphone jack, and it broadcasts the sound onto the FM band, where any nearby FM radio can pick it up. Previously, I hadn't had time to test it. Now I did, and it worked. Instead of a CD player, I plugged it into my laptop. I had several hours' worth of music sitting on the hard disk, waiting to be played. I set the jukebox program, Windows Media Player, to "shuffle" all the sound files on my hard disk, and, since the storm was over, I pulled out onto the highway and continued to California.

It was great. It sounded pretty good—a little fuzzy, sometimes, as I entered an area where the FM frequency I had chosen was already being used by a local station. I went through the California state line inspection station, past Blythe. Long before I got to Indio, however, the experiment had to be labeled a failure. The battery in the FM broadcaster would only last an hour before needing to be replaced.

By the time I got to Fontana OC, it was already later than I had planned. Still, it seemed I could make my on-time delivery to Oakland. But, first, I had to fuel.

Fontana has fuel pumps for Schneider trucks. Our trucks have two fuel tanks, so the fuel pumps are paired, too. They are connected so there is one price, but two pumps. I got to use my brand-new fuel card, and was ready to go.

Except, I planned to grab some dinner inside, and there was someone parked in front of me. So I waited…and waited…and waited. I was afraid to leave the truck to try and find the guy, for fear he would show up and move his truck while I was looking for him, and then I'd be the one blocking the way. Finally, after nearly an hour, he came along (getting a dirty look from me) and moved his truck, and I tried to find a place to park so I could run inside without blocking anyone.

The front part of the yard was unusually crowded, so I drove towards the back. When I got in sight of the rear area, it looked odd, for two reasons. 1) There were no trucks there at all, no trucks, trailers, or anything. 2) It glistened: It had just been paved, or was in the process of being paved.

I couldn't park there.

But I had planned on it; I hadn't left enough room to turn around if I couldn't. One of the first rules of the Smith System taught to us in class: "Leave Yourself An Out." And I hadn't.

It took another half hour for me to creep back-and-forth, back-and-forth, trying to get the truck turned around. Finally, I did it and backed the truck into an opening that had come available while I was stuck in the yard. I got my dinner (to go) and headed back to the freeway…but now, it was seeming less likely I would be able to make my 9 am delivery time in Oakland.

Construction between Fontana on the I-10 and I-5 slowed me further—an hour of doing 35 mph, instead of the legal max of 55.

Heading north on I-5, I came upon a very steep hill that had any number of trucks moving very slowly. Since I only had a light load, it wasn't a problem for me and I would have been able to pass them—except that there was a very clearly marked "Truck Lane" I had to stay in. When I reached the crest of the hill, after several miles, a sign warned of the descent ahead: six miles of 6% grade…and a posted truck speed limit of 35! Worse, even slower trucks ahead of me kept me moving at a crawl.

When I got to the bottom of the hill, I saw an exit sign to the town of Grapevine.

Ah…Grapevine! This was the dreaded Grapevine, the mountain pass that truckers dread. I'd read and heard about it before, but had never run it myself until now…and I had run it at night, not at all frightened because I didn't know I was running it. It's a rite of passage, and I had all but missed it!

However, I was going to miss my delivery time. I found a truck stop, sent in the macro to advise a late delivery, and turned in for the night.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Well, here it is…the anniversary of the day I lost my previous job, since most of my clients were headquartered in the World Trade Center.

Schneider had sent a message to all truckers, asking us to "show our patriotism by wearing read, white and blue business casual attire" today. I'm a truck driver; business casual? What am I supposed to wear, a red cardigan with a white collared shirt and blue slacks?

And, show my patriotism? Uncle Don Schneider, patriotism is something you feel and act on. It's not something to be "shown". The appearance of patriotism, without the substance, is what got us into this mess. And waving flags without making changes is what's going to keep us in it.

I drove for hours past the fields in which much of the country's food is grown…and harvested by migrant workers who can barely afford to buy any of it, so the corporations that purchased the land from the banks that foreclosed on it in the 1930s can be further enriched.

Some of those migrant workers may well be the grandchildren of the original owners of that land…

Unless you count the Native Americans, who owned it before that.

I took I-880 to the Oakland harbor. The air was sweet and salty, even though the buildings were ancient and dilapidated. I had to make two stops; apparently this mustard was far too valuable to rely on just one shipper to move it to the Far East. Although the yards were tight, I was able to maneuver all right—thank the Deity!—but as I closed the trailer doors at the second stop, I discovered they had carefully replaced the wooden pallets the product had been shipped on. I now had twelve pallets in my supposedly "empty" trailer.

I sent a message to my STL and parked outside the yard, across from an abandoned warehouse. There was no one around but it still looked creepy and dangerous, like a scene from a film co-starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Denzel Washington.

While I waited for a reply, I tried my second method of getting decent music in the truck. I had picked up my computer speakers when I was last in Phoenix. I tried connecting them to the laptop, and to the power inverter. Now the problem was, the speaker plug is its transformer, and I couldn't plug in the laptop and the speakers at the same time! At least, not until I had gotten an extension cord. However, I could run my laptop off its battery while leaving the speakers plugged into the inverter; that would give me some tunes until the laptop battery died.

The message came in that I could deliver the pallets to a certain Oakland address. I checked for directions on the laptop…only a few blocks from where I was, but the streets were pretty narrow. Still…

I was in an "ethnic" neighborhood. The people were clean and the homes were old, but cared for. Still, the gratings on the first and second floor windows suggested what the place might be like at night.

In the day, though, folks were very helpful, and I needed the help. They alerted neighbors to move their cars when I got stuck on a side street, gave directions from park benches, and ladies called me "honey" and "baby" without a trace of animosity or rancor. When I reached the address I'd been given, a man with a forklift came and helped me carry the pallets to the rear of the trailer so he could forklift them away. I notified my STL that the trailer was empty ("MT", as we say in the cryptic messages carried by satellite).

Now, all I needed was directions to my next drop off or pick up. But hours passed, and I heard nothing. I sent a message saying that I couldn't remain where I was; although the police were passing me, I knew I wasn't legally parked (I had my flashers going) and I didn't want to have to navigate these narrow streets at night, when the good people retreated behind their grated windows and I was left with the ones outside those grates.

Finally, grimly, I turned on my music and tried to find a freeway entrance.

As I did so, I abruptly left the "ethnic" neighborhood for a more upper-middle-class one. While the faces looked much the same, the cars were far newer. And, in this neighborhood, no one sat at park benches, and car windows were rolled up tight. I couldn't ask directions. I did, finally, spot an entrance to I-680 and got on. I didn't know where it went; I just wanted a truck stop! I followed signs toward Walnut Creek, a town I at least knew of (I had held classes there before).

Windows Media Player had searched my entire hard disk for sound files, and was playing them in random order. Stuck in I-680 rush hour traffic, I was trying to relax as Judy Collins urged me to "Open the door and come on in…I'm so glad to see you, my friend." I considered how welcome I had felt in that lower class neighborhood, and wondered if I had been too hasty to leave. Were my fears justified? Would I have awakened in the morning with no tires on my truck? How well would I have slept? Now, not having tried it, I had no way of knowing for myself.

Then I hit the first wave of patriotism. On an overpass over I-680, dozens of people had thronged, holding large flags and waving them over the slow-moving traffic below. A few cars honked their horns in response. "We Will Never Forget 9/11/01", the suspended banners proclaimed.

Suddenly, and I swear I am not making this up, I heard my minister's voice in the cab! In a moment, I realized that I also have the church web site on my laptop; one of the files there is Walt's sermon from the Sunday after 9/11/01. Windows Media Player had searched for, and found, every sound file on the computer…and its shuffle feature had chosen this moment to play Walt's sermon. "It's now been…what? Six days since the attack on the World Trade Towers. I have no answers…"

The irony is, Walt, my Unitarian Universalist minister, doesn't believe in coincidences or that any higher power guides our lives…yet, what are the odds against this recording, which I didn't even realize I had, playing at just this moment?

The sermon, written well in advance of the President's ill-named "Patriot Act", warned of giving away our civil rights in response to a loss of security. "If we are willing to die for freedom," Walt considered, "then we ought to be willing to be afraid for it."

The final overpass in the Oakland area only had two people on it. They each flew a flag, but not a US flag. They were not United Nations flags, either. They were home-made, a picture of Earth on a blue background. The people carried no banners, no signs; but the message was clear.

And the response was heartening. Not just a few cars, but nearly all the cars, blew their horns in hopeful and determined support.