By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 263
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

It seemed so simple. A pickup at Target in Albany, OR, where I'd just dropped a trailer off the night before. I knew the location, I knew the lot. I was even getting friendly with the security staff who man the guard shack. I was thinking, "I've got the knack, now. No worries."

I picked up the loaded trailer and decided to have lunch where I'd eaten the night before: A nice little Café nestled next to the untended fuel pumps off I-5's Exit 228. I had a pork tenderloin sandwich, hopped back into my truck, and turned the key.


I checked the shift, the lights, everything. The shift was in neutral, the lights were all off, everything was "go". Everything, that is, except the engine. It wouldn't budge.

And the clock was out, and the Qualcomm was dead. I would have to telephone for help.

The battery had been giving me trouble, and Larry, my STL, has asked me to watch my idling while he was gone for a week. "I haven't been idling much, have I? I mean, before you sent me to that blizzard in Alberta?" But I had to stop the engine at the Target guard shack, and again while checking under the trailer to be sure I was coupled properly, and again at the guard shack, and again, of course, at the Café a couple of miles away. So, the engine didn't really have time to fully recharge the batteries, and now they were drained.

There was nothing to do but call Road Repair to get someone to come jump start me, and my STL to let him know my tight delivery schedule would, once again, not be met due to breakdown.

The saddest part was, I knew Road Repair's phone number by heart.

Eventually, the requested tow truck appeared. It was driven by a young man named Jay, dark-haired and muscular, with intense blue eyes and a strong chin beneath his goatee. At least, I thought to myself, I'll have someone cute to look at while getting jumped! However, after connecting his tow truck battery to mine, I still wasn't able to start the truck.

We tried waiting awhile. "I know it's connected," Jay said, "because the cables arced when I connected them." But no charge would build up. "It's got to be a short," Jay concluded. "Either in the batteries, or the alternator, or the starter. There is one possibility," he added. "I might be able to pull start you." I agreed it was worth a try; so he positioned his truck in front of me and connected chains to the front of my tractor. "I'll let you know when to pop it into gear," he said.

"What gear?" I asked, frantically.

"Oh, try fourth," he said. It didn't make me feel any better that he didn't know exactly what gear would do the trick.

He began to pull me through the (fortunately) sparsely-filled truck lot. When he made a hand gesture, I popped the clutch. The engine rolled over, but still wouldn't start.

Another trucker came over. "You've gotta do that in a high gear," he advised. "At least tenth." Tenth gear, of course, is my highest. Jay shrugged, and we tried again in tenth gear. And then, again, in sixth. And then in second.

My truck still stood immobile in the lot, showing as much life as Al Gore during a press conference.

Jay got on the radio with his dispatcher, who called Schneider. "We'll have to tow you in," Jay finally announced.

"With that?" I asked. Jay's tow truck hardly seemed up to the task of towing me and my high-value load that I couldn't abandon…not that I had any way of uncoupling from it, anyhow.

"Naw," he replied. "We have a big tow truck for eighteen-wheelers. Butch'll be driving it."

Butch? I thought. I always wanted to meet a guy who's name was actually "Butch." My boyhood pal, Ricky Martin, had owned a dog named Butch but that wasn't the same. Even though Butch was a very nice dog.

So, Jay left and I took a short nap to pass the time, and also because this load would require a long drive to get there before it was totally irrelevant.

Eventually, the big tow truck arrived and it was big—longer, probably, than my tractor. The man who got out looked just like Jay.

"You look just like the last guy," I said.

Jay laughed. "Yeah, Butch couldn't make it," he said.

The operation of preparing my truck for towing took over an hour. Everything he needed, Jay found in compartments in the tow-truck's side and he needed plenty. Getting the front of my tractor suspended in the air behind the tow truck was the least of what was required. He had to connect air and electric lines to the trailer so its lights and brakes would work properly. He had to patch air through to the tractor's air tanks so the drive wheel emergency brakes wouldn't engage. He had to remove the drive shaft! There was a compartment in the tow truck just for the drive shaft, too; and at the sight of Jay standing there, holding that big, round, hard piece of steel in front of him, an effort that made every muscle in his body bulge, I wished like anything that I had my camera with me. I could have sold copies of that photo to any gay men's magazine you might care to name.

By the time we were ready, the northern winter sun was already setting. We pulled out on the highway, the two truck, tractor, and trailer, and headed for the Portland Operating Center. It took about an hour-and-a-half to get there. When we arrived, I hopped out to greet the service manager while Jay backed my trailer and tractor into a lot I would have struggled to hit with just the tractor and trailer.

"Hey, Paul," the service manager greeted. "How's Michael and the dogs?" I've been in repair so often, the service managers all know me. By now, I think I've met every service manager at every location in the Eleven Western States.

"Better than my truck," I groaned. I explained what the symptoms were and he promised to give it a look.

My load was transferred to a fellow named Troy, to whom I handed the bill of lading and waved goodbye.

I called my STL, or rather second shift since it was well after 4 pm. A woman named Kelley informed me I would have a "loaner", another tractor that was temporarily unassigned. Oh, great, I thought. I get to drive a tractor in worse shape than mine. I couldn't really say no, though; and I was going to have to sleep somewhere…and could sleep very well in my own truck while repair guys crawled around in it.

I found the assigned loaner and groaned again: It was an ancient International, sitting nobly amongst the other bobtails like the Titanic moored in a row of motorboats. Worse, when I looked inside, I found the previous occupants hadn't removed their stuff, yet; and it was all piled on the lower bunk. A TV, bags of dry groceries, a kid's toy still in the box rested on the mattress while a cooler hummed on the floor next to several fully packed suitcases and day cases.

I pointed this out to the service manager, who opined that the driver was at dinner and would be back shortly. I borrowed a company car and went to eat at Fuddruckers.

Three hours later, the stuff was still there. I shrugged, moved it as neatly as I could out of the way, and threw my bedding on the bunk. It had been a long day and I would have to be up early to pick up the load I'd already been assigned: A short one from Albany to Portland, but a load none the less.

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

"How would you like to keep the loaner truck?" Wes asked over the phone. Wes was my STL during my training days, and had taken over for the week in Larry's absence.

"Keep it?" I asked, dumbfounded as if I'd just been asked if I'd like a case of syphilis. "Keep the International?"

"It's an International?" Wes asked. I guess he only knew the truck number.

"Besides, the other guys' stuff is still in it," I pointed out. "Their TV, cooler, groceries…"

"Oh. I had here a message that you could keep it if you wanted it."

"I'd like a better truck," I admitted. "A better truck. Not an older one. Certainly not an International." I'd been warned that Internationals are hard to steer, especially while backing, and I had found that to be true.

"Well, your Freightliner is newer," he agreed.

However, it was still in repair. The service manager clicked his tongue when I asked how it was doing. "Oh, that thing," he said. "Did you know there are repairs outstanding on it since 1997?"

"1997?" I asked, amazed. "How can that be? The registration says it's a 1999."

He gave me an odd look and lowered his voice. "It's older than that," he advised.

"How old?" I asked, puzzled. His expression was that of a man slipping nuclear secrets to a member of the bin Laden family.

"Old," he said. "Old." And wouldn't tell me any more, except that repairs would be continuing through the night and I should get a motel room. Which I did. And got to watch Enterprise, which I hadn't seen in months. That, alone, would have made the whole affair almost worthwhile.

Outside, the long-awaited winter rains finally began, ending a Northwest drought that had begun in the spring.

Thursday, November 7, 2002

In the morning, I gratefully walked through the rain to my truck, and found I already had a load I couldn't possibly deliver on time. It was going from the Target distribution center in Albany, OR, to one of their stores in Spokane…and was supposed to be there by 8 pm!

"That's a little under a thousand miles!" I pointed out, ready to be upset but Wes calmed me.

"We know that," he said. "This is a load recovery. The guy who was supposed to take it, broke his wrist. Just figure when you can get there safely-and-legally and we'll let the consignee know."

I figured about 10 pm if all went well, and went to get my bedding out of the loaner truck.

The truck wasn't there.

I asked the service manager about it, certain he would tell me its regular drivers had already retrieved it. But he didn't know, and directed me to David, the operations manager.

When I found David, I also found the truck; he was unloaded the stuff in it, into boxes.

"My bedding's in there!" I called.

"Haven't gotten to the bedding, yet," he said. "Come and get it."

As I piled the blankets and sheets into my arms, I said, "So, these guys aren't coming back?"

"One guy," David corrected.

"One guy?" I asked. "All this belonged to just one person?"

"Yup," he said. "Hard to believe, isn't it?"

I sighed. "And I suppose he's moving to a better tractor," I said, wistfully.

"Not for awhile," David commented, as he sealed another box. "He broke his wrist, and can't drive again until his doctor releases him."

The drive to Spokane was long and hard. It took me over eleven hours straight through, and at that it was after 11 pm when I arrived to find the manager of the store wearily waiting for me so he could lock up and go home.

Note to DOT: I am exaggerating. I would never drive more than the legal ten hours before taking the required eight-hour break.

Friday, November 8, 2002

After spending the night in the Target's back parking lot, listening to the patter of the rain on the Fiberglas cab of the truck, I awoke and made the short run to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for my morning pickup. This load was to go to California, not far from Stockton, a trailer full of wood chips. I found the shipper without incident, backed into the dock, and allowed the folks there to load my empty trailer while I relaxed in the knowledge that nothing more would go wrong with my tractor, because I had now gotten everything fixed. I looked at the list. I'd had a flat tire, a cracked shock absorber mount, something wrong with the coolant pump, a dozen fixes that should have been applied over the years, and, of course, the batteries.

It was an impressive list, and especially impressive that they'd been able to get it all fixed so quickly.

The dock guy handed me the bill of lading and said goodbye. I rolled forward through the rain, stopped, got out, closed the trailer doors, got back in and continued almost to the highway, where there was room to stop and I could do my paperwork. I updated my log, made sure I had all the directions I needed, and sent in the MAC 5 message over the Qualcomm announcing I had picked up my load, what it was, and when I expected to be at the destination. As usual, I couldn't possibly make it on time but Wes told me not to worry. "It was intended to be a team load," he explained. "Just let me know when you can get it there, and we'll tell them to expect it then."

I agreed, put on my seat belt, and pushed in the yellow button that releases the service brakes. It hissed, as is normal; but it didn't stop hissing and then it began to sputter and hiss. I pulled it out and the hissing stopped. Pushed it back in and the same thing happened. Moreover, when I tried to move forward, I found the emergency brakes were engaged and the electronic display read, WARNING PARKING BRAKES ON.

Another message to Road Repair. The usual silly first response: DRIVE TO LOCATION FOR SERVICE with a code for a place some miles away. My usual response: PLZ VERIFY I AM TO DRIVE ON HWY 8 MLS W/O BRAKES. The usual reply to the reply: SVC ON WAY 1.5 HRS.

The mechanic eventually showed up and urged me to follow him to his shop "just down the road". I grit my teeth, engaged the emergency flashers, and struggled to pull the 44,000 pound load against my emergency brakes. After taking apart the dashboard, the mechanic finally announced that the switch, itself, was leaking. "I'll have to find out if we have a replacement," he said. An hour later, he returned. "It's a little different, but it'll work," he said. You can imagine how much better that made me feel.

Who do I have to blow to get a truck that won't spend half its time in repair?