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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind


By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 6/20/2024
Occurred: 9/8/2003
Page Views: 270
Topics: #18-Wheeler #TruckDriving #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver
Just what I needed: A homophobic driving instructor.

Monday, September 8, 2003

As I was supposed to, I showed up at my truck at 6:00 AM with all my stuff. The first thing I did was a thorough pre-trip inspection. I had been warned that someone else might use the Richard Gear as a loaner while I was on vacation; and I discovered someone had. The truck had been driven about 300 miles since I had parked it.

But there was plenty of fuel, oil, and other liquids; and whoever had driven hadn't smoked, left trash, or disturbed anything I'd left…except for one, curious exception. I had taken photos of my minor accident a few weeks before with a disposable camera Schneider gives to its drivers for this purpose. I had been told to hang on to it until I was asked for it. I thought that would happen within a day or so, but no one had said a word. Now, for some reason, the camera seemed to be missing. I had left it on the passenger seat, and the other things I'd left there were still there; but not the camera.

Not even the Gay Pride flag taped to the driver's side window had been disturbed. So it struck me as quite peculiar that the camera was gone.

And then I started to wonder where the truck had been driven, to go 300 miles. That wasn't far enough for a round trip to California. It wasn't even far enough for a round trip to Tucson; yet it seemed a bit far for just tooling around the Valley.

Oh, well. There was no point in agonizing over the matter. For all I knew, maybe I accidentally threw the camera out with the trash last week.

So I made the bunk, and put away my clothes and canned goods and sat, awaiting an assignment. When one didn't come in right away, I let the motor idle so I would have air conditioning, and napped. (I'm really not good at getting up at 6:00 AM, anyway.)

When an assignment finally did come in around 11:00 AM—and remember, drivers don't get paid to wait for an assignment—it was the usual, a Reckitt Benckiser run to Fontana. That was almost immediately corrected, with a short local run to be followed by the Reckitt load. That was a little better, but it was still going to be a (yet another) low-paying day.

Later, as I drove the Reckitt load across the Mohave, I received a message informing me that Winter Training would be held the next day. Great, I thought. How typical is this? Yancy had promised me I'd be getting more miles, but since then it had just been repairs and training. Were they trying to get rid of me?

Well, according to my theory, they were. I was tempted to test the theory by not quitting. That'd show 'em! Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to keep working for Schneider. I should have quit a month ago, I knew.

There'd been no shortage of suggestions as to where to go. One friend, who had quit Schneider after just five months, worked for a company that moved pianos, and actually loved it. He made plenty of money, and was required to spend one week a month at home, in addition to weekends. Other friends and email respondents had suggested other companies, describing their benefits and pay schedules and they all seemed superior to Schneider. Of course they did; they didn't have training programs, and relied on experienced and happy drivers to represent them to the shippers and give them their competitive edge. Basically, Schneider was the Wal-Mart of trucking companies, undercutting the others' prices with inferior services, obtained from underpaid and exploited employees.

Well, at least I wasn't bitter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2003

After having my trailer unloaded at a 6 AM appointment, I parked at the Fontana Operating Center, ate breakfast, and returned to my truck for a nap. I'm really going to have to quit, I thought. Normally, I would never quit a job without having one to replace it. But driving a truck is so time and energy consuming, that it's impossible to go job-hunting while doing it! For example, here I was at Fontana with nothing to do—but I couldn't very well conduct a job interview with another company, on the phone in the room with all the phones, no booths, and no privacy—and going through Schneider's switchboard, which for all I knew was monitoring all outgoing calls.

Winter Training began at one o'clock. The instructor, Glen, remembered me from Spring Training and welcomed me warmly. The class was less laughable than last years' winter training, though they still went on about having a three-inch candle to prevent freezing to death in winter. I wondered if Tuck, the one-armed old-timer I'd met a week before, had had one; and, if he hadn't, might that have saved his wife's life? Or his arm?

After training, I decided to drop in on Yancy and remind him he was going to get me more miles. A trip to, say, Canada at this point would rescue the week. But, when I got to the offices, I was informed that I couldn't go anywhere—I had a remedial scheduled for tomorrow morning at seven.

A remedial? I asked.

Because of your accident, Debbie explained. She began to try to justify it, but I waved her off. They had made me take a driving remedial when I got stuck after following their wrong directions down a muddy road; so it wasn't surprising I would have one after an actual accident, even if it hadn't been my fault.

At least, I would be eligible for layover pay.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

In the morning, an hour early, I entered the cafeteria where I was to meet my remedial trainer and ordered breakfast. A number of my instructor friends were sitting together, so when my egg, cheese and bacon on English muffin was ready, I took it to their table and invited myself to join them.

Paul! one of my favorites cried. It's nice to see you here!

We haven't seen much of you lately, another remarked.

Are you over your surgery, yet? Back on the road? asked a third.

I greeted them all by name, and explained that I'd been back on the road for a couple of months; I just hadn't had time in Fontana to visit. But I'm here today, I added, for a remedial for a little accident I had.

Then they wanted me to tell them what had happened. Who's your instructor? I was asked.

Some guy named Ed, I replied. Know him?

There was a sudden silence at the table, and the rolling of eyes.

What? I asked, my own eyes narrowing.

The instructors looked at each other, embarrassed, and finally one said, This is going to be a waste of your time.

Why is that? I asked.

Another cleared her throat. Ed is a hell of a driver, she said. But he's a terrible person.

Now, I was nervous. How bad can he be?

Another instructor shook his head. He yells at drivers and says things like, 'What were you thinking?' I don't think it helps the drivers. It certainly doesn't teach them anything.

They wind up so upset they just want to quit, another added.

Ah, I said softly. So that's the game. But, I continued, loudly enough to be heard, if he's that bad, why don't they fire him?

Several of the instructors shrugged. Why do they keep people like Debbie? one finally asked, rhetorically.

Ed came in at that moment and, except for the round of blushing on the faces of several instructors who no doubt thought they'd been busted, no one would have guessed the other instructors had been talking about him.

He seemed nice enough, at first. We chatted a little. He asked me to describe the accident to him as we walked out to the tractor. I was in the right-hand lane, turning right, I replied. I had my turn signal on, and was waiting for the light to change. When it did, I turned right. I had nearly completed the turn, when this little Nissan Altima darted from behind me and tried to pass me on the right. There wasn't room for her, and she glanced off the side of the tractor, enough to scratch the paint off her rear fender, but not dent it.

We had not yet reached the tractor. That's not what happened, he announced. You never even saw her, did you?

I beg your pardon?

You never even saw her! he shouted triumphantly, as if he were Hamilton Burger in an old Perry Mason episode. You weren't even looking in your mirrors! Were you!

I stopped walking and stared as if he were some freak species of octopus. What?

He stopped, too. We aren't going to get very far, he said, until you admit that you didn't look in your mirrors, you didn't see her, you were too far from the curb and didn't stop when she started to pass you. This was a preventable accident! The last two words were spoken at a higher pitch, as the Wicked Witch of the West might have cackled them.

I stared at the man, my jaw agape. This was going to be a long remedial.

But I kept my calm. I let him finish, then I said, That's not what happened. It's not what the witness described, and it's not what the driver of the car that hit me admitted to Schneider's Accidents department on the phone.

I don't care about any witnesses, he said. I know what happened, and there's nothing you can say or do that will make me believe otherwise. He took a breath. Let's get in the cab.

I unlocked the door, entered—using the proper, three-points-of-contact stance—and unlocked the passenger door so he could get in as well. Under his direction, I started the truck and drove to the gate. That included a right-hand turn out of the parking area.

You took that turn awfully close, he said. That wasn't a four-foot clearance.

I'm driving bobtailed, I reminded him. I don't need so much room to turn as I would if I had a trailer.

But you were pulling a trailer when you had the accident! he shouted again in triumph. That's when you ran into the Altima!

I shook my head quietly. I was bobtailed, I said. And I didn't scrape the Altima; she scraped me.

Never! he shouted, as I struggled to hear the voice of the gatekeeper over the loudspeaker. I knew he would ask me for my driver ID and if I didn't hear him ask, we would never leave. Ed was still shouting as I called out my driver ID; the gatekeeper had to ask me to repeat.

Shut up, Ed! the gatekeeper chided. I can't hear the driver! But Ed didn't seem to hear him.

Finally, the gate rose, clearing the way for us to leave. Ed had me turn right, and then right again and again. We went around and around the block.

I had expected this. After all, the accident had occurred while I was making a bobtailed right turn, so it made sense that I make many of these turns while being observed, so that my technique could be critiqued and improved.

I don't pretend I am the world's greatest driver. After all, I've only been doing it a little over a year. And I've certainly made mistakes while driving that could have been fatal if not for luck. While I still believe the particular accident I was here for was not my fault, that doesn't mean I didn't expect to be able to benefit from a review with a skilled instructor. Useful comments might have been, I notice you put on your turn signal too soon (or too late). You get into your setup position too soon (or too late).

But Ed just couldn't get past the fact that I wouldn't admit to being the cause of the accident in which I'd been involved. He kept re-telling the story of the accident, varying details from the way I had described them so that I would become the villain of the piece.

I am a two-million-mile safe driver, he told me pompously. That's two million miles without an accident. There's another instructor with two million safe miles, but they aren't consecutive. You, on the other hand, drive by luck. You are a danger on the road to yourself and others.

That's not a thought shared by any other instructor who's ridden with me, I thought, but kept quiet.

Finally, back at the Operating Center, he got out of the truck and threw up his hands. I can't do a thing for you if you won't take ownership for hitting that car. I can't teach you a thing.

I shrugged. I had hoped you would critique the way I'm turning now, I said.

He stared at me. You're taking this personally, aren't you!

I stared at him but said nothing. (I may have raised an eyebrow. When I was in Navy boot camp, I was given the nickname Spock because of this habit.)

He blinked first, and turned angrily back toward the truck. "When's the last time you did a pre-trip inspection?" he demanded.

Yesterday morning, I replied. I normally do one every morning, but today had been unusual.

He had me open the hood and inspected it as thoroughly as a mechanic on overtime, much more thoroughly than we had been taught to do in class. He checked the oil, holding his body between me and the dip stick. How much oil is in the engine? he demanded.

A little less than full, I said. It didn't need a quart, last time I checked. He huffed and handed me the dip stick to replace. It showed exactly what I said it had.

He moved his way to the back of the cab, finally stopping at the fifth wheel, the great coupler to which trailers are attached. He pulled on the fifth wheel release pin, a metal rod that disappears beneath the assembly. After a few moments with it, he said, How did the release pin get bent?

Beats me, I said. I didn't know it was bent. I looked at it and still didn't see a bend. Ed directed my attention to within the assembly. Sure enough, there was a deformity in the straightness of the rod. But it didn't look like a bend; it looked like it had been manufactured that way.

Do you think I'm stupid? Ed spat. These are made to be straight…just like people!

I felt a chill run through my heart. Was that what this was about?

How else could I interpret his words?

He'd been nasty to me before we ever came to the truck…but, once there, he couldn't have failed to see my Gay Pride flag on the window.

Abruptly, he left the truck and led me to the cafeteria. Inside, he hissed, You must admit that hitting that car was your fault. I'll give you ten minutes to think about it. And he stalked outside, lighting a cigarette as he went.

I waited calmly, quietly. Drivers came and went. Finally, he returned. Well? he demanded.

I will not tell a lie, I said, so that you will stop calling me a liar.

That's it, then, he said. He went into the office area at the other side of the building, leaving me there.

I waited over two hours, before I was finally approached by Yancy. We need to talk, he said, and led the way to one of the little conference rooms in the office area. So, he said in a neutral tone. How did it go?

According to Ed, I replied with a straight face, I am the worst driver on this planet and possibly the Universe. I'm a danger to myself and others, and should be shot.

He said that? Yancy, asked, aghast.

Well, I added the last part, I admitted. Interpolated from the rest, which he did say.

It's odd, Yancy said, frowning, as he looked through a sheaf of papers struggling to explode from a very fat manila folder. Every other instructor you've had thought you were a very good driver.

I nodded, grateful for the acknowledgement. He put down the folder. But let's forget about the accident. It's gone. Over with. I'll never bring it up again. We have a different issue to talk about.

Okay, I agreed. What's that?

This bent fifth wheel pin of yours, he said. That's a very serious issue.

If it's so serious, I said, why didn't the mechanics look for it when my truck had its PM a couple of weeks ago?

What do you mean?

Well, however the pin has been, it's been that way since I got the truck. I assume it has, I added, because every now and then, I would have trouble uncoupling and have to shift the position of the cab a little in order to do it. But I had the same problem on other trucks I've driven, and lots of other drivers have the same problem—other drivers told me how to move the truck back and forth to loosen the coupling. So, I repeat, if this is a serious situation, why don't the mechanics check for it?

I don't know, Yancy admitted. But they apparently don't, and now we have to assume you are the one who bent the pin, because you didn't report it when you first got the truck, or when you got back from your vacation.

So, we get it fixed, right? I can request a repair slot as soon as I get back to the fuel desk…

You don't understand, Yancy said. Having a bent fifth wheel release pin is a terminable offense.

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. Having one will fire me? Even if I'm not the one who did it?

You're suppose to check for it, Yancy pointed out.

I'm not supposed to take the truck apart to do it, I reminded him.

I'm not saying we're going to fire you, he said. It's a possibility. But there are people who will have to examine the pin this afternoon and tomorrow morning. We'll let you know tomorrow. He stood up. Please don't leave before then.

Am I under arrest? I asked, only half kidding.

He didn't answer.

I did put the truck in for repair, which meant I had to spend the night at a motel and Schneider would have to pay for it. Moreover, I would be eligible for another night's layover pay. Ironically, this week in which I didn't drive and might be fired, could be one of my highest-paying yet.

I called Michael on my cell phone from outside the motel, as I tried to decide where to eat dinner. I think they are going to fire me, I told him. I think I should quit first.

How will we pay the rent? Michael asked in a warning tone.

We aren't paying for it now, I pointed out. At least, this way, I'll have a chance to get another job.

Do what you think best, he said.

I didn't know they were going to fire me. I knew they might. I had no way of knowing how serious this fifth wheel release pin thing was going to be…either in reality, or in the fantasy world that was Schneider.

I went to bed not completely sure whether I would be employed in another twenty-four hours, or not.