By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/21/2018
Occurred: 7/22/2002
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 936
It did occur to me that I left data processing for truck driving, two careers in which backing up is a crucial component.

Day 1

Monday, July 22, 2002

I'm starting this in class, Day 1, during one of our many breaks. (Apparently, most truck drivin' students don't have lengthy attention spans—or maybe it's just that our instructor doesn't.)

They changed the plan from me riding out on a Greyhound, to me riding with a guy I never met, in his truck. The trip here wasn't too bad. The guy did smoke, with the window cracked; and his first words of conversation were about how all the world's problems began when we stopped spanking our children. He was one of those people who talks to the other cars, as in, "You sorry sack o' shit, what lane do you want to be in?"; but other than that, he wasn't so bad and the trip went by quickly.

The hotel looks lovely from the outside but is actually pretty downscale…as in, the desk clerk sits behind bullet-proof glass and most of the light bulbs in my room didn't work. I sat on the edge of the mattress, and felt a metal edge! But it wasn't terribly uncomfortable in the middle and I did sleep all right, other than being kept awake by my roommate's sleep apnea.

I had flashbacks of my Navy career when they "served" breakfast: reconstituted powdered eggs. No juice, just coffee (which I don't drink) and cheap, plastic-wrapped covenience-store Danish. Also we had been told to be outside at 5:45 am, but the bus didn't actually show up until 6:15 am, which in the Navy we used to call "Hurry up and wait."

The group of would-be truckers waiting in front of the Days Inn was pretty terrifying. Guys covered with tattoos, one guy with a particularly bad wig (he'd look much better bald), tough-looking women who'd make Barbara Bush look like someone you'd want to meet in an alley at night. However, Days Inn hosts students from four or more trucking companies; and now that I'm in class, I find that all the Schneider people are much more upscale. More than half are former IT people who have been out of work for most of the past year.

I was able to find a seat in the classroom near an electrical outlet, so I can plug in my laptop. The frequent breaks, plus electricity, allowed me to actually get some of my other work done. (I have been doing some freelance work while waiting for my date at the trucking school.)

After a morning of book work, the afternoon was spent actually driving a "bobtail" (no trailer) truck. We were two students to one trainer. I was paired with a guy named Carroll Wayne Wallace, who goes by his middle name. Knowing that practically every convicted or accused murderer has a middle name of "Wayne" (as frequently reported by News of the Weird), it's been all I can do not to ask if he knows that. But perhaps that's not a subject I should bring up.

I was relaxed while Wayne admitted to being somewhat intimidated by the truck, but neither state seemed to be an advantage as we did about equally well learning to shift, which we spent the afternoon doing. Basic shifting (up one gear), skip shifting (up two), downshifting (down one) and "bump-and-go" (down two or more) were all covered. We jolted the tractor a lot. And each other. And the trainer, poor guy.

US Truck Drivin' School (USTDS) trains for many companies, not just Schneider. A young woman from Swift rode on the return bus with us this afternoon. She was asking advice of a woman from Schneider who sat across from her. "If I drive ten hours and sleep eight," she asked, trying to figure out a nuance of the trip logs we must keep, "that's—what—twelve hours? Fourteen? …" She was dead serious—and the arithmetic wasn't her question; she was trying to ask something else! No wonder Swift is such a laughing stock in the truckin' industry (according to the Schneider drivers).

Day 2

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

I was up last night until 11:00 pm doing homework, so was not ready for the alarm at 5 am…but got up, anyway. I must already have gotten used to my roommate's sleep apnea; this time it mostly didn't wake me up each time he stopped breathing. That helped, but I was still groggy.

Schneider had promised to provide two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was "supplied" by virtue of the fact that the Days Inn in which we were bivouacked serves all its guests breakfast. Of course, as we'd been warned, it was a "continental breakfast"; but they hadn't detailed that the continent would be Antarctica. Yesterday (and, supposedly, Wednesday and Friday) it was reconstituted eggs and undercooked sausage; today it wasn't so good…just a cup of Honey Nut Cheerios. No fruit, no juice, no Danish; not even coffee for the latecomers. They made two pots of coffee for about a hundred truckers. No wonder the desk clerk sits behind bullet-proof glass.

Morning class was also a disappointment. Chuck, the instructor, is very good…when he's there. However, from 7 am to 11 am, we only had about two hours of class. He didn't get there until 7:30; immediately sent us on break; started again, got a call on his cell phone; talked for a half hour and sent us on another break; got another call, and so on. He then had the nerve to complain when I asked a question, saying that we were "seriously behind!"

Lunch is at the Schneider OC (Operating Center) cafeteria, which serves a wide variety of food, we were told. Here's the variety: Enchiladas with chicken or beef; burritos with chicken or beef; cheeseburgers. That's it. Today's special was the "Terminator Burger", a cheeseburger with pastrami added—apparently, it would "be back." I went for the regular cheeseburger, which was okay.

This afternoon, class was much better. Wayne and I were back in the truck, and we both did much better than yesterday. Shifting was a lot smoother and the ride was, too, since we were carrying a trailer. After four hours in which Wayne and I each drove two, it was my turn to drive back to the school. I didn't hit anyone or anything, so I have to consider the trip a success.

Day 3

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

We're all settling into a routine. Up at 5:00 am, download email for later reading while roommate is in bathroom, shower when he comes out. (He's a night shower person, so we have no conflict in that regard.) By the time I get out of the shower, he's already downstairs in the lobby/breakfast room. I follow shortly. This being Wednesday, we had the re-constituted eggs (I have no idea what they are re-constituted from…I suspect yellow rain slickers) and almost enough paper-thin slices of orange to stave off scurvy.

Then, we take the bus to Rialto, CA, where the Truck Drivin' School is located. I usually have time to read and sort my email before the classroom opens up. In class, we had three quizzes (on which I scored 92%, 96%, and 97%, respectively) and, since I was one of the first to complete, I actually had time to work on some web pages.

Lunch was as unappealing as ever. They've given us $5 coupons for lunch (previously advertised as one of two meals they give us a day), but no meals here actually cost $5 or less by the time taxes are figured in. They have every flavor of burrito imaginable, but they all look (and, I'm told, taste) alike. Today, the special promised to be different: Stuffed bell peppers. However, it still looked just like a burrito. So I got the cheeseburger, again.

Driving this afternoon was much more successful than yesterday, for both Wayne and me. We each drove two hours in local traffic; neither of us made our trainer whimper, which we saw as an improvement. He pointed out that who would believe, having seen us trying to shift Monday, that we'd be driving so smoothly today?

We even relaxed enough to start sharing jokes, and then Charlie (our trainer) said, "I have one about a homosexual." Of course I raised an eyebrow, ready for the worst; but I have to admit I laughed out loud at the punchline:

This gay guy went to a doctor. "Doc," he said, "I've gone and got a vibrator stuck up my butt."

The doctor examined him and said, "Man, that's really in there…it's going to cost at least $500 to remove."

"$500?!" the gay guy exclaimed. "I don't have $500…how much to just change the batteries?"

Day 4

Thursday, July 25, 2002

Today we drove all day—no classroom work at all. We spent the morning backing up, and the afternoon roaming the streets.

Yesterday evening, when we got back from our road work, one of the other students in my class commented he'd driven on the Interstate. Knowing how tricky the intersections are near the entrance ramps, I joked, "Deliberately?" But today we all did it.

We also pulled up to a spot facing a little mountain called Mt. Vernon, in the shadow of Big Bear. It was covered with little dirt roads, so when our instructor said we—that is, I—were going to drive up and down the mountain, I figured he meant we would be practicing on the dirt roads. So I took the wheel and climbed the mountain on a four lane highway, and I wasn't nervous because I was waiting for him to say something like, "Turn here," onto one of the dirt roads. Next thing I knew we were down the mountain! (In retrospect, it makes more sense to have done it on a highway like the ones I would normally drive.)

In the evening I tried to work on a web site, and did a little; but my roommate, David (with the sleep apnea), would not stop talking for a moment. He is getting baptized in his church this coming weekend, and he chattered on and on about it while he watched WWF Smackdown! on UPN.

It's not that he isn't an interesting person. He was born in Arkansas and spent part of his childhood going door-to-door with his brother, selling firewood they had chopped. That gave him an opportunity to see a night sky filled with stars, which he missed after he moved to California. However, one night, when he was dating the woman who became his second wife, the Santa Ana wind blew away the smog and they sat in his back yard, amazed at the glory spread out above. David began to point out constellations to her: The Big Dipper, Orion, and so on. She was amazed. "How did you learn all this?" she asked.

"In school," he said, matter of factly. "Didn't you?"

No. In Southern California, schools do not teach the constellations to their students. I suppose because the lights of Hollywood wash them out, and the smog normally obscures them.

Day 5

Friday, July 26, 2002

I use the pool here every day and once in a while (rarely) someone else is in there too, and we get to talk. I was talking today to a 32-year-old who just got his doctorate from a college in West Virginia for Macrobiotic Technology. He couldn't get a job in that field, or any professional job at all; so he is training to be a truck driver. My drivin' partner, Wayne, was a salesman who two years ago made $80,000,000 but two months ago had his car repossessed. My roommate was a chef. Kurtis, who drove me here from Phoenix, is retired from both the Army and the Navy but can't live on his pension and can't find other work.

This is, in fact, very much like being in boot camp. Men are here from all walks of life, thrown together by the common enemy of unexpected unemployment.

This may be what work was like in the WPA and other government programs.

Except the food was probably better.

We spent the whole day in the truck. The morning was spent backing up, over and over, at a pretend loading dock. I finally got it and my last five attempts were pretty successful. The afternoon was spent at a deserted Air Force base, practicing "button hook turns". This is where you start out by aiming left, before turning right. It's used for tight turns on narrow streets. Usually we are able to do regular right turns, which are easier. All turns are complex, though, because you have to adjust your gear shift while slowing down, ending up in the gear you need to turn in (4th or 5th for a right hand turn; 5th or 6th for a left turn) just as you actually do the turn. You have to watch in six different mirrors, too, while turning, paying special attention, of course, to the view of the trailer as it comes entirely too close to the curb or the telephone pole on the corner.

The truck we drive says "United States Truck Driving School: Caution Student Truck Driver!" on both sides and the back. At least that keeps the traffic from getting too close to us.

Day 6

Saturday, July 27, 2002

Well, I'm halfway through the initial eleven days of training. ("On the sixth day of training, my true love shipped to me…")

It was a half day. We got up at the usual God-forsaken time, had the usual taste of thin gruel (actually, Frosted Cheerios—less nutritious) for breakfast, and took the same bus with the same driver (Emmanuel) to the school. However, from then on it was different. We did "modules"—four areas of training, into which the twelve members of class were divided into four groups to cover. The first item we covered was how to operate power pallet hand trucks to load and/or unload our trailers. "Not that you'll ever actually get to use one of these," our morbidly obese instructor, Daryl, pointed out. "In real life, you'll be using hand-operated pallet trucks. But we have to train you in these just in case, so you won't look stupid if they ever do let you use one."

Then we watched a video, in which the director had used extremely sophisticated graphics to try and punch up an achingly boring subject. Over a computerized graphic of a power pallet mover, the words "MODULE ONE" spelled out in 3-D letters, rotated over and over while the Boston Pops played a brassy musical introduction. After "MODULE ONE" settled into place, the name of the module, "INTRODUCTION" spun wildly into view, over and around "MODULE ONE" while the orchestra swelled with enthusiasm. Finally, just when you thought the title sequence was over, the letters began to sparkle and glow, throbbing in time to the music, as the orchestra reached its final, triumphant conclusion.

The next sequence, of some guy in blue jeans hauling some boxes on his power pallet mover, couldn't possibly meet the expectations of the titles, even though James Earl Jones narrated. I couldn't help but laugh as he said, "Operating your power pallet hand truck requires careful planning and diligence" with the same intensity as his Star Wars line, "Luke…I am your father."

There were six modules to the video, each about five minutes long, and every one of them had a similar sixty-second title sequence.

We also took some time to back trucks with trailers into a narrow slot between other trucks with trailers, as we'd have to do at a truck stop. That activity included pulling through the space between two adjacent trucks, with barely enough room. We all succeeded, but not without a lot of coaching. ("Hard left! Right! A little right! HARD right! Now, hard left!") The physical exercise is actually making me feel better than I did before, though some students have complained of sore legs or thighs (from working the clutch). I actually found myself squatting fairly comfortably to look under the trailer, something I haven't attempted to do in years.

After the modules, they did feed us lunch—I wasn't sure they would. I had some chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. As usual, I had to pay almost three dollars extra over the $5 that Schneider covers, but it was worth it. I'm so hungry, this slop seems delicious. Hunger isn't enough to do it for my roommate, David, however. "I used to be a chef," he declared in his Arkansas drawl. "I saw where they be cookin' the food…now I'm not hongry."

"You'll be hungry later if you don't eat," I pointed out.

"I ain' ever goin' be hongry agin," he sighed, thus inventing a philosophy that might have made life simpler for Scarlett O'Hara.

He lives near here, and so when we got back to the motel his wife picked him up. "You could stay all night," I suggested, hoping to get the room to myself for once. "Come back tomorrow, since the bus won't be picking us up till noon."

"It not that simple," he said. "At home, I have me a sit-u-A-tion." I don't know what the situation is, just that it's a shame when a marriage turns into one. But David will be back tonight around 10.

Day 7

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Today we watched a slide show on how to avoid fatigue, for which I could hardly keep my eyes open, and another one on how to lift correctly. That last one could have been deadly dull, but was actually quite interesting. The rule is no longer "lift with the knees"; in fact, that is now discouraged. "Keep it close, and keep the curve (in the spine)" is the rule.

We also (finally) covered employee benefits…and what do I find, but that "same sex spouses" are not considered family as far as benefits are concerned. (I had previously asked the HR person I spoke with on the phone whether Schneider had "domestic partner benefits" and she answered, "I don't know"…making no further effort to find out.) In fact, that exact phrase is used in the benefits package for specific exclusion, in such a way that would override the laws of any state that might legalize same-sex marriage, or even if the Federal government did so.

I have been out of the closet for years…and have been working hard to not say too much about my private life to my roommate or driver training partner, even though I like them and feel bad to hold back when we are sharing our stories. I am careful not to lie, but it still feels like lying. I always use the word "spouse" to describe my husband, but they still hear "wife".

Nevertheless, I felt badly about not being honest with Wayne, my driving partner. He and I have had a lot of time for conversation, and he's shared a lot about his life. So, tonight, we ate dinner together and I "came out" to him. As I expected, he thanked me for my respect for him, mentioned that he isn't gay (which I already knew; no one can fake that much enthusiasm whenever any female comes into sight!), and we proceeded to have our usual conversation about hopes, dreams, and how trucking fits into them. It feels good to have one friend here with whom I can be completely open.

Day 8

Monday, July 29, 2002

This morning we spent backing up—over and over—and this afternoon we worked with maps. I needed the backing practice, so that was good; our trainer was impressed with both my and Wayne's (my driving partner) improvement.

Working with maps was no problem since I already know how; we had homework in which we had to plot routes across the country. Not much else to write about today.

Day 9

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

I met a woman tonight at the Jacuzzi who started off as if she were your standard Jesus freak. It turned out she was just looking for some guidance. She has dreams on a regular basis of a previous life, in which she is standing near an opening in a cliff where there is a temple. Her best friend has the same dream, and these dreams have continued for years.

When she was 18, she babysat for her nieces at her sister's house. While there, after the kids were asleep, she would hear a man's voice, even though she was certain no one else was in the house. At first she ran from it; but, after awhile she asked him what he wanted. He told her he had owned that house thirty years before; he had died in a car accident; his family, which had little money, had illegally and secretly buried him in the back yard in an unmarked grave and then moved away. He told her that he couldn't rest until he knew his family was okay, but he couldn't find them.

After a lot of misgivings, she finally did the detective work to locate the former owner of the house—or, rather, his widow. She had moved to a nearby town and, one day, Joyce drove over to see her. "You are going to think I'm nuts," she told the woman when the door was opened.

"Well, that's an interesting introduction," the woman replied. "Why not tell me who you are?"

So, Joyce explained who she was, that her nieces lived in her old house, and so on. She told the woman about the man's voice. When she described where the man said he was buried (which no one else could know), the widow invited her in, stunned. Finally, she asked Joyce, "What do you want?"

"I just want your husband to find peace," Joyce replied. "So he'll leave me alone. He just needs to know that you and your kids are all right."

So the window showed Joyce the photo album: The kids growing up, the weddings, the grandchildren. The widow cried and she and Joyce embraced. When Joyce returned to her sister's house, she waited for the kids to go to sleep and then went to the room where she had first heard the voice. "Are you here?" she asked.

"Yes," the voice said. So Joyce told him what she had learned. When she was done, the voice said, "Thanks." She felt a weight lift from the room; and she felt alone. The voice never returned.

Joyce had been unable to align her experience with her conservative Christian teachings, which said communing with the dead was Satanic. I reminded her of the passage in which Jesus states that one can always tell a tree by its fruit: A good tree can bear only good fruit. Was anyone harmed by the events she described, I asked? Were people's lives enhanced, or diminished? She had to admit that only good had come from what she had done. "Then, it sounds to me," I said, "like you have Jesus' blessing to exercise this gift. As long as it helps people, and does not hinder, you are performing a service." I then steered her in the direction of Zecharia Sitchin's "The Twelfth Planet" as a means of continuing her Bible studies by learning about the original Sumerian sources for Genesis.

As we are still practicing backing up (a struggle) and map reading (easy), I don't have much else to report. It did occur to me that I left data processing for truck driving, two careers in which backing up is a crucial activity.

Day 10

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Well, here we are: Tomorrow is the test to see if the past 10 days of training "took." If I pass, I will be hired by Schneider. If not, I will be kept for another week of training.

I'm pretty confident I'll pass. Either way, afterwards Kurtis and I will head home for the weekend. If I pass, I have to be back Monday for "Jump Start", the next week of training. If not, I have to be back Monday for the week of remedial training.

I gather that Jump Start consists of another week of training, similar to the past two.

Day 11

Thursday, August 1, 2002

Today was test day.

We had to leave early from the Days Inn—5:45—so we could wait an hour and a half for the vaguely-timed get-together (which began at 7 am). We were anxious to start the written exam, but first we received two presentations on aspects of Schneider that seemed to assume would all pass, anyway.

Finally, Chuck, our classroom instructor of the past two weeks, showed up and the actual exam was given. It involved 36 multiple-choice questions, a logging example to be filled in, and a trip planning exercise. I got two of the multiple-choice questions wrong, and made several mistakes on the log—I know how to do it perfectly, but went too fast and made a stupid mistake. Still, my grade was adequate (well above the class average) and I was ready for the road test.

There are a limited number of testers and so we hung out in the cafeteria, waiting for our turns. It was sort of like a busy day at Death Row. Every now and then, someone would come for one of us, who would then disappear. Finally, about 4:00 pm, it was my turn.

My tester's name was Dan, and he was pissed. He wasn't supposed to be testing today, and he had promised a friend he would help him out with some work. They called him in at the last minute and insisted he show up. He told me, "I'm mad, but I'm not mad at you. I'll try and give you a fair test." Well, that certainly helped put me at ease!

The first part of the test was the pre-trip inspection. That's where you give a cursory examination to every part of the truck. It includes details like the fact that the steering tires must have at least 5/32" of tread, 100 pounds of pressure (as opposed to 3/32" on the other tires, 90 pounds of pressure on the drive tires and 110 pounds on the trailer tires); that the wheels have no hammer marks or other signs of damage; the lug nuts show no rust, black marks, or shininess underneath; the hub oil is at an appropriate level, the hub oil seals be intact and show no signs of leakage, and so on. There must be 100 or 150 different items to be covered, and a full pre-trip takes about an hour. However, once it was clear that I really did know it well, Dan moved me to the other side of the truck (to save duplication). I only missed three items on the pre-trip.

Next was the road test. I didn't try to hide the fact that I was nervous about this. I wasn't nervous about the test; I'm nervous about driving in traffic. I still don't know how fast the truck will accelerate—and that value would be different depending on load, anyway. I messed up on one right turn, distracted because of the non-stop flow of traffic, and the fact that a truck was parked into the lane I would normally have driven into. But I got the next four right turns okay, and the final left turn back into the lot. When we were stopped, Dan told me he had tested an "experienced driver" who was trying to get work with Schneider that morning, and he hadn't done as well on his road test as I had.

Backing was easy. I backed directly into a slot between two trailers that was tighter than any I had practiced with. (I did make one pull-up to adjust, partly because I had heard they like to see us do that.) Uncoupling and coupling the trailer was also a piece of cake; I scored perfectly on both.

So I am now just waiting for Ken (who has a car and will take me back to the hotel) to finish his test. Wayne passed his, by the way.

But David, my roommate, did not. He was good-spirited about it, saying that Jesus would arrange for whatever he needed to happen, to happen. Schneider will be giving him a week of "remedial", so I will see him next week.

Now I get to go home for the weekend. I have to be back here Sunday night, back at Schneider Monday morning early, for "Jump Start" week, more training. It will, again, consist of classroom and on-the-road training. But, next week, I'll be an employee of Schneider, and they'll be paying me to take the training.

That's the good news. The bad news is, I'll have to pay for the crappy food—no more subsidizing.