By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 12/17/2018
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #TruckDriving #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver Page Views: 952
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Monday, December 30, 2002

Did it again. Followed the directions. It could have been worse. The directions said to go to First Street, and I would find the US Customs building on my right. Well, there it was, on my right. That was the good news. The bad news was, I couldn't possibly turn into the gate from that position…not without knocking the fence down.

Traffic was sparse, so I threw on my flashers to give me a moment to figure out what to do next. I might still be there if a fellow in a uniform hadn't run over to me. "Go straight down one block, then go left around the block and approach from J Street. You can then drive straight through the gate, no problem." His accent was soft, with the mild slurring many descendents of Mexicans use when speaking English. I was, literally, fifty feet from the Mexican border, so this was no surprise.

"Thanks," I said.

"No problem," he assured me. "I came as soon as I realized yours was a Schneider truck, even though it is white." At my puzzled expression, he explained, "All the Schneider drivers come down the wrong street. I don't know why."

I followed his directions and, sure enough, was easily able to enter the gate. There was only one other truck in a facility designed to deal with at least a dozen at a time. It was my first time through US Customs at the Mexican border, and I didn't know what to expect.

"Do I need to open the back of the truck?" I asked the other driver, a well-built man in his thirties with sandy hair and beard and alert blue eyes.

"Naw, I don't think so," he said easily. "I have a bonded load, so I have to. What're you hauling?"

"Vertical blinds," I replied. These were the same blinds that had shifted in transit, putting so much weight on the drive axle that I spent the weekend at the Arizona weigh station, unable to leave until the load was rearranged.

"Shouldn't be a problem," he said. "When you back in, leave enough room so you can open the doors if they ask you to. That's what I would do." And that's what I did.

I was in Douglas, Arizona, with a load that, presumably, would eventually wind up in Mexico. However, I wouldn't take it there. After clearing Customs, I would take it a few miles further to Bisbee, and drop it off. What the Levelor company did with it after that, was their business. I would just be happy to get rid of it.

My previous experience with US Customs had been at the Canadian border, where the officials searched the cab of my truck more thoroughly than they did my load. Here, however, the officials simply looked over my paperwork, then told me to wait outside; they would call me when "ready".

I found myself sitting next to the sandy-haired driver. "So," he said, by way of starting a conversation, "you're with Schneider."

I nodded. "Yup," I said.

"I used to drive for them," he commented.

"Really?" I asked. "How long?"

"I was with Schneider for six months," he said. He thought about it. "That was three years ago."

"Couldn't make it through the first year?" There is, of course, a one-year commitment to Schneider in exchange for the training."

"Naw. The directions were too bad."

I snorted. "The directions are terrible!"

"I was spending all my time trying to locate customers. Hardly any, actually driving. I couldn't afford it, and I told 'em so."

"I've been averaging two thousand miles a week," I complained.

"See?" he said.

"You like US Express better?" I could tell from the cab of his truck that was who he now drove for.

"Well, all the companies suck," he said. "You just have to find one that sucks in a way you can tolerate. US Express is all right. The directions are better, anyway."

"I can't figure out how Schneider can get away with their directions being so bad," I marveled. "You'd think it would cost them in a noticeable way, in customer complaints when loads arrive late."

The driver chuckled. "Which just proves delivering goods isn't their primary business, doesn't it?"

I snorted. "What else could their business be?"

He grinned in a superior way. "Did you know the government pays Schneider five grand for each driver they train?"

My jaw dropped. "Really?"

"Yup. Five grand. Do you know how many students Schneider trains a week?"

"Well, they seemed to be doing between twenty and thirty when I was in training."

"Where did you train?"

"Fontana."

"They also train in Dallas, Green Bay, someplace in South Carolina…and a few other places. Suppose there are five training centers, and they only start a new class fifty weeks of the year. How many new drivers is that a year?"

"I'd have to crank up my laptop to do the math," I apologized.

"It comes to 7,500 new drivers a year. That's 37 and half million dollars a year from the government for training new drivers."

"Wow."

"How do you suppose they make room for all those new drivers? What happens to all the drivers they've already trained?"

"I've wondered about that," I said. "Of course, the life of a truck driver doesn't suit everyone, so some new drivers quit right away, or are fired."

"Sure," the driver agreed. "But, mostly, the drivers leave after the end of the year and go to work for some other company. Why?"

I shook my head. "The bad directions?"

"Exactly! And the low number of miles, lower than promised, anyway. Basically, Schneider makes more money from turnover than they would from efficiently moving freight. So, it doesn't pay them to fix the directions, or put enough people on third shift to answer the phone in less than a half hour, or any of the dozens of other things that will make you fed up enough to leave at the end of the year. Schneider doesn't mind if you quit; they want you to quit—to make room for the new driving students that contribute so much to their bottom line."

"Wow." That was a lot to absorb. I would have to think about it.

"See, the way they run the company only seems insane when you assume their primary business is moving freight. When you understand what's really going on, it's quite sane. Terrifyingly sane. Bordering on sane, anyway."

Just then, the Customs guy left the office and called the driver to him. Together, they inspected his load and then he closed the trailer doors. He waved and called, "Give US Express a call when your year is up."

The Customs guy handed me my papers back, now emblazoned with a "US Customs" stamp. "Next time," the man said, "Open your doors before backing into the bay."

"Oh, I'd be happy to open them now," I said.

"I know you would," he replied, smiling. "Don't worry about it. Just open them for next time, please."


Bisbee, Arizona, is a very old town, just down the road from Tombstone. I had no trouble finding the customer, and left the trailer there, leaving me bobtailed. My next assignment was to pick up an empty trailer in Tucson and take it to Phoenix.

I had asked a fellow at the customer's if he knew what had colored the hills that surround the town. The hills are fantastically decorated with great blotches of red, ochre, yellow, and even a yellow green that is pretty much exactly the shade of seasickness vomit. "That's the tailings from the copper mine," he said. "The big hole you passed on the way into town." I hadn't passed any big holes that I'd noticed, but I didn't say so.

My route out of town was different from the route in; and that's when I saw the big hole. To call it a "hole" did not, in fact, do it justice. It was a great, open pit, larger than some small towns I've been in (though not quite as large as Bisbee). There was mesh fencing all around it, and at the northern end was a building marked, "Queens Mine — Tours".

Just past there was one of those Adopt-A-Highway signs, stating that this part of the road had been adopted by the "Bisbee Gay and Lesbian Alliance".

I almost ran off the road. Here I was, in the deepest, presumably most conservative part of a conservative state, and the local Gay and Lesbian organization felt free to adopt a portion of the highway.

Moreover, this portion of the highway was not littered with trash, as is the section of South Carolina highway that was adopted by a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. People there protested the Klan by trashing their section of highway. That had not happened here.

I began to picture a town with a large Gay and Lesbian population, living in balance and harmony with their straight neighbors.

Suddenly I thought back to the name of the mine. Queens' Mine? Hmmm…my mind filled with images of gay miners, working their picks and shovels, sweating in the sun, wiping their brows with rainbow-colored bandanas, meeting in the saloon after work for a round of daquiris.

I pictured the town meeting held the week after the mine was closed. "Buck Johnston," one of the town's straight citizens identifies himself. "Ah propose we turn the Queen's Mine into the world's largest open-pit barbecue!" There is applause from the straight folks into the audience and and gasps of horror from the gays. "Folks'll travel from all over the country to eat ribs, and…well, more ribs."

"Mitchell Bon Vivant," one of the gay members identifies himself. "I propose we turn the mine into an amphitheatre! We can build seats along the sides, and a stage at the bottom. Think of the productions we can stage! Musicals! Dance! We can bring culture to southern Arizona!" The straight folks stare uncomprehendingly, like cows at a passing train.

"What's got more culture than open-bit barbecue?" Buck mutters, but can't be heard over the voices of the gays who are already deciding which producers will be invited for the first year's performances.

Because the gay population is so large, it looks like neither side will be able to obtain a majority vote. Finally, one of the Lesbians rises. "Ellen Birch," she identifies herself. "The amphitheatre is a good idea," she continues. "After all, what better place to hold the world's largest…tractor pull!" Now the Lesbians and the straights are in agreement. "And there's no reason why the tractors can't be driven off at the end of the afternoon, and a play or ballet given at night!"

This is why Lesbians make such good organizers.

However, that was all in my imagination. In reality, the closed open-pit mine is just a big pit, and a few tourists visit each day in the border town whose hills are composed of leftover slag.

However, as I leave the town of Bisbee behind, I think that the open-air amphitheatre is actually a good idea. And the irregular shape of the pit would allow for storage of the tractors and monster trucks, as well as the stage props and costumes. There would even be room for the barbecue.

It's a good idea. It borders on sanity.