By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 7/15/2020
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 1992
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

So, with Michael safe at home and Zachary now a proud four-year-old, I got my next work assignment and was ready to hit the road again. It was a typical load from Reckitt Benckiser, where I've picked up so many loads I'm pals with the folks in Shipping. I had to pick up the load by 9:00 pm, when they close. First, though, I had to bring them an empty.

The empty was on the other side of the Valley, supposedly. When I got to the specified address, I found that my empty wasn't—it had not yet been unloaded by that customer, in fact. Since it was getting late, and Reckitt doesn't usually mind not getting an empty, I sent the appropriate Qualcomm message and headed west.

On the way, I got a revised where-to-find-an-empty message, but I ignored it. I no longer had time to stop and get it and still make Reckitt in time. Sure enough, at the shipper's, my pal Jeff said he didn't care if I hadn't brought an empty trailer. I coupled to the loaded trailer they had for me and, still parked in their lot, sat preparing and sending the satellite messages regarding the load.

Another Schneider truck pulled into the lot, almost too late, I thought. The driver got out and walked to the office, his shoulders sunken, the picture of misery. Lord, I thought. I wonder if he just found out they're going to make him drive another year before he can quit. I continued to work on my messages, and then updating my driver's log and journal on my laptop, as he exited the office, found his trailer, coupled to it, and returned to the office for the paperwork. Since the office was still open, I decided to make a last-minute pit stop before leaving for California. I nodded to the driver as I passed him and went into the bathroom. He was waiting for Jeff, the office guy, on the other side of the glass window. But, while I was in the bathroom, I heard a sound from outside. I swear, it sounded like the driver was sobbing!

When I left the bathroom, the driver was getting his paperwork and I waved again at my pal. He told the driver, as he told all the drivers, that he would meet the driver by the trailer in just a moment, to seal it. The driver trudged outside, and Jeff motioned me to come to the window. "Is this guy all right?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"He looks like he just lost his best friend," Jeff said.

"I'll talk to him," I offered.

Outside, after the other driver's trailer had been sealed, I managed to walk by him on the way to my own truck. "Hey, buddy," I said. "Are you okay? Is anything wrong?"

He looked at me and I could see something was wrong. His eyes were red; his lids were swollen and tear tracks wore through the grime on his face. At first, I thought he wasn't going to admit to a problem. But then, he said, "My wife died."

"Oh, man," I said. "I'm sorry. When?"

I almost expected him to say it had happened that afternoon; but he replied, "Three weeks ago. I guess I shouldn't have gone back to work so soon, but I was going fucking nuts at home."

I let him talk about his wife for a few minutes: The years they'd been together, the fact that they'd never had any kids, how tough it had been to separate when he started driving truck. "I was going to quit and find something local," he said, "as soon as my year was up. I always wanted to drive a truck and I thought she'd be with me; but she failed the driving test." Rob, his name was, had only been driving for five months and was not yet allowed to take riders. He and his wife had planned to team; but, when she didn't pass the test, Schneider held Rob to his agreement to drive for them or repay them for the training. "And then Ellen got the cancer," he explained. "But no one thought it would take her so quick. The doctor thought she would live at least two more years."

"They tried surgery, chemo…?" I prompted.

"They did," he said. "And I wanted to be home for it, but I had to work because my insurance was paying for it all." A sob escaped him. "So I was in Portland when she died. She was at home, all alone. She died alone." And he stood there, sobbing, in the now-deserted parking lot. I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed, just letting him cry.

"Can I offer a suggestion?" I asked, after a couple of minutes. He nodded. "Close your eyes," I said, unnecessarily, since they were swollen shut from crying, anyway. "I want you to go back, in your mind, to any time two years ago, some time when you and Ellen were together." I gave him a moment to do so. He stopped crying and his breathing seemed less labored. "Got it?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said softly. "Her birthday dinner."

I tapped his breastbone. "Now, I want you to find the place in your heart where you keep Ellen. Remember, it's two years ago on her birthday. She's in your heart. Find her."

It took him a moment, but then he said, almost wonderingly, "Yeah. She's here."

"Now, go back to the year you met."


"Find her in your heart."

Almost immediately, he responded, "I've got her. She's here."

"Now, bring yourself back to the present." His body shifted, shoulders drooping again, and his breathing resumed the ragged quality it had before. "Find Ellen in your heart."

It was with amazement that he whispered, "She's here. She's still here!"

"And she'll always be there," I assured him. "She'll never leave you, and no one can take her away. Keep conscious of her there; talk to her, listen to her. There's no such thing as death, not really; but for now you've got to use your heart like a telephone to keep in touch."

The change in the man was unbelievable. His shoulders straightened; his eyes opened and his tears stopped. "What did you do?" he asked.

I shook my head. "I didn't do anything," I assured him. "You just remembered where your connection to Ellen was. You had it all along, but sometimes things like the shock of apparent death causes us to forget."

I tried to shake hands goodbye, but he gave me a hug instead. "You'll be all right, Rob," I said, smiling gently, and got back into my tractor.

I had decided I would make a short visit to the El Dorado Hot Springs in Tonopah, on my way to California. I took the exit ramp and stopped at the stop sign. Almost instantly, there was a huge crash behind me, a crash that literally rattled my teeth and caused books to fall from their shelf. But there were no cars behind me, or anywhere near me. When I got out to check, I discovered that the tandem slider on the trailer had been defective; as I'd driven, the tandems had drifted to the back of their run. When I stopped, they kept going, crashing into the front. I could no longer adjust them. I would have to stop in Fontana to get the trailer repaired.

On top of that, the hot springs were closed; it was already after 10 pm. The time I'd spent with Rob had resulted in my missing a hot soak, not that I minded. For some reason, though, I was incredibly weary. I figured I must be rattled by the tandems crashing; but I knew I couldn't drive another mile. I decided to spend the night at the parking area near the springs, and was asleep almost before my head hit the pillow.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

In Fontana, I pulled into the Express Repair Bay and the mechanics fixed the trailer in less than an hour. However, when I started to pull out of the bay, it still didn't feel right. There was a slight lag between the tractor moving forward and the trailer doing so. On further investigation, it turned out my fifth wheel—the heavy iron unit to which the trailer couples—had been damaged by the crash of the tandems the night before.

"You must have an angel," the mechanic said seriously. "How you drove 200 miles without the trailer being really attached to your truck is nothing less than a miracle." He showed me the broken coupler. He was right. I had had nothing of substance holding the trailer to the tractor for over 200 miles. By all rights, the trailer should have slid off, crashing into the road and coming to an abrupt stop, probably after twisting sideways, and forming an an unexpected and deadly barrier across the entire westbound section of I-10. It wouldn't have killed me, but almost certainly would have killed any number of innocent motorists who happened to be driving behind me in either lane.

Especially if it had happened at night, when the damaged trailer would have been invisible until it was too late for a car to stop before crashing into it, or into another car that had crashed already.

Suddenly I remembered how odd it was for me to become so sleepy so quickly. I'd been resting all day and had driven just an hour; yet I'd been overcome with weariness at 10:30 pm, so much so that I had to go to sleep right then.

Repairs to the truck were going to take a day or more. They had me drop-relay the trailer—which practically fell off the fifth wheel, now that we were in the yard and it was safe to do so—and I checked into the La Quinta Inn (the very nice motel that Schneider now uses instead of the low-scale Days Inn it used when I was training) for the night. And that gave me time to consider what had happened.

I've often heard drivers say things like, "If I was responsible for an accident that killed somebody, I couldn't live with myself afterward." And I agree. But I might have a different definition of responsibility.

If I drive drunk, or overtired, then I'm an accident waiting to happen; and, if one does happen, it is certainly my fault. On the other hand, if that trailer had fallen off and killed someone, when I had no way of knowing the fifth wheel was damaged, that would not have been my fault. Some people might feel guilty, nonetheless; but not me. I know God/the Universe often works through us, and I know death is part of the plan. Everyone dies. Our culture glamorizes life and is embarrassed by death, so we try to not think about it at all. When someone has a near miss that results in certain death being avoided, we call it a miracle. Yet, not wanting to bad-mouth God—on the assumption that, He, too, is an American and therefore shares our attitudes—we never look at a spectacularly unlikely death and call that, too, a miracle. But it is, in the same sense that anything is.

The real miracle is that the Universe, while not minding death a bit, abhors untimely death. If you still have work to do that can only be done in the physical, you are not going to fall off a cliff, be hit by a flying tire, or crushed by a meteor. Or drive into an abruptly uncoupled trailer.

If, on the other hand, you have completed your assigned tasks in the Big Scheme…well, the Universe also abhors untimely survival. Or, as fatalists have put it for years, "When your number's up…it's up!"

My attitude is not fatalistic, though; because I do not see death as an ending, just as a transition. And there's plenty of evidence, from near-death experiences and all that proof of reincarnation, to back me up.

Rob's wife, Ellen, shouldn't have died, according to her doctor, for a couple more years. But she did. A miracle! Tragic for Rob, but presumably not sad for Ellen or her pre-deceased friends and relatives, to whom she had just returned. It's all in the point of view. And, now that Rob knows how to reconnect with her spirit, his grief, which existed only because our culture insists that death is an impassable barrier, is assuaged.

I'm glad the trailer did not fall off my tractor and make the six o'clock news. While I acknowledge that, someday, I may be called upon by God to assist someone else in "passing over", it's not a job I particularly want and it's perfectly okay with me if I never have to do it.

But, if I do, I won't fall apart over it, simply because of what I know, in my heart, to be so.

And that, to me, is a miracle.