Chapter 23: Student With Idiot for Trainer
Jobs 64 – 66
Job 64: Long Haul Truck Driver
The next couple of years can be best described as “floundering”. I called the last chapter “Highs and Lows” (mostly because I couldn’t think of anything better), but this period of my life probably represented some of the lowest lows and highest highs I’ve experienced in my life. I especially don’t like looking back at my work record for these couple of years because I think it makes me look like an idjit. So let’s get to it, shall we?
At this time, Mrs. R and I developed what she called our “get middle-class quick scheme”. She enrolled in a vocational program to become a pharmacy technician. Sadly, she was never able to finish that course because her health took a downturn from which it has never recovered. I applied to a long-haul trucking company which provided their own training. I shouldn’t say their real name, but it’s a kind of bird which is named for its habit of flying swiftly. However, I shall call them “Turkey”.
Turkey provided the training, but it wasn’t free. Not by a long stretch. I never could have afforded it if I’d had to pay for it upfront. Instead, they financed your training, and then you paid it back out of your paycheck. This was actually a good deal if you stuck it out until the end of your obligation. Then you could go where you wanted if you didn’t like Turkey.
Of course, I was attracted to this deal mainly because I figured it was a good way to get trained for a profession which offered a decent income. However, there were also less altruistic motivations at work in the shallow end of my subconscious. I must admit that I had been having trouble completely adjusting to being a husband and father. I loved my wife and kids, but there was still a big part of me that wanted to be a loner. I confess that I had tried a few times to run away from my familial obligations, but Mrs. R was always able to talk some sense into me. I feel badly for putting her through such turmoil.
I think I saw being out on the road for weeks at a time as a sort of compromise; I would have a legitimate excuse to be by myself for long spells. I’m sure I was following my father’s fine modeling. I think he tended to take jobs that kept him away from home because he was never totally comfortable as a family man. There was a period after we moved to O-Town when he took some local jobs that allowed him to be home every day, but those never seemed to last long. Then he got that job in West Sacramento and chose to live in a trailer on the company property during the week. I guess I can’t blame anyone for not wanting a 90 minute each way daily commute, but I wonder how much of that was based on practicality and how much was him not wanting to be around his wife and son.
My training took place in a little town on Interstate 5 called Willows. It’s only about 45 miles from O-Town, but commuting was problematic. It would mean less sleep for me, and a lot of expense in gas and wear and tear on whatever usually already worn-out vehicle were driving at the time. Turkey could put me up at a motel in Willows for an additional charge on my debt to them, so I went for that. The motel was a little dodgy, but it had a pool and HBO, and my room had a kitchenette. The motel was close to the training yard, and I would ride with one of the other students who had a car but was staying at the motel because he lived in Nevada. Unfortunately, the motel was a long way from Willows proper. I had brought a bike, and one day I rode it to the local Walmart for supplies. It wasn’t a very good bike, however, and the narrow roads through the corn fields were terrible for bike riding, so I didn’t repeat the process.
The training was fairly perfunctory. The first week or two consisted of classroom lessons at Turkey’s terminal, then we shifted to the dusty training yard for the behind the wheel training. There were a couple of things about driving a big rig that were problematic for me. One of them was shifting. I already knew how to drive a stick, but I’ve never been terrible good at it, and trucks have something like 18 gears to clash through. I finally got it, but was never terribly smooth about it.
The other thing, which almost kept me from graduating, was backing and docking. Oh, I could back up in a straight line – no problem. But when it came to having to make the rear end of the trailer go in a direction other than straight, I was hopeless. There’s always been something a little funny about my brain when it comes to direction. I’m great at north, south, etc., but ask me on the spur of the moment to go left or right, and there’s a very good chance I will go the wrong way. I mean, I KNOW the difference, but sometimes I have to take a moment to remember which is which. It’s embarrassing at the least, but when it comes to working out which way to turn the wheel to make a tractor-trailer combo go backwards in a particular direction it’s downright detrimental.
Everyone else graduated from training right on schedule. I passed all the other requirements, but my backing still wasn’t up to snuff. Turkey sent me down to their main California terminal in beautiful Stockton for further training. The first day they sent me out with a local driver who delivered tires to various shops around the eastern San Francisco bay area. His truck didn’t have a sleeper cab because he was home every night, and his trailer was shorter than what I would be pulling in long-haul, so it wasn’t quite the same. The idea was that some of the amazingly tight places he had to back into would give me a good idea of how to do it, and it might have, if he had actually let me try it. His schedule was too busy to allow for my fumbling. Just watching from the passenger seat is no way to learn. After all his deliveries were done, he found an empty loading dock and let me practice, but I still wasn’t confident.
I spent the next couple of days practicing in Turkey’s Stockton terminal yard with various drivers, but I still sucked. The lady who had hired me told me that they would give me a couple of more days, and if I still couldn’t get it, they’d have to “cut their losses”, as she put it. I don’t know if I would still owe them for all the training and lodging I’d received, but I reckon I would have. I felt ridiculous and stupid. I didn’t know what I was going to do if I couldn’t master this seemingly simple skill. I’d have to go back home with my tail between my legs and admit to my family that their husband and father was an abject failure.
I tried over the next couple of days to get my shit together. Finally on Friday they decided (rather reluctantly, I thought) that I was ready. I think they realized it would be better to have a crappy driver than no driver at all after all that trouble. I certainly still didn’t feel confident, but if they were willing to take a chance, I was willing to do my best to live up to their meagre expectations. Of course, all of this was just the end of “behind the wheel” training. The next phase was to spend about six weeks OTR (“over the road”) with a driver-trainer – actually delivering loads to real customers under real world conditions.
I can’t remember my trainer’s name, which is just as well, so I’ll just call him Fred. Fred was in an elite cadre of Turkey drivers who delivered exclusively to Walmart stores. That may not sound like much, until you consider that Walmart has the largest privately-owned fleet of trucks in the country. Their drivers are the cream of the crop, and very well-compensated. Even with all those excellent drivers of their own, they still need to contract with other trucking companies to get all those goods to the stores. Of course, they hold their contractors to very high standards as well. In order for a Turkey driver to be a dedicated Walmart hauler, he or she has to have been driving for at least five years accident-free, amongst other things.
So Fred had a pretty good situation. He mainly drove the I-5 corridor from Walmart’s distribution center in Red Bluff to stores in Oregon and Washington, with occasional side trips to exotic places like Moscow, Idaho. He was usually home once a week. In fact, that was interesting. One night we had a layover in Redding, where he lived. I naturally figured that he would want to go to his home to spend the night, and I would at least have the truck to myself. I was surprised that he didn’t. He explained that if he went home, he would likely stay up too late visiting his wife (make of that what you will) and watching TV, and then be no good for driving the next day. I found his dedication to the job admirable, but I asked how his wife would feel if she knew he was in town but didn’t come home. He responded that his wife was so happy with the money he was making that she didn’t complain about the vagaries of the job.
Since Fred was home about once a week, so was I, which was nice, although it was a little less convenient for me because I didn’t live on I-5. If Fred was returning home from the south, he could drop me at the Willows terminal. Otherwise, Mrs. R had to drive to Redding to pick me up. Fred’s travels often took us through Bend, Oregon. In Bend, there is a truck stop which has the same name as Rimpy Jr.’s real first name. Fred and I were on our way home once when we stopped in Bend. I wanted to get Rimpy Jr. an eponymous hat from the truck stop, because I thought he would enjoy having a hat with his name on it. I realized that I needed to get Rimpyette a gift as well so she wouldn’t feel left out. Like most truck stops, it had a selection of gift items for travelers, but none of them were really geared toward a three year old girl. The “cutest” thing I could find was a small, plush lobster toy.
|No! Not like that! Jesus.|
The lobster seemed rather lame to me, and I had the feeling that Rimpyette was not terribly impressed with my gift. Mrs. R assures me that Rimpyette loved that toy. The fact that she cut off its yarn “whiskers” meant nothing.
I have been racking my brain trying to remember exactly why I decided to quit Turkey – cold (see what I did, there?). Usually it seems like there is some decisive event or factor that pushes me over the edge into quit mode. Try as I might, I can’t recall if there was such a thing. I remember thinking that Fred seemed like a bit of an asshole. I think the main thing was that the reality of being out on the road, away from my family (but never alone because of my ever-present trainer) was starting to wear upon me. The thing with the lobster plushie bulks large in my mind as an example of the sort of life I could expect if I were to be a professional long-haul trucker, but it alone wasn’t enough to make me quit.
It seems to be the dream of many truckers to land a driving job that allows them to be home every night. You might have to pay your dues “over the road” until you’ve acquired enough years of experience to get one of those lauded local gigs. I apparently thought that I could somehow leap-frog over the “years of experience” part and parlay my commercial license and recent training into a local driving job. Even though I had signed a contract that I would work for Turkey until the money they had invested me was repaid, I went ahead and left abruptly. Little did I know just how good I’d had it.
Job 65: Milk Truck Driver
Somehow I got a job with a company that hauled milk. I can’t for the life of me remember their name, which is just as well, since I wouldn’t use it here. I seemed to have blocked out quite a few memories of this difficult time in my life. I have tried to find it out their name so I could give it an appropriate alias, but with no success. Perhaps they have gone out of business – which would be ironic, because then I could safely use their real name. They were also based in Willows, so now I had no choice but to commute there every day.
If I thought that backing was difficult before, I was really up shit creek now. Some of the dairy farms that the truckers had to back the tanker trailer into were incredibly cramped. Also, pulling a tanker full of liquid is very different from hauling a trailer full of dry goods. I had a tanker endorsement on my license, but that was only because I had correctly answered enough questions on a test. I had no real experience with it. The problem with liquids is they slosh from side to side and back and forth. You have to take extra care on curves and leave more room for smooth stops. The other milk drivers regaled me with horror stories of some of the terrible tanker wrecks they had witnessed or heard about.
The transmissions in the old beater trucks we were using were not as smooth as Turkey’s had been, and I was having a miserable time trying to get the hang of shifting while turning sharp corners on farm roads with enough RPMs to keep from stalling, but not so much speed as to tip the whole schmutz over into the corn fields.
Job 66: Long Haul Truck Driver (again)
One of the waggish acronyms that can be made out Turkey’s real name (here comes the law suit) is “Sure Wish I’d Finished Training”, and that described me perfectly. After a couple of weeks, I realized that I was in way over my empty head with the milk hauling job, and I called Turkey and begged them to take me back. Incredibly, they agreed. I guess they figured that was their best chance of getting their money back.
I was assigned a new trainer, whom I shall call Randy, which is dangerously close to his true name. If I thought Fred was an asshole, I hadn’t seen anything yet. As least Fred never yelled. Randy took a drill sergeant approach to his job as a driver-trainer. It was like being trapped in a truck cab with my father. Randy was an odd duck. He rented a dumpy house on a dead end street in an ugly industrial neighborhood in the eastern suburbs of Sacramento. He had an Asian wife who was a couple of decades his senior. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it was just unusual. Despite the shabbiness of his life, he really thought his shit didn’t stink.
He had also just become an owner-operator through Turkey’s lease program. Turkey would finance the ownership of a truck for their drivers who had been with them for a certain length of time and were generally credit worthy. The truck essentially belonged to the driver, and Turkey would take its payments for the loan out of the driver’s earnings, and in turn the driver leased the truck back to Turkey. The owner could put whatever name he liked on the side of his truck, as long as it included the phrase “leased to Turkey Trucking, Inc.” The driver was expected to save enough money to cover a balloon payment at the end of each year. Saving that money shouldn’t be a problem, because owner-operators make an insane amount of money on each load. Of course, they are also responsible for any expenses like tires and repairs, but they still make a very handsome salary. By comparison, an average OTR driver made about 22 cents a mile at the time. That may not sound like much, but you could usually drive about 500 miles a day. If you do the math, that comes to about 2200 dollars a month. Not fantastic, but better than any wage I had previously had.
Randy had just taken possession of his new truck, which was a pretty, dark blue compared to the usual Turkey white, and he was very anal about it. Unlike Fred, Randy went all over the country. I got to see a lot of places I’d never been to before. However, I learned a dirty little secret about the trucking industry, at least as practiced by Turkey. Truckers based east of the Mississippi River made slightly more than the 22 cents a mile I mentioned earlier. So when they got a western driver out east, they loved to keep him running around in the east so they only had to pay him the lower rate for the same work.
Even though I had already spent a few weeks with Fred, I was expected to restart the whole six weeks with Randy. That was one of the worst six weeks of my life. We did manage to get home at least once or twice during that time. Of course, “home” meant Randy’s horrible house, so Mrs. R had to drive to Sacramento to get me. On one of those occasions, after they picked me up, we went to eat at a nearby Round Table Pizza. I have always been a fast eater, but I was starving by the time the food arrived, and I was just shoveling it in. Rimpyette watched me in amazement, and then in a voice loud enough to be heard by the whole restaurant, declared “Daddy eats like a dog!” She’ll probably kill me for including that story, because she still cringes in embarrassment every time we tell it.
I almost quit Turkey again while I was still in training because I couldn’t take any more of Randy. We were somewhere near Chicago O’Hare International Airport early one morning after a long night of driving. I was dead tired, and Randy was screaming at me for some minor thing (probably my backing skills). I am not ashamed to admit that I started crying. I used a phone in the warehouse we were delivering to and called our manager back in Stockton to tell him of my desire to quit. He basically talked me out of it. He may have also made a secret call to Randy’s cell phone to tell him to lighten up on me. Whether he did or not, Randy did ratchet down the abuse. Besides, I didn’t have enough money to get on a bus back home, so it was easier to just stay.
Another time, in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was sitting sad and alone in the cab while Randy was in an electronics superstore shopping for a new stereo for his precious truck. Like the famous atheist in a fox hole, I turned to prayer. I looked to the heavens and asked what I should do. To my surprise, a voice with seemed different than my usual internal monologue said, “Everything’s going to be alright”. I wasn’t really expecting any answer, let alone a rather vague one. I thought about it for a moment, then I said, “Is there someone else up there I can talk to?” There was no further communication, so I decided to have some faith and just keep doing what I was doing.
Finally my apprenticeship to rancid Randy came to end, and I was now a solo driver. I was assigned my very own truck. It was nice being on my own, without some asshole looking over my shoulder. My backing skills had become…acceptable. Unfortunately, there was no one to bail me out of trouble. I got into one such situation on my first solo runs. I was delivering to a grocery store, and access to their loading dock was extremely difficult, involving a several-point turn. If you’ve ever looked at the rear of atypical truck trailer, you may have noticed that there is a bit of metal that projects out from the roof over each door hinge. I believe that is there to protect the hinge in case you bump the corner of the trailer against something…like, oh…the wall of a grocery store. I poked a hole about 12 feet up in their cinder block wall. Fortunately, nobody noticed, and I didn’t mention it.
Turkey had promised that I would be home no less than every two to three weeks. That was an outright lie. The had me bouncing all around the country for five weeks at a time. On one of my rare weekend furloughs, Mrs. R picked me up in Stockton and we went home to O-Town. As we were driving back to Stockton, our old Dodge Polara suddenly started making a very bad noise and lost power. We pulled over at an abandoned fruit stand about 20 miles south of O-Town. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the car (turns out it was a broken timing chain). We made a desperate call to Lurleen, who came down and rescued us. She dropped me in Stockton, and took the rest of the family back to O-Town. I think we spent the next several months car-less. When Mrs. R wanted to pick me up, she rented a car.
After a few months I’d had enough “me time”, and was lonesome for my family. Long-haul trucking wasn’t panning out the way I had hoped. On a weekend at home, I discussed it with Mrs. R, and we agreed that I should quit. Unfortunately, I had left my personal belongings in my Turkey truck, so I had to drive the rental car all the way to Stockton and back to retrieve them. Someone had moved my truck from where I had left it in the terminal yard, and it took me a while to find it. When I got inside, I found a note that said “This truck is a pig sty. Clean it up!” I was offended. For one thing, it wasn’t that messy; just a few papers left here or there. I admit that the contract that I had signed with Turkey actually had in it that I would keep my truck neat and clean, but this seemed like too much. If I hadn’t already decided to quit, that might have been enough make me do so. I wrote “Fuck you!” at the bottom of the note and put it back where I had found it. Then I drove home feeling like for at least once I had made the right decision to quit. That feeling of satisfaction didn’t last for long, however.