Sunday, April 29, 2007

On the Road: Driving Man, part 1

I sat in the drivers' waiting area, duffel bag on the floor beside me, waiting for my Driver/Trainer to arrive. All I had was a name on a piece of paper: "Thomas Martinez (non-smoking)." Other that that, I had no idea what to expect.

There was an image in my head of spending these next four weeks on the road with the lead singer of Los Lobos, probably because our instructor for my 18 weeks of truck driving school had looked like him. Al Munoz was a New York Puerto Rican who had ended up in Phoenix teaching guys like me how to drive trucks because driving trucks for 25 years had left him medically incapable of doing much else.

Seemed all of the instructors had been "rode hard and put away wet" as they said; they all had gum or suckers on hand because they were all trying to quit smoking. A few were diabetic, and one -- the "old guy" -- who looked like he was at least in his late 70's, based on his decrepit appearance and obvious medical frailties, shocked us all by telling us he was only 58. "Bennies did this to me!" he would crow.

But in the middle of my pondering, a squat, white guy with a Marine corps "bottle cap" style BDU cap came out and called my name. "You got your gear?" he growled. I nodded. "Come on, then."

We went out to his truck, and stashed my duffel in a big compartment under the lower bunk. "I've gotta get some paperwork and crap. There's a spray bottle and rag in there, so just clean up the truck while I'm doing that. This is your home for the next month, so get used to cleaning up after yourself."

He strode off back toward the terminal, and left me there holding the spray bottle. I suppose I could have gotten upset about it and made a big fuss, but judging by his hat and the USMC seal in the corner of the window, I guessed what he was up to, so I cleaned the hell out of that truck.

He came back after nearly an hour, surveyed the truck, nodded at me with approval, and climbed aboard.


I woke up slowly, tempted to let the motion of the truck rock me back to sleep, but I sensed it was probably more appropriate to get up at this point. I pulled on my jeans, rolled up my sleeping bag, and slipped into the passenger seat. It was a glorious morning, heading west toward Barstow, California; the desert scrub spreading in every direction, the sky stretching and arching its back like a cat, on tip-toes at the horizon, so pale a shade of blue that it was almost black again.

"This is why I wanted to do this," I said, indicating the landscape. I had told him all about England; the long nights and days stuck on the watch floor, the dreary days and nights spent huddled in our little house, hoping we would be able to handle the bills another month on a junior enlisted-man's salary. And how, after 9/11, I was thinking of going back to it. Probably would, if this job didn't work out.

"You're doing fine," he would lie. He kept telling me the mistakes I made were small. "It's a 'forgiveable' mistake, as long as it can be repaired and no one was hurt," he would say. But more and more I was starting to dread being on the road in a truck by myself. The things that had gone wrong -- leaving the paperwork with the wrong trailer at the swap-yard in Calexico; getting lost in Los Angeles; climbing Mt. Shasta during a blizzard.

And worse, I still couldn't handle backing the truck. I had passed the test to gain my Commercial Driver's License (CDL), but I could tell it was close. I couldn't see the tires in the mirror at night; couldn't hook up a trailer by myself; and certainly couldn't back up to a loading dock. What good was a driver if all he could handle was the "driving" part?

It was hard for me to gauge how well I was actually doing, though. Tom had purposely created a lot of pressure on me during all of those situations, trying to see how I would handle it. He'd kept us on the road without stopping for the first two days straight, waiting to see when I would ask to eat or shower or go to the bathroom. I spent those two days wondering when this crazy ex-Marine would ever stop to eat, shower, or use the bathroom! Fortunately, the truck needed to eat every 600 miles or so, so I had a daily opportunity to "perform my necessary".

But we still hadn't eaten. When he finally told me to pull off, we stopped at an adobe house on the main drag of some dusty, shit-splat town in southern California. He told me I was in for a treat; REAL Mexican food. So we went in, where the menu was painted on the white-washed wall in big red letters. Words I kind of recognized, like "asada" and "cabra" next to words I didn't, like "leng├╝eta" and "cordero". I was leaning towards some kind of pie ("conserv├│ en vinagre pies"), but Tom suggested I just go with a burrito con cabra asada, and back on the road we went.

He wrapped himself up in his bunk, and watched a couple of movies while I pressed on toward Sacramento. I munched on the massive -- and delicious -- burrito as I drove, half watching the road, half glancing at the reflection of the movie in my side window.

Until something began to murmur down below.

I don't know if it was some foreign spice, the quality of meat, or simply the stress and strain of the road, but my system was suddenly quite upset about something. I tried to get Tom's attention, but he was snoring loudly in the back, and couldn't hear me. We were on a stretch of road with no lights, no shoulder, and little to no hope of a rest stop.

The murmur intensified over the course of 50 miles, becoming more urgent with each mile marker. And, suddenly, we came to the Interstate! I-5, northbound, and the first thing I saw was a sign for a rest stop: 30 miles. I had already lasted one hour, and I was damned if I wasn't going to make it 30 minutes more! I set my teeth, and kept taking deep breaths. It seemed that all of that "training" I had done on mid watches in the Air Force, competing with the other guys to see who could hold the most coffee for the longest time, were about to pay off.

Tom woke about three miles from our destination, and I told him we were taking a little break. "That's cool, I was going to switch with you sometime, anyway. This'll work."

The rest stop was packed. Trucks lined the exit ramp, and there were no open spaces anywhere. I cruised through, barely able to control the lower half of my body, riding the clutch in anticipation.

Then I saw a spot: just to the right of a car-carrier that had gone in crooked and left himself hanging out an extra six feet or so. I carefully maneuvered so that I would not scrape Tom's truck on that hanging corner, and was about to breathe a deep sigh of anticipated relief... when our trailer caught on the guy to the left of us.

Tom and I leapt from the cab to see how bad it was. The other driver was out there, too; fortunately, he wasn't causing a big fuss, yet. Tom left me there, apologizing, while he straightened out and parked. Then I couldn't wait any more, and I sprinted to the bank of toilets.

The driver of the other truck determined that we hadn't done any real damage to him. I bent one of the door hinges on the trailer, but had really done more damage to my own trailer... and no one really cares much about trailers, outside of the dispatch office. So, Tom and I eased back onto the road, my forgiveable mistake hanging between us. I was embarrassed, but also frightened. How could I possibly handle this job if I couldn't even get to a bathroom without causing an accident?

Tom didn't say anything for a while. He just let me stew for a few miles, and then said, "You know, you could have just stopped, put on your hazards, and hung your ass out the door anywhere along the last hundred miles." I must have looked shocked, because he laughed.

"Why not? The Swift drivers do that all the time."

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