December 2002

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I don't know if my Fleet Manager had anything to do with it, but my next week out started with a great run. My partner loaded a load out of Norfolk, NE headed for Columbia, SC, which he dropped in Des Moines, IA for me.

 

I like running the southeast, have always liked it. My carrier claims to run 48 states, but in the two and a half years I've been here, I've rarely seen anything other than the east coast. No offense to my east coast readers, but I am just about burnt on the eastern half of the United States, particularly the area north of the Mason Dixon. I've never complained about this much, because, as I've mentioned about 1000 times so far, I am a salaried driver and I more or less go where I'm told to go. The positive thing about running the same area all of the time, though, is that you soon become familiar with the territory, the traffic patterns, toll fees, truckstops, etc, etc. I think I could almost claim to be a resident of the state of Pennsylvania, I've spent so much time there.

 

Anyway, I left home practically giddy to be headed to good 'ole south cacky lacky. The bad part was that a big storm was forecasted for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas and I was bound to find it. I figured I would run into it around Kentucky and my game plan was to try to stay behind it, though I knew I'd have to cross it at some point. Once I caught it, I'd stop for the night. I wasn't completely wrong, but I hit the storm a bit sooner than expected. The sky was clear and fine until I hit Indianapolis, IN and then it went downhill fast. As I headed south, it got worse. Of course there were no parking spots to be found anywhere, so after quite a few miles of 35 - 40 mph, I opted for a spot on an on-ramp, along with a slew of other trucks tired of sliding around.

 

This was the first significant snowstorm of the year for me. I'm happy to say that although there were countless cars in the ditches, I did not see even one crashed or ditched big truck. Most of the trucks seemed to be driving very cautiously, though there were a few (there are always a few) hotdogging around like they were invincible. A few doofuses were running together, not half a trailer length off of each other's bumpers.

 

Upon waking in the morning, the roads were only wet. The only evidence that there had even been a big snowstorm were the ditched cars and the snow that remained on the grass. I suppose the area got 5 - 7 inches? or so. It was smooth sailing the rest of the way. I heard reports that North Carolina and northern South Carolina got bombarded with ice storms that left a million or so without power. Some people would remain without power almost a week. That certainly wasn't the worst of it though; according to the news reports, at least 27 deaths were blamed on this storm system and those were mostly in traffic crashes. Somehow I had managed to skirt the worst of the mess. Whew. If only I could be so lucky for the rest of the winter.

 

I pulled into the receiver around 10:00 PM the night before delivery and was awakened at 5:00 AM the next morning and told to back in. After I got empty, I was surprised to be told that there were no loads. It is rare that my carrier has me sit because of a lack of freight. Apparently many shippers in North Carolina were closed due to not having electricity and other problems relating to the ice storm.December in South Carolina still looks like Fall.

 

After getting the trailer washed out I went to the truckstop but was so incredibly bored that I just couldn't stay there. I went to the nearest motel and checked in. I had almost an entire weekend to spend in beautiful weather in a place I truly enjoyed being. Hallelujah, it doesn't get much better than that. I hadn't planned to spend two nights at the motel, but that is what I ended up doing. I couldn't hardly tear myself away. I didn't have to be to Durham, NC until Monday morning at 9:00 AM. I had to make a pitstop in Spartanburg, SC to drop and hook.

 

There are some places you enjoy being, some places that you just don't really feel one way or another, yet others that you can't wait to be away from. I love being here. I don't know what it is, but this is one of those places where I just automatically feel "right." I've felt that in other places, of course, and quite a few of them are in the south. I also feel it in Wyoming, cruising along I-80 in the dead of night. It's a feeling of being exactly where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be there. It is different from the feeling of comfort that I draw from being in familiar surroundings, such as when I cross the Iowa state line and I know home is within a few hours. It is a feeling of utter balance, of resonance deep down inside. I don't know if other drivers feel this, surely they must, but at the risk of sounding like a fruitcake, I've never asked anyone. Good ole John Denver must've known how it felt when he sang that song... "Take me home, country road, to a place I belong..." I don't know if I necessarily "belong" here or there or anywhere, but this feeling makes me believe that I do and I welcome it fully.I-77 Northbound on the way to Spartanburg, SC.

 

Another driver pulled into the motel Saturday afternoon and we had supper together at the Shoney's down the street. He was an Owner Operator pulling oversized loads and couldn't get anything out until Monday morning. He said he'd sell his truck in a heartbeat but that he couldn't get out of it as much as he still owed on it. It was a pretty Kenworth but nothing overly fancy. He was a retired military man with about 15 years in the trucking industry.

 

I couldn't help but think about a student that I'd worked with a couple of weeks ago. We were on our second day of driving and I asked the two students I was working with where they were going to go to work. I like to make some small talk to get to know people and because it often relieves some of the stress they're usually feeling at that point.

 

One of the students announced that he was going to become an Owner Operator right out of school. He had no family or friends that were drivers; in fact, did not know a soul outside of driving school that knew anything about trucks. He himself knew nothing about trucks or freight. His reason to become an O/O? He didn't want to be under the thumb of an evil dispatcher and wanted to take only the loads he wanted, go home when he wanted and stay there for as long as he wanted. His wife was ambivalent about him driving for a living. He actually believed that he was less likely to disrupt his marriage by being an Owner Operator than if he were a company driver. (Can anyone say d-i-v-o-r-c-e?) He didn't have an accountant and didn't believe he needed one. He knew nothing about fuel taxes, road taxes or self-employment taxes. He didn't know what kind of freight to haul or where he would haul it. He knew slightly less than nothing about trucking and even less than that about being an Owner Operator. In spite of all of this, he was going to buy a used truck, which comes with a whole barrel of issues in itself. I wish him the best of luck because I would never wish failure upon anyone trying to improve their life, but his arrogance may well be his undoing. Every driver is in search of the perfect driving job that this fella expects to land Day 1 out of school. Whatever.

 

Awhile back I got an email that blew my mind. A person was angry after reading my section on Owner Operators.  Here's the email:

 

"Please stop discouraging people from trying to run small businesses. People hoping to have a little control in their lives are not the ones who seek total control. Your intent seems to be to help big companies keep total control. You are so close to a worthwhile website and yet falter into negativity. People who tell others that what they themselves cannot do is impossible to do help nobody but their would-be competitors."

 

In case you think this guy is right, please allow me to set the record straight. First of all, I own a small business so why in the world would I be against small biz? Second of all, big business has never done a thing for me, so why would I be on their "side?" Finally, dream crushing is the last thing in the world I want to do to anyone...unless their dream is utter fantasy and the result of believing it will be a far worse fate. I could tell everyone truckin' is a cakewalk, easy and big money and a constant party... but wouldn't you hate my guts if you believed it, only to find out the truth later?

 

Geez, people get so mad at me when I tell them to wait awhile before becoming an O/O! Doesn't it just make sense that a person should learn about an industry before they jump in with a decision that will effect them and their loved ones for years to come? If you didn't know the difference between a one-eyed Jack and the Suicide King, would you buy a casino? Would you invest 50K into a restaurant business tomorrow if you had never cooked so much as an omelet? Wouldn't you take the time to learn a bit about the restaurant business before you did that? Of course! Why would trucking be any different? I'm gonna say it just once more, just for the record: IF YOU WANT TO BE AN OWNER OPERATOR, THAT IS JUST GREAT, BUT TAKE A YEAR OR TWO AS A COMPANY DRIVER TO LEARN THE BASICS FIRST. Don't hurry your way to failure.

 

It wouldn't be right to go on without mentioning that southern hospitality is indeed a true thing. It is nice to have people smile at you so often and it really is very noticeable that people do that so much more often here in the south. Our waitress at the restaurant was just the cutest, perkiest and friendliest little teenie-bopper I've ever met. Her parents must be proud. My dinner partner got a little grumpy that his Fettucine Alfredo was kind of lumpy and she took it all in stride... guess you had to be there. I hadn't known it before, but here in SC, they say the word "potato" opposite of how we say it back home. (In the Midwest, the "a" sounds like it does in the word "blame.") Beef is "bovine" down here. I felt a tremendous urge to ask the young waitress how they said the words "tomato" and "ketchup" but I held back.

 

I understand about getting grumpy about food, though. When you eat out as often as a trucker does, over time, you tend to get fussy and irritated to pay big bucks for bad food. You also come to truly appreciate a good waitress because there are so many bad ones. Sorry to the waitresses of the world, I know you have a tough job. I couldn't be a truckstop waitress for an hour - the first time someone pinched my butt they'd have their dinner over their head. The waitress that is friendly and actually smiles at you is a plus. The one who is all of that and efficient - checks your water or coffee, etc - is a bonus. The one who does all of this and checks up on you, brings your check in a timely way? She is priceless so tip her well!

 

After supper I returned to my motel room and watched movies. I felt positively spoiled. Heck, I don't even have cable TV at home. To add to the fun, I walked to the convenience store and got some popcorn; the kind with so much fake butter you can feel gastrointestinal distress just by looking at it. I threw in a case of Mountain Dew and a carton of cigarettes and it was almost a party. I caught a movie entitled, "The Interrogation of Michael Crowe" and wow, let me tell you, it paints a really ugly picture of law enforcement. It would be easy to hate all cops after watching this show and the following documentary that aired on Court TV tonight, Saturday, December 7, 2002. Just like bad truckers make us all look bad, this show made cops look like the devil incarnate. "We're here to help?" Michael Crowe wouldn't say that, poor kid.

 

On Sunday I packed up my stuff and headed north to Spartanburg, SC, to drop and hook. The load I picked up there was to deliver in Durham, NC at 9:00 AM the next day. (Monday) The weather was nice and it really was a pleasant day's drive. It is so much better to truck where you want to truck. I saw much evidence of the ice storm a couple of days before, mostly in the the form of broken and fallen tree branches, but there were also a few ditched and/or abandoned cars on the interstate.

 

I was really surprised, for some dumb reason, to find that the Pilot truckstop, I-40/I-85, MM 152 was still out of power. They had backup power for lighting but none for pumping fuel or more importantly to me at this point, for heating the water for a shower. I had planned to grab a shower first thing in the morning, then fuel, then head to the consignee. Oh sure, showers were available, but none with anything other than ice cold water. I sat and watched many a driver walk in with a shower bag, only to walk back out moments later. I guess no one was desperate enough for an ice cold shower. I'd had a shower just before leaving the motel this morning, but I wanted one again the next morning so that after I reloaded I could haul &#!& towards home.... Oh well.... The best laid plans and all of that. Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all was that the McDonalds was closed due to the lack of electricity. Funny, I am so sick of fast food but I hadn't eaten all day and had really been looking forward to a double cheeseburger. I went to bed and hoped they'd have everything up and running in the morning. Just two miles away they had electricity running full power, but I guess it is just strange how such things work. You don't realize just how good you have it and just how easy life is until you have to do without something you take so much for granted every day.

 

Pilot still did not have electricity in the morning so I splashed some (very) cold water on my face, brushed my teeth and headed to the receiver in Durham, NC. I arrived about 15 minutes early and went inside to check in. The first man who greeted me looked confused. Another man walked over, apparently the guy in charge, and displayed absolutely no southern hospitality whatsoever. In fact, he was downright furious. He said I was supposed to have been there Friday and dammit, unloading five trucks in one day was too damned much. I said very little, sensing that to be the wisest course and he told me to back into a certain dock once the truck currently occupying it left.

 

Upon arriving at the consignee, I had sent my Qualcomm "arrival at consignee" message via the Qualcomm unit. (Useless bit of info for today: These messages are often called "canned" messages or "macros." They are basically just computer screen forms that the driver fills in and sends to indicate that he or she has arrived at shipper, arrived at consignee, is empty at consignee, etc.) Upon returning to the truck after checking in, the Qualcomm had spit back a message that read, "Not arrived at first drop." Uh-oh. You only get such messages when you have multiple drops, which, as far as I knew, I did not have. I fired back a message asking the human being at that end what the heck the crazy computer wanted. I received a reply that I needed to send in an arrival at the drop message.... To make a long story short, it came out that someone had screwed up pretty big and even though neither my load information, nor my bill of lading showed it, there had been a drop in Charlotte, NC for 2:00 AM Friday morning. The Durham part of the load was supposed to have come off at 9:00 AM Friday morning. Oops.

 

As is the case 99% of the time, someone along the way screwed up bad, but I was going to be the one who paid. In this case, it looked like it would be a very steep price.

 

Dispatch wanted me to try to get the consignee at Durham to pull his crap off so that I would be empty after returning to Charlotte. One look at my load and at how many pallets he would have to pull off to get to his stuff and the Durham guy said no freaking way was he gonna do it -- more or less in those exact words. I knew from his earlier attitude that he wouldn't go two steps out of his way, though, so it did not come as any surprise. What did get my panties in something of a twist, though, was being told that even after I ran back down to Charlotte and back, I wouldn't be able to get the stuff off in Durham because they stopped receiving at noon. Only in a jet could I get to Charlotte and back by noon. Whatever, butthead.  (Oh, did I mention?  Sometimes "whatever" needs to be accompanied by a descriptive word.)

 

I called the Charlotte drop and explained a bit about what was going on. He said they didn't start receiving until 2:00 AM so there was no need to hurry to get down there. A few foul words did escape me at this point, though I promise, only after hanging up the phone.

 

The worst part about all of this, however, is that I have been watching the calendar like a hawk because Christmas is coming and I desperately want to be home. I have been cautiously optimistic until now because my "switchout" day to get into or out of the truck is on Wednesday and Christmas also falls on Wednesday this year. By all rights, without any major problems, I should have had Christmas at home in my grasp... but now it was slipping away. These delays were going to push things up to Thursday, maybe even Friday and that all but guaranteed yet another Christmas on the road.

 

Unless you have experienced a special holiday far away from the ones you love, you cannot imagine how depressing and sad it is. You just don't realize how precious and important that time is until it is denied to you. I know in the past Christmas has been something of a circus; running from this house to that one, opening presents, cooking, eating supper here and there. At times I thought it would be far simpler if I just stayed home instead of trying to run all over to see this relative and that family. I take every one of those thoughts back now.

 

This will be my first Christmas in my very own house. For the first time in I don't know how long, this year I felt the Christmas spirit come on strong and actually hung Christmas lights and put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving. I bought a Nativity scene and happily put it on the mantle. I look so forward to going to church service on Christmas Eve and then returning home to let my son open a present early. I long to be awakened much too early on Christmas morning by a child bursting with eager anticipation to open his brightly wrapped presents. I want to go to my parents' house so that we can open more presents and just be in each others' company.

 

To really top everything off, I received a Qualcomm message that I would be switched to another dispatcher from this point on. My (as of now) former Dispatcher ran me pretty hard on a lot of the short runs, but when it came down to it, he knew his business. I admit I am very apprehensive about this change. I haven't worked with this new Dispatcher that I've been assigned to much, but I've heard the talk and she isn't particularly well liked. My first indication that I might be in for trouble came as I sat in my truck reading a book on Monday, waiting for rush hour to clear out. I received a "Pre Planned Load" over the Qualcomm. She had sent me a load that had a loading appointment time about 11 hours before I was going to get empty on the load I was on. Red flags went flying -- I mean, was this chic for real? This inspired absolutely zero confidence that she knew what she was doing. I replied back, diplomatically pointing out that I couldn't load anything until the load I had now was delivered. She responded that she would look for something else for me.

 

My Dispatcher nor my Fleet Manager will do nothing better than to say they will "see what they can do" as far as getting me home for Christmas. I am depressed. If the receiver in Durham would have just been kind enough to pull off part of the load, take his stuff off and put the other back on, I might have made it home in time. I might have had a better shot at Christmas at home. Of course that wouldn't occur to him and when he leaves after his shift is done, not even one more thought will be about the stupid truck driver in his facility that day. On Christmas he will probably be sitting in his warm and cozy house, watching his babies open presents and smooching his wife and petting his dog and the farthest thing in the world from his mind will be the truck drivers who don't make it home for Christmas because someone screws up their load(s). My Dispatcher will likely be doing the same, as will my Fleet Manager and countless others in ranks above "Driver" and none the less, the freight will still get delivered the day after Christmas and the trucks will still roll. Heck, truckers make the mail man look undependable and lazy. Okay, so the mail does usually get through and all of that, but even the mail man takes Christmas Day off. I'm sorry, but the people of America truly don't fully understand and appreciate the extent of the sacrifice drivers make just so someone out there can have fresh salad or the latest, greatest toy under the Christmas tree. Some would say that it is my own fault for getting into this industry, that I should expect this. Spare me. I don't give a damn what it takes - every driver who wants to be home for Christmas should be there. For the record, at least with this job, I was told I would always be home for Christmas. They lied.

 

Yes, I'm having a pity party. Yes, it is over now. Thank you for hearing me. I will shut up now about the Christmas debacle... who knows, maybe I will make it home after all... I'll let you know.

 

...continued...

 

Well, I sort of made it home for Christmas... if you call getting there at 8:00 PM being home.  The way the load was set up, I had half a chance of making it home by Christmas Day afternoon, but only if everything went perfect and right on time.  How often does that work, though?

 

I had a load out of Des Moines, IA delivering in Hatfield, MA on December 23, 2002 at 3:00 AM.  There was a reload set up out of Nashua, NH that would load around noon on the 23rd.  That load would come back to Iowa City, IA, be dropped, and I could then deadhead back to the yard in Des Moines, IA.  That was how it was supposed to work and damn if it didn't come close.

 

The trip out east went okay.  I got held up for about six hours in Hatfield, MA unloading but was up in Nashua over the lunch hour.  A traffic circle, sometimes called a "rotary."  This one is on US 20 in Indiana.They loaded me within a couple of hours and I was headed west towards home.  I put everything I had into getting to the house, but along about Ohio it went to hell in a handbasket.  I was running US20 east out of Toledo, OH when I noticed a salt shaker or two just sitting around.  Hmmm... I thought.... What're you fellas doing sitting around?  Waiting for a storm?  Sure enough, within 20 miles or so I started seeing those little white flakes and then HELLO, they became big white flakes and MERRY CHRISTMAS, HONEY, they were all over the road and the sky and the windshield and I couldn't see and I said enough already and cut south to the big road. (Truckerspeak for the interstate/toll road.)  I was hoping that the turnpike would be in better shape than the back roads and normally this would be true, but not on Christmas Eve..... Guess those snowplow guys get Christmas Eve at home.

 

The road in Ohio was horrible and Indiana wasn't much better.  There were a few plows running around, but not many for a storm like this.  The State probably didn't want to pay them time and a half for working Christmas Eve / Christmas.  I was pretty determined to try to get home, I really was, so I kept at it, maxing out around 40 mph, until I made it to Minooka, IL.  The roads had improved a bit as I got into Illinois, but Illinois in general doesn't do a very good job with roads, so the fact that they had less snow didn't necessarily make them any better to travel.  It was something like 3:00 AM when I pulled in and I must admit, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

 

The roads were clear by the time I was up and rolling again.  I made it over to Iowa City, IA and dropped the load.  I grabbed an empty and qualcommed in that I was headed to Des Moines, IA deadhead, per my dispatcher's instructions.  Instead, someone sent me a load.  They said to run it over to Ottawa, IL for the next morning at 6:00 AM.  In other words, they wanted me to turn around and head back east to deliver again the next morning.

 

Now, I have a mortgage, a car payment and responsibilities like a whole lot of you do.  I can't afford to fly off the handle and say "Take your job and shove it" no matter how bad I might want to at times.  In this case, however, the things I considered responding with were so crude and so lewd, you'd be shocked.  Yeah, little old truck-drivin' me was about to say some things that would make a sailor blush.

 

I held back these urges, though and simply replied with "NO."  In that moment of absolute fury, I didn't trust myself with the keyboard, so I simply refused the load and said that the truck was going to Des Moines for Christmas supper and that was that.  My dispatcher had said that if I ran the Massachusetts thing that I could deadhead home and no way was I gonna do anything else.  At that moment, my financial and any other responsibilities ceased to matter.  I was going to go home.  I know this sounds cheesy, immature and even adolescent.  All I can say is that when you miss Christmas two years in a row due to the financial greed of an entity that doesn't give a damn about your needs, you can be prone to revert to the emotional level of a pubescent teen.

 

I pulled into my own driveway around 9:00 PM.

 

See ya next year!

 

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