Monday, July 9, 2012

(new fiction)


Out Past The Weigh Station


You have to be somewhere at a certain time, that's it. There's not much else to worry about in trucking. Once you're headed for the destination and you know you have plenty of time to get there, you can lean back in the seat and relax, and a semi truck is a pretty comfortable way to travel. Most have cruise control now, and bucket seats with arm rests. The seat moves up and down on an air suspension system that takes the rough edges off the rough roads and kind of rocks you along like you're siting on a porch swing. The trucks have power steering and track well. You point one in a certain direction and that's where it goes. There's not much work involved once you're sailing down the highway.


There are those miles to pass, but that's part of the good part. That's all free time. I can spend it as I please. I have radio, my little iPod, and some good headphones. I can fill the iPod full of music, and I can use it to listen to podcasts, too. Pacifica radio. Intelligent conversation, dissenters, like me, radicals, even some Socialists. All the Leftists have their shows as do Natives and Blacks and Arabs and Pacific Islanders and Gays and Lesbians, everyone who hasn't been given the microphone elsewhere. There's all kinds of interesting programming, people interviewing interesting people and talking about finding a better way than this crazy way we do things now.
 

There's books on tape, too. A great Russian novel can keep you engaged for a week. You inhabit a different world. I've caught up on a lot of the reading I always should have done but never did, the classics and so forth, and the interesting thing is that those classic novels are good stories, too. Of course they're more than good stories. The great novelists were talking about the same things the philosophers and artists and thinkers of their day were talking about and that's why the books are classics but they're also classics because it's great writing and they tell good stories, and when you get caught up in a good book you can't wait to get on the road and get back into it. If you have eight or ten hours driving ahead of you, it's not a chore, it's a pleasant eight or ten hours. Russian novels, Plato's dialogues, one of Maugham's stories. When it's over it's just like when you put down a good book at home. You just keep cruising and enjoying the mood it leaves you in and out there, you don't have anything to worry about anyway except maybe what you're going to listen to next, or maybe which truck stop to stop at and enjoy a nice, hot meal.

Sometimes I'll leave the radio off, take the headphones off, and just think. When you have that kind of free, un-interrupted time you can really think a thing through. You can resolve things, in your mind, take a thing piece by piece and hold up each piece and turn it around and look at every side of it, think each piece of it through. You can figure things out, make decisions, set priorities. Having the ability to make quick decisions is nice, but having the luxury of not having to is nice, too.

So I don't mind the long miles. There's not too much to worry about about there. There's the company you work for, of course. There's always that, wherever you work. In trucking it's dispatchers and various other ones in the company but you end up doing a lot of your driving at night when the company people are home in bed. Even during the day, they're too busy to bother you much. Once they know you're reliable they don't waste their time on you and at night, they're home in bed.

So I enjoy the simplicity, the not having to worry, the long miles, the time spent alone. The only thing you might have to worry about once in awhile is the law, and that's something you do have to worry about. You sure don't want to be in a hurry. It gets you noticed. It also ruins your peace of mind, and you have to worry about getting tickets and losing your commercial driver's license. That's a valuable thing to have, but you have to protect it. You're allowed fewer tickets than with a regular driver's license, one fewer, so you have to worry about the law once in awhile but if you just take it easy, leave yourself plenty of time, you don't have to worry too much about the highway cops, and the only thing you have to worry about is the weigh stations. Those are something you do have to worry about.

The weigh stations are at the state lines, usually. There's a few out in the middle of nowhere but mostly they're at state lines. When you come into every state, the state department of transportation, the cops for truckers, want to weigh your truck. At most of the scales now, you don't even have to stop, you just roll over the scales slowly, and if you're weight is OK you get the green light and you're gone. Sometimes they'll give you the red light because they want to look the truck itself over, inspect it, and look at your paperwork and when they do, they always want to see your log book, and sometimes your registration and fuel permits and your other permits and your bills of lading and so on. If they find anything wrong they'll write you a ticket, too, right there in the office.

The department of transportation cops can write tickets like the police. When you're going to get a ticket they'll have you park in the back and come in and stand there at the counter while they write it. While you're standing there you have time to think about what it will mean as far as keeping your license, keeping the job you're at, and how much the fine will be. Everything costs more for truck drivers -- tolls, parts, mechanics, even parking tickets, almost everything, and when you get a fine in a truck, it's going to cost more than what you'd pay for doing the same thing in a car. Except seat belt tickets. Those cost the same as in a car, but in some states now, New Mexico, for example, they put points on your license for seat belt tickets. It's three points on your license in New Mexico for not wearing your seat belt. That's insane. I look at seat belts like this. If you're planning on getting into an accident, wear a seat belt. If not, don't. If you think there's a remote chance you might have an accident, wear one. If not, don't. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, unless Caesar is a complete goddamn idiot.

But weigh stations are something to worry about. Nothing good can happen at a weigh station, only bad things, so when you're approaching one you're thinking about it. How's the log book look? Is there anything wrong with the truck. What about my weight? You're allowed 80,000 pounds and customers, who are paying by the truck load, like to load you right up to the limit, and some of them, like farmers, if you're hauling hay, will put as much on there as you'll let them.


Sometimes a weigh station will be closed, but you only find out when you get there, after you're already done worrying about it. After you've driven trucks awhile you know where all the weight stations are, so you know when to be ready, when to at least have your log book up to date. If your log book is OK and your weight is OK, that's the worst of it, but you never can be sure about the truck. Something, a light, a tire, might have gone out in the past several hours and you might not be aware of it.

Things do go out, and they have to go out at some time. A headlight, a marker light, a tail light, a flat on an inside tire where you wouldn't see it in the rear view mirror. You have 18 wheels and 18 tires and they'll go flat once in awhile, especially in the summer when they get hot.

Sometimes, you have drive over the legal limit of hours, and when you do and you know a weigh station is coming up, it's high anxiety time. You probably won't get checked, but you might. Usually you just idle over the scales and they don't ever see your log book, but they do sometimes do spot checks. Sometimes they'll give you the red light and call you in so they can look at it, and sometimes they'll walk out and have you hand it to them so you can't hurry up and bring it up to date before you go inside.


I drive a regular route these days and go past two weigh stations every night. It's a pretty easy run, 486 miles a night -- from Albuquerque out to Holbrook, Arizona, where I trade trailers with a driver who is coming from Phoenix, then I head back to Albuquerque.

One of the weigh stations I have to contend with is the one coming into New Mexico, on the way back. That one's always open, always, so when I'm 20 miles from it I start getting ready. I've updated the log book when I left Holbrook, so getting ready means fastening the seat belt and getting the clutter off the dash board, maybe checking the lights and the tires in the rear view mirrors, and remaining calm so I don't grind the gears while I'm pulling onto the scales or do some stupid thing like that. At that weigh station, they don't check paperwork except maybe once a month, and then they usually just want to look at your truck registration, but a few times a year they'll have extra people on duty and will be doing complete truck and paperwork inspections, and your log book will be examined with a fine tooth comb. They can do those day or night, and you always have to be ready, but usually they just wave you through, then it's clear sailing all the way to Albuquerque.

The other weigh station I have to pass is the one coming into Arizona, on my way out to Holbrook. That's one's usually closed when I get there at 1 a.m., but it's occasionally open so you have to be ready. When I'm approaching that one, a mile or so away, I can see the red light, the "closed" light, and I can take off the seat belt and relax, and when I've passed that one it's smooth sailing. I can put on the headphones and just do what I want to do.


The rest of the trip out to Holbrook is pretty much all flat land, just a roadway across the open desert. No hills or sharp curves, no towns, and at that time of night no traffic. Pretty relaxing. You're up on a high plateau, too, and the sky is usually clear and you're surrounded by all the constellations and the millions of stars. Up high, in the desert, the air is thin and dry and the sky looks different. It has depth to it. It's three dimensional. That part of the drive is the best part of my day, the easiest time. There's nothing to worry about. Just put it on cruise control and enjoy the ride. The stars, some music, a good podcast, the BBC maybe, or just nothing at all.

When I got past the Arizona weigh station the other night I started thinking about one of the old jobs I had. It was a small company out of St Louis. They had refrigerated trailers. Refrigerated freight is high dollar freight, so it usually pays well. The trucks were nice, comfortable and fast, and the company booked mostly nice, long runs, like California to Ontario, Canada.

I used to pick up different kinds of fruits or nuts that went in Kellog's cereals, at the big brokers' warehouses in the San Joaquin Valley or sometimes at a farm just south of San Jose, and take it all the way to London, Ontario. It was nice. You did a lot of driving, but that's the only part of truck driving you're paid for. You're not paid for loading or unloading, or waiting for a day or two to get your truck worked on at the terminal. You're paid by the mile, and whether you're on a long run, or a short run, you only have to load and unload at the beginning and at the end.

When I think about that company I inevitably think about Bill Starr, a guy who worked in the office. Bill was head of the Safety Department. He was the safety department. The company was big enough to have a safety department, but he was the only one in it, and he also conducted the orientations.

I'd usually see Bill whenever I made it to terminal, which happened now and then. If he didn't have an orientation going on, he'd just be hanging around. Safety people have to file some reports with the government and insurance companies, and they conduct the periodic safety classes that the company requires, but if he didn't have that or an orientation class going on he was hanging out somewhere in the office, talking to this person or that one.


He always had a friendly hello for me and wanted to know how things had been going. Bill had been a driver. It's not uncommon to see drivers working in the office at trucking companies. The attraction is that you're home every night, and that can be a big attraction. If there's one thing you have time to think about on the road it's all the things you could do if you had a normal life. Setting up that work shop or fixing up that house or growing that garden, or going for a drive with someone in the evening to have an ice cream. I didn't know why Bill got off the road. I never heard him talk about his driving days. Some of those safety guys, the ones who used to drive, talk about their driving days non stop, but Bill didn't. He wanted to talk about you.

St Louis, where headquarters was, isn't New York or Rome or Paris or Los Angeles, but it's the big metropolis in that part of the country, the big city. Bill, though, had come from a small town, and looked like a friendly farm boy. He was tall and had big, warm, friendly brown eyes and wavy brown hair and looked like someone who had played basketball or football in high school. He was a pleasant person to be around, and when I quit that company and had to go in and talk to Bill and he tried to get me to stay, I was sorry to have to say no.
 

I met Bill, though, during the orientation. Those orientation sessions always drag on for days, and Bill covered the things he was supposed to, I suppose, but he was always telling stories, too, about truck drivers, mainly, about some of the things they had pulled, like the driver who tossed his log book out the window as he pulled into the weigh station. His log book was way behind, and the fine for not having a log book was less than the fine for his log book being behind, so out went the log book.

Another story was about a driver who went to Laredo, on the Mexican border. If you're in trucking you're going to end up in Laredo sooner or later, hauling NAFTA stuff coming out of Mexico, delivering raw materials going into Mexico, and sometimes, hauling machines down there from factories that had closed in the US and were headed for a new home in Mexico.
 

In this story, the driver had gotten pissed off at his company. If you've ever worked for a living you know about getting pissed off at the company, for good reason, and in trucking there's two or three times as much reason and it's a common occurrence for drivers to get mad. They get mad and quit, they get mad and abandon a truck somewhere, they get mad and tell off everyone within ear shot. It's the companies, the lack of respect truckers have to put up with on all fronts, and it's the lack of sleep and the stress from the road, but everyone in the class who had driven before knew what Bill was talking about.

"So this driver is so pissed," Bill says, grinning, "that he checks into a motel room, then went and found someone who'd buy his truck. It wouldn't be hard to do in Laredo. The truck will be on its way to Mexico in a few hours, or it'll be stripped for parts and they'll end up in Mexico, but the driver sold his truck for $8,000, a company truck, not his own, the company's, then goes back to the motel room, calls the company and reports the truck stolen."

The drivers who had driven before thought the story was great. A rare case of justice. Some of the reason it got a good laugh was that Bill was a company man. He worked in the office so had to be a company man. He hadn't always been a company man, and he hadn't forgot what it was like. He knew what drivers go through out there. Most of those drivers who go to work in the office aren't like that. They were usually ass kissers anyway, and they soon forget all about what it was like out there. They relish being company men and having their little bit of authority over drivers, even if they do earn less now. Status is an elixir, an addictive substance. Being part of the company and above someone else soon brings out peoples' lesser natures. They quickly adopt the attitudes and language of the other side, become part of the solid front that inside people maintain against those on the outside, in this case, drivers.

The sad thing is, I have to say, that in trucking, there are lot of drivers who are already company men. Many truck drivers come from the South, where truck driving is one of the best paying jobs you can get, and in the South, even if you're a member of the working class, you are born a company man and die a company man. I'm talking about White Southerners, not Black ones. Black people are on the outside even if they're inside. They live in a different world than Whites, always on the outside. I'm talking about Republican working class Whites.


Several times I've heard a driver with a southern drawl, when you ask him why he does this or that, say, "Because the boss man says so."

Which is unfathomable, to me, foreign. I'll never utter those words, even if they happen to be true, but the culture of the US South is such that you can be your own man and be owned by the company, too. It's just all so unfathomable.

Bill, even if he had become a company man, remembered. He still knew what it was like. Maybe he wasn't really a company man, after all.

I enjoyed his orientations classes and even started to speak up once in awhile, which I normally don't do. I don't appreciate those orientation sessions, or the company safety classes, sitting there listening to someone talk who knows less about what they're saying than I do, and I don't normally participate in truck driver banter, either. It's formulaic, self promoting and inane, and dishonest most of the time and just very annoying, but I was enjoying Bill's classes and was speaking up once in awhile.


He had been talking about driving at night and asked if anyone knew what to do when there were deer and livestock in the road, so I spoke up and told a story about hitting a deer in Caspar, Wyoming.

In Caspar, the interstate highway goes right through downtown, and I told them that I was driving through there one night when a deer jumped out in front of me. I don't know why the deer was in downtown Caspar, Wyoming, but it was, and I no sooner saw it than I hit it, broadside, and I was telling the class about what it was like to hit a deer when you're going full speed.

I suppose my story could have been a comment about the fact that sometimes there's nothing you can do in a situation like that, but what I really wanted to do was to tell everybody that when I hit the deer, it exploded, and it surprised the hell out of me. At the moment of impact, red fluid gushed from every opening in the deer's body, from front to rear and from top to bottom. I suppose it was blood mixed with bodily fluids, but whatever it was, it went everywhere, all over the truck, the windshield, up in the air, everywhere, a sudden gush of red fluid exploding from all the deer's bodily openings.


No one said anything. I wondered if some of them had hit a deer and were disappointed they hadn't told their story before I did, but I think most of them thought it was pretty impressive. Just for good measure, I said,

"It was the most gruesome thing I've ever seen."
 

Again, no one spoke.

Bill, as I told the story, had just stared at me. When I was finished he didn't say anything, either. He just looked at his watch and said we might as well take our break now.

I was only with that company about a year. I met someone up in Wisconsin and got a job driving local up there, so I could be home every night. That thing didn't last long either and I ended up back on the road, and some time after that I ran into a driver from the old company, Bills company.

It was at the TA truck stop in Ontario, California. I used to spend a lot of time at that truck stop. I'd deliver Kellogg's cereal to a warehouse just a few miles from there. I'd deliver finished cereal, then go to the truck stop and wait for the horrendous Los Angeles afternoon rush hour to pass, then drive up to the San Joaquin Valley or San Jose, pick up raisins or nuts, and take them to London, Ontario, Canada where they'd go into Kellogg's cereal. The driver from the old company was coming out of the TA as I was going in. He had bought himself a big, fancy, powerful CB radio for his truck. I said I didn't know much about CB radios so he showed it to me.

When he was done I asked about people at the company. There were a couple of dispatchers who were pretty nice. They worked nights and weren't like the office people in general, who were all home in bed at night. Then there was the woman who did the logs, who I had liked, so I asked about her. She was the person you turned your logs in to. She had to check them and keep them on file so that when the department of transportation came and audited them they'd be in order and legal. If I ever turned in an illegal log, she'd call me in and have me sit down next to her at her desk. She'd change the log to make it legal while I sat and watched, then she'd lean over to show it to me and make incidental contact with me with her very large breasts. She had lots of dark, curly hair and wore low cut sweaters and things, and I had thought about her many times since I left the company to run off to Wisconsin.

"So how is old Bill doing?" I asked, finally. Bill, who was in his 30s, hadn't driven very long before he started working in the office but I called him old Bill.

"He's still there."

"I guess he's all done with driving," I said.

"I guess!" the other driver exclaimed.


"What do you mean?"

"You didn't hear about it?"

"About what?"

"Well, when Bill was driving he was involved in a fatality. He hit somebody."

"I never knew that!"

"You never knew that?"

"No!"

"Yea, he was driving through Bloomington one night and they say a woman jumped out from behind a car that was stopped beside the highway, jumped right out in front of him. He couldn't stop or anything." He paused, then said, "They say there were body parts all up and down the expressway." He paused again before adding, "They think she wanted to commit suicide."


Even as I pictured the scene, my mind recalculated everything I knew about Bill, the way he treated people, why he went to work in the office, and how he stared at me while I talked about hitting a deer, his big friendly brown eyes saying nothing, just saying that I'm a big, warm, friendly guy, how are you doing?

And so when I get past the weigh station, it's the best part of the night. I can relax, put it on cruise, and there's not too much to worry about. I can put on the headphones, or turn on the radio, or think about the log woman, with her pretty smile, and her broad nose with the huge pores that I didn't really notice very often because of the low cut sweaters and things, or I can think about whether there's much difference in the frailty of the human body and the body of a deer, whether the bodily openings are more or less protected by bone, one from the other, whether, based on the size of the openings relative to the amount of bodily fluids, and given the same force of impact, fluid exits from the openings in a deer's body faster or slower than it does from the body of a woman.




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