Friday, July 26, 2013

The Tennessee Truck Adventure

In 1983 I had just closed down my machinery installation business and was working odd jobs while I got my feet under me after stopping a rather serious drinking problem. A friend called and asked if I still had my commercial driver’s license, and I said I did. He told me that he had a truckload of material in Nashville which he needed driven back to Atlanta, and asked if I would fly up and drive the truck back for him. I said sure.

It’s a fairly easy day’s work. Nashville to Atlanta is 250 miles; about six hours or so since there is a fairly nasty mountain pass to negotiate, which will slow me down a bit even in nice summer weather. I’m to pick up the truck at a rental place, and the steel plant is supposed to have the trailer loaded and ready to hook up. No sweat.

It starts out easy enough, except that those little bitty airplanes scare the crap out of me. Despite my premonitions of certain death, we land safely and I get to the truck rental place and fill out the paperwork. I get into the truck and am getting everything adjusted to my liking, looking over the dash and what have you, when I realize it has been a few years since I’ve done this, and in particular since I’ve done it when I was not drunk, or at least well on the way to being so. It feels kind of weird.

So I start the truck, put it in gear and the truck sort of leaps out of the rental lot toward the street. Oh yes, I remember now; you don’t start bobtailed in second gear. That’s a good way to, um, break the drive shaft. I look in the mirror and the rental guy is holding his head in both hands. I signal him that I have everything under control, which is not strictly true at this point, but Let’s try that again. Oh, good, the drive shaft is intact and my second start is not exactly svelte, but at least the truck stays on the ground.

Driving a truck is absolutely not like riding a bicycle, but it does come back fairly rapidly, and by the time I get to the steel plant I’m playing a fairly smooth tune with the gearshift and no longer leaving tire rubber on the pavement. I check in and this is where things go to shit because, no, not only do they not have the trailer loaded, it is not even parked in its loading bay and they want me to park it there for them.

Seriously? It’s been several years since I’ve been in a freaking truck and they want me to back a forty foot box into a door that is about one inch wider than the trailer. I have my pride, though, or I am stupid or something, because I don’t hesitate. I hook up the trailer, pull up in front of the door, and utterly astonish myself by backing it into the bay on the first try. Haha, fooled them. They think they have a real truck driver here..

I get to the freeway and gain confidence after a while; am cruising along at slightly above the 55 mph truck speed limit and feeling pretty good. I see a sign that says “Weigh Station 2 miles” and think nothing of it. A little later a sign reads “Weigh Station 1 mile” and it still doesn't register. Then I see a sign that says “Weigh Station, Open, All Trucks Must Exit” and I realize “Oh shit, I’m a truck.”

My first thought is that I have to go past. I’m not worried about my weight, since my load is only about half of maximum and well balanced, but there would be a fine for failing to stop and that would come out of my pocket.

But then I see that there are no trucks in the weigh station, so I hit the ramp at something like 50 miles per hour and I become as busy as the proverbial one armed paper hanger. My trailer is trying to get in front of me, which would not be good, so I have to keep it behind me, but I also have to stop this beast. I'm generating a rather impressive cloud of tire and brake smoke, but somehow I come to rest with everything straight and more or less on the scale. Turns out my steering axle has gone off the front edge a bit.

The scale guy communicates with drivers over a loudspeaker, which crackles after my cloud of smoke has fully cleared and I hear a sort of sarcastic, “You in big a hurry, are you?”

“Not really,” I reply. “I was kind of caught up with Reba on the tape deck and the exit sort of snuck up on me.” I’m thinking to myself that that was about the puniest response in the history of excuses.

Apparently it passed muster, because all I get is, “You want to back it up a little bit?” Maybe he likes Reba McEntire, too. Most guys in Tennessee do, which is why I said what I did, of course. Common ground never hurts.

The only message from the scale house after that is a green light, so I get out of there before he decides to check papers. My driver’s license is good, but I have no current DOT health card, and I’m not keeping a driver’s log. I probably could have talked my way out of trouble, but flying onto his scale like that has not helped my cause.

Negotiating the pass at Chattanooga was child’s play after that, although I did kind of laugh at myself on the downgrade as I’m tiptoeing down in sixth gear at 25 mph with a gross weight of 50,000# and remembering the times I’d done it half again as fast while grossing close to 100,000# and carrying eight or ninth.


  1. I suppose drunk muscle memory is different from sober?

  2. It's called State Dependent Learning. Probably the more recent drunk learning/using memory interfered with older sober learning. If there was sober learning?

  3. Anonymous3:09 PM

    Good story!

  4. Good Story. Lucky they didn't come out and do the full inspection on you that day.
    One thing you certainly hit the nail on the head with - getting back in a big truck is certainly not like driving a bike. Tried it myself a bit recently and it was an eye opener.