First Place Winner: Million dollar baby

| June 07, 2008

I remember the driving technique my dad used. He let the clutch out just so, shifted every time with just the tips of his fingers and felt the exact moment when the rpms and the road speed matched and slipped into the next gear.

Most of what I learned about driving trucks came from my dad. He was a truck driver and diesel mechanic who started driving when gas engines were common, and the trucks were a lot rougher than they are today.

When I was a child in Arizona, he hauled a lot of hay and grain, and I went with him many times. When my younger brother was able to walk, he went with us, too. I remember sitting between my dad and my uncle on my dad’s jacket folded over a milk crate full of stuff, and holding my brother as he stood up in front of me. He was too short to see over the dashboard and was happy to watch the events he could see in front of him.

At the time, my dad was teaching my uncle how to drive in an old truck with a five-speed main and a four-speed auxiliary transmission. Sometimes my dad would shift the main and get my brother to hold onto the stick for the brownie and help him move it. We went a lot of miles like that, with lunch supplies that would cause a fainting fit during the school year. In the morning Dad would buy a six-pack of soda and a bag of chips, and that was the rations for the day. Later on we would buy more cold drinks for the trip home, and finish off the chips. There was an absolute no-whining policy, and one time I had to sacrifice my Cub Scout belt to hold something together so we could get the truck home.

What I remember most about that time was the driving technique my dad used. He would treat every truck he drove exactly the same way, whether it was his truck or one belonging to a company. He let the clutch out just so, shifted every time with just the tips of his fingers and felt the exact moment when the rpms and the road speed matched and slipped into the next gear. He would lean the truck into the load very gently, letting the rpms and manifold pressure build together and keeping an eye on the pyrometer so the exhaust temperature didn’t rise too fast. He did this every single time, all day long.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by aircraft, and in the truck I would imagine we were in an airplane, taking off for a mission. Like the pilots I read about, we were also in flight. We would land every now and then to load and unload, get fuel or check on the truck, and the desert rushing by outside the windows provided the backdrop for the flights in my mind.

Now it’s a few years later and I drive the trucks. I have had five of my own, all of them in the flatbed game. I had one that was new the year my brother was born. Over the time I have been an owner-operator I have moved up to better and newer trucks each time until I reached the one I thought was the best I might ever have. It’s a 1992 Kenworth W-900B with a B model 3406 Cat, 15-speed deep reduction transmission and 3:55s. This year makes nine years we’ve had it, and I use the driving techniques I learned back then to help me succeed today. Watching my dad drive and treating my trucks the same way has helped this one last a long time; it has almost 1.4 million miles on it and is still in good shape.

We’ve been through the engine once – I finally put a reconditioned transmission in it at 1.3 million, but that’s about it for the major stuff. It still has the factory rear ends in it, and I have done the brakes on it three times. It still has two of the factory universal joints in it, so I guess watching my dad and driving like he did has paid off. He calls it my “West Coast Turnaround” truck. He likes it a lot and rides with me when I come by to see him.

When I put that old truck in gear and let out on the clutch, hear the turbocharger spool up and feel the truck lean into the load and get it moving, I can almost hear the echoes of the working Americans that built it, see it back when it was new and the finest tool available to do the job. To them, it might have been just a few more hours on the assembly line, one more truck to finish before calling it a day, but to us it has meant a world with wheels on it, a world of movement. A world of people and places, loads picked up and delivered. The fact that it is still going is a testament to its rugged design and the craft and care of those who built it. This truck is a dinosaur by today’s standards – it has a mechanical injection engine, no air ride cab, no cruise control. Every mile I’ve driven it was both feet on the floor holding down the pedal. It has no auto transmission, no top-two auto select, no shift lights. Nothing like that.

The first time I saw it, it was behind the company offices where I was leased on at the time. It had been extraordinarily cared for, and the longer I had it the longer I kept finding out subtle things that reinforced that impression. It had the dump valve for a spread axle flatbed wired in, the load lights were mounted and both worked, there were several boxes of spare fuses in the fuse box, a spare fuel filter and headlight in the side box. I was impressed, to say the least. I never met the previous owner, but I could tell he had learned in the old school and taken his lessons well. I looked at the truck, and it seemed to calmly sit there as if to say, “Are you enough of an operator to take care of a truck like me?” I could tell this thing was a thoroughbred all the way through. It seemed to be issuing me a challenge, as if to say, I’ll hold up my end if you’ll hold up yours. And I have to say it has.

It has held together in nine years of running in and out of some hard places. I have been to more than 30 different mines with it, one so rough it flexed the cab hard enough to break one of the windshields. One time I drove it in and out of a mine in a blizzard, 11 miles in and 11 miles back out, with the transmission in deep reduction the whole way. I’ve been to sawmills, steel mills, quarries, you name it. I’ve been to ports and harbors all over the country, and every time I left town in that truck it brought me home with a paycheck.

That’s one reason I named it “Million Dollar Baby,” because in the years I ran it I made more than a million dollars with it. And just like the scrappy title character in the Clint Eastwood movie, that old truck never quit – it came out of the corner swinging every time.

And it still looks like a million bucks to our family. It is a part of our family. That truck paid for my wife’s education, part of my son’s, and bought the house my disabled mother lived in until she died. If you think I’m a little stuck on it, you’re right. One of the best days of my life was when the title to it came in the mail, free and clear, with my name on it.

I sit here in a truckstop restaurant and look back on the years I spent on the road in that truck, the people I’ve known, the history I’ve seen come and go. I was driving it when Y2K rolled around and generated much ado about nothing. I listened as the country waited to hear who would be president in 2000, and I woke one morning at home to my son’s voice on the phone telling me about the World Trade Center attacks. He was in the Army at the time and had been on duty at Ft. Riley, Kan., and had seen all the news of it.

I was driving back to Phoenix from L.A. one night after Sept. 11, 2001, and looked into the sky above Phoenix. For the first time I could remember in all the years I had been on the road, there were no aircraft in the sky and the roads were strangely deserted. I remember learning a new kind of fear, the fear my father must have felt while I was gone to war. It’s a special kind of fear, alone at night on the road with a child in a war zone. All the things I never told my wife about my own tours were on my mind that night, hoping our son was all right, and staying after it because the load had to deliver in the morning.

I have seen the years come and go in that truck, the seasons in their order. And just like the seasons, the world moves on. Times change, people’s needs change, but even so, some things stay the same. And there will always be a place in trucking for the uniquely American dream of buying a truck and giving all you’ve got to make a go of it. There will always be a place in a man’s soul for an old friend you can always count on to hold up its end of the deal.

I’m looking for a newer truck, one with an air ride cab, a newer engine with electronic engine management and cruise control. A little more room inside for my wife as she gets ready to join me on the road, fulfilling plans long in the making.

But I won’t be trading this one in. We’ve got special plans for it. For a little while longer, I’ll run that old truck that still looks like a million bucks, still turns heads when I drive away from the fuel island and still gathers compliments wherever I take it. A fine-looking, well-bred lady, 100 percent thoroughbred all the way through. I look out the window of the restaurant as I write this and see it sitting there in the parking lot waiting patiently. I know it’s up for anything and ready to leave when I get finished with my dinner. In fact, I think I better go; we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.

And a gentleman never keeps a lady waiting.


About the Author
John Burns of Claypool, Ariz., took an interest in writing during his first semester in college in an English 101 class. He wanted to write about trucking and capture the stories of men and women out on the road. Burns became more serious about writing after delivering several eulogies for fellow trucking friends. His Kenworth is a part of the family, he says. It’s a well-built machine – durable and made for longevity. He’s logged 900,000 miles with it, and he says, “That truck means a lot more to us than just a piece of equipment.”

“I still have it,” he says. “It’s not for sale.”

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