By John Latta
He was tall, the sort you might call reedy or willowy. His walk had a rhythm to it, an easy movement, fluid and economical, and he always seemed to be unhurried. He was coal black and came from Thursday Island, off Australia’s northern coast. He dressed casually, but clean and ironed, and he was maybe in his 30s. His face was relaxed but not blank; he was obviously interested in everything that went on around him, but he took it all in with the same quiet sense of wonder. As if everything in the world was a miracle. Working in 120-degree weather many days, I never saw him sweat or show any signs of discomfort or irritation.
I met him in Port Hedland, a remote deep water port on the barren coast of Western Australia. After all these years, I have forgotten his name. I thought I never would, such was the impression he left on me. The job he did intrigued me, but even more remarkable was the way he felt about what he did.
I’d come for a job running a straight truck out along the 300 miles of rail line that ran from the Mount Newman iron ore mine, the world’s largest, to the port, carrying crews who repaired even the smallest bends, dips, humps and other problems in the rail lines that monster trains hauling ore rolled over day and night. We met when I climbed into the railcar that would run me up from the port to the mine. We were the only two aboard. He just sat there watching the land, seeing its wonders on our long, noisy ride through a flat desert where the view never changed. He said nothing unless I asked an idle question; then he gave me a polite, but very brief, answer.
When we reached the mine, a man who definitely looked to be in charge of something was waiting for him. Quietly he told the man about every defect in the 300 miles of track we had just traveled. I remember thinking at the time, “How on earth does he know that?” Just sitting in that railcar he could feel every bump and jump, even the most minor, and know the problem and the precise mile marker. He never wrote down the details; he just remembered them. Even then, and this was a lot of years ago, I remember thinking I would have expected some sort of sophisticated sensors would do that job. Today, maybe they do.
I saw him in the mining town and when I took the crews out. The railcar would stop, and he would tell the crews exactly where the damage was. Most of the problems were minor, and the crews often needed his skill to pinpoint the problem; all the crew could see when they stepped up onto the track was an endless line of steel rails. I didn’t stay in the job long. I spent my last day riding back to the coast with him in the railcar.
More important than his work was his attitude toward his work. You often hear someone say a certain person is “comfortable in his own skin.” This man certainly was. He knew his work was important. He knew he was good at what he did without bragging about it or feeling the need to tell everyone he met. He knew not many people could do it anywhere near as well. He never gave the impression that he felt superior, or inferior, to anyone. What he did in life sat well with him.
I think of him sometimes when I run into really good truckers. People who ignore the scorecard system so many people use to evaluate their lives and the lives of the people around them. They don’t need someone else to decide their value, to appraise and stamp approval on the work they do to make it important. It’s a nice feeling. They’re people who might tell you: “I know exactly who I am and what I do. I like me, I know my worth and you can’t change that even if you are richer, more powerful or have a fancy job title. I wouldn’t change me if I could. And I don’t want to be you.”
When you feel like that, you’re way ahead of the game.
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