Docking in Tornado Alley

I know all you boys out there can drive just about anything on wheels and shift one of those 40-speeders like you were spreading butter. You can go from an 8 to an 18 or maybe even a 4Ă—4 with two sticks without thinking.

You can back a 53-footer into a needle’s eye and blindside in Brooklyn. You can run the Long Island Expressway with a high box and know which low-overhead signs are right and which ones will get your roof torn off. Maybe you know that because once you saw a sign too late and you ran under the overpass and nothing happened. Blind, dumb luck is what it was. Well, luck is part of the game, and you learn when things don’t happen just like when they do happen.

You remember, too – when you were learning to drive is my guess – how scared you could get because you learned on the job and the first time you backed up was in a parking lot full of Petes and Kenworths. Or the first time you downshifted was going down that long hill from Monteagle in the Volunteer. Or somebody threw you in a truck because they needed a warm body, and you had never been farther than the other side of town.

Chances are, if you’re a truck driver, learning came natural enough and after a while the parking lots started looking like ball fields rather than thimbles, and the long 6-percent downhills didn’t automatically turn your stomach inside out. Might be you got yourself a Jake Brake or just figured out how to find the bottom before it found you. Anyway, you somehow learned how not to get killed or kill somebody, no thanks to the school you went to or the uncle who had an old Cornbinder he used to run hay to market, teaching you on the farm and the back roads when you were knee high to a lug nut.

Most guys don’t really learn the trade except by doing it, which is true of most professions, but if you’re in trucking you learn in the whiz-bang of traffic and the tight holes of parking lots and loading docks.

Maybe what you learned depended on your willingness to learn, and how much of that you had left after getting out of public school. Some guys can turn a mud pie into a pancake and learn more than is being taught. Some guys can’t. For anybody who puts his life on the line every day, as truck drivers do, staying open to learning is a real necessity.

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The problem is there are just too many hands who figure there is no more to learn. They even make fun of people who want to learn, as if learning something would “sissify” a man. But you take my fellow editors down in Alabama who write for Randall Publishing – this magazine, Overdrive and Commercial Carrier Journal. They wanted to learn how to drive a truck, and they asked me for help. Peterbilt donated the use of a brand-new 387, and Shelton State Community College loaned us its driver training lot. For a couple of days tornadoes came through, and the hot Alabama sky was ugly. But these six editors came out anyway because we only had a short time. We backed up and backed up and went out and played in traffic until they had the basic stuff down. At the end of the training, five editors passed the commercial driver’s license test.

They were good learners. First off, they have no notion that they are real truck drivers because they got their CDLs. But they also know they have learned some skills they never thought they would learn, and they have a little bit more understanding and respect for what it takes to drive a truck. It will make them writers who know more about their readers.

I know some guys will still laugh and say there’s no way a bunch of editors know anything about trucking unless they’ve run from sea to sea in three days and unloaded their melons one at a time, and then found another load and headed back west. Well, those guys have a point, but that wasn’t the point of our CDL training. These editors are doing their best to learn more about an industry they’ve worked in for years. And that’s a damn sight better than believing there’s nothing anyone can teach you.