Learning to become a truck driver — and to cuss like one: ‘A Trucker’s Tale,’ part 2

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Follow this link for Part 1 in this three-part feature, excerpted from “A Trucker’s Tale,” a memoir by Maryland-based former trucker Ed Miller.

My two brothers, sister and I grew up living several hundred yards from our grandparents, which was great because we could spend most of our free time at their house. Our granddad, Obie, was a self-made jack of all trades. He had a 168-acre farm, and through the years he had dairy cows, horses, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats. (He also had a huge bull, Jonathan, which he was very fond of, or at least he was until the day Jonathan chased Obie and my dad up a tree. Would you believe Jonathan left the farm within a few days?) Obie also had all kinds of farm equipment, and we brothers learned at very early ages to drive and operate farm tractors, farm trucks, backhoes, bulldozers and tractor-trailers.

Anyone who has grown up on a farm knows it is really baffling how any of us reached adulthood with our eyes intact. Hell, for that matter, with anything intact!

Do you remember the clod fights you had after a field had been plowed? All you had to do was to build several forts out of the clods and start throwing. They worse after they had dried out some more.

How about “accidentally” taking pot shots at your brothers with your BB gun? Did you ever jump into a haystack, only to get a pitchfork stuck into the calf of your leg? How fast could you go downhill after you kicked the Farmall out of fifth gear? If you went fast enough, you could not hold the steering wheel tightly because it was shaking so badly with the front wheels shimmying. Somehow, and thankfully, a few of us survived to become truckers. When you read some of the stories in this book, you might even wonder if some of us ever really grew up.

Old KW in barnLearning to Become a Trucker and to Cuss Like One

One of Obie’s farm trucks was a red Dodge and it had two enormous headlights, one on each fender, and they were the size of medium-sized pumpkins. What do you think young boys would do with those lights? Damned right, we straddled them and rode them through the fields, as though we were on horseback, while the men were loading bales of hay onto the back of the truck.

One of the farm tractors was a Farmall “M” model, and although it was equipped with an electric starter, it seemed (to me) that the battery was usually dead, which meant that it had to be cranked using a handle inserted into the front of the tractor, which turned the crankshaft. Using the handle always started the tractor, but the operator had to be careful. He had to hold the handle “just right,” because this method of cranking sometimes “kicked back,” which resulted in numerous broken fingers and arms. The safest way to hold the handle was more like pushing it down with your open-handed palm, rather than holding it with your hand completely encircling the handle.

When I was five or six years old, I was standing close by watching Obie trying to crank the tractor by using the handle. After repeated efforts proved unsuccessful, Obie stepped back, hitched-up his britches, and issued, “God damn you son-of-a-bitch! I wish you would blow up and go to torment!”

Wow, was I impressed! I am sure I had heard swearwords before, but this was real cussing, and I couldn’t wait to get home and use what I had just learned. When I did get home that afternoon, I stood in front of my little pedal tractor, pretended I was trying to crank it and tried out Obie’s curse of the Farmall loud enough for the entire house to hear. Well, it took all of about ten seconds for my mother to teach my backside that I should never use those words again. I learned that it was all right for Obie to use all the words he wanted, but I was never allowed to repeat any of them.

I had to be extremely careful what language I used when I was in the company of grown-ups, especially my mother and grandmother. Believe me when I tell you that “watching my mouth” was a very hard thing to do, since all the men, including my Dad, Obie, the men who worked for my dad, all Obie’s drivers, all furniture manufacturers’ drivers — hell, it seemed that every grown man used several cuss words in every sentence. I practiced to myself enough that I could cuss with the best of them before I was out of elementary school. Now that I think about it, I remember having to go to the principal when I was in the fifth grade because Mrs. Gray thought I had uttered an inappropriate word. It must have been some iteration of damn, since I remember writing it several million times on her chalkboard!

GMC old tractorLearning Truck Maintenance

At any one time, Obie owned between five and ten single-axle tractors. He thought “twin screw” tractors were a waste of money, because a truckload of the low-weight furniture they hauled in 40- or 45-foot trailers didn’t weigh more than 20,000 pounds. Backhaul loads from the Midwest, usually loose corn blown into each trailer, had to be limited to around 33,000 pounds due to only having a single drive axle.

From Monday through Friday each week, my dad picked up shipments of new furniture at all the different manufacturing plants in western North Carolina. These individual shipments were unloaded into his warehouse, and they were sorted by customer. Saturdays, and usually half-days on Sundays, the shipments would be loaded geographically for delivery in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, with each trailer containing furniture for 20 to 40 stops. The drivers who delivered these multi-stop loads (referred to by CB radio users as “stick-haulers”) provided many humorous stories, and they added much to the brothers’ “liberal” educations.

When the stick-haulers returned home at the end of a run, or at the end the week, it was time to perform maintenance on the equipment. Obie’s service mantra was “It won’t long last if it isn’t greased properly!” — each weekend, the brothers attacked every grease fitting on all tractors and trailers. (I never tasted it, but I will never forget the sweet odor of that grease.) We never had air-driven grease guns, so we had to fill each gun quite often from five-gallon buckets of Shell multi-purpose grease. We all learned how to fill them properly, because Obie made it look so easy. I can still picture him smoothly removing the excess grease with his index finger as he rotated the grease gun.

We also had to check the fluid level of the rear end’s differential housing, or pumpkin. After removing the plug, we would insert a finger into the hole. If your finger was not covered in oil when you removed it, you had to add enough oil to where you could touch it. As opposed to the sweet smell of the grease, the differential oil (inside the pumpkin) smelled terrible, and that odor could not be mistaken for any other truck fluid.

I think I remember that Obie changed the tractor’s oil every 20,000 miles. Once again, not having air-driven oil from a drum, the boys had the honor of using can openers on 48 cans of Shell Rotella motor oil per oil change, per engine. After a while, we got pretty good at having one can draining while we opened another can. Changing the oil filter was always messy, and we would usually get an armful of dirty oil upon removing the drain plug.

Prior to the time we all learned how badly we were treating the environment, Obie had his own system for recycling used motor oil. After each oil change, we would pour the used oil into 55 gallon drums. When a drum became filled, Obie would attach his homemade drip-pipe to the drum, affix this to the back of the Farmall “M” and then spread the oil on the gravel and dirt roads on his 168 acres. After putting the oil down, if enough traffic traveled those roads, or paths, many of them actually resembled roads paved with asphalt.

The maintenance of each tractor/truck was considered complete when the fifth wheel received the proper amount of grease. Too little, apply more. Too much, scrape some off and put it on the fifth wheel of another tractor. If you put too much grease on a fifth wheel, it would always get scraped-off when the tractor hooked to a trailer, and this excess grease always hung around to bite you one way or another. It either fell onto the truck frame so you could rub up against it, getting it all over your clothes when you greased the same truck the following week, or it fell on the ground so you could step in it. It also happened that you hardly ever realized you had stepped in it until you either climbed up into a tractor, which of course covered the accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals with grease, or when you carried it into the house and ruined the carpet.

Yes, the boys pretty much learned to do things Obie’s way, which meant “just the right amount.”

We would use one of the just-serviced tractors to hook to a trailer and take it to the shop, where we checked lights, tires, mud flaps, brakes and the roof (just to make sure a driver hadn’t “forgotten” to mention hitting something and tearing a hole in it). The repair of a burned-out light could be as simple as replacing a bulb or as involved as replacing the entire corroded wiring from the front of the trailer all the way to the rear. There might be a rusted screw, which wouldn’t let the light ground properly, so you would have to scrape rust away from the frame and replace the rusted screws with new ones. LED lights would have made life much easier, but they had not yet been invented.

We worked with what we had.

 

Part 3: Changing tires the old-fashioned way…

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