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|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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A Trucker's Life on the Road
By Fred Afflerbach
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Fred Afflerbach
All rights reserved.
The great trucks thundered across the desert floor. Flatbed rigs with steel pipes stacked and chained to oak floors, refrigerated box vans stuffed with California strawberries, and shiny aluminum tankers pregnant with fresh milk kicked up sand and gravel as they rolled past Joshua trees and thorny ocotillo shrubs. The midday sun had baked the asphalt to mushy, black putty. Heat hovered above the highway in a foggy blanket, distorting the road ahead so it appeared wet. But the puddles remained a mirage, distant, out of reach, always a mile or so ahead.
One by one, the long and heavy rigs eased up behind an old Peterbilt ambling down the right lane. Like a tumbleweed, the solitary rig rolled along at its own pace. A stubborn crosswind bucked the trailer and pushed it toward the shoulder. The driver sat hunkered down behind the steering wheel, hairy left arm dangling out the window, creases etched into his forehead and around his eyes.
The trucks kept passing. Merging into the left lane. Pulling up beside the old timer. A quick glance and a nod and a hand lifted from the steering wheel. Rear turn signals blinking. Mud flaps fluttering. Then, back into the right lane and into the distance. Goodbye, Pops.
"I'll catch you on the pass," the old man yelled into the empty desert. "You'll be dropping gears. Radiator boiling. Transmission overheating. I'll walk right up beside you like you're a scarecrow."
The afternoon wore on and the temperature approached one hundred degrees. Hazy mountain peaks in the distance slowly took shape, a metamorphosis from soft silhouettes to jagged outcroppings. The trucks pushed harder, passing the old man, three days gray stubble on his chin and sweat stains under both armpits.
"Any rig can run flat out on a table top. Wait till we hit the mountain. That grade'll slow you down ... like brake shoes dragging on eighteen wheels."
Glancing often into the rearview mirror, the trucker watched the sun turn from white-hot to a glowing ember on the horizon. Like the years before, he knew he would soon climb past the same rigs that had earlier slipped by. He knew he would soon be dodging their cheap, blown-out recapped tires, called gators, on the CB radio because they look like alligator carcasses. He knew he'd pick up radio chatter about monitoring pyrometers and tachometers, drivers fretting over rising transmission and coolant temperatures as they began a series of downshifts needed to make the grade. He knew these rigs would soon slow to a crawl. Then it would be his turn. With his engine and transmission working in harmony, and a steady hand on the wheel, he would tightrope along the inside stripe, watching the rigs that had passed him disappear in his rearview mirror.
"You fools," the old man barked out the open window, his words drowned out by the roaring exhaust and rushing wind of another passing rig. "You got them transmissions and gear ratios set up so you can run a hundred miles an hour. Don't make no never mind on the grade. This is where we find out which rigs got the guts and which ones couldn't buck a headwind if a locomotive was pushing it."
The man remembered that the four-lane, divided highway would soon narrow to a single lane in each direction and enter a canyon. Oblong and weathered boulders would loom from above like gargoyles. The road would then round a corner, exit the passageway, and hover on the edge of a deep cliff like a long, narrow balcony. The driver's only safety net would be a low, steel guardrail. Dented and scarred, it offered little protection for an out of control rig.
The old trucker pushed the Pete along, anticipating the exhilaration of catching a rig laboring up the mountain pass, distant taillights growing brighter as he gained ground. With gnarled fingers gripping the wheel, he could feel the road through the tires, shock absorbers, springs and system of u-joints that worked their way up inside the cab through the steering wheel, through his hands, and into his nerve center. What he sensed puzzled him. Resistance from the steep grade had melted away. Pulling a forty-five-foot trailer loaded with office furniture, the truck should be laboring, demanding a series of downshifts to prevent the oil and coolant temperatures from overheating. Instead, he downshifted only twice. He double-checked the gauges. Normal. The diesel engine purred. The transmission hummed. One white stripe at a time, the heart of the mountain disappeared under his wheels.
The old man shifted his weight. Seat springs groaned. Where were those ancient boulders? Rounded by eons of wind and rain, stacked and balanced by some divine hand in odd formations that defied gravity, painted by lovers pledging their allegiance to Debbie, Katy or Diane, or high schoolers immortalizing the class of 63, or maybe 68, depending on how the paint dripped and later faded. And what about the rocks desecrated with four letters intended to shock? Although painted over, the crass words burned through, remained defiant.
Instead of these old landmarks, the trucker passed through a valley of fresh-cut rock. Limestone walls, raw, like the earth had been cut open yesterday, lined both sides of the road. Then, a flicker of light in the mirror, the faint glow growing brighter. Now two lights. Headlights. Gaining. The driver pushed the accelerator to the floor. Black smoke billowed above the rig and it surged forward. The tachometer needle twitched and pointed toward the right until it touched the red line. Still, the lights behind him grew brighter. He eased off the accelerator and wrapped bent fingers around the shifter handle. With a gentle tug he pulled the lever down, pausing as the stick reached the neutral position, and eased the transmission into a higher gear. Back on the gas. More black smoke. The rig surged forward. But the headlights were now several truck lengths behind. A voice jumped out of the CB speaker.
"Need a push?"
The rig moved into the passing lane, sidled up to the old truck, and passed, right turn signal blinking. Obligated by the code of the road, the old man flashed his headlights off and on, a signal to the other driver to merge back in the right lane. The faint glow of red trailer lights grew dim on the horizon.
At last, the summit, where the mountain peeled away, revealed a starlit sky. The truck driver spied cone-shaped silhouettes on the right — tepee replicas at a rest area. A sign and a quick exit. Everything his headlights touched looked clean. New concrete tables nestled under the tepees for shade. Barbecue grills made from fresh-cut stone. The driver pulled into the parking area reserved for truckers. Set the air brakes. Whoosh. Puffs of white dust drifted from under the trailer.
"This can't be Peligroso Pass," he said.
Then a low rumble and a sleek, black Kenworth — CB handle, Hubcap, painted on the truck door — pulled in the slot beside him. The door slammed and a tall man with a paunch hanging over a huge silver belt buckle walked saddle-sore toward the restrooms.
The old trucker sat stupefied for a few minutes, checked his road atlas, and then stepped out on the edge of his rig. He clutched the handrail next to the vertical steel muffler strapped behind the sleeper compartment. Stretching and lowering one boot to the ground, his other heel lodged in the step just below the fuel tank. Sheesh, these new boots take some getting used to. He kicked at the step once, twice and a bolt rattled loose. The step gave way, sagged just enough to create a snare.
"Looks like you could use a hand," a voice said. It was Hubcap, returning from the restroom. The wind buffeted his black felt hat. A turkey feather wedged in a snakeskin band fluttered in the night breeze. "Must be rough. Can't even get down from your rig without getting hung up like a coyote in a trap." The man grinned underneath a shaggy mustache that dripped down the corners of his mouth.
The old trucker glanced over his shoulder. That sombitch seems to be enjoying this. He reached up, steadied his boot, unlaced it, and wiggled free his foot. The empty boot hung limp from the step. Leaning slightly — one white sock and one boot side by side — the man extended his hand.
"They call me Ubi Sunt. Been a couple years since I run Peligroso Pass. What happened?"
"Damn if I know. Don't get off the Gulf Coast much. But I heared drivers say before they dynamited and bulldozed that twenty-mile stretch it used to be a hellified climb. Engines overheated going up, brakes overheated going down. Heared some hands drove a hundred miles out of their way just to avoid it. Don't make no difference now," the man said. His hand quickly jumped to the top of his hat and pushed it down so the wind wouldn't carry it away. "Ain't much left of old Peligroso Pass but a little ol' speed bump. Hell, I only had to drop one gear, hit the summit doing fifty-five."
Ubi Sunt wiggled his boot free from the step. Balancing on one leg, he thrust his foot back in his shoe and stood upright. He shook his head.
"They cut the heart right out of the mountain."
"That's progress," the man said. His open hand remained on top of his hat, pushing down. "Well, looks like you won't need my help after all."
He hoisted himself onto the rig. Rolls of fat oozed over his belt and the truck leaned to the driver's side. Twin CB antennas bolted on outside mirror brackets shook like giant tuning forks. Inside the cab, the man pushed in the clutch and forced the shifter into low gear with a thud. Ubi winced. The rig shook and lurched forward. The driver mashed the accelerator. The rpms surged between gears and the rig gained speed. Shift after shift, the transmission emitted a high-pitched whine — reeeeee — and the cab bounced up and down. Screeches from grinding gears made Ubi's neck hairs stand on end. No driving sombitch.
Ubi stood flat-footed, raised his cap and ran his hand through thin straw-colored hair. He fiddled with the broken step. To hell with it. Fix it later. Clear skies. A sea of stars. Perfect night for driving. Back in the driver's seat, he reflected on the steep grade. Old adversary, worthy opponent, an assessment or initiation, a trucker's rite of passage that greenhorns like Hub Cap would never know. He mumbled again that they had cut the heart out of the mountain. Unbelievable.
Engineers, highway department bureaucrats, and contractors with dynamite and huge scraping and cutting machines may have built a quicker and easier route to the top of Peligroso Pass, but they hadn't been able to soften the sharp curves and six percent downhill grade that continued to challenge drivers' skills and tax their equipment. Mangled steel guardrails and black skid marks provided stark evidence of how easily a driver could lose control.
Ubi quickly slipped through a half-dozen gears — easy on the tranny, let gravity do the work — until he found one that would hold back the rig. Save your brakes, that's how you do it. The mountain continued to pull Ubi's rig downward, but he kept it under control, plenty of brakes left, and the transmission continued to hold back thirty-two tons. Although the gauges reported optimal readings, whenever Ubi faced a long mountain descent, sweat beaded on his forehead and his hands.
That first trip down Peligroso Pass remained vivid, like it happened yesterday, not more than thirty years ago. On that initial run, Ubi got into trouble early in the descent by staying too long in a high gear. Frequent braking only demanded more braking. Smoke from hot brake shoes billowed from under the trailer. Sure, downshifting would slow the rig, but gears and pistons were already spinning and churning as fast as possible. If he tried to downshift, the transmission would come out of gear all right, but he wouldn't be able to shove the stick into the next lower position without chipping or breaking a tooth. The result? Floating in neutral, free-falling down the mountain — called Mexican overdrive by some truckers — strapped inside a sixty-four-thousand-pound missile hurtling along with nothing to stop it but mushy asbestos brake shoes pushing against steel drums. So Ubi hung on until the road flattened out and he stopped on the shoulder. A veteran driver soon pulled over to check on the rig with white smoke billowing from underneath it. After he realized the rookie was okay he offered this admonition: "Go down the grade in the same gear you went up in."
Nowadays a runaway rig can nosedive into a truck escape ramp — a long, straight driveway filled with sand built especially for out of control rigs — but Ubi had no such safety net. And if you crash-land into an escape ramp, expect a hefty tow bill for winching your sunken ship off the sand bar. Now that the mountain was cut wide open so that anyone could fly up the pass in high gear, a driver could easily get into trouble on the descent, runaway ramp or not.
Easing down the steep grade, Ubi took advantage of a quarter-mile straightway to admire the Milky Way, stars close enough to reach out the window and grab a handful. Thank God that hadn't changed. Then the pungent smell of hot brakes, just like that first time, wafted across the highway. His headlight beams reflected off a wall of smoke. Ubi was suddenly driving in a fog. Brake hard, downshift, quick, again and again. Look, there on the shoulder, red fluorescent triangles, and flashing, four-way signals from an eighteen-wheeler. Ubi eased past and stopped on the shoulder. He pulled two levers on the console. Air rushed through a system of valves, hoses and chambers. Brake shoes locked tight against steel drums. The rig rocked forward, then squatted down on the side of the mountain.
Ubi fingered the CB mike.
"How about that hand with hot brakes on the eastbound side? You okay?"
Ubi hailed the driver again. A passing westbound driver said the hot brakes smelled like someone had pissed on a campfire, but no reply from the parked rig. Ubi checked his mirror — nobody coming — grabbed a flashlight, and with an eye on the loose step, climbed down from his truck. He reached between the torpedoshaped fuel tank and the truck frame and grabbed a wooden block. He dropped it, kicked it under a giant tire's downhill side. A football-shaped chunk of limestone caught his eye and he wedged it under a tire on the passenger side. Walking stiffly, one hand braced on his back, Ubi trudged uphill toward the disabled rig. The red glow from a cigarette pointed the way toward the driver. Ubi aimed his flashlight in that direction but the beam bounced back in his eyes, briefly blinding him. It was that gear-grinding sombitch with the big belly and the belt buckle that looked like a hubcap stolen from a '72 Cadillac.
"You all right?" Ubi asked. "Think so. Brakes overheated."
Ubi brushed past the man. "The way you tore out of the rest area, what did you expect?"
It was a warm evening, even at five thousand feet, but the man shivered like he had been pulled out of San Francisco Bay in January. Ubi dropped to a knee — cringed when gravel pushed into his kneecap — and peered under the trailer.
"Sheesh. What the hell's wrong with you, driver?" Ubi asked. He straightened up, his hand pressed against his back. "You got no brakes. But you ain't blocked your wheels?"
Ubi shined his light up and down the shoulder, near the guardrail. "What the hell do you think is holding your rig on the side of this mountain? Your Fairy Godmother? Grab some of those rocks over there and sling 'em under some tires. Quick."
After the men had blocked several wheels, the truck groaned and nudged forward. The rocks slid slightly, grabbed hold of the mountain, and held the great rig in place.
"Got a nine-sixteenths wrench? If we tighten up these brakes, you might get down the mountain without killing yourself. Grab some gloves too. These jokers are gonna be hot for a while."
With a fresh cigarette dangling from his lips, the driver fetched a plastic toolbox from his truck cab, but it wasn't latched and screwdrivers and pliers spilled across the shoulder. Ubi's flashlight beam found the man on one knee, scooping a handful of tools and gravel into the cracked plastic shell, now decapitated.
Excerpted from Roll On by Fred Afflerbach. Copyright © 2011 Fred Afflerbach. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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