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Trucker's Journal

I've been a trucker since November, 2004. Before that I was an accountant for many years. I'm having fun and actually making more than I did before. Go figure....

Location: Midwest, United States

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Devil Dispatched Me

I have been trying to write one entry every week for the past month or so, but you might have noticed that I missed last week. There's a good reason, which will be explained to you here.

With the title, I don't mean to say that the office team responsible for dispatch is seriously the embodiment of Satan, but I'm positive that some demon possessed at least one of them last Friday. Thursday afternoon after a two day trip (my only one since I had been given Monday and Tuesday off due to the July 4th holiday) I returned to the office and was told that I needed to call in Friday afternoon for Monday's marching orders. So, when I arose on Friday morning I was somewhat surprised to find a voicemail on my work cellphone asking me to call in immediately. Had I owned a crystal ball and seen only 10% of what was to happen, I would have "accidentally" erased that message before hearing it, but, alas, I did what it asked and called in. It seems that one of our owner-operators (independent contractors owning their own trucks, not company employees driving company trucks as I do) had secured a load on his own from somewhere in Ohio to somewhere in Tennessee. He got a couple hours from where he picked it up and got sick, decided he wanted the weekend off, met a woman, I'm not sure of the story, but he just dropped the trailer in a truck stop and called in to say that he couldn't deliver it on Wednesday as scheduled. So, on Friday I get the call to go bobtail (no trailer, just the tractor) to just North of Cincinnati and pick up that trailer and deliver it to Athens, TN before 11pm on Friday night. OK, I go into work, get all the information I need, and head South. A couple hours later, I'm at the truck stop and find the trailer and back under it to couple it. When you do so, the first thing you're supposed to do is put the tractor in a forward gear and attempt to move the trailer. If it doesn't move you immediately know two things: 1) the kingpin on the trailer has properly been latched into the fifth wheel, and, 2) the trailer brakes are good, since before you hook up the air lines, the brakes are supposed to be locked. Well, this wasn't the case, since the trailer followed me forward. This can mean a couple of things, but since it had rained recently, I took it to mean that the pavement was wet enough that the tires remained locked with the brakes but slid on the water film. Wrong, as I was to discover later!

I hooked up everything (both air lines and the electrical connector), released all my brakes with the valves on the dashboard, and proceeded down the road toward Tennessee. I quickly discovered that the brakes on the trailer were weak at best, totally gone at worst. But, I thought that my tractor brakes could handle it alright. Since I was going South and near Cincinnati, that meant that Kentucky was very close. One thing most truckers realize is that when you cross a state line, there's probably a scale on the other side. Yes, there was one very close to the border and I had the uncommon luck to find that it was open. When entering many scales, there's a "weigh in motion" scale on the ramp which estimates your weight and gives you an arrow to follow. Left is exit back to the Interstate, right means you must pull over the accurate scale in front of the weighmaster's building. I stopped on the scale and waited for the display to show what I had. My bill of lading said 40,000 pounds, which is well under my maximum cargo rating, so I wasn't worried, assuming that I was one of the random ones who were just pulled in even though the first inaccurate scale had been passed. Well, the numbers came up on the display and I was over on my rear trailer axles. My limit is 34,000 pounds on that set of axles and I was 36,400, although my gross was alright. Oops! I got the red arrow at the end of the scale pointing right which means pull around the back and bring in all your paperwork. I walked in and got a citation for overweight axle even though my gross weight was under the limit. At two cents a pound (plus unknown court costs) I was up to $48.00 minimum for this violation.

Of course, most trailers have movable real axles so you can adjust your weight distribution, so I figured I'd just slide the tandems to correct it, run back over the scales to verify it, and get on down the road. Of course, to slide your tandems you must release them from the trailer body with a lever, set your trailer brakes so that the trailer moves but the tires don't. Uh oh, I tried it and found that my brakes weren't weak, they didn't work at all. So, without the capability of locking those brakes, I can't move the tandems to place more weight on the front of the trailer and will be liable for more tickets on the other scales on my journey. I know there are at least two more--one in Southern Kentucky and one in Tennessee. Yeah, you *can* bypass scales by taking back roads around them, but policemen know that and are very likely to be stationed on those roads with portable scales. If they catch you doing that and you're illegal, then the fines are much higher. So I always just go through them properly. I call the garage where I work and ask what I can do. The first yo-yo to whom I talked had an ingenious solution: walk back into the DOT building, tell the officer who had just cited me that my trailer brakes didn't work and could I please borrow some wheel chocks to slide my tandems. Think about that for a second; having just been given a ticket for a very minor infraction, would I be smart to admit to a much more serious one and risk another more expensive ticket? If you've just been stopped while driving a car away from a murder scene for running a stop sign, would you ask the officer for a handi-wipe "just so I can remove this gunpowder residue from my hands"? Of course not. So, I asked that ignorant employee for the boss, who told me he would send a wrecker over to help me slide the axles. He soon showed up and first tried to manually adjust the brakes. No go, there wasn't any adjustment since the shoes were worn out totally. He had to chain my axles while parked behind me and hope his brakes would hold them while I pulled ahead the required number of holes. Each hole where the locking pins fit is approximately 4-500 pounds adjustment, so we calculated how far to go ahead. Yes, it worked, and he flagged me when I had moved enough, I reset the locking pins and drove back over the scales. Hmmmm, still slightly over the axle limit but within the 1,000 pound tolerance most (all?) states allow, so I'm legal. Well, there's 90 minutes lost and the company owed $250 for a wrecker bill, but I'm legal now on the weight.

On down the road, through Kentucky (where the last scale was closed) and into Tennessee. About three miles into that state comes a long hill, several miles up at a good grade (6 or 7%?), where I got down to between 30 and 35 mph. Upon cresting the hill, I know that I now have the same amount of hill on the down side and don't have trailer brakes with which to slow/stop, so I stay in a lower gear so the engine will help brake me. Oh, did I mention that my engine compression brake ("Jake brake") isn't working? So, I have to pay special attention to my speed and brake as lightly as possible with my tractor brakes to keep the speed down while not pushing so hard that I "smoke" the brakes. All is going well until I see the dreaded sign: Construction ahead, left lane closed 1/2 mile. OK, I think I can handle it. I'll just stay back a long way from the vehicle ahead of me while managing the engine RPMs and brakes as well as I can. Unfortunately, the traffic ahead is almost stopped and I rapidly approach them. I start braking harder and harder, and finally grab the trolley valve on the steering column (it operates only the trailer brakes) and pull it down as far as possible hoping against hope to get *something* out of the trailer brakes. Yeah, I got something alright--the very small amount of shoe left started smoking, so I had nothing there and had to press on the foot valve even harder, causing my tractor brakes to start smoking also. This is all happening about 20-30 feet behind a slowing car
and I'm almost ready to get scared. Fortunately, this was the point where the slope started to level out AND the traffic ahead picked up some speed. I'm safe, although the vehicles behind me are engulfed in large clouds of smoke coming from my brakes. It was close, but it worked out well in the end.

Due to the scale and construction zone delays, I was about 10 miles from the delivery point at about 15 minutes before 11pm. No way can I get into the dock and get unloaded before that shift goes home, so I decided to pull into the conveniently located truck stop only 7 miles from Athens, TN. I'm at the end of the ramp sitting at the stop sign and can see the lights and signs on the other side of the Interstate for Crazy Ed's Truck Stop (the real name--Niota, TN). Nothing is coming either way, so I ease off on the clutch to turn left. BOOM! A loud noise from under the truck and I'm wondering what happened. I thought it might have been a tire but I can limp over the truck stop and get it fixed there and still make the delivery in the morning. I release the clutch pedal again and nothing happens. I'm not moving at all. No power is getting from the engine to the tires. I set my tractor brakes, turn on the 4-ways and get out my flashlight to have a peek underneath. It's not good, folks. My drive shaft is snapped in the middle and one end is lying on the pavement. I'm not going anywhere without help now. So, I call the night dispatcher and give him the bad news and the good news, which is that the truck stop (according to my book listing all of them in North America) has a garage. Maybe then can fix it overnight while I sleep. He gets me a wrecker to pull me the 1/4 mile or so that I need to go, and I park there, expecting to sleep fitfully with work going on underneath the sleeper. No such luck, since the garage isn't open all night on the weekends--they won't be in until 9am tomorrow morning. So, I have uninterrupted sleep until my 10 hour break is up at 9am the next morning. The load I'm pulling MUST be delivered before noon on Saturday or we face paying for 15 men two shifts a day who will be idle without the equipment I have for them. My dispatcher talked to the wrecker driver and he subcontracted a local driver to come pull my trailer to the delivery point for unloading before noon. He also called my prospective backhaul to cancel it. That man was none too pleased to be given a couple hour's notice that his Monday load wouldn't be in Detroit by 8am and threatened fines for late delivery. Oh well, it's not my problem....

But wait, it gets better and better! When my tractor is pulled out from under the trailer and the other tractor couples, the red (emergency) air line doesn't want to stay coupled. It keeps popping off, but it makes no difference and the trailer rolls anyway. Without that line on, the trailer should lock up tight and not move at all. He leaves it dangling and motors on down the road the 15 minutes to where we need to be. Whew, we're into the dock at 11am and should be unloaded within 30 minutes or so. Wrong! Some of the cargo has shifted and can't be unloaded with a forklift. Men have to be brought into the trailer to hand move some of it onto other pallets. It's like an oven in there and I'm standing in the rear just watching the others do the work when a man walks into the trailer and says, "Which one of you is Ken?" That's me, but I'm not wanting to answer quickly since he's holding a sledge hammer in his hand. I have visions of saying "Yes, that's me" and having him start hitting me for being 3 days late AND requiring hand unloading on this cargo. But, I figure that he will know sooner or later by elimination who I am so I meekly tell him. He smiles, walks up and offers his hand for shaking and says "Thanks for getting it here before the deadline so I don't have to put 15 men out of work two shifts a day." I sigh since I'm not going to be killed with a blunt instrument and smile and tell him I had lots of help getting it here.

At about 2pm the load was off the truck and we could leave. We pulled the empty back to where this driver worked to park it and meet up with my tractor, in tow, for the ride to the repair facility. My dispatcher had already made the decision to have it done locally instead of being pulled to either Knoxville or Chattanooga to the dealer. The odds were that on Monday morning they could figure out what needed to be done, secure the parts locally, spend an hour putting it together, and I'd be out of there by noon. There was a Holiday Inn Express directly across the street from the garage, so I got to sleep in a real bed, have a TV and bathroom in my room, and enjoy the A/C for Saturday and Sunday.

Again, the devil was involved, I firmly believe, because the parts weren't locally available and couldn't arrive until Tuesday morning. But, I'd be on the way by noon Tuesday. Another promise made to be broken.... I told the desk clerk that I would be enjoying their fine facility yet another night (3 now instead of 2, but all paid for on the company credit card) and would check out Tuesday morning. I'm across the street on Tuesday at opening at 8am inquiring about the parts. Yes, they are on the way but won't be in until about 10am. Not to worry, I'll be out by noon. Yeah, right. Noon comes and goes and a rusty U-joint won't come loose with any sort of persuasion. Big hammers eventually break it into little pieces and a new one is installed. By the time the job is done and all the credit approvals and signatures are applied, it's after 4pm in the afternoon. Theoretically, I've been on duty since 8am and my duty clock is running, meaning that I can't legally drive after 10pm that evening. But, I figure I'll try to see if I can make it home to the terminal before stopping. Nope, this old guy just doesn't have the stamina he had when he was in his 20s and 30s. I'm off the road at about 9pm and in an Interstate rest area. After the rest period, I start driving again and return to the terminal about 3pm Wednesday afternoon instead of the Saturday late arrival to park the backhaul for Monday morning delivery.

That backhaul was cancelled totally, and I wasn't given another. The big boss/owner decided that losing the income from a possible backhaul was cheaper than having the trailer brakes rebuilt on the road instead of in our garage. I had informed the office that there was no way I would pull another load through those mountains with no trailer brakes so their choice was either get the brakes fixed on the road or bring me home empty. As it was, that trip was a huge money-loser for the company, to the order of a couple thousand dollars when factoring in the three wrecker bills, the repair, the lost backhaul, my layover pay, the overweight ticket, etc. When I arrived back, they told me that I was supposed to be the company's saviour on that load, to which I promptly replied that my initials were not JC!

I begged my dispatcher not to send me anywhere near Tennessee again for a while. Guess what? I'm going back there Monday. Keep your fingers crossed that it's more auspicious next week than it was last week.

Did the Devil have a hand in that trip? I doubt it seriously, but I don't rule it out totally. I've been told by more experienced drivers that every so often a "trip from Hell" pops up for everyone. All I can hope for is that my next one of that sort isn't in my immediate future.


Blogger Welderfire said...

Thank you for posting that story. We all should know to weigh our load at a truck stop but sometimes we don't have the time or we're just to lazy. and checking in at a ta or petro. i hope i never have to roll down a step hill with no trailer brakes or none at all. Thanks

3:35 PM  

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