22 August 2009

Among the Dirty Men

I’ve done a lot of things in my life, been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of different things. I’ve re-invented myself a number of times as well, according to one friend of mine. Of course, he was a Presbyterian cowhand who believed in the transmigration of souls, so I’m still not quite sure what to make of some of his opinions of me.

The most recent change has been from technical copy editor to over-the-road flatbed driver. I used to edit (and re-write) manuals about oil field development and secondary recovery, or perhaps textbooks on implementing cybernetic feedback systems in designing efficiency plans for businesses. Then God said it was time for a change. Now I drive very large vehicles very long distances, and park them in absurdly small places.

Driving a combination vehicle is interesting and honorable work. I’m not expected to lie to people like I was when I wrote computer manuals in Silicon Valley, and I’m not expected to make hundred thousand dollar decisions after three days without sleep, the way I had to as a geologist in the West Texas oil fields. What I do have to do is take a 71-foot machine that weighs 80,000 pounds and pilot it cross-country to a place I’ve never been, across a maze of roads I’ve never seen, into strange and mysterious nooks and crannies of industrial civilization that most people in the dominant culture know only on a theoretical basis.

And I do it among the dirty men. You see, among truck drivers, there are different classes of driver, so to speak. Not upper and lower, because truck drivers are very egalitarian, but different flavors, different styles. There are the dry van drivers, who steer the big silver boxes with loads of paper plates, rolls of newsprint, bottled water, corn and beans, and so on. There are the tanker drivers, carrying diesel, milk, corn syrup, honey, and LPG. The day cabbers drive the doubles and triples for UPS and FedEx, moving packages and mail. And so on. Cranes, dumps, et cetera.

And then there are the flatbedders, like me. The dirty men. You see, all these other guys have one important thing in common. In general, they can stay clean. They don’t usually touch the freight, and often don’t even know what’s inside the locked trailer except by reading the bill of lading when they hook to it and take off. They drive up to the warehouse with an empty, drop it where they’re told to, hook to a loaded trailer and go. Then it’s time to crank up the stereo, turn on the CB, and start peeling miles off the schedule, 500 to 600 yard sticks a day, every day that you can until you run out of legal hours and have to stop and let the world catch up with you.

And while they’re driving off with that clean and locked-up trailer, I’m staring at a 48-foot flat loaded with 27,000 pounds of copper telecommunications cable, in five eight-foot reels. I have to calculate the weight, choose between straps and chains, decide how many to use and where to hook them, crank them down, and make sure nothing is about to come off. By the time I’m done just securing the load, those other guys are 120 miles down the road, or better.

And they’re still clean. I, on the other hand, have just threaded eight rusty and dirt-covered chains through the reels, cranked down on the boomers with my equally rusty cheater pipe, and now look like a monument to iron oxide in the shape of some sort of broad-brimmed Quaker. Or maybe I’ve tarped it. I once delivered 44,000 pounds of smelting minerals from Baltimore to a steel mill in Kentucky, tarped. I arrived in the rain, and pulled the wet tarps across the thick dust in the unloading sheds. Now, folding up and loading a 24 by 30-foot tarp that weighs 150 pounds requires the sort of intimate calisthenics that in notion pictures merits adults-only ratings. By the time I was done with my three tarps in that mill, the tarps, the ground, and me were all covered in a monochromatic mix of dust, rainwater, sweat, and general grime. A typical load for a dirty flatbedder.

We don’t like being dirty, but there is often not much in the way of washing facilities at lumber yards, steel mills, hay fields, chemical plants, foundries, factories, and so on. We drive as far as we can, then try to pull in at a truck stop that has showers. (The showers are generally nice, but cost about ten bucks unless you have enough recent fuel credits.) Where there aren’t showers, we fall back on our trusty Plan B: very large quantities of baby wipes. Did you know that dirty truck drivers are among the greatest fans of baby wipes there are? It’s true. I prefer the unscented styles, myself, but each to his own.

The dirt is inevitable, and we are known for it. I was once talking with my dispatcher in his neat, carpeted and air conditioned cubicle, full of high-tech machinery designed to help him keep track of 30 drivers without going insane. I had delivered a stack of trailers (two 48-foo flatbed trailers stacked on top of a third) in the Wisconsin winter. I had to crawl up underneath each one and attach and tighten the chains while sliding back and forth in four inches of snow on the trailer decks. So all my clothing was covered in dirt and melted snow on the outside, and covered in sweat and melted snow on the inside. I apologized to him for coming in looking like yesterday’s wet mop, and he said, “You look like an typical flatbedder to me.” Which of course was true, and I hear it from other drivers as well.

In the winter, the flatbedder wallows in snow-covered mill yards, and bangs the ice off the winches with the winch bar before they will work. The straps are frozen and won’t roll, and the tarps are so stiff with cold that they’re like folding pieces of plywood. The work is wet, cold, and dirty. In the summer, on the other hand, the dust is thick in the staging and loading areas, and you end up the same color as the 24-foot straps you had to drag through the dirt and roll up. You’re not cold anymore, but the dust sticks to the sweat. The work then is wet, hot, and dirty. Winter or summer, the truck stop shower is the first place I look for after loading.
When there is one, anyway.

But the lifestyle has surprisingly wonderful moments. Did I mention that aluminum van trailers in the truck stops sing to each other like gigantic aeolian harps when the wind blows across their roofs? Another time, perhaps. Or that driving cross country in the spring means that I hear half a continent's variety of frog and toad choruses at night in the sloughs behind the truck terminals? Today it's Bufo valliceps, tomorrow Pseudacris triseriata. And when I drive west across the Appalachians of Pennsylvania and New York, I see the entire history of continental collision, orogeny, deposition, and subsidence spread across the country like a textbook cross section.

Being a dirty man has its advantages.


Scott said...

You write so well, Kevin. I enjoyed this.

kevin roberts said...

Big Sister!

What are you doing reading this stuff?

I'm just catching up on neglected promises today. We spent all day putting an electric fence up for the donkey but don't know whether it works because nobody wants to test it.

I don't go back out until Monday so I'm ploughing through email.

I will catch up soon.

Anonymous said...

Now I understand our conversation about baby wipes; I'd no idea about the flat-bed distinction.

Would something like this be of any use? http://www.hotcampshowers.com/solar_bags___sinks___pumps

Warmest regards to thee and thine,

Laura (Denver Cons. Friends)

kevin roberts said...

Hi Laura--
Thank you for your suggestion. The Summer Shower Solar Bag would be great, except for the other problem of living in a truck: there is very limited water.

I start a two-week tour with about six gallons of water in jugs. That makes me coffee in the morning from my 12-volt coffee maker, but water in a truck stop is often four dollars per gallon, and so the Baby Wipes still turn out to be the optimum solution.

Where I live we use the old WPA cattle water trough down the hill when we run out of water-- on the road I have to buy it by the gallon. Still, it seems to mostly keep me presentable.

Very good to hear from you, by the way.