458: Trucking On

I am a prisoner in this truck. I am not even a CDL (commercial driver license) driver, I am merely a passenger. I was trying to visit my husband, who IS a newly-certified, licensed, tested and inspected CDL driver. When his company-owned truck developed problems and he was stuck waiting for repairs over Christmas, I cashed in a previously-purchased American Airlines flight ticket I would otherwise have lost had I not used it for this purpose, and flew out to Omaha, Nebraska to see him, after I spent a couple of days visiting the rest of my family in Georgia.

I expected to ride with him on his drives for about a week, since he was supposed to be routed on deliveries to Atlanta to pick me up, and to drop me off, for this jaunt. That was December 28. This is January 7, and the next run is to some freaking place in MICHIGAN. That has absolutely nothing in common with ATLANTA, GEORGIA. The next delivery after that is scheduled for Missouri, which is also further north and west of where we are now, in West Virginia. Wrong direction, dispatch!

I got desperate enough to check the tickets to Atlanta on Greyhound buses, for Pete’s sake. The bus costs nearly as much as it would cost to freaking FLY. Bus tickets were supposed to be cheap enough for people who do not have enough money to buy airline tickets to buy them instead. At least, they USED to be cheaper! Buses are certainly less comfortable than the airplane, and there is no snack served, either, so the bus ticket should be considerably less expensive than flying. Not so!

Ah, well, as I write on the truck stop provided Internet while serving the mandatory 10 hour refresh down time to be able to drive again, I have discovered that my brother’s expected children have been born January 6th – twins: one girl and one boy. Graydon James and Elise Drew – making me a new auntie twice over. In addition, while visiting my family, my daughter announced that she and her husband are now expecting their first – making me a grandma-to-be later this year. It is quite clear that life does go on – even if I am stuck in a truck!

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457: Thanks, WalMart!

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I am discovering America, riding as a guest passenger (ID’d, permitted, photographed, and insured) in a company-owned big rig driven by my newly-CDL-certified husband. He used to work in heating and air conditioning, but driving the truck pays better, and has better benefits, while costing him less as he lives out of the truck.

I am also discovering what it is like actually to be a long-distance truck driver. There are roads where big trucks are not allowed to drive (unless they are actually delivering to a business on that road), there are bridges too low (or too weak) to allow a big truck to pass (and not all are so marked), and big trucks are not allowed to park just anywhere when the driver’s allotted driving hours are up for the day.

I did not know it was so complicated. There are new federal laws (thanks, Barack Obama) that specify how many hours a day a driver can drive, how many breaks are required, how many hours they can drive in a week, and how many mandatory rest hours they must take. And these mandatory hours do not take into consideration where in the USA on the road the driver might happen to be when the time is up, either. There are reference books that list truck stops and rest areas where big trucks can stop legally for their required rest times, so that drivers can plan in advance (mostly) where they can stop – assuming that there are no traffic jams, accidents, or mechanical difficulties that occur to delay them from reaching the “safe” place before their minutes are up.

Plus, drivers pick up already-loaded trailers to haul to their destinations, or, they sit and wait while the shipper loads their trailer “live.” The DRIVER is responsible for the weight of the load that the shipper has already loaded for pick up. Or is loading while they wait. There are strict limits on the load they can haul, and the DRIVER is fined if the load is too heavy as weighed at various weigh stations located all over the country on nearly every big truck-drivable road. The trailer’s rear set of wheels (called the tandems) can be adjusted forward or backwards on the trailer to help distribute the load’s weight as measured by these weigh scales. So, often, the driver has to find a certified scale and check (and pay for the use of the scale) that the shipper has not overloaded the trailer they are hauling, or the driver has to pay the fines when they get caught at the Department of Transportation weigh scale on the road – and the violation goes against the driver’s license.

Well. I said I was learning a lot. Drivers do get paid pretty well, but they are responsible for, and put up with a lot, for that pay.

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One thing I am seriously learning to appreciate is WalMart. That chain has a store in nearly every reasonably-sized town in America. They have HUGE parking lots, and usually, there is space for a big truck to park and wait out their rest hours somewhere to the back or side of the lot, out of the way of shoppers. And WalMart is reasonably priced for the inevitable things that drivers and their certified guest passengers (like me) need for the road. Truck stops also have stuff drivers need, they just charge handsomely for it. What the truck stop has that the WalMart does not have is a shower and laundry machines. Otherwise, WalMart beats the truck stop hands-down. The food is better, less expensive, and there are healthier, lower-calorie choices. Plus, WalMart has personal care items (tweezers, pharmacy, over-the-counter medications, baby wipes, paper towels, gallon jugs of water, etc.), a deli (yum), a bakery (ditto), restrooms, hardware for minor repairs, an automotive department, clothing (new socks, anyone?) and lots of other stuff, like greeting cards for everyone’s birthdays.

Being on the road is not all bad – if you can keep the snacking to a minimum!

456: Along For The Ride

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For the first time since he qualified for his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), I am riding in the lower bunk of my husband’s tractor-trailer semi cab. He HAD a CDL before, but with that one, he trained for and drove exclusively school busses for a number of years. A school bus and a tractor-trailer are completely and totally different worlds, let me tell you.

I have a bird’s-eye view through the big front window of America passing by from my perch in the bunk. In three days, I have seen Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Colorado (so far). We are currently on the way to Illinois. I have seen the inner workings of the rig, and the inner areas of the truck stops as well. Truck stop showers are quite nice. LOTS of piping hot water and thick, absorbent towels, to boot. There are washers and dryers for laundry on-the-go. And there is a variety of bewildering equipment that runs off of the 12 volt DC current of the truck; adapters for the computer, phone and music/DVD player, the GPS (global positioning system) navigator, small portable stoves and ovens, coffee pots, refrigerators, televisions, microwave ovens and more. The truck I am in has two sleeping bunks, and numerous fascinating compartments, cabinets, and cubby holes for storing clothing and personal belongings.

It is interesting, to say the least. The part that is the most fun is bedding down for the mandatory 10 hour breaks after every 11 hours of drive time. There is even a cargo net that buckles across the front of the bunk for the safety of the sleepers. TALK about fun and games! Truck stops have arcades, and many offer free wi-fi, not to mention free merchandise for truckers who gas up their rigs there. That is the incentive for truckers to choose one truck stop over another one, since usually their freight companies’ gas credit cards are accepted at a variety of stops.

I do understand why most truckers gain weight. Nibbling on snacks as the miles roll on by is quite tempting, not to mention the infinite variety of snacky foods available at all those truck stops! Plus, SOME of the truck stops have gyms for working off calories and getting a decent amount of exercise after 11 hours of sitting and driving, but not all of them do. Yet.

The whole process of dropping off trailer loads of merchandise and picking up new trailer loads of merchandise is interesting and intricate. Parking them in tight spaces and maneuvering those big trailers and rigs around is not something I want to do. It makes me nervous to watch it, even when the driver has years of experience and manages it flawlessly. And there are endless safety regulations to observe and sign off on that are completed. I am gaining a new appreciation of the amount of work that goes into getting all that merchandise to the stores where we buy it, that is for sure. And I am having a great mini-vacation seeing part of America, to boot!

 

353: Stop Stopping

Written after my move to Fitzgerald, Ga in 2006 – published in the local city paper.

I am definitely a newcomer to this small southern town.  Never mind that more than five generations of my family have lived here – I am the newcomer. I know this for a fact because of one simple, minor, annoying small thing.

There is, on Lemon Street, a stop sign in front of a railroad track crossing. Now this is a spur track that serves the industrial part of town, and there are seldom trains that use this track. It is quite clear that this fact is well known to all who live in this small town – all except for ME (the newcomer).  I still see a stop sign at this railroad crossing.  I am apparently the only one in town who does – no one, and I mean NO ONE else in town, stops for this sign.  Not even the city propane truck stops at this sign, even though it clearly states on the truck’s bumper “We stop at all railroad crossings.”  Doesn’t matter – they don’t stop. Neither, by the way, do the police – either the city police or the sheriff’s deputies!

I am apparently the only fool in town who has not figured out that this one particular stop sign is entirely optional, and may freely be ignored, at will, with complete impunity.  I have nearly been rear-ended three times trying to stop for this sign when I was followed by another city resident who could not tell I was a newcomer (and did not know the secret) and who was quite obviously NOT expecting for this crazy fool to stop for the sign that nobody else stops for.

I wonder – will I no longer be new if I stop stopping?

224: Causing Someone’s Death

Some mistakes cannot be fixed. That is one reason why most real grownups try very hard not to make them. Some mistakes are permanent. I made one of those. On the last day of school in 2004, I made what was supposed to be a normal journey: our morning commute to school with my daughter, and my husband’s son and daughter. We made it to the end of the road, where our small residential road joins the highway. There, I pulled out into the road in front of a black pickup truck.

I only know this from what others have told me, and what I have managed to figure out after the fact. The last thing I remember is opening the car’s door to look and see if there was any traffic coming. I did this because the window would not roll down, we had not yet had it fixed, and there was condensation on the glass. So I opened the door to be sure before I pulled out into the road. I never saw the truck. I tried.

The truck hit us in classic “t-bone” style, on the driver’s side, which explains why there is a big blank spot in my memory of the event. I was knocked OUT. My daughter said my eyes were open, but she said, “Mama, you were not there.” She called my husband, who was still at home, and he was the first to arrive; even before the paramedics or the police…or the life flight helicopters they called for us. My daughter, in the front passenger seat, was not injured other than a bump on the head – apparently my head and hers collided. My husband’s son, on the passenger side in the back seat, was very mildly injured, but was treated and released. I had a broken collarbone and some broken ribs, along with the big blank place in my memory. My husband’s nine-year-old daughter, who was sitting with her seatbelt on (all of us had them on) directly behind me, got the brunt of the blunt force trauma. That’s what they listed on her death certificate as her cause of death. They tried. The surgeries she underwent at Emory in Atlanta, where the life flight helicopter landed at the state’s finest trauma center, totaled a quarter of a million dollars in cost, and would have been worth every penny (and more) had they managed to save her. They could not.

I won’t go into the horrible details of her funeral home family visit, where her mother’s family (my husband’s ex) blamed me publicly for her death, as if I had intended that she perish, and had set out that morning to accomplish that feat; or the horrors of her funeral service, where they again did the same thing in front of my church family, even though I personally had paid for the entire service and all the other arrangements because they were all too generationally poverty-stricken to be able to afford to bury her.

That is something I will live with forever. I caused her death, even though I did not mean to do so. I pulled out in front of that truck, even though I looked, and did not see it. Even though I had no intentions of harming anyone, I am responsible. I was driving. No one can take that away, and it cannot be fixed.

168: Firewood in the Snow

We ran out of firewood just when we got six inches of snow.

Fez, checking out her very first snowfall

Fez, checking out her very first snowfall

That was six inches of snow here in Azrou, the town down the mountain. Ifrane,where I work UP the mountain,  got half a meter of snow, and I almost had to spend the night there with a friend on Friday night. But, driving at 20 kilometers per hour (snail’s pace) I managed to get home, since the snowplows were running, even though I chugged past six other vehicles that had slid off the road. It was nice to get home. But we needed firewood!

So, we got in the trusty little plastic POS car, and headed off to buy some in the snow. The first place would not sell us any, and neither would the second place. We have discovered that about Moroccan businesses. They might be open for business when you go by, and then again, they might not. You never know. Since this was one of the coldest days of the year (so far, anyway), we figured, SURELY, they would be open, and doing a brisk business. Nope.

The third place where we stopped was open, and selling firewood, except that they had just sold the last of it. They were leaving to go get another load, and would we like to tag along? We explained that the last two places where we went would not sell us any, and the the guy confidently claimed they would sell HIM firewood, so, not having any ourselves yet: yes, we agreed to tag along.

Six to eight inches, and still snowing.

Six to eight inches, and still snowing.

When we got there, the dude was right, the closed business opened up for him. I guess he’s a VERY good customer. Then, the men spent about an hour trying to get the truck (rear-wheel drive) up the little hill into the wood lot. Finally, with about six guys hanging onto the rear tailgate and bumper to add weight, they got the truck up the hill to the wood pile. My husband and I helped the dealer load his truck with the firewood, figuring that he’d at least done us the favor of getting the place to open up for business.

The other Moroccan men were plainly amazed that we pitched in and helped, being “rich Americans” and all. I think they were even more amazed that I helped, being female. There was a lot of discussion from the men in Arabic, which I don’t always understand, but most of it appeared to be approving, if a trifle unbelieving. One of the men working was loading the wood with his bare hands, so I got my husband’s gloves from the car and handed them to him, for which he was grateful. My husband is a lot like me when it comes to gloves: they are fine for when you are just walking along in the cold, but if you have any work to do, they are in the way. I have often said if I fell down with gloves on, I’d have to take them off to get up.

When the truck was full, the guys from the store got in, and then their truck backed down the tire tracks they made going up, and it was our turn. We have a front-wheel drive car, and the tire tracks were already clear, so the little POS car chugged right up with no trouble.

The little bit of firewood that will fit in our little car was quickly loaded, and the man who I let use the gloves returned them. As we got ready to leave, I noticed the one of the older men at the wood lot also did not have gloves, so I gave him the pair of gloves on our way out, and his big smile was thanks enough. So, with a little loading work, and the donation of a pair of gloves, we got our two hundred dirham’s worth of firewood. All ten of our fire worshippers at home are thrilled, not to mention us humans.

Fire worshippers

Fire worshippers