By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I was a little intimidated the first time I got behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer on Interstate 70 west of Columbus, Ohio. However, the kid who was teaching me how to drive was totally shocked when I was able to hold the truck in the middle of the right lane at an almost perfect distance between the broken line to my left and the solid line to my left. He told me that was the hardest thing for him to learn, but he was amazed that I caught on to that one aspect of truck driving on the first try. He called me a “natural,” and that was more than a decade before the Robert Redford movie of the same name made the expression commonplace.
Of course, I messed up a lot of things on my first few loads, and I made the owner of the truck and trailer I was operating mad enough at me to fire me just four months after he hired me. I had parked his truck at a truck stop near his home, and he was upset because it was loaded and I wasn’t rolling. He had no way of knowing that I had stopped in Washington, Pa., for the birth of my first daughter, but he had a growing list of other reasons to be mad at me.
A day or so after he fired me, he asked me politely if I could haul the load I had on the truck to Little Ferry, N.J. By that time, I had already found a new job with a broker for Ohio Fast Freight. The broker I went to work for had a terminal in Canonsburg, Pa. With four months of over-the-road experience, I was a seasoned trucker and I found myself in great demand.
I went ahead and took the load to Little Ferry and saw the famous, “Rosie’s Diner,” when I arrived, but I didn’t step inside. After deadheading back to 84, Pa., I parted ways on good terms with my former boss, and drove in my 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu four-door hardtop to Canton, Ohio to take my test for Ohio Fast Freight.
The Ohio Fast Freight safety man who road with me on my test drive in a company truck saw that I could maneuver the truck as well as any seasoned veteran, but when he asked me the 10 questions on the written test, I missed four. That was a failing score ... Unacceptable. Book learning was never my strong suit.
Still, the company needed experienced drivers desperately at that time. That was Nov. 12, 1973, less than a month after OPEC announced its embargo on Oct. 16, 1973. The whole world was about to change for everyone driving any kind of vehicle. It took a whole new level of understanding to cross the eastern U.S., on 25-gallon fill-ups at each truck stop. Trucks could only travel four to five miles-per-gallon of fuel. The safety man asked me again: “Which should you change first: A broken right mirror or a broken right headlight?”
The book rule was that I should change the headlight, but my trucker’s instinct told me that the mirror was the more important thing to repair. I used to tell people who asked me how I learned to drive and I responded that it was all done with smoke and mirrors. I learned to drive by checking my mirrors constantly. The truth was that a driver couldn’t move a truck anywhere without both West Coast mirrors in proper position as well as the passenger-side spot mirror providing a bigger picture of any truck’s blind spot. The written test included a third option: A broken windshield? I didn’t even think there was any immediacy attached to that at all.
After the safety man narrowed my options down to two, and I knew I had already answered mirror incorrectly, I answered: “Headlight,” on that go around, and passed my test on a 7 out of 10 score. The safety man for Daily Express who passed me for my first job should have flunked me for lack of experience, but after four months of over-the-road trucking experience, I was an old man in terms of trucker years.
During the five years I drove a truck I learned a lot about life, but I never felt uneasy on the road — not when I slid out of control on a sheet of ice west of Louisville one frigid morning, and not when a would be mugger in Chicago’s China Town section was ready to rip me off at knife-point.
Driving had always seemed to come as a second nature to me until last week when I emerged from the northern tunnel on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel system as we returned from a few days on Chincoteague Island. It was a hot morning that caused a dense fog to form over the road and for about 15 minutes, I couldn’t find my bearings in any direction.
My wife noticed that I had panicked, and asked me about it after we got back home. I told her that I just couldn’t find a fixed point to focus on. She said that she had never seen me like that, and I told her I hadn’t seen me like that either. I guess I have to chalk it up to old age. After all, back in 1973, what my buddy said was that I was a natural as a trucker.
Bill Archer is a senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Conact him at firstname.lastname@example.org