By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Phillips-head screws were still a little too new-fangled for my 1965 Freightliner when I drove tractor-trailer, but one of Henry F. Phillips’ screwdrivers was an essential tool in my light-weight toolbox. During the years when I was the one nut that held all 18 wheels of my truck and trailer together, I carried two toolboxes — one big toolbox that had everything from Allen wrenches to a 3-inch socket to change the nut on my steering axle, and another box with just the essentials.
In those days, everyone who hauled steel was a heavy-hauler and hauling heavy caused additional wear and tear on any truck and trailer unit — old or new. Breaking down on the road wasn’t an unusual experience, but I learned something new each time I got my truck rolling again. The learning curve was always sharp and swift.
I remember changing a drive-shaft universal joint on a city street near Dundalk, Md. The U-joint went out as I was driving to pick up a load at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point. As strange as it may seem now, there was a truck parts store within walking distance of where I broke down, and I was able to buy the correct universal joint and enough tools to change it out.
When I really hauled heavy, I left my heavy toolbox at home. My light toolbox contained one straight and one Phillips-head screwdriver, a pair of pliers, an adjustable Crescent wrench, a 9/16th inch box-end and open end, a 1/2-inch box-end open-end wrench and my rigging ax from my days as a carpenter in Denver, Colo. The tools were basically what I needed to change a slack adjuster on my trailer brakes. I always carried an extra slack adjuster or two in my toolbox. The rigging ax was for peace of mind when I was laid over and had to sleep in my bunk at the Ace Doran terminal in East Chicago, Ill.
During all the time that I drove truck, I never actually swung my rigging ax at anyone or anything. It was somehow comforting for me to sleep with my rigging ax in my hands when I could see the muzzle flashes and hear the report of firearms all around me.
The only time I carried it outside the truck was one hot summer night when I heard gunfire at the back of my trailer. After the passage of a period of time, I deemed it safe at the moment, grabbed my rigging ax, got out of the truck and walked back to the end of my trailer. I was relieved to learn that the action had taken place near the trailer next to mine, but even at that, an armed trucker and an armed thief exchanging several shots over a 22-inch spare tire seemed too much.
For everyone else standing there, the adrenaline was pumping. I thought I must have looked silly by walking into a group of heavily armed truckers, carrying a big hatchet with a two-foot handle. That big hatchet in my hands made me feel a little less exposed in a group of folks exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms. No one was injured that night and the spare tire remained chained in its rack.
For a heavy hauler, a big tool box could make all the difference in the world in being able to cross a scale legally or in having to run the dodge route. I never kidded myself about Smokey knowing where the dodge roads were. If the police wanted to bust us for running around a scale, they could do it easy enough.
A big old truck laboring to pull a trailer filled with sheet, bar or coil steel down a two-lane country road probably looked pretty obvious to a police officer at any experience level. Over time I learned that the secret to hauling heavy and dodging scales is the same as the secret to comedy. Timing!
I borrowed that line from the movie, “A Good Year,” but it holds true for trucking just like it does in the movies. Running around a scale in the middle of the night wasn’t nearly as safe as doing the same thing in the middle of the day. For some reason, it was always a lot easier for me to dodge a scale in broad daylight than it was to try the same thing under the cover of darkness. My gut instinct was that police probably just thought nobody would be stupid enough to try something like that during the day. Of course, they didn’t know how stupid I was.
Although I ran with heavy haulers, I usually tried to haul as close to legal as I could. That was the reason for my two tool boxes. I figured that near the end of my trucking career, my catch-all toolbox probably weighed 80-100 pounds. Because of the aluminum frame, aluminum body and aluminum bell housing on my Freightliner, I could legally haul about 47,500 pounds of freight anywhere in the U.S. When I scaled out close to 48,000 pounds, I started dumping anything that added weight to my truck like tools, extra oil and even my spare tire. Of course, I always kept my rigging ax in the cubby hole beneath my seat just in case someone needed a house framed or any home improvement project completed.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.