Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

December 16, 2013

An ice-covered hill and four reverse gears equals trucking adventure

— — It was a little too slick for me to make it up the steep side of the hill to my house on Thanksgiving Day eve, but as I was sliding back down the hill sideways, I had the presence of mind to apply my emergency brake so that all four of the wheels on my little Buick would stop turning.

I know my neighbors must have thought I was off my rocker when I knocked on their door and asked if they could move one of the cars in their parking lot out into the road so I could get turned around to go back down the hill frontways. After that all happened, my window was frozen shut so I was not able to roll it down to thank him for moving his car. Besides, the main rule of driving in snow is always: “Keep the vehicle moving when it’s moving,” and since he was visiting from New York, he certainly understands that rule.

The Buick sliding downhill backwards reminded me of one of my favorite trucking stories. My friend, John Whitt, the guy who sold me my Freightliner, lived in a residential section outside of the Claysville, Pa., town limits called “South Pittsburgh.” Of course, it was truly south of Pittsburgh, but by about 50 miles. In addition, it was actually southwest of Pittsburgh, about four miles east of the West Virginia state line, about 21 miles east of Wheeling.

Whitt and I built a small garage by his house where we used to keep tools to work on trucks. Back then, owner-operators had to be full-time mechanics when the wheels weren’t turning. Whitt’s house was on a hill overlooking I-70 at the end of the on ramp at Claysville. Exit 2 Truck Stop was just over the hill from the house. We wallowed out a circle where we drove trucks on Whitt’s lawn. It was a pretty wide-open situation — truly life on the edge.

So, one cool winter morning when I was bob-tailing my Freightliner up to Whitt’s garage to work on the electrical pigtail that connected the tractor with my trailer lights, the Freightliner started to spin on the ice-covered asphalt street. It wasn’t a steep-steep hill like Fourth Street in Bluefield behind the city municipal building, but it was steep enough that after my dual drive wheels spun a couple of times on the pavement, the Freightliner started sliding back down the hill.

Here comes the exciting part. I looked out the passenger-side window and saw that if I went off the road, I would probably roll a time or two before I landed on the concrete slab where the fill-holes and vents were for the truck stop’s underground fuel storage tanks. It took way less time than it took to write that last sentence for me to figure that I needed to get control of the truck even going backwards.

Immediately, I pulled the main shifter against the seat, put it in reverse and released the clutch. The dual drive wheels were turning in reverse, but they were also slipping as the truck started to pick up speed. I double-clutched and pulled the auxiliary shifter into second gear, but the slide continued. I ran my RPMs up, slid the shifter into the fourth auxiliary slot and the wheels dug in so I could control the tractor going backwards down the hill.

It must have been a pretty weird sight because one of the pump jockeys at the truck stop said he had never seen anyone back-up a truck that fast before. There was something about operating my own truck that made me feel invincible, so I never really felt the danger of living on the edge. Every truck I drove was different, but the Spicer 4X4 transmission and the Rockwell 411 differential probably made it possible to operate my Freightliner at 30 to 35 miles-per-hour backwards. Take it from me, that’s really honking on when you’re looking at the world through a set of West Coast rear-view mirrors.

The trucking life was special to me. Although I spent less than five full years on the road, I worked my way through three years of college at Exit 2 Truck Stop, and learned as much through real-life experiences than I did in any college class. One of my English professors, Lloyd Davis, once said that unlike a typical traveler, a truck driver is always on a journey, but never actually reaches a destination because after he or she delivers a load of cargo, the trucker travels to the next location to pick up another load and the journey continues.

Dr. Davis saw the emptiness of the profession, but I found trucking to be infinitely fulfilling. I’m sure that is true for today’s truckers just as it was for me in the 1970s. The challenges may be different, but the rewards are always there. Still, I doubt that any modern truckers can bob-tail a tractor 35 mph backwards. Unfortunately, the two-stick 4X4 transmission has gone the way of the manual typewriter and the wind-up watch — perhaps for the better.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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