Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 8, 2013

Trucking during the summer can sure get hot in a steel mill at night

— — As I was waiting to load at one of the steel mills in Chicago, the fellow who was in line to load one truck ahead of me asked me to look at his new Diamond Reo Royale. That was probably 1974, just a year before the Diamond Reo Trucks went bankrupt, but at the time, it was a state-of-the-art truck with all the bells, whistles, flashy lights and gadgets a trucker could ask for. Of course, as time went by, the Royale became little more than an oddity, but by that time, I was off the road and pursuing my goal of becoming a librarian.

I’m sure the driver told me his name, but it went in one ear and out the other. Conversely, I remember looking around at all the rolled and pleated padding on the dashboard, and the smell of the soft leather-colored naugahyde that coated everything in the cab of the truck. The power mill was a 350 Cummins diesel, but the cab seemed silent even with the truck running.

I had forgotten about my brief visit inside a Diamond Reo Royale until someone recently asked me if I had a sleeper on my truck. I think the world outside probably thinks a trucker’s sleeper compartment is like a bachelor pad with surround sound and a disco ball where the dome light should be. I have seen trucks like that, but only as a visitor.

In my own truck, the bunk was the most utilitarian component of the operation. I ran 2,000 to 2,500 miles every week and I changed the oil in my truck every other week — more often than that if I had a problem. I owned my Freightliner for three years, slept in the sleeper five or six days a week, but never once changed the sheets.

In fact, I never even had a sheet on the mattress in the bunk. I had a pillow without a pillowcase and a blanket that I wrapped myself in when it was cold. I sprayed it down with Lysol regularly, but it could get gamy in there during the hot summer months.

It was not at all like the bunk in the Diamond Reo Royale I visited in Chicago. I hated trucking through the months of July and August because the cab of my truck would get so hot that the 2-55s air-conditioning — two windows down and 55 miles-per-hour — couldn’t bring it down by a single degree.

To top it off, John Whitt had painted the roof of the Freightliner black back when he owned it. That black color would retain the heat, and of course, back in 1965, air-conditioning in a tractor-trailer was limited to the AC units on a trailer that transported meats and vegetables. I pitched the blanket and pillow when I sold the truck, but I left the mattress in there. Now that I think back on it — Yuk!

My brother had a saying that covered my summer days as a trucker. He said that I was a human experiment as to how much the human body could actually stand. Stu came up with that saying one summer night when he went with me to load at the U.S. Steel Second Avenue plant in Pittsburgh.

While we were waiting to get loaded, we walked around inside of the plant where they poured iron pig ingots. They called the ingots “pigs” because they looked like piglets feeding from a sow when the molten iron ore was poured into a trough-like affair in the floor and the individual ingots that formed when the molten iron entered small channels to fill forms on either side of the main trough.

I wanted Stu to see the process because I found it fascinating, but all Stu could think about was how hot it was around the molten iron ore. The guys working in the mill would almost always caution visitors about wearing eye protection because the iron could pop at any time as it was cooling, but the heat was usually enough to keep me away. Some of the older steel mills back then poured the molten iron on the floor with places for the pigs to puddle and cool that had been scooped out of the pulverized dirt floor with shovels.

Seeing something like that in real life was amazing, but my brother was feeling the heat more than seeing the miracle of the steel-making process. Those plants are probably all gone now, and the general public probably can’t walk into a mill like we did that summer night anymore.

Back then, truckers pretty much had the run of the mill anywhere we went. Guys who worked there likely thought of it as a job, but I saw the excitement and adventure. My brother liked adventure too, but on that one hot summer night, he was really starting to feel the heat. He got to feeling a little better when we got back to the super-slab and got those 2-55s back on line.

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

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