Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 27, 2012

Hauling a 52,000-pound rolling doughnut into the Keystone State

One of the things I liked most about hauling rough coils of cold-rolled steel from the J&L Steel plant in Aliquippa, Pa., to the J&L warehousing facility in Indianapolis, Ind., was that I never had to cover a load with a tarpaulin. I know many readers are probably sick and tired of reading columns about my recollections of driving tractor trailer four decades ago, but I really didn’t like covering loads of dirty, often oily, loads of steel with huge 12-by-20 canvas tarps. It was always dirty, and if I left a steel mill after securing a load with logging chains and covering the load with a tarp, I usually drove all the way to Cambridge, Ohio, before I could even wash my hands.

Time in trucking is always money. Anything that interrupted the traditional flow of time meant that I would have less time to get empty, find a return load and start the time management process all over again. I laugh at myself now because back in those days, I was proud of having 500-mile kidneys. As I look back, it’s amazing that I still have any kidneys left, but at that time, making more revenue for the truck was often far more important than making water at a natural pace.

Chains also took time. I never wanted to find out if what they said about suicide coils was true. Suicide coils are the coils that are loaded on a trailer in the same direction as the wheels on the truck. The loader sets them between a pair of oak 4-by-4s that are set between a couple of steel coil racks about 2 feet or 30 inches wide. In my five or so years of trucking, I never had a coil move out of the 4-by-4s in the coil racks, but I always used as many chains as I could to keep them from moving.

I once hauled a single, 52,000-pound steel coil from Chicago to McKeesport, Pa. I was legal on the Indiana Turnpike, because they allowed truckers to haul heavy and didn’t weigh at the toll booth. The Ohio Turnpike weighed trucks, but back then, permitted truckers to cross the pike with an 80,000-pound truck and trailer gross weight. At 52,000 pounds of freight and a truck that weighed about 27,500 pounds, I was right on the edge of being legal in Ohio. They didn’t stop me in Ohio, but I started sweating bullets when I got to Pennsylvania, since the Keystone State was strictly 72,380 pounds legal gross weight.

Just because I was hauling heavy, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t still stupid. Rather than drive straight out the PA Turnpike to Monroeville, and take U.S. Route 22 into McKeesport, I drove over to Canonsburg, Pa., so I could stop at the Ohio Fast Freight terminal and get my first wife to bring our 6-month-old daughter, Adrienne, over so we could take a picture of her sitting inside the eye of the coil.

I recall that it was a real swashbuckling scene when I grabbed the rub-rail and jumped up on the bed of the trailer. It was about 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the spring of 1974. It was cool enough so that Adrienne was bundled up in a little jacket. I sat in the eye of the coil and my former wife took the picture. The physical photo wasn’t something that I kept, but the memory is stuck in my mind as though it was taking place right at this moment. It was a huge coil, but the photo with a 110 Kodak camera didn’t do justice to the scene as I imagined it would as I drove through Indiana and Ohio.

The steel mill that I hauled the huge coil to in McKeesport received loads on Saturday, and by early afternoon that same day I was back at the terminal, parking my truck. I was scheduled to pick up a load of coil wire from one of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mills early Monday morning. I can’t remember what mill I loaded out of, but I was headed down to Evansville, Ind.

I didn’t have to tarp the 52,000-pound rolling doughnut I hauled from Chicago to McKeesport, but I did have to tarp the load of coil wire I hauled to Evansville. The stuff looked like a giant slinky made up of steel wire as big around as the fat part of my index finger. With a spongy load like that, I had to check my chains about every 50 miles, and in a world where time always equaled money, that wasn’t a money-making proposition.

The funny thing was that, as I kept dogging down my chains, I didn’t re-tighten the ropes on my tarps and the rear end of my back tarp came loose and was flapping in the breeze like a huge, oily, 20-foot flag. I stopped at a truckstop on I-70, just west of Richmond, Ind., and another trucker, who had been following me, came up and asked: “What are you, Superman with that cape floating out behind you?”

I answered: “No. I’m the one PA Hammerhead.” Trucking was fun back in the ’70s.

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

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