Story by Andy H.
From Teacher to Trucker
It was March, 1998. I’d been hanging around a large truckload carrier’s terminal in Northwestern Georgia for a few days. I was a rookie driver who’d been assigned to a driver-trainer (DT) for on-the-job training (OJT). My trainer hadn’t arrived yet.
Those were bleak times. I was broke, having borrowed money for trucker training. I was going over the road (OTR)—in other words, away from home most of the time. My girlfriend wore her brave face, but she wasn’t happy. I didn’t know what to expect. It was cold; winter hadn’t released its grip. The good news was that—as the plan went, anyway—I was starting a new job and would finally make decent money (more than I’d made teaching high school and college English, teaching, anyway). I was excited to get started, even if I had to start with OJT.
An Explanation of On-the-Job Training
Here’s how on-the-job training works. Companies that hire rookies—no experience, fresh from trucker training—require that they get about six weeks OJT with a driver trainer. During this time, the truck earns mileage pay, but it’s all for the DT. The trainee gets a weekly stipend: a few hundred dollars. For the first couple of weeks, the DT must be awake and in the passenger seat while the trainee drives, and the truck doesn’t earn much. But when the DT trusts the trainee enough to sleep while the trainee drives, the truck runs “team” and earns a lot more: $1,500-$2,000 a week, all for the DT.
Getting Hired by a Large Trucking Company
Large trucking companies hire dozens of new drivers every week. Some companies have their own trucker-training schools. They have benefits and procedures for new hires: motel rooms, meal tickets, and naturally, numerous safety classes. After all, the companies entrust drivers with equipment and freight worth hundreds of thousands—often millions—of dollars. Where trucking companies are concerned, drivers can’t get enough safety training.
During this training process though, the new drivers are “homeless.” Everywhere we went, we lugged all of our possessions along. We tried to be cheerful. The company treated us nicely. But both sides—rookie drivers and trucking companies—are making big investments and taking big risks.
Hundreds of Truckers
So I waited at the terminal. Hundreds of drivers, from everywhere, with different problems and stories, were hanging around there. Some were on break for a day or two. Others were new hires who’d run into issues with medical clearance, commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs), or something else. They waited in “limbo” while strangers from the trucking company decided whether they’d be truckers or go back home.
Other rookies paired up with DTs and left. I kept asking about my DT and was told he’d arrive any day. I was anxious to get going. Late on the third day, he finally arrived.
My Driver Trainer
I was… let’s say “chagrined.” My DT was “Mister Big”: not tall, but still nigh on 400 pounds. He was dirty and sloppy, and not just his clothes and appearance. The inside of his truck—the cab, the sleeper area, inside the fridge—were a filthy mess. This was where I’d live and work for the next six weeks, as the plan went.
Of course, I tried to hide my disappointment with my trainer. “Hey, great, glad to meet you, yes sir.” He showed me my space. “That side’s yours. This side’s mine.” (No problem!) For the time being, I got the top bunk. I stowed my gear while he dropped off a bill of lading (BOL). We refueled the truck. His driver manager (DM)—the company’s name for dispatchers—assigned us a load. It picked up in Chattanooga, a short drive away.
We needed an empty trailer, and I got my first lesson with a persistent issue: finding empty trailers. The DM sent a list of empties on the terminal lot. All were gone or out of service, so the DM gave us a list of empties nearby, and the search began. Night had come. I’d been awake all day, but I was about to get another lesson: truck drivers don’t stop working at sundown, even if they’ve been up all day.
We checked a few places for empty trailers and struck out each time. Finally we found one, and I got another lesson: the trailer was a mess and needed sweeping. The DT said forget it; we had to get the load. By then, it was after 10:00 p.m., and the shipper closed at midnight.
Off to the Consignee
All this time, I’d been a passenger. The DT kept telling me to watch what he did. He explained things that he felt needed explaining. I absorbed as much as I could.
We got to the shipper and picked up a load of “roll stock”: large, heavy paper rolls, near maximum weight. Then we left Chattanooga westbound on I-24 and soon reached Mont Eagle: a long, steep climb. Taking a max-loaded truck up such an incline is routine for experienced truckers, but it’s dangerous for a rookie who’s never done it. The DT thought about letting me drive but decided to do it himself. Once again, he admonished me to watch what he was doing and explained his actions as we went along. As a rookie with no experience taking max-loaded trucks up long, steep hills, I didn’t understand the danger, but the DT’s serious tone told me that it was important, so I watched carefully.
Truthfully, I was tired and more interested in stopping for the night, but that was the ongoing lesson: truck drivers often don’t stop working when they’re tired. Moreover, they often handle dangerous situations—like heavy loads on steep hills—when they’re tired.
We climbed the hill and pulled into the Mont Eagle truck stop for my next lesson: “scaling” the load to ensure we weren’t overweight on any axles. I’d learned about maximum axle weights in trucker training but had never actually “scaled” a load. The DT was disappointed. He found it hard to believe that the school hadn’t taught drivers how to “scale.” Weighing a loaded truck and sliding trailer tandems and fifth wheels to balance the weight, i.e. “scaling,” is something that all truckers must do frequently. I’d left trucker training without learning how. The DT was justifiably irritated.
We had to slide the tandems. It’s easy with two drivers…who both know how. With the trailer brakes set, one driver gently rocks the truck back and forth while another “pulls the pins,” i.e. retracts the pins that hold the trailer body in place on its chassis. Rather than explain it to me—by then it was well past midnight, and cold—the DT got help from another driver while I stood by watching and feeling foolish.
It was good that I felt foolish. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it was being drilled home to me that, although I’d had four weeks of trucker training and was top of the class, I didn’t know squat. Truck driving is dangerous and often doesn’t forgive even small mistakes. The DT would soon be putting his life in my hands. I had a lot to learn.
The other driver and the DT slid the tandems, we re-scaled the truck, and that was enough. We were finally going to sleep…and I learned another lesson: most truck stops—especially popular, busy truck stops, like Mont Eagle—fill up early. We couldn’t find a parking spot, so the DT drove to the “get-on” ramp for westbound I-24, pulled to the shoulder, and set the brakes. That’s where I’d spend my first night on the road. It was about two a.m. when we hit the bunks. So far, I hadn’t even driven the truck.
Teaming on the Road
Awakening brought more learning: no bathroom nearby. The DT had a coffee machine, but—predictably—it was filthy. He didn’t have sugar, the milk in his fridge was…oh, hell no, and I got another lesson. Some truckers drive until they’re tired or forced to stop by their log books, pull to the side of the road wherever they are, sleep, wake up, get behind the wheel, and start driving: no bathroom, no coffee, nothing. I wasn’t ready for that, so the DT let me walk to the truck stop, get coffee and a snack, and use the bathroom: brush my teeth and wash my face. (Another lesson: the DT rarely brushed his teeth.)
Back at the truck, the next lesson awaited: synchronizing log books. (I’d actually learned that in trucker training.) I hadn’t driven, so it was easy. I was on line two (“sleeper berth”) or line four (“on duty-not driving”) because, as the trainee, I had to be awake and in the passenger seat when the DT drove. However, when we started driving “team,” ensuring our log books accurately and legally accounted for the time we worked got more complex.
We got rolling, and my next lesson came up. The previous evening we’d climbed Mont Eagle. Now we’d go down. The DT briefly considered letting me take the truck down the hill.
In retrospect, he should have. If I’d been in his position—a DT with a raw trainee—I’d have let the trainee take the truck down the slope because it’d be a great learning experience. However, I’d have provided a lot of instruction first. I’d have explained that taking 80,000 pounds of truck and top-heavy freight down a slope like Mont Eagle, with its steep declines and sharp curves, requires judicial and simultaneous use of the truck’s engine brakes, air brakes, and gearbox. I’d have sternly lectured the trainee to do exactly what I said to do while descending the slope because, while such tasks are routine trucking, they’re still dangerous. A rookie driver’s small mistakes could easily cause catastrophe on a hill like Mont Eagle.
My DT was having none of that. He took the truck down Mont Eagle. “Watch what I do,” he said, while explaining his actions. That was somewhat educational for me, but not nearly as educational as driving the truck down the slope myself would’ve been.
I Finally Get To Drive
We were headed out west, partly because the DT had tickets to a big rock concert somewhere out that way (maybe Utah), and partly because he had a bad tooth and wanted to see his dentist at home in Idaho. Our load didn’t go that way, so we wouldn’t deliver it; we’d drop it at the company’s terminal in Lincoln, NE.
We took I-24 westbound through Tennessee and into Kentucky before DT finally let me drive. He pulled into a truck stop. We synchronized logs, and I took the wheel.
While I’d grow fully accustomed my DT’s lack of hygiene and often surprisingly gross habits, I still to this day appreciate his style of teaching. He was a good, kind and gentle man, about 15 years younger than me. He didn’t raise his voice. He knew a lot, and he knew how and when to provide instruction and insight. Whether I was driving or he was, he kept up a constant lecture, seizing every opportunity to explain events and tasks in depth. He was patient with my lack of experience about so many things, including my lack of awareness about the OTR culture in general: how truckers communicate over the CB radio, how they live, how they think. I’d been a “greenhorn” before, as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, as a college student, and as a teacher. I knew that those with more experience were not always so kind to rookies. Now in retrospect, 20 years later, I can see even more clearly that my DT was good at his job, and part of the reason was his understanding of his trainees.
And so with his instruction, I continued to drive. We took I-24 west to I-57 north to I-70 west. In Kansas City, we took I-29 north to Nebraska Highway 2 west. That took us to the Lincoln terminal. We dropped the trailer in the company’s muddy gravel lot and got rooms in the company’s hotel. While experienced OTR truckers usually enjoy a hotel room as a break from routine, I was a little disappointed. I already knew how to sleep in hotels. I needed to learn to spend my nights in a truck’s sleeper berth.
Technically, that ended my first “trip” as a truck driver. It had been a “learning experience,” just as it was supposed to be. What I’d learned most of all was that I had a lot to learn. I could perform most of the necessary tasks, but I didn’t really understand them, how they interrelated with each other, or how they fit in to the grand scheme of trucking. Two days OTR had been like seeing a picture of the work and the lifestyle that would consume my future. But to actually climb into that picture, do that work, and live that lifestyle—to actually become an OTR truck driver—was a process that would occur over a period of years. It was a job and a lifestyle that had its own language and view of life in general. Some drivers had been at it for decades. I respected them enough to know that, after two days, I was still just an observer, on the outside of OTR trucking, looking in.
After The First Ride
Looking back, it was an uncomfortable time because I was learning a new lifestyle, not just a new job. Trucking OTR is much more than just driving. Truckers live on the road and sleep where they work. I hadn’t learned that yet and wouldn’t for a couple of years. As well, during my OJT period, I was up north and out west most of the time. It was cold and snowy, and driving was scary.
It is a life filled with hardship, but I’d eventually “fall in love with trucking.” For one thing, I’d faced and overcome much more challenging hardships before (no food, money, or income). For another, I had nothing better to do. Most of all, however, OTR trucking appealed to me. It was my kind of work and lifestyle: driving those big, powerful vehicles; life on the open road; the constant change of scenery; facing nature at its most fierce, one-on-one; becoming self-sufficient and independent; doing honest labor. As well, trucking paid off, allowing me to make decent money consistently for the first time in a while. It also led to a job as a test-driver and writer for a major trucking-industry publisher.
However, during that first trip from Chattanooga to Lincoln back in March, 1998, I was just trying to make it from one day to the next without getting into any trouble.
I did all right with that.