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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Driving Truck

This was my grandfather's truck.

I found this polaroid in a box of my grandmother's mementos after her funeral. It was included along with old letters, family photographs from 1905, snapshots of weddings and newborn great-grandchildren, my high school graduation announcement. 

My grandfather held many working-class jobs throughout his life. He worked primarily as a steamfitter, but he also spent his time as a truck driver. The truck took him away from home, and it took some of his hearing too. It paid the bills and put food on the table for his children back home. It was a way to earn a living, but in some ways it was more. In a way, it was a source of pride.

For a short man with little education, skilled labor was a way to stand out. It takes skill to become a steamfitter, and my grandfather stood out. Because of the quality of his work, he completed delicate projects like nuclear power plants. 

While it seems more mundane, more commonplace, driving truck requires skill too. Owners don't just entrust their investment in an expensive vehicle to anybody. Businesses that need their deliveries to arrive on-time and undamaged need some confidence in their transportation.

I have never driven an 18-wheeler. The largest vehicle I have driven was a high-capacity forklift, which I operated solely within the controlled confines of the titanium plant. Even there it felt like a powerful beast, capable of destroying anything in its path with only a moment of inattention. It strains my imagination to picture myself navigating streets and roads congested with casual car drivers, bicycles, and pedestrians while pulling a couple huge trailers. 
A high-capacity forklift, similar to the one I drove

In many ways it seems crazy that we allow such monstrous vehicles into populated areas. Yet until we muster the logistical and political resources to institute better methods of moving goods, we will rely on drivers to operate these vehicles responsibly. That is a responsibility that people like my grandfather could claim with pride.

One of his favorite stories, one he told me enough times I may have gotten tired of listening, was about an owner who was hiring a new truck driver: 
"Pretend this line on the parking lot is the edge of a cliff. Now show me how close you can park to it," said the owner. 
The first driver pulled up about five feet away from the line. He felt pretty good with himself. The next driver pulled up and parked two feet from the line without crossing it. He was sure he had the job.
The third driver climbed into the truck, got it going, and then parked in the middle of the parking lot, then got back out. "I don't park next to the edge of a cliff," he said. He got the job. 
This was typical of my grandfather's storytelling, a sort of modern-day, working-class parable. The moral of the story is obvious, but it also provides a glimpse into the way people who work these grueling jobs see their place in the world. To do what they do requires not only a commitment to safety, but also a clever ability to solve problems on the fly.

When driving took my grandfather away from his family, the truck became his home away from home. The truck was his partner during a long day driving, and the cab was his bedroom during the night. He took care of his truck, and his truck took care of him.

I suspect that the motor home my grandparents bought after he retired brought back fond memories of his days driving truck. He was back behind the wheel and sleeping in the bunk on the road again. Better, he could enjoy the open road with my grandmother (and her cooking!).

When I have an opportunity to travel around the country, it seems the drivers working the same job to provide for their families today are treated with less respect. I can't remember the last time I saw a kid gesture for the driver to blow the horn. Sprawl along the interstates has largely displaced the old truck stop restaurants. Rest areas have become crowded with cars and chain restaurants, with the trucks relegated to a back lot. And the truck parking is often overcrowded.

New legislation reducing the number of hours drivers can spend on the road is a good protection for their safety, but nobody is making the room to meet their needs. As they travel less distance each day, the same trips require more stops, putting more demand on the truck stops. There is discussion within state departments of transportation from time to time, but with inadequate funding for more visible  infrastructure that serves commuters, finding truck drivers a safe place to park for the night doesn't seem to be anybody's priority. If we can't meet such basic needs for these drivers, people like my grandfather who work hard to deliver the goods we all use, we need to rethink our priorities.

Trucks remain an important part of our economy, and they are an important fixture in the lives of the people who drive them. His truck was always an important part of my grandfather's life. Even though his driving years were over before my childhood, the memory of the truck was still strong. It really comes as no surprise that a snapshot of the truck was tucked away with photographs of the rest of the family.

1 comment:

  1. I love hearing stories about my own grandfather. The one I never get tired of hearing about is the one where he used to dress up like a clown and visit children in the hospital. I'm glad I was able to form good memories with him before he passed in 2001. He was a great person.

    Kourtney Heard @ Hansen & Adkins Auto Transport