A Casual Start in Labor

The first actual work I performed for Dart was not too exciting, as it was what is considered ‘casual labor’.  It had nothing to with driving a semi.  Instead, it was more about physically unloading forty-foot long trailers.  By hand.  Essentially I was a lumper… someone whose job was manual labor in loading and unloading semi-trailers.  It’s not demeaning work; it’s just hard.

A Dart Transportation tractor-trailer rig today… 
(Image Copyright belongs to Dart Transportation)

Dart was a contract carrier for Sears Roebuck, back when Sears was still a powerhouse in retail with hundreds of locations throughout the United States.  We were domiciled at the Sears terminal in Phoenix, Arizona and serviced the state of Arizona, later to expand to Nevada, New Mexico and southwestern Texas.  This was back in 1980, before Phoenix had a cross-country interstate highway going through town.  Our city had the last stretch of I-10 to be completed, thus finishing the 2,460 mile long coast-to-coast highway.  Sadly, it wasn’t actually finished until 1990; ten years after I started driving.  It was like everyone was asking, “Who the hell wants to go to Phoenix?”  To be fair, I sometimes wondered the same thing.

For those old enough to remember Sears when in its prime, they used to have these HUGE catalogs for people to order from through their mail order department.  Each catalog probably cost the life of an entire tree, they were so big.  And they were transported to the stores on, guess what?  Semi-trailers.  My glorified part-time employment at Dart began unloading trailers such as those; essentially picking up bundles of these huge-ass catalogs and stacking them on pallets by hand for the forklift driver to move from the trailer to staging areas to be reloaded on other trailers for distribution to the numerous stores in the area.  It was back-breaking work and I was in those hot trailers in July without any air conditioning whatsoever.  I was working twelve-hour days in conditions that were in excess of 100 degrees.  More like 108 degrees.  I was 23 years old and could tolerate it back then.  My youth didn’t help make it much fun, though.  But that’s what I signed up for and I didn’t bitch.  I had a motorcycle payment and insurance to pay and this was going to get me there.

I sweated my ass off for three days.  On the fourth day, I was relieved of that duty and told to grab a tractor, hook up to a particular trailer, then make a delivery to a carpet installer in Glendale, Arizona.  Coincidentally enough, I used to work for that company.  They did carpet installations for Sears and I worked for them for a year or so.  That’s where I worked for one of my favorite people of all time, John Husband, who was one of my father’s best friends.

So, getting there would not require a map or directions, but the skillsets, well, they were kinda missing at that point…

I was able to bluff my way across town to make the delivery, doing my best to ruin the transmission on the tractor the whole way.  I still can imagine Dad laughing about the whole experiment, but also wringing his hands worrying about whether I would find a way to kill someone on the way.  But where did those minimal skills come from?

Dad would take me out on the road on line runs (line runs were out on open roads, as opposed to within the cities) about the state of Arizona on days when no one else wanted to work; in particular, holidays.  Later on, I would figure out he would sometimes to take these runs… just to relax.  Sounds funny, I know, but he liked to get out on holidays of all times because the roads were relatively quiet back in 1980.  I enjoyed the jump seat, even though the tractors did not have A/C in them and there was no air-ride suspension on the jump seat.  It was like riding on the vehicle frame and without that A/C driving truck in Arizona in the summer was absolutely miserable, but it was on the roads and I always enjoyed traveling by vehicle.  That used to be the American way.

On other days, he would take me down to the terminal and I’d help him ‘spot’ trailers.  This entailed hooking up to trailers with the air line hoses for brakes and releasing the trailer for a drop, or what was referred to a spot, in a new parking spot.  I would ride on the back of the tractor, just ahead and above the drive tires on the tractor, and Dad would spot trailers.  I would do the unhooking and swapping out air lines, sparing him the necessity of setting the brakes on the tractor and physically getting out to attach/detach air lines and release the trailer.  Really sped up the day for him.  One hell of an OSHA violation, but fun as hell!

Dart used unique landing gear systems on their trailers.  They were neither pneumatic or hydraulic.  They were mechanical.  The systems were weird to look at but VERY efficient on time management.  Fast times in hooking up to trailers and dropping them, as there was just a lever at the front of the trailer to be pulled out and the landing gear would drop automatically when the tractor pulled away from the trailer.  No need to drop to the ground and start hand-cranking the landing gear.  One of the coolest systems to I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.  I’ve been scouring the Internet for images of those trailers, but keep coming up dry.  One of these days I’ll dig into my own historical photos and post some.

Back to this story at hand.  Up until this point, my experience was pretty much riding as a yard hostler on the back of a tractor and a few trips where I just rode along with Dad for company.  I remember how he used to drive down the road reading paperback novels.  Sounds dangerous as hell, but I actually learned how to do it safely myself later in life, but that’s another story altogether.

Dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to Yuma one day.  I’d never been there and thought it might be interesting to see.  While Yuma is not necessarily a ‘destination’ location, it was some time on the road.  I was still young and the idea of riding in a Peterbilt was still exciting to me.  I accepted the offer and just found myself watching the Arizona desert roll by on Interstate 8.  Dad pulled over to the side of the road and got out to take a leak.  I did the same.  Traffic was incredibly light, as it was a holiday.  I relieved myself and went to get back in the truck, but my father was sitting in the passenger seat.  I waited patiently for him to climb back down out of the cabover Pete, but he just looked at me and asked why I was waiting?  I didn’t understand.  He then pointed for me to climb up in the driver’s seat.  I was a little confused, but did as I was instructed.  That’s when I met the Roadranger…

Eaton 13-speed Roadranger Transmission Shifter with Splitter

The Roadranger is a 13-speed transmission that is one of the single coolest inventions known to man.  It’s also hard to master.  But once you get it down, it is just sweet to shift with and in handling steep hills.  I came to love a Roadranger.  But not on that day.  Nope, on that day, I hated that evil bitch.  I was fifteen years old.  Didn’t even have a learner’s permit yet and my father was getting ready to allow me to pilot 65 feet of tractor and two trailers.  The closest thing to a clutch that I had driven before that was an old Volkswagen bus that Dad had lying around.  And literally never drove it more than a few hundred feet.  We didn’t live in a rural area where you could get away with that, therefore my practical experience was nil.

Interstate 8, however, seemed like a safe haven for my old man.  He walked me through how to pretty much stand on the clutch pedal to depress it.  The clutch on a ’73 Peterbilt was monstrous pressure.  He had to explain to me about maxi valves and trailer brakes and rpm’s and tachometers and mirrors and engine heat and oil pressure and air tanks and… 

Well, you get the picture.  So I find myself grinding the living shit out of gears while trying to catch the right rhythm in shifting and failing miserably at it.  By some miracle from Dear Sweet Baby Jesus above, I was able to get up to highway speeds.  Figured maybe I could relax at that point, but that was not to be.  Now I was getting grilled on the actual operation of a vehicle and how you had to be constantly alert for anything.

About the time I was just getting comfortable with keeping the speed relatively stable, Dad starting hammering me with questions about water temperature, oil pressure, tachometer reading, how many vehicles were in my mirrors, and on and on and on.  I was continually being bombarded by my father for updates on all of these things and reprimanded if I took that opportunity to actually look at any of the given indicators such as gauges or mirrors.  I was informed that I should already have that information at the ready; that I was required to constantly monitor everything on a routine basis.  It was unnerving how he could constantly question me about the one thing I couldn’t answer.  Every time.  It was amazing how I would be prepared to answer everything except what he chose to ask.  I never saw him watching me, either.  Uncanny.

That’s when I first realized that Dad didn’t drive a truck, rather he operated a very sophisticated and potentially dangerous piece of equipment that required constant attention.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is woefully ignorant of physics and the incredible damage that may result from a collision with a forty-ton vehicle and a sedan or a school bus.  The responsibility was not to aim the vehicle but rather to control it.

(A deadly encounter between large and small vehicles, something all truck drivers (and motorists) should be concerned with…)

I continued to drive for a bit and then Dad told me to pull off to the shoulder of the highway.  I did as instructed and was incredibly relieved to be able to coast to a stop and pull that maxi-valve to set the brakes.  Dad smiled at me and informed me that, “Congratulations, you’ve just driven a hundred miles.  How does it feel?”  I immediately got out of the truck, took a leak on the side of the road, and relinquished control back to him.

In hindsight, it was very exciting to have done just that.  The thrill of something unexpected like that and the fact it was highly illegal didn’t hurt.  My father took a huge risk, but as I was to later learn in life, taking risks was actually something Pops was quite good at.

As I continue with these blog posts, it may be a memory or musings about life in general, or it could be some kind of commentary on a recent event.  The cool thing about owning your own blog is that no one controls your thoughts.  You know, like Obama and the liberals keep trying to do…

See what I did there?

August 2018