October 21, 2005
A few decades ago one of my sisters married an Army helicopter pilot who flew with Kris Kristofferson in Europe and whose family owned a flatland farm west of Grand Forks. Which is why, when people ask me where I was the last two weeks, I can say I was up in North Dakota hauling sugar beets. (Didnít mean to imply she married him because he knew Kris Ė they didnít meet Kris until they got to Germany.)
Anyway, the flatland farm was short on drivers this year. I went up there partly out of feeling it was the right thing to do and partly because they have a gnarly old red Ď79 Peterbilt dump truck that has the presence of Jack Palance and the pulling power of Godzilla, and they needed an experienced hand to persuade the beast to do the right thing and do it at the right time. And, they offered me coin. We hauled three days, got rained out, went back at it three days later.
Itís an intense business, hauling sugar beets out of that thick black earth in the Red River Valley. Multiple variables Ė natural, human, and mechanical Ė ensure that nothing can ever happen to speed things up. A belt breaks, a bearing burns out, an axle cracks, a hydraulic hose bursts. It rains. A driver buries a loaded truck in field mud. It freezes. Yet another train ties up the crossing for yet another twenty minutes. Fog comes in thick as oatmeal. The crews on the nine beet pilers at the sugar factory fall under a sudden spell of incompetence and absenteeism and the vast muddy yard fills shoulder to shoulder with every dang farm truck in the valley, so the smooth processional of big wheels rolling in and out the gates grinds down to a dirge; the unloading that took twelve minutes last trip now takes an hour and a half.
There were five trucks running for the farm, three owned and two leased from outside, and we had ten drivers, including my nephewís wife. We took twelve-hour shifts and the trucks were shut off only at the shift changes at noon and midnight, for refueling and to check the oil. The Pete was an old narrow-cab longnose with the classic round headlights mounted alongside the rectangular radiator grille and a big outboard chrome cylinder air cleaner on the side of the square hood. It had been built as a highway semi tractor and was converted early on to a field truck. They removed the fifth wheel for pulling a trailer, reinforced the frame, added an airlift axle to put four more wheels on the ground, making fourteen, and installed a hydraulic pump and tank for a big aluminum dump box. The gearing was lowered and it also had, ominously, a heavy D ring welded straight onto the beefed-up front bumper. With a full load of beets it weighed ten thousand pounds more than our 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig does, fully loaded with stage gear.
The steering wheel is the old-fashioned slim pale faded bakelite type with the finger indents around the leading edge. The center hub is small with the red Peterbilt logo inset; the wheel itself is a bit larger than the cover of a trash barrel. Itís not car-like: fat and soft and adjustable four ways for your personal comfort like the new ones. Itís way the hell better than that. Itís an uncompromising work of art, truly, and itís a major part of why driving that truck is so much fun. Itís also fun that it doesnít have power windows; the cab is so narrow you can reach across and crank down the passengerís window, and the windshield wipers are the old air-operated type, each with its separate control. They hiss and they run at different speeds, on the two flat glass windshields with the divider down the middle, like cars before WWII had, and you feel like you might be in a vintage movie.
The other things that make it fun is that itís loud as a stonecutting mill in there, with gears howling, turbo whining, engine roaring, tires thrumming; all of it designed before there were ergonomics and soundproofing. Itís rough and stiff and the clutch brake wore out long ago, so itís a battle to get it into gear. Brute force and swearing seems to help. After that itís like dancing with a big-boned woman who is set in her ways, so you keep cool and use a light touch. The game is to employ the clutch as little as possible; never for shifting and rarely at a traffic light. You time the light and try to coast up, snicking it into lower gears with the engine at idle, so that you never have to come to a complete stop. Once you get to the sugar factory and have to sit in line, of course, the spell is broken and you have to set it in neutral again.
You ultimately move up and drive over the folding steel bin, set the brakes, engage the power takeoff to raise the box, wait for the beets to surge down onto the belt, put the lift lever forward to lower the box, disengage the power takeoff, release the brakes, and push the valve to raise the tag axle. You move smartly forward and back in to the side of the piler. And then you get your dirt back.
The beet piler is a very big Rube Golberg assembly of conveyors and belts, unloading two trucks at a time, separating the dirt and sending the crop way up to the top of the pile; the sheds are big as college fieldhouses only twice as long, and wide enough for two semis to make U-turns side by side in there, with thirty feet in between. The whole plant is an exercise in giant construction, everything larger than human scale. Something exciting about that. As soon as the dirt falls into the box you are again in motion, stopping at the scale and then busting through downtown East Grand Forks, across the bridge and through downtown Grand Forks and back out to the beets. The truck is geared so low it howls at 50 and just doesnít want to go 55. Tenth gear doesnít feel that much different from first gear. Barreling down a loose gravel road with the dust rising like a tornado in the mirrors and that old truck screaming and whining like a runaway train; itís almost too much fun to get paid for.
You stop at the field, where a rubber-tracked Caterpillar tractor waits off to side to hook on to you when you get stuck; I only needed it twice. You dump your dirt and fall in behind the truck already there, grinding alongside a tractor-drawn harvester. The beets are lifted from the rows and conveyed up to a crossways belt which drops them into the box. Theyíre heavy and off-brown in color and they have a tails like turnips. The truck veers aside when the load is as high as nature allows and you fall in behind. The first ones hit the floor like a drummer back there and you concentrate on driving the exact line to keep the pile centered; you move forward and back with the hand signals from the guy on the tractor; in this case, your brother-in-law in an eight-wheel 8420 John Deere. If you fall too far back the beets land on your roof, like hail the size of canteloup. You only do that once.
You have a lunch of two sandwiches and miscellaneous other treats, a thermos of coffee and one of water, and you donít get away from the truck for twelve hours. My A.M. counterpart, the guy who took the midnight to noon shift, he stood out among the blue-eyed Nordic types in that part of the country; if you saw him playing pool you might say, ďThat guy there, he looks like he oughta be named Rocky. Heís got sort of that Marciano look, and also that look like heís from the Pennsylvania mountains. He looks like a guy from Scranton.Ē If you said that you would be right on all counts. He was a good guy, eager to learn the fine art of shifting gears in an old truck without using the clutch and without making those dinging noises. I took a round with him and, using my immense powers of finesse, turned him on to the idea of shifting at lower engine speeds, no more than 1500 rpm, and things suddenly became much easier for Rocky from Scranton.
Probably easier for old Pete, too, and that truck has endured a lot in its 25 years on the farm; been driven by a wide variety of man and woman, through winter storms and blazing heat. Hauled a lot of wheat and beans and seeds and beets. It ran nonstop the whole nine days and never missed a beat. (Sorry about that; couldn't help it.) Its drivers continued to miss a shift here and there but if it bothered that old truck it never let on.
Iíll have to admit after the first two days of it I couldnít raise my arms above my shoulders. But after a week I felt great. They could open an Ag Retreat up there, a dude farm, where youíd pay two thousand bucks to go up and haul beets round the clock for ten days and get filthy and exhausted and come back to the city with dirt deep in your ears and under your nails, feeling terrific. Youíd learn something about yourself, whatever the heck thatís supposed to mean. In the process youíd also get a look at the way the agricultural world works these days.
In response to our observations from Hutchinson I got mail from a man in Michiganís Upper Penninsula; plant manager at Klein Tools in Jonesville. He set me straight about underground mines. The deepest tourist attraction in the world, he wrote, is the Quincy Mine at Hancock. Over a mile deep it is, as every school kid in Copper Country well knows. About nine times as deep as the Kansas mine. I wrote back that I buy Klein tools, some I donít even need, nearly every time I see one in a hardware store and that they are one of those things that make me proud to be a citizen of this country. People in general, I believe, should spend the extra money and get the really good stuff, especially when itís made in a place like Jonesville, Michigan. He wrote back that he used to do the same thing and finally just went to work there.
Anyway, Hutchinson still has the deepest salt mine in the western hemisphere, and itís still the only city in the nation with a museum that deep, and Ďcityí is the essential qualifier there. It just depends on what Ďisí is, right?
And pardon me for asking but if anybody out there knows where I can find a steering wheel from one of those old Peterbilts, Iíd sure like to hear about it.