Russ Ringsak

Fire and Ice

April 4, 2011

So here I sit in the Newark airport, five hours early for a plane already an hour late, reminding me how much easier it is to drive than fly.

I'm thinking I can go into any truckport in the nation and take aboard 200 gallons of flammables (now worth nearly 800 bucks, up 300 from two years ago) and never have to take my boots off, my belt off, show a pass, never have my bones photo'd, pockets emptied, luggage examined. If there's a line it's usually only a couple of other drivers asking for a pump to be turned on. A quick cardswipe and done.

Not saying there should be no hassle to get on a plane. I'm just grateful that for all the hassles of driving a truck it could get a lot worse. It's a good bet that it will get worse. A professor at the U of Minnesota at Morris has made a study of truckers and found the rate of drivers quitting the trade spikes to 60% at the end of the first year. These are young men and women who sign up with a company for a year and leave after the loan for the training course is paid off.

Some quit from the road lonelies, some from being misled, some from finding it's not as easy as it looks and the pay isn't what they expected. And another large many quit from the hassles; forms, electronic logbooks, more forms, nitpicking cops, weigh stations. (I know of case where a driver at a weigh station in the frozen north had to chip a ton of ice from under his trailer; this in spite of the fact that a winter highway can support more weight than a springtime one. And the illegal weight was technically the property of the state anyway; it was their road ice under there. Harassment, pure and simple. Endlessly applied.)

And here's a recent example of it from this very morning: we always load curbside into Town Hall on West 43rd Street. The Big Apple is pretty much devoid of alleyways so the streets are the Apple's alleys. I am there before 7:00, over an hour ahead of time, and snuggled in next to the sidewalk. You unload at the curb to avoid having to double park. A big old garbage truck sits in front of me and a soda pop truck moves in behind. We are as out of the way as we can get.

And as usual we get a ticket for it. They come by every trip, never to say welcome to our fine city and thank you for keeping our economy dynamic by bringing in shows for our union workers to unload and for our upper classes and our bazillion tourists to enjoy but rather to say our armed agents are here again to steal your money and don't go thinking you can talk us out of it because you can't, sweetie.

And I know how sophomoric and naïve that sounds, and don't get me wrong. Whatever hassle New York offers, it's always worth it. But that's the way truckers think. And that's also why it's still easier than flying. It's slower, but you don't have to take your boots off.

~ ~ ~ ~

A real digression there. We return now to the February miracle at Morris, Minnesota, where we had Rhonda Vincent's terrific country band onstage along with two choirs and a real favorite, Jearlyn Steele. What the crowd didn't know was that the taillights and markers had gone out again on our trailer, lights that were working when we got to town and which had been fixed four times by expert mechanics in the last two months.

After we loaded that night we limped eastward on the 4-way flashers, with our stage manager following, to the BP Truckstop at Sauk Center, where highway 28 meets the Interstate. It was well after ten and the two mechanics there only worked until 11:00. They said they'd give it a try.

The trailer carries a heavy steel belly box, 17 feet long and 10 inches high, slung underneath it to hold loading ramps. They traced the problem to a wiring junction in the gap between the trailer floor and the top of the steel box and asked if they could drop it down. The thing weighs over a thousand pounds. The only alternate was to cut a hole in the top to get at the junction. Do that, said I, picturing the jacks and the time it would take to lower it and then weld it back up there.

What makes this a story is that one of them squeezed his entire self all the way into that shallow box and, lying on his back, bonetight, with an air powered hand grinder, cut a six-inch square in the heavy steel overhead. Fire and brimstone showered out as if he was cutting a window into hell itself.

He emerged a burnt and dragged-out gladiator, smiling, victorious. For the fireworks show and the rewiring and the whole two hours of work, solving what the big trailer shops couldn't, they charged us $150. I was incredulous. I tipped them 30 bucks and still felt like a cheapskate.

Fire and Brimstone

Fire and Brimstone
Fire and Brimstone

~ ~ ~ ~

A considerable blizzard followed the next day and on Monday I needed to leave for San Diego: started with the snowthrower and cleared the whole long driveway, dug our truck free, drove to behind the shopping mall where I left the trailer. A professional snowplow had piled a nice berm all around it, perhaps sending me a message to not go there again. I anticipated that and brought a shovel and dug it free. Hank's fifth wheel was frozen and wouldn't grab the trailer pin. I cleared that with a hammer and lever bar, backed into the trailer hard and it took; another small victory for brute force and ignorance. I had started my departure first thing in the morning and didn't get on the road until 3:30 that afternoon.

And then we went slipping and sliding through a wicked 200 miles into middle Iowa. By the time the ice ended on the freeway I had counted 21 cars and three straight trucks in the ditches. But not a single semi. The CB radio was mostly a long tense afternoon silence broken by brief expressions of fear and caution:

"Pretty slick patch right there at that overpass,"
"Purty slick patch the whole damn state ef ya ast me."
"You got that right driver."

Hank the Truck broke traction a few times, that unsettling little sideways slip that brings the quick adrenalin dump and causes the right foot to lift so suddenly off the accelerator you feel it after it happens. Cruise control isn't quick enough on ice. Raw fear is quicker. You need raw fear on ice.

~ ~ ~ ~

With the tough winter this year I just went straight south on Interstate 35, took a right in Texas and did the westerly 4-lane cruise through Abilene, El Paso, Lordsburg, Tucson, Yuma and on into San Diego. Thought I'd miss more snow that way.

The long dramatic drive on Interstate 8 across the Arizona desert sets you up for the wet fields and orchards of California's El Centro flats and then launches you into the lower Sierra Nevadas. From Ocotillo to El Cajon it's a 30-mile six percent continuous climb to the summit and an equally steep 30-mile descent to the coast, almost a mile up and back down. All dramatic rock canyons, hard-edged peaks, frozen volcanic forms. Sweaty enough in a modern truck but it must have been a heeby-jeeby nightmare before they had air and engine brakes. And, speaking of the old days, here's the inside of that late 1940s Federal semi from the last post. . . .

1940 Federal Semi

...and here's Hank, fifty five years younger.

~ ~ ~ ~

San Diego is a sweet town; a big city done right. Easier to do that when the climate is agreeable and you have a big old naval base on site, but they get high marks for taking a good situation and not messing it up.

I took advantage of the 2-hour time difference and slept most of Saturday; after the show headed back the way we came in. This still put the truck into the Sierras in the dark and it wasn't long before this crazy winter brought on sleet. Climbing the quickly freezing freeway became much more interesting than I expected and I was soon down in 10th gear, of 13, and then 9th when the snow hit. I set the drive wheels so that all four pairs were engaged, a good switch when you need it, and fought up the hill. There were few trucks out and fewer cars. Many snowflakes in the headlights.

Towards the summit the flakes got heavier and even closer together and nobody was wanting to pass anybody else, and then on the downhill side we were all crawling. We were a fully engaged little 4-truck caravan sweating down that frozen slope, keeping our distance. Another heeby-jeeby nightmare, and it seemed like hours before it leveled off and dried out. And then easing up to road speed felt sweet as dancing with a pretty girl.

The following night I was rolling east in Texas and looking for a motel. I heard on the CB radio about brush fires up ahead and the freeway being shut down. Coming into a small town I saw a dozens of flashing lights on all sorts of emergency vehicles, mostly fire engines. They seemed to be heading out to another spot to the north but had gained enough control that they let you drive through the fire. An odd feeling to drive with actual flames burning on both sides, right up to the pavement. It went on for a while. Ice one night, next night fire. How cool is that.

~ ~ ~ ~

The weather cleared for the northbound leg up to Minnesota. Had a nice little break and then bombed on down to Nashville, taking I-39 around The Windy and I-57 west of the Indy 500; cruised a day early into Music City on I-24, another sweet interstate highway. Friends flew down there and the place never disappoints; if I lived there I might spend less time down on Broadway than I do as the occasional tourist. But that rowdy scene there is like nothing else in this amazing country, and you just gotta love the Ryman Auditorium and how could you not. At least that's how it seems to an old small town North Dakota boy.

Left there Sunday and laid up for three days in a hotel on the Cuyahoga River in eastern Ohio and then drove to Hoboken New Jersey to an excellent hotel on the Hudson River, where included in the amenities is a large parking lot with a roving security service. It's a good base for getting our show into and out of the Town Hall across the river, and it saves us from running back to Minnesota empty for the 4-week stand. Loaded in Friday, parked the truck in Jersey and took a cab to that airport in the first paragraph of this piece.

~ ~ ~ ~

Back now in Minnesota it's still chilly and the water is high and the strange tilt of this planet is going get us into summer sooner or later and I'm pretty sure of that.

©R.Ringsak 2011

russring at visi dot com

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