The Life of a Commercial Truck Driver I
The story I’m about to tell is truck life in Alabama at its best. Hiring on as a local commercial truck driver was a big commitment. I did not fully realize how much it would cost me, or how long the hours and days would be at this trade.
Coming from a background of driving straight truck and tractor-trailers on icey roads and airports in Alaska, operating heavy equipment, doing snow removal and highway maintenance on the airports and the northern region highways, I migrated towards the “lower forty-eight” in 2006. First stopping in North Dakota, I worked again at an airport. I also trained and functioned as a fire-truck driver/responder doing “ARFF” duties. So, I have had an interesting background to say the least.
Now living in a pulp mill town in lower Alabama where my mother was born and raised, I found myself at the door of a trucking firm that employs up to 180 drivers and runs about 200 trucks, including Mack, International, Volvo, and Freightliners. Since I had worked previously for the government, I did not have any background in keeping logbooks, or any experience of dealing with D.O.T. scales and such. On the CB radio I had to quickly learn what a “brown wrapper”, “full grown” and other colorful terms were for communicating with other drivers. I learned that “driver” is a favorite term used to refer to another driver, if you don’t actually know his “handle”. “Tighten-up” is a term referred to get down the road and get the job done! Another term often used in conversation was how to "ease into it" especially if it is something new, difficult or challenging..
Becoming a local trucker is not so hard to do if that is your employment goal. Income from it can be quite rewarding. in an odd way, you become your own boss. Your being organized and efficient in your driving and paper-work while meeting the challenges of pick-up and delivery dictate your daily income. Simply put, the more runs you complete in a day, the more compensation you will receive. Part of it is also in staying in touch with your dispatcher and working out a suitable schedule. He holds the power to “up” your pay by scheduling you with higher payloads. I’m not saying that is all of it, since the time spent getting in and out of the mills, easing around the docks to deliver containers and keeping your truck maintained all plays a vital part in the final outcome.
Though I already had my CDL and endorsements, I found myself having to take a drug test, view training videos, and complete interactive lessons on driving safety, technique, logbook entries and other vitals of the trucking business. Once I was pretty well along with the prerequisites, I was introduced to a driver/trainer to drive with and make some “runs” with him, to assure that I knew how to get in and out of the truck safely, do a “pre-trip” and then actual driving. This opportunity was invaluable as this training extended into learning how to safely handle the trailers while entering and exiting the mills; and the procedures for ticketing and weighing the loads as well as to prepare the pay sheets that I would turn in to get paid by each week. Also step-by-step entries into the logbook showing all of my duty time, driving time, and off duty time in accord with the Department of Transportation. Finally when I was ready, I was signed off and issued a truck of my own. Whew! I was glad! Though I had driven trucks before, it truly was learning to drive all over again!
Once I started the real driving the camaraderie (and humor) of other drivers was great! When I made my first trips in to the state docks to deliver wood pulp, my fellow drivers coached me on how to navigate the docks and how to “get around”. They helped me figure out how to strap my load, how to handle the tarps, and gave me tips on how to get back for the next load with the least amount of trouble. Little by little I was shaped up into one of the most excellent drivers on the Alabama River roads. One of my favorites is the county road we drove back to the mill on.. very interesting. I thought I was back in Alaska the first few times I drove it. The only difference was that the trees here are pine, instead of spruce, and I did not see the occasional moose you would see in Alaska, though I have seen plenty of deer!
The challenges of a modern truck driver include the increase of traffic on the roadways that have to be considered in your schedule. Let’s say that if you are headed to New Orleans and you arrive there at noon, you will hit approximately one hour of rush hour going in and another hour coming out at 3:30. This has to be added to your day, to your log, and it effects your total time on the road of what time you might end your day and arrive home hopefully to have an hour of “wind down” so you can sleep well that night. Another challenge at the sometimes overcrowded container facility is that many other trucking lines are sending drivers in at the same time you want to unload, and it creates congestion, requiring traffic control and jamming up the entrance scales and exit gates.
You have to be extremely on your toes and it doesn’t pay to miss a lick in minding your p’s and q’s of trucking. One second too late and a train may block your progress, or something not in your control will occur, making you get off schedule. Truckers will be reasonable, but if you dilly-dally they will ride all over you getting past you so they can get their job done. It is important to know that most drivers, but not all drivers will respect you, the law, and regulations you have to follow in getting your job done. It doesn’t pay to take illegal shortcuts in your driving techniques, equipment inspection, and logbook recording. Your mistakes could easily catch up with you. Be safe at all times!
Individual drivers each have their own way to establish their identity. Besides their radio “moniker” they may have their own unique accent and way of saying “10-4” or whatever, so they are easily identified by their buddies when they are on the air. Some drivers will add symbols, logo’s and other decorations to the outside of their trucks, special lights, etc, easily making a truck stand out, although there is less liberty to do this with a company truck. Company drivers are more likely to decorate or furnish the inside of their rig with a flag screen in the rear window, or a bible on a milk crate turned upside down, a collection of CD’s or whatever. They also take pride in their CB radio, and keeping snacks in an igloo chest that they load up with ice each morning, typically starting out at five a.m. to get to the mill and get loaded up for the first run. One driver carefully explained to me that the Dollar General Store was the place to go for affordable goodies for the road. I checked this out and yes, they have small packages of juice, chocolate milk, chips, cookies, Vienna sausages and whatever else you can imagine for your truckers icebox!
Learning how it is really done has to be learned one driver at a time, his own way and by those he runs with. It seems that each driver prides himself in his clean driving record, his years on the road, his stellar performance of never missing a day, or some other trait that you can only imagine. Mine was that I quickly learned to listen to my driver friends, and I became respected for who I am. One time I was in the lead position with three trucks following me while coming up to the mill and not necessarily doing anything spectacular, but after we arrived I heard one driver on the radio saying, “yeah, followed that guy in (my truck) and boy we never had such an interesting drive.” Well, I had to own up that driving in the north around the mountains, I tended to increase my driving intensity (should I say) when I was in the hills, and curves, and could make up for lost time there, even if I did poorly in another area.
I found myself making new friends. Once I was 20 lbs over weight at the scales leaving a Butler county mill with a wood by-product even after going back and dumping off the excess two times already. I began however to get a little humorous about it.. I promised the scale keeper.. "well, I will bag up up a 20 pound bag of firewood.. and hey, give me just a moment to barbecue my lunch with these extra wood chips!" Well, UN-beknownst to me, one of the mill managers was outside the gate house and became amused watching this transpire while he was talking on his cell phone. When he hung up, he came over, and said hey, I am (Dave).. what’s going on? Well I told him I was from Alaska and I was new in the mills and that I was determined there had to be a more efficient way to get rid of twenty pounds so I could weigh out and get on down the road.. .. well, he started to ask me questions about Alaska, and then after chatting a while, he said, “give me your lunch box!” I said huh? He said it again and I obeyed, still confused. But then he said “give me your other gear”, and I gave him my heavy load binder bar, and then he said, “ok you are legal to go,” and I went on my way, but first carefully writing down his name in case I ever needed him again. (yes, I did put the lunch box and gear back in the truck before I left, I’m not that dumb, ha!.)
I tried to learn the names of the people at the dock; the people who would be helping me get unloaded. I learned to recognize the names of the appointment staff, who we didn’t see, but only talked to them through phones as we came in and left. They expressed surprise that someone would actually learn them by name and voice. In contrast though I got to know some of the drivers by name very quickly, some of them I just couldn’t seem to remember. I think it has something to do that I needed to spend time getting to know them before I could remember. As I get older its hard anyway to NOT forget someone after you haven’t seen them for awhile unless my long term memory has been triggered.
One time the license on my overload permit was wrong, and I had to wait two hours at the DOT scales on Interstate 10 in Mississippi for another driver to bring me a corrected permit. During that time I learned much about how that department works, and tips on how to avoid difficulties with them, so sometimes you can turn your mistakes into opportunities. It didn’t help me get home any earlier though and a couple drivers made sarcastic remarks on the CB. (but they know they have made their own mistakes too!)
So this is a rough outline of some of the trucking experiences I have had been able to provide you first-hand. This is written also for Beginner Drivers and I hope if you begin your journey into this trade you will be able to add much, much, more as you ease into it. I wish you the best. I can only say I appreciate those who helped me get a leg up in the commercial trucking business. The statistics say that 150,000 drivers are due to retire in the next 2-3 years and there will be a great need for new truckers entering the trucking industry.
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