Semi-truck Sights, Events and Gut-wrenching Fear

I pulled out of Pittsburgh rolling down the Eastern seaboard

I’ve got my diesel wound up and she’s running like never before

(E. Green, C. Montgomery) (1963 – recorded by Dave Dudley)

An awesome trucking-related song I have really liked for many decades, even before I hopped into the big-rigs and commenced jamming gears, wending my way across the plains and prairies, hills and dales, mighty mountains and the thankfully still-standing bridges allowing one to roll above placid ponds, mighty lakes and swollen rampaging rivers and their rapid rapids, then miles-long estuaries and a variety of impediments to travel. More than the proverbial stick can be shaken at.

One BIG advantage of driving a BIG-rig is the excellent view of views provided by towering above that horde of scurrying bothersome puny four-wheelers.

My truck was a cab-over style placing it about as high aloft as possible unless driving a rare, specialized truck that surely must exist somewhere but I haven’t seen it.

There were and are ample drawbacks to semi driving. Devote too much attention to sightseeing and a slight deviation from the “straight and narrow” could lead to the scenery making an impact much greater than expected, such as ones tire(s) squishing a four-wheeler or your rig hurtling off a bridge, plummeting into the rock-lined gorge below that would act akin to a can opener and resulting in a bruise, perhaps a splitting headache or a splitting of ones body into multiple pieces or other ruiners of one’s day.

It happens. Heck, folks, one doesn’t even have to be distracted by pretty countryside, a billboard displaying a scantily-clad female-type critter kinda’ covered by a bikini telling of the upcoming just-gotta-stop truck stop because our fuel is fine and it’s been quite a spell since our semi-edible food has definitely beyond doubt not resulted in a multi-day gut-wrenching episode of some bacterial invasion of what we will moan is merely the “24-hour flu” but that medicos will say is actually food poisoning but do you really think that bodacious babe on the billboard would really do that to you?…

Or, perhaps that foxy “seat cover” in that convertible that just passed on your left is the distraction.

You are likely one of those scurrying four-wheelers. A “seat cover” is CB radio slang for an attractive gal in a vehicle that a trucker can look down upon, obtaining, usually, a much better and revealing view than seen by the typical four-wheeler.

“Greasy Kid Stuff?  Come back. Check out the seat cover comin’ up on yah’, that brown LTD. Gotcha’.”  Holy tarnation’ shucks, Ridge Runner, that’s a mighty purdy’ little critter, you betcha’”

I never have declared that truckers were the most gifted speakers of the “King’s English” but considering the circumstances and location we achieved the desired results; getting the message conveyed. You betcha’.

Driving in Portland, Oregon one extremely foggy morning it was well before rush hour and traffic was extremely light. Headed for US 30 where I would continue westward I was not intimately familiar with that route.

If you, dear reader, take the time and contemplate, there IS a lot of routes across the USA! With time and enough passages those routes with especially hazardous aspects are noticed and recalled for future reference.

I still recall a particularly “rough” route in Houston, Texas. Not the exact location due to the many decades that have passed but it was in the “old” downtown area where a small section of light-industrial firms resided. At an intersection a couple blocks away from the warehouse I was to drop off my load of goodies resided a large aluminum pole whose crossbar sprouted a traffic light that reached out and glowed mightily hoping the scampering 4-wheelers would notice it and shine with delight if those who even noticed said light would follow the instructions the alternating colored lights conveyed.

Houston traffic was notoriously deplorable and likely still is. Unfortunately, that trip I was unable to do my usual; arrive early before rush “hour” and wait near the destination for the firm to open.

Stuck in the Middle with You” by Steeler’s Wheel, could have been written about my exploit that day except it was 1979 vice the song’s 1973 creep up the USA playlist.

Surrounded by a horde of vehicles and narrow streets with narrow lanes I was at a traffic light regulated corner where I had to turn right.

No place to keep going, back-track and approach the intersection from a different angle (it would take too long explaining the many work-arounds that can be used to bypass the difficult situation I was immersed in. They are usually available but not this time and place).

Cars to the left of me. A big aluminum pole to the right of me. Immersed, surrounded, drowning in a sea of vehicles and that vertical obstruction.

No Coast Guard to rescue me. Sniff.

Of course, despite every attempt, nobody was giving this Old Coot a break. No nudging to the left to “ask” for left lane cars to hold back for a few minutes to allow my rig to swing even a minute amount to the left, perhaps allowing just enough right-side clearance to avoid hitting that aluminum pole. Those attempts were not only ignored but resulted in blaring horns, vile shouted out comments, various gestures that conveyed a message most succinctly.

Hmmmm. What to do?

As far as I could see in every direction; both behind and in front of me, was a river of cars.

Sitting there, stuck while listening to a local AM radio with frequent traffic reports, my rig and I sat immobile, waiting for the inevitable radio mention; “traffic at so-and-so has a lengthy back-up due to some likely blithering idiot unable or unwilling to get that dern’ semi in motion. Probably some stupid Yankee down here causing mischief” I could imagine hearing though that likely sentiment would have been tossed out more subtly.

Oh, do I need to mention the immobile vehicles behind me, forced to wait then wait some more then a little longer trying to merge into the left lane of the two-lane per direction road. Horns constantly blaring and the already mention personal communications especially vile from those folks.

“Why me?” I uttered. My mental state was not such that I answered that rhetorical question. Not yet, anyway. Anticipating being forced to wait for rush hour’s end I knew that ‘rush hour’ did not apply to Houston; rush two or three hours was more apt, especially in that part of town. I was personally succeeding in creating a possible “rush six hours.”

Of course, eventually, law enforcement would appear to take “the damn Yankee” by the hand, stop traffic and get me moving. I could only guess at the fine that would accompany the ticket.

Surely the many applicable charges would pile up and there was a multitude of possible infractions limited only by the cop’s lack of memory.

Failure to do this and that. Actually doing these things. Ignoring a few other things and the number of possible charges accumulated quickly as I tried to ignore my fellow citizen’s staring, glaring, shouting; not a friendly voice in the mob.

Eeeek!!! Would they become a mob? Visions of my battered body dangling below the pole’s ‘arm’ in the middle of the intersection as the locals scampered joyfully below though not actually probable—wait; the frequently seen official signs alongside various highways and byways declared; “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

Gulp, sniff.

The proverbial creek minus the proverbial paddle was my situation.

“Okay, old-timer, we get the point. So what happened? Did you survive?”

Sniff, gulp, sigh………  yeah, I did.

“How did it end?”

Dad, rest his frugal soul, used many sayings with the one I heard most while motoring being “Lead follow or get the ‘shuck’ outta’ the way.”

With no sight or indication of the “cavalry” arriving to save me a decision was made. Again, for no particular reason, a favorite song from that general era (Baby Boom years) describes my mentality, thoughts and events; “We Gotta Get out of This Place” by The Animals.

Throwing my rig into gear I awaited the now intimately familiar traffic light to pronounce “Go” and off I “go’ed.”

Slowly inching forward as the much lighter traffic on the two-lane street I was moving onto saw me coming they looked on, horror etched upon their faces. I stopped just short of impact. When their light turned green their anticipated high-speed evacuation allowed me to “foot” vice inch-forward, occupying their space before the cars behind them could pull forward and occupy it.

Ah hah!!!!  So far, my plan was working!

My trailer would not off-track as severely (punch this into Google for a definition: off-track semi-trailer, the definition assists in explaining this entire tale) by using that “wrong” lane, a commonly seen ‘large car’ maneuver.

Back to inching forward I noted the increase of yelling, shouting and sundry communications from the local human herd. “STOP!!!”  An even larger mass of humanity erupted from their cars, some rushing up to my cab. I knew what they were attempting to bring to my attention but it was not the time for talk.

I watched the trailer’s rear wheels leap the curb as the trailer gently kissed that pole.

A tender kiss followed by a grope, the side-rail of the box-type trailer impacting then “climbing the pole.”

The crowd grew so I waved and mouthed my thanks, smiling at them in appreciation of their concern so lacking before. Returning my gaze to the pole I was surprised how sturdy it was. They plant them well ‘round these parts I thought as the “lift” elevated the trailer’s eight wheels at the right/rear.

As the turn continued the trailer continued its climb. I knew the turn would begin straightening out shortly thus no possibility of the trailer being forced so far aloft it would flip onto its side.

Even IF that was possible here, the pole’s reaction to the intrusion began—and that was what I had feared.

With a groan of agony, the pole began to slowly topple then with increasing speed it sought relief upon the lawn behind it.

Now I sniffed and sighed for the pole. In a perverse manner we had become “friends” for awhile.

The onlookers altered their communications. The prior negativity returned. Being the kind-hearted fellah’ I am I waved and smiled briefly and continued on my way.

Perhaps the pole was saying “Good-bye” as its light continued to glow but blinking red instead of its prior conversing with cars via red/yellow/green.

“Good-bye, pole” I thought as I accelerated towards the warehouse a couple blocks away; the masses of four-wheelers behind me still honking their displeasure, fading shouts of dire warnings and other declarations of the horrible fate awaiting me.

The adage “You can’t please all the people all the time,” was never more appropriate. I had thought the masses would be partially pleased I was willing to end the stand-off causing the incredible fuss and severe slowdown of folk’s forward momentum.

“Okay you destroyer of infrastructure, so how did this sordid story end?”

Glad you asked!!!

Though a little late the dock supervisor didn’t penalize me as they can and do by making me wait to unload. As soon as another truck emptied and left he allowed me to back in; making the on-time truck to wait for me (around 45-minutes to pull all the freight off).

I had decided early-on to call the authorities and self-report the event. I knew there was no “hiding,” only a multitude of onlookers had stopped with even more on the opposite of the road (the south-bound bunch) seeing the event as they slowed but didn’t stop. Note this was prior to the cell phone era. In-car phones were very rare due to their high cost. The vast majority of drivers relied upon the then common public phones.

Grabbing the telephone and phone book I called every local governmental agency, starting with what I believed to be the group that would be most concerned with the event. Of course, unlike this written description of events, I was able to greatly condense the info-amount and the time needed to convey the info into a much-reduced communication. Hallelujah and hosanna!!!

Not exact quotes since there is no way I could remember such details, obviously, but I DO recall the results of those phone calls and that is what I offer:

  1. Police:  Anybody hurt? No? We don’t care. Try this department. I am the one responsible, you want my info? No. (mentioned to all with the same response!)
  2. Public Works: We’ll get a repair crew out.
  3. City Hall: Thank you
  4. Engineering: Not us
  5. Mayor’s Office: Okay
  6. Administration: Hmmmmmmm
  7. Maintenance: Well, get outta’ there. I did, I’m unloading a couple blocks away. Well, when done get outta’ there. The taxpayer will pay it. Okay.

Having attempted to cover my butt I retuned to the unloading, completed that process and got outta’ there.

I took a left leaving to avoid the “crime scene” and accessed the freeway and waved goodbye to Houston.

“Okay, so what happened in Portland?!!!”

Yeah, that.

In the fog-shrouded atmosphere a warning sign with 45 mph and an arrow indicating a sharp left-hand curve abruptly hove into view.

In a fraction of a second even at my reduced due-to-the-severe-fog speed I entered the more-than-sharp curve.

The elevated road’s concrete and steel side guard never intended to protect a semi-truck was in front of me.

Accckkkkkk!

I turned the steering wheel more, to an extent the possibility of causing a roll-over was felt within my body. Gulp..

With fear spreading and heart racing the truck started its new path. I could see the side barrier but nothing beyond. Expecting a roll-over or impacting that barrier and catapulting into the unknown beyond “out there” somewhere below, I more than clenched that steering wheel.

The turn, though tight, continued to draw me closer to that side-rail but I did not dare increase the turn radius; I could feel the truck was barely holding the road as it was.

As suddenly as the turn had started it began to reduce then straighten. Relief flooded me as I straightened to follow the reduced curvature.

That was, I recall, the single most fearsome event while driving during my trucking career.

How does a writer adequately describe and convey a subjective feeling. It is difficult. Trust me that event made a “new” man out of me.

Foggy? Time to crawl but yet, too slow and the danger comes from those who drive too fast for conditions. Observe that for yourself. “Why are these idiots driving way to fast for conditions,” a minority of the careful drivers will self-declare. And how right they are.

Anyway, take care folks. It’s a rough driving world out there.

Before I depart… I never did hear of my plight via that radio station. Perhaps one of my telephone calls should have been to that radio station insisting my past plight receive the attention it deserved.

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