Wanna Drive? Part 1

Sometimes my friend Peter can’t sleep and, when that happens, he sometimes turns to YouTube for curiosity, and somnolence. He told me about a video he “found” the other night when he was sleepless.

“It was a video with a trucker explaining how to drive an 18-speed transmission as he drove it up the road, and it was cool; he has like 2 million views.” I could tell that he was very excited about this find.

Since I’ve driven these kinds of trucks, I was curious to see how a video like that could get 2 million views.  We found it on my I-Pad and watched it again. Yep, it was a guy explaining how to drive a truck.

It reminded me of my day with Michael.

Billy Geraghty dug the graves at St. Denis Cemetery, where I worked summers during high school. He’d drive his backhoe up Haverford Road from his shop, then turn left, crossing the bridge over the trolley tracks, before climbing the Eagle Hill to the cemetery. His backhoe was an old, yellow Allis Chalmers. It rocked back and forth like it wanted to bounce as he drove it on the road, as all backhoe’s do. Its hydraulic cylinders leaked, leaving a stain of oil wherever it worked. Its deodorant was diesel.

I also worked at the cemetery during the second semester of my college freshman year, because I’d dropped out of school.  Billy’s machine wasn’t always strong enough to break through the frost of winter. Sometimes we laid blankets on the ground for a few days before he came. Other times, we jackhammered through the frost. The jackhammering and working outside in the cold caused me to question my ‘gap-semester’ decision.

Besides digging graves, Billy also had a trucking business. He hauled construction equipment to and from job sites all over the tri-state area. People at the cemetery always talked about how rich Billy was, even though he looked un-rich to me. His wife wears diamonds and fur coats, they’d say. If that was true, it had to have been awkward when he came home all dusty and diesel-y, what with her being so, well, fashionable. I could imagine her not wanting to get too close.  Not exactly a match, I’d thought.  But I’d also heard that opposites attract, so who knows. The guys at the cemetery could have been making that up, too, just to mess with me.  Wouldn’t have been the first time.

I’ve Wanted to Drive a Truck Since I was 4

I wanted to drive a truck like Billy’s. Not drive it, really; just go for a ride. It took me a long time to get up the nerve to ask him. Although he went by Billy, he was in his 50’s at the time and never said much to us cemetery kids. At 18, it made me nervous to think about asking. After several botched attempts, the kind where you’re in the right spot, at the right time, and your mouth quits working.  I finally made the ask.

“You sure you know what you’d be getting into, son?” he asked, trying to talk me out of it. “We start early and end late,” he said. “It’ll be a long day.” No problem. He said, “Ok, be at the yard at 6 a.m.”

I didn’t know what I was getting into.

I don’t think Billy knew either.

I’ve wanted to drive a truck since I was 4.  Besides a pickup truck, the only big truck I’d ever driven was the cemetery’s pale blue International Harvester dump truck. From the front, its cab reminded me of an elephant’s face; the dual, split windshields its eyes, and the sloping hood the beginning of its trunk. I can’t explain why it didn’t have ears, but it still made me think of an elephant. Although it was built in the 70’s, its hood opened like a Model T’s, hinged in the middle on both sides. It had a 5-speed transmission with a 2-speed rear end and a bench seat with enough room for 3, maybe 4 guys. We used it for flowers mostly. We’d toss them into the back of our pickup and then dump them in a pile behind the barn. When the pile got large, we’d load the elephant and drive it to the transfer station.  It always made me sad how much flower money was wasted at funerals.

Autocar is Actually a Truck

Billy’s Autocar was a black non-sleeper. Autocar was a strange name for a truck brand. It seemed contradictory. The lowboy trailer attached to it was a tri-axle, with a frame made of heavy steel that sandwiched a deck of thick wooden boards. The low in the name was for good reason.  There were a few inches of space between the bottom of the trailer and the ground, enough for maybe a softball could roll underneath it.

Michael parked his pickup next to the rig. He drove the Autocar for Billy. He unlocked the cab and started the engine before walking across the street to get a cup of coffee. He hadn’t seen me in my car. I almost chickened out and took off, scared away by something I couldn’t describe. Battling against that instinct, I got out and introduced myself when Michael returned with his coffee.

‘Oh, yeah, you’re the kid from the cemetery Billy told me about,” he said, as he placed the coffee cup in the truck.

“Thanks for letting me go along with you today.”

“No problem, kid.”

Michael opened a toolbox mounted on the trailer and grabbed a small sledgehammer from inside. He walked around the rig, hitting each tire with the sledge. “Gotta make sure the tires aren’t flat,” he informed me as he walked around the truck. He also checked the lights and the turn signals before climbing into the driver’s seat. He moved his coffee just behind the shifter, between the seats, and leaned over to unlock and open the passenger door for me.

“Okay, all set,” he said while depressing the air brake supply knobs and putting the transmission into gear. He lit his first cigarette, then eased the clutch out, and we were on our way. He told me that our first stop would be in Atlantic City, about an hour and a half from Billy’s yard, to pick up a machine.

Although he called me kid, Michael didn’t look to be much older than me, maybe mid-20’s or so, younger than I had pictured he might be. He had an Italian look, darker skin and thick black hair. He was neither tall nor short, he wore a t-shirt that he’d cut the sleeves from so both his arms were exposed from his hands to his shoulders.

Michael was the kind of smoker who didn’t allow for much time between cigarettes. He was able to shake a new one from his pack and light it with the cigarette heating element from the dashboard with one hand. The process was elegant, the by-product of a lot of practice. I watched him closely as he drove.  He played the truck’s transmission like an instrument, back and forth through the H pattern and up and down from the low gears to the high ones. He only used the clutch when the truck was stopped; otherwise, he was able to shift by orchestrating a harmonic balance between his right foot working the gas pedal and his right hand working the shifter.

We crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge to get to New Jersey. By this time, rush hour was in full bloom, and the traffic crawled slowly, but steadily, across the bridge, like a caterpillar making its way across a path. On the Delaware River below, barges and container ships plowed a path through the water or took up parking spots at the port terminal.

“I hate this fu**in’ bridge traffic,” Michael mumbled to himself, like I wasn’t there, like it was another of his habits.

Crossing A Bridge I Wasn’t Expecting

Once we crossed the bridge, I figured we’d have clear sailing to the Jersey Shore. It wasn’t long, though, before Michael pulled the rig over to the side of the road, stopping it just before the entrance to a convenience store.

“Gotta take a piss,” he told me as he set the air brakes, forcing air from the relief valve and causing a puff of dust to ooze from underneath the truck, like smoke from a fire escaping under a door. Today I never miss an opportunity to pee, but back then, I sat and waited. I had a more forgiving bladder. When he returned to the truck, Michael had two more packs of Marlboro’s and a case of beer. I was expecting the cigarettes. But the beer seemed weird.

Michael put the truck into gear, and we were on the road again.  Wasting no time, he opened up the case and popped the top on his first can of the day, at least as far as I knew.  His habit for beer wasn’t all that different from his habit for cigarettes.

“Want one?” he offered.

We arrived in Atlantic City and made our way to the main road that bordered the beach. There’d been a Nor’easter the week before. Parts of the road were still flooded, and the sand from the beach had been washed onto the sidewalks. Michael grabbed a piece of paper on which Billy had written the description of the machine and its location. “There it is,” he told me, pointing at the windshield.

Michael parked the rig on the side of the road. He pulled the airbrake knobs, activated the flashers and engaged the PTO, which is a pump that powered the trailer’s hydraulic system. The machine was a large CAT bucket loader that would have dwarfed Billy’s backhoe, had they been side by side.

Michael and I got out. He put on his work gloves and handed me a pair. The trailer was designed to detach its flat part from the curbed part that was hooked to the tractor. The hydraulic system forced a piston down to the road and lifted the flat part up to make this happen. Michael climbed back into the tractor and pulled it ahead ten yards or so. I flipped down the two steel ramps on each side of the deck because it was obvious that needed to be done. The front of the flat part was on the ground now, making it easy for the machine to be loaded.

Michael started the loader with the key that was under the mat. He told me later that if I ever wanted to steal a piece of construction equipment, the keys were always left in them. The loader roared to life as a puff of black smoke belched from the exhaust stack. He drove it to the gap between the tractor and the trailer and positioned it so that he could back it onto the trailer. Michael maneuvered the Loader with ease and precision because it was built to bend in the center. He positioned it so that the loader’s steel bumper rested near the rise of the deck, where the axles began, and set the loader bucket on the front of the deck. Its knobby tires stuck out over the edges of the trailer deck.

The “Oversize Load” sign on the back of the trailer and the front of the tractor informed that fact to the driving public.

Michael shut down the loader, climbed down the ladder from its cab and jumped down to the ground. He hooked the tractor back to the trailer and raised it up again using the hydraulic piston. I helped him retrieve the heavy, thick steel chains that we’d use to secure the machine to the trailer. “Don’t want this bitch moving on me,” he said. There was a pattern of tie-down points he knew well how to use. He ratcheted binders to tighten the slack from each chain.

With the machine secure, Michael climbed back in the truck, retrieved the four empty beer cans and tossed them in a trash can on the side of the road.

“Dead soldiers,” he called them.

He’d had three. Me, one.

My memory’s betraying me on exactly where we hauled the loader to, but it was a construction rental yard in Central New Jersey. The journey was uneventful. The unloading, flawless. It was at least a three-beer trip for Michael and another for me. Eight dead soldiers, before noon.

From there, we headed south. Michael told me our next stop was in Vorhees, New Jersey. We’d be picking up a track hoe there and hauling it to the CAT dealer in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, near King of Prussia.

Michel continued to float through the gears and navigate the truck like a pro. Although I’d only had two beers to his six, I could feel it – something at least.  An impact. He, on the other hand, seemed to get better as the day went on, as if the beer and cigarettes were performance enhancers or vitamins.

After we grabbed our toll ticket to enter the New Jersey Turnpike, Michael popped and downed another, and then one more.  Not long after, we stopped at a rest stop to take another leak. As we walked back to the truck, Michael stopped and looked at me. I couldn’t see his eyes through the shade of his sunglasses, but he cracked a smile.

“Wanna Drive?” he asked.

To be continued in part 2.

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