Thursday, July 28, 2011

Of Cubs, Killers, and trucks

I write this post from the Markham, IL public library, which is just up the street from the trucking terminal I'm at today, near 167th St. and Kedzie. Now I know what it feels like to be a minority, a momentary sense of self-consciousness, but that's about it.

WUZZAT SPEL?: I just finished writing a letter to my mother, and I wonder, "Who writes letters anymore?" I'm glad Mom and I have an exchange of letters. I like their permanence and that, while writing them, you can devote all of your attention to the task. Whereas online one is distracted by so many other things. Also, handwriting is tactile. I wrote three pages and my wrist hurt. Yes, typing is tactile too, but not nearly as labor-intensive. It makes me sad to think that cursive is on its way out and may no longer being taught in public schools. I noticed this trend when I taught in Elgin. When I wrote in cursive on the board, many students couldn't understand it, so I had to resort to printing everything.

DO RE ME: Speaking of Elgin High School, a right fielder for the woeful Chicago Cubs, Kosuke Fukudome, was dealt to the Cleveland Indians this morning for two minor league prospects. While I was a teacher at this equally woeful high school, it made national news when an uber-Nazi hall monitor made a student remove her Fukudome jersey. The incident made national news headlines and the back pages of Sports Illustrated. He sure "did" the Cubs. While he was not a horrible player, he never really earned the high salary he was paid. Good riddance.

GRISLY COLD CASE: My son's hometown has been in the national news lately. In 1957, a 7-year-old girl was abducted from Sycamore and her body found the next April in Jo Daviess County. A suspect in the case, John Tessier (now Jack Daniel McCullough), had an alibi, that he was on a train from Rockford to Chicago for an Army physical. But in 2008 one of his former girlfriends found an unused train ticket from the date Ridulph was abducted, and turned it over to authorities. In 1983, McCullough was fired from a police department for allegedly sexually assaulting a teenage girl. He was arrested a month ago and extradited this week back to Sycamore. Ridulph's body was exhumed from Elmwood Cemetery to gather DNA evidence. There are many odd and grisly twists in this story, and it hits so close to home. Ridulph was abducted just a couple blocks away from where my son and his mother used to live, and her body was exhumed from a cemetery where we have gone on countless walks.

TRUCKIN' UPDATE: I try to post daily updates from the road on Twitter, and use the hashtag #cdlnewbie to mark those posts.

So far, everything is going well. I feel confident about all aspects of the job, except for backing up. I've driven in Chicago rush hour traffic, had a crop duster fly low right over me, seen lightning hit a street sign, so close I saw sparks fly from the impact, and been as far east as Zanesville, Ohio.

My trainer, Tolly, is from Texas, and we're getting along great. He's very patient and easygoing, plus he's really good at what he does. He said he wonders why us northerners don't speak proper English. "None of y'all say 'y'all' or 'fixin'." I'm learning a wealth of trucking wisdom from this 18-year veteran of the industry. So far, I've driven 42 hours. When I reach 75 hours, we can drive as a team and hope to get a long haul or two out west so I can get some mountain experience before I go solo. Going downhill with 65,000-plus pounds pushing on you can be a little tricky. Book knowledge is one okay, but you've really got to experience to know what it's like and how to handle it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

State of transition

Here I am, at another public library in a strange town, Tinley Park, IL, where folks don't seem to believe in sidewalks. The library is about a mile walk from the hotel I've been staying at the past three days. I sought out the library because I seek something familiar and rooted to the routine of the life I left behind.

I often seek out libraries when I travel, maybe for the familiar connection to a public institution I hold dear. This time of transition is tough enough. I'm tired of waiting and want to be doing, to be driving, putting miles under my wheels and getting to work.

I was officially hired yesterday and got my fuel card, employee handbook, training manual, and a slew of paperwork. Today I called a training coordinator, who is trying to find a driver to train me for the next 3-4 weeks. I called at 8 a.m., and again at 10:30 a.m., at my orientation coordinator's insistence. The training coordinator called me at 1:15 p.m. and asked whether I wanted to be with a smoker or non-smoker. She said smoking drivers tend to smoke two packs a day, but, yes, it would be more of a challenge to find a non-smoking trainer. Call me a wussy, but I don't want to train with a chain smoker. She told me to call back at 4 p.m. I did, but once again got an answering machine. At 5, I got another hotel voucher and took the shuttle back. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slow, especially when the extra challenge of finding a non-smoking trainer presents itself.

Hanging out at the terminal has given me the chance to observe truckers. I'm already sick of trucker talk: loads, routes, the weather, food, trucks, other drivers, dispatchers, field managers, etc. A simple pattern develops, which is not surprising amongst strangers. Safe topics are referred to often. Also, most of the drivers are smokers and overweight. The profession is unhealthy enough, with its inherent dangers and exposure to diesel fumes. I guess truck drivers get bored and need to do something to occupy themselves. So they eat and smoke. In the lack of other vices, this other gluttony holds sway. Sure, there are fit, non-smoking drivers, but they are the exception.

I'm sick of this state of transition, this limbo. I was elated at the surety of my hiring. It is the first well-paying job I've had in two years, and promises to be the highest paying job I've ever had. I've been able to occupy my time reading, watching TV, surfing the Internet on my phone (and getting eyestrain headaches as a result), and taking evening walks, but... LET'S GET THE SHOW ON THE ROAD. I know this job requires patience and an unhurried attitude will save my life, but, come on, I've been at this over a week now, not counting the weekend I went home.

I hope tomorrow is the day I get with a trainer and get on the road, but I must go into it with no expectation or else I will be sorely disappointed if it doesn't happen. This state of transition is fleeting, but I upended a good life, a life full and complete, with its own rhythms and habits, and shoot, I guess I'm showing my age in missing the regularity and patterns of that life and wishing to establish a pattern and regularity in this new life.

I remember once, younger, when I thought a life of habit was a rote existence, the life of a robot, and I shunned pattern and regularity. In some ways this viewpoint has guided my choices of professions. No two work days are the same for a journalist, teacher, or truck driver. I don't know how people do jobs that follow a regular pattern. The cubicle rat paper pushers of the world, the same bureaucrats slowing my progress, I just don't know how they do it. But I can now relate to the comfort and security they must feel going to their jobs knowing full well the duties before them. It's not too different, I guess, from the same sense of comfort I got in the daily routines of my old life.

The things I love and miss from the old life will be replaced by new familiarities, as the routes I travel leave signposts in my brain that conjur memories of other passings. So many places in this great country already do that. I will no doubt shed a tear of recognition when I see the Appalachians again or enjoy a sunset over pointy northwoods pines. These evoke other patterns, other lives, that I left behind at some point to embrace a new existence. Transitions don't erase the old life. It's kind of like an etch a sketch. You scratch a pattern and even though you shake it blank again, a ghost pattern remains of the past etching and all other etchings before that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Truck driver orientation

I made it through orientation with the trucking company that wants to hire me, but have not been officially hired because they still need some more paperwork, in particular my W-2s to confirm I worked for an employer they cannot get ahold of over the phone. I do not want to reveal my future employer's name on the Internet because I'm sure there's some kind of company policy against that, but it is one of the largest trucking companies in the United States.

So far, I am impressed with the company, it's policies, the trucks, the routes, and notice that most of the truckers who came into the terminal seemed happy. I hung out at the terminal most of the afternoon Friday after orientation ended. It is like any way station, a constant flow of human traffic, baggage left near the wall, conversations creating a din in the open atmosphere. A television blares rap videos from BET, two truckers laugh over some crazy warehouse guy at a shipping location, a skinny guy all covered in tattoos comes in and scans documents to finish off his trip. I read a Louis L'Amour book, waiting for a ride to a Metra station so I could ride two trains and get home to my family for the weekend.

The first day of orientation was the busiest. They shuttled us off to a clinic for a physical and drug test. Blood pressure, vision, hearing checked, ears, nose, throat, and testicles examined, and I had to crouch and then stand up. Later, back at the terminal, I had to carry a box weighing 70 pounds the length of a truck and back three times, each time having my heart rate checked. I had to do a tug and push test, step on and off a ladder, and walk like like a duck under a piece of string. These tests are to prove you can do everything necessary to get in and out of a truck, unload it, and be able to check underneath it.

After that was a road test. One challenge was hooking up to a trailer. It's not complicated, but I only did it three times in my training. And the trailer I hooked onto was recessed between two other trailers. But I did fine and had no problems. Another challenge was doing a 45-degree backup into a dock. I had to do a similar backup as part of my CDL yard test, and for this one I only needed three pullups to straighten out my angle. The company tester also walked me through a pre-trip to ensure I knew what to do. I passed with flying colors.

The next couple days of orientation were not nearly as active. The second day we watched videos about company policies and safety regulations, health insurance, lease options, pay scales, etc. And the third day we learned how to use the onboard computer on the truck and do electronic logging. Federal law requires all interstate truck drivers to keep a record of their activities behind the wheel. Drivers are only allowed 14 hours on duty each day and 11 hours behind the wheel, with a couple rare exceptions. The company I will work for does all of this logging electronically, which makes it really easy to do and also means the company won't ever ask me to break the law and fudge my log books, as some more unscrupulous employers will do to expedite a load.

The guy who trained us on e-logs moved quickly through the training and then chatted with us for about 90 minutes about trucking in general. Truckers sure love to tell stories. But I learned some valuable tips about eating on the road, not trusting GPS navigation systems, and keeping good records of your logs and paperwork. Truckers tend to seem like simpleton good ol' boys, and for the most part they are, but they also have to keep a lot of paperwork straight and make decisions that could cost thousands of dollars and save lives. It's not a job to be taken lightly. Every day truckers die out on the road.

Tomorrow I go back to the terminal. I most likely will wait around for a trainer to be available. If they don't find one tomorrow I'll probably get another night's stay at a La Quinta hotel, which is a lot nicer than my normal travel accomodations (a tent). Once with a trainer, I'll have 150 hours on the road experience, including 10 hours of backing up, before I'm given my own truck.

When I got home Friday night, my old drum corps buddy Andy called, happy he made it through training and he has his own truck. He said it's got half a million miles on it, but he's solo and that's all that matters. I won't be making any real money until I go solo, but the dream of full employment inches ever closer to reality.

Keep on truckin'.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On the Road Again

I leave tomorrow for orientation with a major trucking company. Once I pass a series of tests (physical, driving test, background check, drug screen, etc.), I will go on the road for three weeks with a trainer. And once training is finished, I will be given my own company truck.

This entire process began months ago, as I faced the dreaded prospect of a very poor job market for public school teachers. I mulled getting a job as an adjunct professor at a community college, but that is often part-time work with no benefits. In January, I drove my parents to Houston to see my sister's family. I enjoyed driving so much that truck driving became a feasible idea to me. It took awhile, though, to give up on the dream of being a teacher. I sank $40K in student loans and three years of my life to earn my master's degree. And while my first teaching assignment was at times a horrible experience, I persevered and did a good enough job that I still wanted to do it. And still do.

But I have to face reality. Nearly two years of unemployment have sapped my finances to the breaking point. While I have not dug deeper in debt, I am constantly living paycheck to paycheck, frequently, in the past few months, down to my last dime. Call me crazy, but I've found it exhilarating at times to be so destitute. Because it is then that I am reminded of a lesson I've learned from years of backpacking: All this stuff, all this worry about money and prestige and place is for naught. I've been down to nothing, and been there with a smile on my face.

Why? Because I have a woman and son, parents and siblings, and friends who love and care for me. I am healthy, sane, intelligent and willful. I have never known hunger. I've never been desperate. Desperation is a state of mind. This is the United States of America, not Uganda. There is a safety net of social services available to the downtrodden. I laugh at those who fret over their stock portfolios or worry that they're IRA is not up to where it should be for their age. Financial security is false security. All the planning and forethought in the world isn't going to save the average middle class citizen in the face of a long-term disability or major catastrophe. Crickets and ants are all in the same boat.

But this doesn't mean I condone foolishness or dependence on the system. Rather, I believe in putting my best foot forward, planning for emergencies as best I can, and doing everything and anything I can to get by and provide for my family. But I'm not going to sacrifice 1/3 of my life in a career I hate just so I can collect enough tokens to be called a "winner" in the false game of acquisition. That's not how I'm wired. But I am gun shy after this most recent destitution. I will never quit a job without another one lined up. No thru hikes are planned for the near future.

Back in May I stayed at my brother's place in Chicago. He's done well for himself as an architect and owns three properties, including an apartment in Paris. But for all of his success and wealth, he has very few possessions to show for it. He shares an apartment with a roommate, drives a used car, owns very little furniture, has no stereo system or nice bicycle. But he's seen a lot more of the world than I have. We both have the same wanderlust. We don't shun possessions as an act of discipline. The American Dream is just not something we've pursued. We don't want things. Things get old quick. They break down. Memories last forever. Experience trumps acquisition every time.

So, yeah, I leave tomorrow for another adventure. And I hope this leads to steady employment, interesting experiences, financial stability, and a rebuilding of my portfolio. I still have dreams of being a teacher, writing a novel and screenplay, publishing a chapbook of poetry, hiking the Continental Divide Trail, going on tour and performing with a band. All in good time. Right now it's time to work.

Keep on Truckin'!