A season (summer) in Hell

Okay, for those of you who were wondering where I’ve been all week (both of you), well, I’ll tell ya. I was on a tour of Hell. Note: This will be one of those non-political essay thingies. Might be dull, I dunno. But what the heck, < egregious damned lie >I gots nothin’ better to do.< /egregious damned lie >

So I jump in that junky old POS truck I drive now and then for money. The plan: deliver a shipment of beautifully-printed pieces of cardboard to a packaging company in Statham, Georgia, near Athens. Zip from there down to Atlanta and pick up something or other coming straight back up to Charlotte and get the hell back up here and out of that freaking truck as quickly as possible. Collect my money and turn it over to whatever bill collection agency is getting the most saucy with their letters and phone calls. This week, that is. Sounds easy, right? And so it should be.

But we’re all familiar with that old saying about the best-laid plans, aren’t we? I know I am. Truck drivers don’t make plans like that, at least not the ones who have been doing it for more than a week. I should’ve known.

So I leave home at about 2 AM Wednesday morning to make the 7 AM delivery deadline I was told, with emphasis, to meet. Plenty of time to make what is usually a 4-hour drive, 4 and a half max. I dawdled a bit, stopping off at a truck stop in Greer, SC for coffee. Ended up at the warehouse/factory just before seven and go to the office to check in. The receiving person looks at my paperwork and says, “Okay, thanks. We’ll unload you at 2 PM.” This is a problem, because I have a pickup to make in Atlanta at 10. I tell the lady this and mention that I was told this stuff had to be delivered by 7 AM. She comes back with the words every driver hears about ten times a week: “Well, I don’t know who told you that, but they’re wrong.” Fine. Call the dispatcher, who becomes upset at the prospect of missing the pickup. The dispatcher calls the receiving person and somehow (I neither know nor care how) arranges to get me unloaded tout de suite. Back into the dock, and sit back to await unloading. And wait. And wait.

2 and a half hours later I’m outta there. For the record, it takes about thirty minutes to unload a 53-foot trailer. I get to the pickup location and find it tucked down a tiny little dirtroad right up against a railroad track. Absolutely no room whatsoever to back into the joint. Get out of the truck, stare around distraughtly, wondering how the hell I’m gonna do this one. There seems to be absolutely no way. I actually kind of like these situations; I’m the kind of person who is always trying to do something that I figure is difficult or impossible, just to see if I can do it. I’ve always known that most of the people I call friends really only like hanging out with me because they’re perpetually waiting to get a good laugh out of whatever ridiculous mess I manage to get myself into next. I calculate the angles, jump back in, and get the thing to the dock. Had to drive the front of the tractor up onto the rail bed to do it, but I did it. The guy on the dock is a pretty jolly old guy, doesn’t seem too concerned about the fact that I’m very late getting there. He loads me up and hands me the paperwork to sign. I glance at it to see the destination, and that’s when I notice he’s handed me two bills of lading instead of one. Two shipments, which means two deliveries. Shit – there goes my nice easy trip back to Charlotte, delivery by five, home by six. One shipment is going to – let’s see – Greenville, SC. Oh, all right then. Just off I-85, I would’ve passed right by the place on the way home anyway. No big deal. Check the second shipment…lessee, it’s consigned to – Richmond. As in Virginia. As in, a good nine-hour drive from where I’m now standing, not including the hour or so I’ll spend in Greenville if all goes well. Shit.

I call the boss and tell him about this Richmond business, hoping he’ll say something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, just bring that up here and park it. I’m delivering that one in the morning.” No dice. Looks like I’m going to Richmond. Hell. But at least it’ll mean more money, which I can certainly always use.

I call the joint in Greenville to get directions and am told that I’ll have to get there by 2:30 – no shipments unloaded after that time. Shit again – it’s already 1:00, no way on God’s green earth I’ll get there before 3. I tell the guy this and he responds with some mouth noises that amount to “tough shit, pal.” I ask if he has a drop lot where I can leave the trailer overnight, drive the hour and a half back to Charlotte, and return first thing in the morning to make the drop and get to Richmond. No and hell no. This is rapidly degenerating to what is known in the trucking world as a “cluster-fuck.” I head on off for the place anyway, hoping against hope that I’ll be able to smooth-talk my way into some solution that won’t screw the whole week up for me.

On arriving in G’ville I check in with some young kid at the dock. It’s 3 o’clock on the button. Talk to the kid and ask again about dropping the trailer someplace, and he just grins and says, “Oh, hell, I’m not gonna make you wait around overnight just to unload eleven skids. Back on in to door three.” Turns out maybe there is a God, and maybe He doesn’t hate me quite as much as I’ve always thought.

I jump back on the big road to NC and figure I’ll stop off at home for dinner anyway, maybe grab a couple hours of sleep if I can before heading north. Good thing too – it’s the last real sleep I’m going to get until Friday night, but I of course don’t know that at the time.

I’m back in the truck at 12 AM or so (this is now Thursday morning, btw) to head off to Richmond. No specific delivery time on this one, but I need to get there as early as I can because it’s a given that I’m going to have to make a pickup in Richmond to bring back to Charlotte. So I go north for as long as I can and pull into a rest stop near the Virginia line to sleep for another hour or so. And that’s when the yawning abyss opened in front of me, with the flame-licked steps down into Perdition lying right at my feet. But I didn’t know that yet either.

I racked out for about 45 minutes or so. You may not have ever noticed this, but when you next stop at some truck stop or other, notice that all the trucks parked in back are running. That’s because when you make a rest stop, you use the truck’s engine as basically a big generator to run the A/C or heat and whatever other electric luxuries you’re using, like the radio, fridge, or TV if you have one. There are trucks out there that literally never get shut down except for oil changes. They’re built for this – they all have a high-idle setting so that you keep oil circulating through the turbo and thus avoid burning up the bearings. Sure, you’re burning diesel, but sitting in a truck with no A/C in the South in August is a lot like sitting in a coffin in the middle of the Egyptian desert. Believe me, this is not hyperbole, and I was just about to find that out for sure.

So I descend into the gentle embrace of kindly old Morpheus, rocked gently into Nappytown by the vibration of the Cummins M-11 under the hood. The radio was set on the local public-radio classical-music station, just like always. The A/C is working its beautiful magic. Life was, if not good, well, at least bearable.

And that’s when the A/C crapped out.

Dammit. I wake up in a puddle of sweat, hot air blowing in my face. Damn damn damn. I really, really hate hot weather. I’m a winter-time guy, or fall at the very least. Remember back years ago, there was this movie out with Kathleen Turner and the Hollywood stud-of-the-year, can’t remember who, I think maybe it was called Body Heat? Much was made at the time of how sexy the thing was. Set in Miami, hot as hell, sexy, hot, hot, hot. I remember seeing the thing and thinking, what in the hell is so sexy about all this damn sweat? That ain’t sexy, it’s smelly. I mean, I have nothing at all against sweating during sex, of course. Hell, if you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right. But there’s nothing about sweat that makes me think that I must get laid immediately. As a prelude to sex, hot weather ranks right down there with a toothache and a high fever in my book. If I see a woman with her hair all lank and droopy from the heat, a visible sheen on her upper lip and half-moons under the arms of her shirt, I don’t think “Her – I must have her.” I think “Poor thing – get her into a nice air-conditioned room someplace before she faints. Or before I do, in sympathy.” I mean it, no kidding. I’d have made a lousy beach-bum.

So the day is rapidly taking shape, and it ain’t gonna be a pretty one. I pile out of the rack, change into some shorts I had mercifully brought along just in case, lower the windows, and get behind the wheel. Now I have but one goal for the day – get rid of this load in Richmond, quickly pick up whatever I’m bringing back to Charlotte, smoke rubber getting back, and get this truck into the shop for repairs just as fast as I can possibly make it happen.

I get to the consignee in Richmond and the guys get the freight off the truck and onto their dock where it belongs. They take their time about it too, but there are a couple of young black kids out on the dock taking a smoke break and I have a fine old time standing around shooting the shit with them, bitching about women (they’re dogs! they’re worse than we are!) mostly. Once the guy finishes unloading me, I go into the office and call the dispatcher to find out where I’m going next. I’m going next to Lyndhurst, Virginia. Okay.

Check the road atlas and I can’t help but notice that Lyndhurst is all the way across the freaking state, over by the junction of I-64 and I-81, near Staunton. It’s not that far really, only about an hour and a half or two hours away. I’d do it standing on my head and whistling usually, but usually I’d have the windows up and cold air blowing on me too. Crap. I tell the dispatcher about the A/C problem and she’s sympathetic (rare in a dispatcher, believe me) and promises to try to find me something closer so I can grab it and head back. No dice, nothing available. Shit. Then the hammer drops for real – this load ain’t going back to Charlotte – it’s going to fucking Atlanta.

Ever been in Georgia in August? Let me tell you how it is. It’s rotten. You’d think it wouldn’t be a whole lot worse than NC is, and you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Not to mention the fact that it amounts to around ten more hours of driving that I really hadn’t been counting on doing, especially with a broken truck. But remember that best-laid-plans line. To top it off, the place is some kind of low-rent operation and they’re famous for being slow about getting trucks loaded and out of there. It’s now 11 AM and I know I’ll be there by no later than 1. The dispatcher promises to get on the horn and light a fire under their asses, but usually they don’t bother loading trucks until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Great.

So I get there, back in, and check in. The Mexican lady in charge tells me it’s going to be a very long while before they can load me. This place is a manufacturer of cheap shitty stuffed animals, the kind you win at carnivals. The load I’m there for is going to Six Flags. But the machine that blows the stuffing into the fuzzy Scooby Doos and Spidermen and whatnot is down and under repair. So I not only have to wait for them to pull the order and box it, I also have to wait for them to actually make the junk too. All while sitting out on the lot in a hot-ass truck, sun beating on it like Thor’s hammer, and no breeze whatsoever to attenuate the heat. Just great.

Have I mentioned yet that I haven’t had a shower since Tuesday? I didn’t? Good – just try not to think about it. Truck-stop showers are not an option as far as I’m concerned. I’m kinda funny that way, plus they cost ten bucks on top of it. I would rather reek than lay out ten scoots for something I don’t want to do anyway. So reek I shall, and let me tell you, reek I do by now. By midafternoon, lying on the bunk in the now-ubiqitous puddle o’ sweat trying to read (sleep is of course out of the question), the funk emanating from me is a palpable, physical thing. It could damage property. It could probably distort police radar readings. Certainly it could ward off animals and small children. I seriously doubt I’ll have to worry about deer jumping into my path tonight coming down the mountain, unless they gravely misinterpret the odor and decide it’s mating season and I’m a big ol’ rolling hunk of deer-lovin’. Oh lord help me.

I wander around the warehouse and realize pretty quick that this is just about the godawfulest sweatshop I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty. The place is staffed entirely with Mexicans who no habla de Englees at all. There’s a shockingly filthy men’s room and a room opening off of it featuring a couple of squalid, stained mattresses, various items of dirty clothing on the floor, empty cans of what might be known in some parts of the world as “food,” and a lot of empty beer cans. Several used condoms strewn about provide disgusting testimony to the immutability and power of certain basic human impulses, regardless of the unpalatable nature of the surroundings. If these poor people think of this place and this situation as much of an improvement over what they had in Mexico, then I truly pity them. I can’t even imagine what kind of house of horrors they’ve escaped from that makes this look like a better alternative. It’s sad, really sad. The warehouse is not air-conditioned, and there aren’t even any fans or open windows. The only ventilation is from the open dock doors on one side of the building. The place is out in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, and I guess that makes it a lot easier to violate every OSHA regulation that ever came down the pike. Ah well, the folks at OSHA are way to busy worrying about getting “Don’t drink this” labels on every bottle of copier toner in nice air-conditioned offices all over the nation to worry about actual unhealthy and dangerous circumstances such as the ones in evidence here. Your tax dollars at work – barely.

They finally get the machine fixed, and I’m loaded (sloooooowly) and pull out around 8 PM. That’s right, a seven-freaking-hour tour of one of the more hellish places I’ve ever seen. I roll up 64 to I-81 and hop it south. The sun has almost set – thank god, it’ll maybe cool off a little. I still have a nine or ten hour ride ahead, and after that I’ll have the dubious pleasure of trying to struggle through Atlanta traffic to get back home. Great. Just great.

Coming up into the mountains near Pulaski, night has finally fallen. I crest one of the larger hills, then start down into a shallow valley. I’ve still got a good couple of hours up in the mountains. All of a sudden the temperature drops markedly. Cool, sweet mountain air flows all over me through the open windows. This is wonderful. The temp drops enough so that I actually have to close the passenger window. Feels like fall, and I love fall. I’m daydreaming about the smell of burning leaves and wood smoke. Fall is the best time of year and the mountains, any mountains, is the best place to enjoy it. You wanna talk sexy? Hot ain’t sexy. Cold is. A nice big A-frame cabin perched on a hillside, warm toes under a big fuzzy throw, a fire crackling and popping and hissing with the occasional snowflake falling thru the chimney onto the roaring blaze. Irish coffee, hip to hip on the big cushy sofa, an old Robert Mitchum movie on TV. Later there’ll be chilly air in the bedroom, wind sighing outside, and cool skin against cool skin under a thick warm quilt. Tight squeezes, deep wet kisses, and pressure. Screw the beach; I’m a mountain boy myself.

Roaring down the mountain side, life is suddenly a whole lot better. More in a bit, if you ain’t bored already. Then again, how the hell would I know if you were? 

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