Making a Truck Driver – Week 1

Last week I introduced this series – one which would see me quit being a lawyer and start being a truck driver.  After all of the planning it was time for things to really start happening.

I had not been to “a first day of school” since the day I started law school in the fall of 1982.  That had been the beginning of a new way of life – one that would continue until this past spring.  I have never been one who enjoys jumping into a new situation among people I don’t know.  Was this a good idea?  Could I hack it?  My logical mind said that I was a reasonably intelligent guy who had a good feeling for vehicles.  I had gotten a private pilot’s license when I was in my late 20’s and passed the bar exam on my first try, so how hard could it be to get a CDL?  Still, there were doubts.  I was a lot older, and we have all heard the thing about old dogs and new tricks.  But in the end, I had already turned in my affidavit of retirement to the state bar and walked away from my law practice, so the bridges were all but burned.  Failure was not an option.

One introductory note – I am not going to identify this school widely online, and nor will I identify my current employer.  I am not hiding the information but I do not wish to share information about them without their consent.  I had a good experience but do not wish to upset anyone in case of a comment someone could deem as critical.  I should also add that this school’s focus is not just on teaching people to drive a truck, but to do so while making safety a top priority.  There is a difference, as anyone who has spent time on an interstate highway will know.

The format would be split between class time and time on either “the range” (a big asphalt lot with cones) or on the road.  The classroom instruction was mostly conducted by the lady who handles the administrative stuff.  She had been a teacher in her younger years and was now married to the safety director of the company that started the school.  The “truck stuff” would be handled by Bob (not his actual name).  Bob is a no-shit trucker, a guy with something like three million accident-free miles under his belt.

The class consisted of four of us, with me being the oldest there by far.  Two of the guys were in their 30’s – one was a trained welder and the other had taught some college and was working in a warehouse.  The fourth guy was in his late 40’s – he had run his own lawn care business for several years but had some relatives convince him to look into trucking.

Week one (of five) was spent on learning the basic pre-trip inspections and air brake checks that would be necessary to pass the test with the BMV.  The pre-trip was much like the old pre-flight inspections I learned in flight school those many moons ago, and is all about identifying problems on the lot before they become a more serious problem somewhere else.  They involved a methodical walk through the parts and systems of the truck, and I felt like I had a leg-up with years of working on cars.  However, because the state test involved a more-or-less rote list of what to look at, the order of looking at them and the names to call them and the specific things to look for, we were all on even ground.

The air brake check was a five-step process that we had to learn verbatim – or else we would flunk our test with the BMV.  We were told that this school has the best pass rate with the BMV in the state, which makes sense because we spent a lot of time on these basic things.  Our daily homework included hand-writing the air brake check three times, to aid in our memorization.  Basically, this test involves making sure the engine-driven compressor will cut off at 120-140 psi, that pressure will not drop off while holding the brake pedal down, that the low air pressure light and buzzer work, and that the emergency brake valves for both truck and trailer will pop out to apply brakes when the system gets pumped down to not less than 20 pounds of pressure.  We were told that there are few things more terror inducing than failed air brakes on a loaded semi.  I will take their word for it, and religiously do air brake checks every day in my job.

There were three trucks with attached trailers outside on the big lot adjacent to the school, so our pre-trip and brake check practices involved each of us pairing off with another student and working together.  Each of the trucks was a gnarly old Mack – a CH series from the mid 1990’s.  These have developed a reputation as a truck that was crude, but effective.  They are extremely durable and have exhibited very long lives for those who have given them some care.

The last half of that first week involved straight backing of one of the Macks with a 48 foot trailer on the back.  They told us that backing a 48 foot trailer is harder than backing with a 53 foot (that is more common).  That sounded counter-intuitive, but they seemed to know what they were talking about.  I struggled on my first day – we all did.  Once something starts getting out of line, a lot can go bad quickly.  The second day it was coming to me a lot easier.  Which was good, because this would be part of the test for getting the CDL

On Friday of that first week I spent about 2 hours out on the road with a part-time instructor I will call Rico.  He has been out driving about five years, and is much more laid back than the main instructor, Bob.  The Mack E7 six cylinder diesel is a 12 liter (728 cid) big-assed turbocharged six that wants to live under 1800 rpm, and was equipped with a 5-speed non-synchro manual transmission.  The shift pattern is essentially a 3 speed with two more gears.  We got some pre-drive instruction on the Mack 5 speed.  Bob’s method was to make us all say out loud “Clutch to neutral . . . . . . clutch to gear” while making upshifts.  Downshifts required reciting “Clutch to neutral . . . wait . . . bump it up . . . clutch to gear” for downshifts.  This is because this transmission will. not. be rushed.  Some wags have suggested that shifting requires either getting a haircut or making a sandwich between gears.  This transmission’s slo-mo nature would have some effects during the eventual CDL test.

I thought we might start out on a quiet country road somewhere with just the tractor and no trailer.  I was incorrect.  Our school is located within blocks of the downtown skyline of Indianapolis.  From the school parking lot I was told to make a right onto the narrow 2-lane side-street, then a left onto a busy 4-lane street.  With a trailer attached.  Damn, but these things are wide, and the lanes of a busy city street never looked narrower.

The non-synchro gearbox kicked my backside on downshifts on that first drive.  This transmission wants things done its own way, and any divergence from that path results in wailing and gnashing of (gear) teeth.  My upshifts were pretty clean, but then they were always clean in the non-synchro 3 speed in my ’29 Ford Model A.  I never mastered crash-free downshifts in that car.  But I had better master them now.

This process required overcoming lots of “car-habits”.  Two that I struggled to overcome were needing to cancel my turn signals manually and my habit of pushing the clutch to the floor.  These trucks require the turn signals to be manually canceled.  They also use a “clutch brake” that engages with the pedal near the floor, that aids getting into gear at a standstill.  Real, on-the-road shifting is done in the top 2 inches of pedal travel (out of maybe 6 inches in total).  Pushing the clutch to the floor only brings much stress and makes gears grind even when my upshift technique was on the money.

I should add that clutching and shifting are fast becoming an obsolete skill in trucks, as automatics are taking over the market.  I could have learned in an automatic, but then I would have a restriction on my license that would prohibit me from driving trucks with a manual.  Next year, I am told that Indiana’s BMV is going to make the manual transmission an endorsement to the basic CDL.  I never seriously considered learning on an automatic that would eliminate an unknown number of possible jobs, so I persevered.  One classmate had never driven a manual transmission in his life.  I have not decided whether he or I had it easier, given how different this transmission is from what I have been used to.

With all of the attention it takes to just drive the stupid thing (keep it between the lines and in the right gear) it’s easy to forget that there is a 48 foot trailer out back, which brings lots of challenges of its own, especially in right-hand turns.  There are lots of car-habits to forget here, too.  I spent years joking as a lawyer associated with the insurance industry that but for gravity and left turns, I would not have much to do.  I was learning that it is right turns that are the bane of truckers because they are so much tighter and with the added problem of a long, long trailer in the back that will mow down a corner street sign or a light pole if a driver isn’t careful.

On day number three or four (and before we started getting road instruction) the former college professor guy kind of disappeared on us.  He had seemed friendly, but very nervous, calling everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir”.  He came into the classroom for a moment and left before class began.  He said nothing to us and nothing to the school staff.  We never heard from him again.  At first, I felt bad about how much he spent to get into the class, but then decided that if this was how he was going to handle a stressful situation, then maybe this was not a career for him.  The remaining three of us would make it all the way through.