Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together
The Big Rig
It was a hot June day on the Palouse, the wheat fields green from the spring rains, and the first hints of gold were starting to show through the ripening grain.
“Just get in that truck and drive it,” said the farmer, “it won’t bite you.” Well, maybe it would, I thought. I’d just turned 17 the month before, I would be a senior in high school that fall, and that truck was a 44-foot long diesel big-rig, a “semi” built to haul tons of grain from the farm elevators to regional storage facilities some miles away.
I drove a Volkswagen at the time, thank you, not a 44 foot long behemoth. My VW would fit in its front seat. On the farm that summer I drove a 1950s piece- of- junk- pick- up truck from field to field to do my work. That pick-up would fit in the front half of the bed of that big grain truck.
“It’s no problem, just release the parking break, give it a little gas, and go,” said Mr. Curtis, grain farmer, on his spread just north of Colfax, Washington, in the heart of the Palouse district.
Did I mention that the giant truck was parked on a hill? Pointing up the hill? So if I screwed up the break release and clutch release the truck would roll backwards, over a cliff, and plunge to the Palouse River 100- feet below?
Did I tell you that truck had something like 10 forward and 4 reverse gears, compared to my Volkswagen’s three? And my piece-of-junk-pick-up-truck's three speeds on the column? Gulp. The thing had air breaks, whatever those really might be, they make a lot of noise and I really hoped they really would stop that monster.
I climbed up into the cab. I could have used a ladder, it would have been easier. I was sweating, hard, not from the heat but from my nerves. The engine was running at an idle. I pushed in the clutch with my left foot. It was not a standard clutch pedal that you would or should find in cars or tiny pick-ups trucks, but a clutch pedal that was bigger than my work boot. I pushed it to the floor. I opened the throttle with the gas pedal, giving it enough gas to make that big diesel roar. And it did.
“Easy, easy,” said Mr. Curtis, a long-time hero of mine, “you don’t need to over-rev the engine; it will pull the load just fine.” I hunted for 2nd gear on the complicated shifter, found it, and slipped it into the slot. I gently released the parking brake and tried to engage the clutch at the same time keeping the gas steady. The truck jumped forward an inch or two; the front-end felt like it might have jumped off the group a little bit. It scared me. I slammed the break down and released the clutch. The engine stopped roaring and the truck jerked to a stop.
Ok, I told myself, let’s do this again, but smoothly this time. It can’t be this hard, can it? My pulse was racing faster than the trunk engine. I was sweating like two stuck pigs, two sweating pigs combined. I tried it again. I gave it some gas; I slowly engaged the clutch while releasing the parking brake. The truck jumped again, but instead of stopping, I gave it more gas and held the clutch at the engage point. The 20-ton truck jerked forward, and then jerked again. I’m up to 3 mph now. Mr Curtis is on the running board outside the driver’s side door, talking me through this lesson in driving the “big rigs”.
“Shift it, shift it!” urged Mr. Curtis, “Put it into 3rd and you are doing fine.” I crept up the hill. I shifted it into 3rd gear, and when I hit about 8 mph, I shifted it into 4th gear, smoothly letting out the clutch this time. “Ok,” said Bob Curtis, the Mr. Curtis title slipping away along with the panic of the moment, “I’ll pick you up in Colfax in about an hour.”
The truck was topping the hill, and started down the slightly sloping other side. I shifted into 5th gear. It held the monster at about 20 mph on that dirt road. That speed was just fine by me. The drive was starting to be fun, in a highly nervous sort of way. Up ahead was the first stop, a sign halting the few cars or trucks on that road where it intersected with a paved county road.
I saw the cows and sheep in a pasture off to the left, and I remembered chasing those damned sheep when they escaped through an open gate a few weeks earlier, chasing them down this very road, finally getting in front of them by crossing a field, then turning them around and herding them back to the pasture. Farm life, I wasn’t so sure it was the life for me.
I’d never stepped on an air brake before, it was activated by a floor peddle that was also bigger than my work boot. But the brake slowed that truck down just nicely, smoothly, and I released the clutch to bring the big rig to a stop. But here I was again, at a standstill, needing to put that truck into gear and pull it out on the paved road. I shifted it into 2nd gear to start the truck, and slowly gave it gas while releasing the clutch. The truck jumped and jerked, then smoothed out as I turned left onto the two lane road, shifting into 3rd to give it a little more speed, then 4th, then 5th. Success! It wasn’t that hard, was it? I was sweating less then, more from the heat than the nerves that had been slowly calmed.
A few miles later I came to the intersection with the main state highway in the region, a fast and busy route coming out of Spokane and pointing south to Colfax and Pullman. I eased the truck to the stop sign and watched ten cars speed by from both directions. This is going to be challenging, I thought, I hope I don’t kill someone, particularly me. I was sweating heavily again, but not from the heat.
I was getting better at this clutch/gasoline/shift/20 ton truck combo business. I saw a break in the traffic and moved the truck slowly across the highway and turned left for the 17- mile run into Colfax. I kept the truck to the right side, knowing that I was not going to drive this monster as fast as the auto traffic that was starting to build up behind me. I shifted through the gears, and found most of them in the process. Most, but not all -- some of those gears just weren’t there. I got the truck up to about 50 mph and kept it there.
There is a long hill on the north side of the town of Colfax. Colfax is a fairly pleasant farm town, nestled alongside the Palouse River with maybe 6,000 or 7,000 residents. My father was raised in this town by an aunt and uncle. He left after high school, never to return. The aunt and uncle died years ago.
Mr. Curtis (it was not Bob now, it was back to Mister) didn’t tell me anything about navigating the big rig down a long grade. Well, maybe it wasn’t that long, just a mile or two. And, well, maybe it wasn’t as steep as I thought it was. It isn’t today, after that highway was rebuilt in the 1970s. Back then, on my maiden flight of the monster truck, that grade must have been ten miles long with a 20-degree slope. At least I thought so. Maybe I could have gone a bit faster than 10 mph down the grade. And maybe I should have let those 20 cars stacked up behind me, pass. OK, Mister Chicken, this isn’t that bad or dangerous, I said to myself. I shifted again, letting the truck build up some speed. As it went a bit faster, I got more confidence. I up-shifted again. It went a bit faster. It wasn’t a speeding bullet, but it was enough. I was just whizzing right along at maybe 30 mph by then, my left turn off the highway was coming up and that truck was picking up more speed, almost barreling down that incline.
I was hoping those air brakes really worked! I was driving the truck into the shop in town for maintenance before the harvest season started in a few weeks, including work on the brake system. Ah, wait, there was good news -- the air brakes worked again on this dangerously steep hill, and slowed the mighty truck down. I did a smart, but slow, left turn across traffic and into the drive way of the diesel repair shop. I stopped the truck and sat there, re-gaining my breath, letting my sweat cool my still nervous body, letting my heart rate return to sort-of normal.
“You did fine, son,” said Mr. Curtis when he drove up a while later, “You are going to get a lot of experience with this truck this summer, I hoped you enjoyed the drive!”
I’m not sure how I felt about that forecast after my first drive of the big rigs, but boy, did I find out later. We’ll talk about that in the next Sunday story.
(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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