Passing the Torch

May 28, 2015

Passing the Torch

Justin decided today that he would search for an old style diner this evening instead of the fast food restaurants that were dinner fare at most truck stops. A quick search using his iPhone’s GPS showed Betty’s Family Cooking 15 miles up the road off Exit 46. As he was looking at the search results, the automatic rumble strips on his in-cab camera went off, warning him that he was outside his lane. He quickly corrected and looked up the road. Looking down at his instrument panel, he noticed that he was averaging 7 miles per gallon, not bad for a 30,000 pound load. He really liked his aerodynamic truck with the 13-liter engine and automatic transmission. His GPS now indicated that he had 13 miles to the restaurant and that he would arrive at precisely 8:56.

As the truck geared down the exit ramp, the GPS told him to turn right up County Road and go one mile to his destination. Suddenly, he heard another voice, this one from his mobile satellite tracking unit, “Warning, you have fifteen minutes left of on-duty drive time,” she said. “Timed perfectly!” he thought as he pulled into the parking lot. He parked and entered “Off duty” on his mobile unit. He reached in the back for his backpack. It had been a good day, he thought to himself.

Yesterday, however, was not so good. Justin had pushed it a little too hard. He had started to lose control of his tractor-trailer, but the anti-rollover system on his rig kicked into gear and kept him from a jackknife. The safety department back at the terminal had noticed the alert on their computer indicating that he was speeding and “hard braking.” He received a call warning him that he needed to slow down and leave more distance between himself and other vehicles. Justin remembered from driver training school the company’s progressive discipline policy. He had already had two problems and knew that a third would result in disciplinary action. But he wasn’t too worried about it. He could always go work for another trucking company. Since he finished his CDL two years ago, Justin had learned that it was easy to jump from job to job if things didn’t work out right. He kind of wanted to take the winter off anyway and spend a few months on the beach in Florida. As he climbed down out of his truck, he noticed an old big hood Peterbilt that said “Gertie” on the side. “What a dinosaur,” Justin thought, “that should be in the Smithsonian.”

Carrying his backpack, Justin walked across the lot and into the diner. It looked like something out of the last century. It had knotty pine walls, linoleum floors, and frilly half curtains on the windows. The tables had old Formica surfaces and chrome legs. The place looked like pictures Justin had seen on the Internet from an old “Life” Magazine. Justin sat down at a table and took his Mac out of the pack. He booted up his computer to check the weather and traffic, plan tomorrow’s route and fuel stop, and scan in his paperwork. He couldn’t find a WiFi signal so he plugged in his Internet card.

Outside, across the parking lot, Ralph climbed down from the cab of his 1998 Peterbilt 379 and lit a cigarette. She was a long nose Pete, with a 600-horse CAT, and 18-speed transmission. “I guess 1 ½ million miles was all that Gertie had in her,” he thought out loud. He had spent all of those miles with her. “Gertie, you were the best of them all,” Ralph said aloud to the truck. “Maybe it’s time for me to quit, too,” he wondered. He made his way slowly towards the diner entrance.

Justin was texting his friends when he heard the door open. He looked around the diner and saw the old man walk in. The old man coughed, took off his cap, and combed his hand through his gray hair as he walked over to the pay phone. He put a quarter in, dialed a number, and made his call. He overheard the old man say, “I’m done. I’ve run my last mile.” He then put in another quarter and made another call. When he finished, he walked slowly toward Justin and sat at the adjoining table. The old man wore cowboy boots, jeans, and an old flannel shirt. His face was wrinkled and weathered from many years on the road. He had gray hair and a mustache. Behind the reading glasses he had just slipped on, his steel blue eyes were heavily bagged and framed by crow’s feet.

Ralph noticed Justin as he sat down and thought he seemed about the age of his grandson. The lone waitress came to Ralph’s booth. “What are we having tonight, Betty?” the old man asked. “The special tonight is meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and peas,” she replied. “My favorite,” he replied, “No one makes meatloaf like you, Betty!” She smiled and scurried off to the kitchen. The old man pulled out his paper logs, the last one he would ever fill out. He actually filled out two, one for the company, and one for the DOT. He tore the second one up, though, as he realized that he would not be going through the scales anymore.

Justin gazed over at the old man and the old man looked back. “Hello, son, my name is Ralph. I just filled out my last comic book and I won’t be going through the chicken coops anymore. Yes, you’re looking at a retired truck driver…and this time is the last,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I retired two years ago after driving for the same company for 50 years, but came out on the road again to save my marriage. I guess my wife, Judy, got used to being alone a lot after all those years,” he said with a grin.

Justin was incredulous. “50 years?” Justin asked, “…and with the same company? How did you do that?” He thought out loud, “we’re only truck drivers.” Just then his phone beeped and Justin started texting again. Ralph was just as puzzled.

When Justin looked up from his phone, Ralph looked at him and said, “Son, even though I’m only a truck driver, I have a lot to be proud of. I have a good family, my girls are grown and married now, and trucking provided a good living up until the last three years. I have delivered goods to people all over the country and driven millions of miles, but have never had an accident, all with the same company. And until lately, I enjoyed the freedom of being out on the road without a boss looking over my shoulder. But now they want me to learn to use computers and something they call smart phones. I don’t know how a damn phone can be smart. The company and the government have been breathing down my neck more and more each year.” He coughed again, and said, “And, I’m not as young as I used to be and neither is Gertie. She just blew her engine and I think it’s time for us to hang it up. It just ain’t like it used to be. I suppose Judy will just have to get used to having me around,” he said with a slight smile.

“How did you do it?” Justin mused. “Son,” said Ralph, “You don’t have to be able to jump over a ten foot pole to be successful in this business. What matters is whether you can jump over a one foot pole a hundred times a day. Take pride in being a trucker driver, stay constant, and I know you can do it, too. Here’s my phone number at home. Give me a call anytime.”

Ralph smiled, and went back to his dinner. When he was finished he laid a ten dollar bill on the table. Just then Justin saw the door open and an old lady came in. Ralph got up from the table, walked across the room to her. She gave him a big hug. “Honey, you’re finally home,” she said as she kissed him. Ralph was smiling, but Justin thought he noticed a tear in the corner of his eye.

The door closed and Justin unconsciously grabbed for his phone as it beeped again. He started to reply to a text from one of his friends, but then he stopped, hit ignore, and put it down. He was interrupted from his thoughts by Betty’s soft voice, “What are you having tonight?” Justin turned off the phone and thought for a minute. “I’ll have what he was having,” he replied as he stuffed Ralph’s phone number in his pocket. The smart phone would stay off until he called his dispatcher in the morning.

Happy Trucking! Tom