I arrived at the school house, a veteran student in a sea of wannabees. The turn of the year brought the longest streak of sub-freezing temperatures in decades, and I was glad to be standing next to a 4-stroke Cummins turned over, white smoke pervading the cold, morning air, visible droplets of crystalized water vapor.
The internal combustion engine may seem distant to me now, but over the next several months, my coursework at the Diesel Technology course at the North American Trade Schools (NATS) would require me to roll up my sleeves and turn wrenches like a hardened grease hand. I would become chummy with not only the Cummins, but also the legendary Detroit and even the infamous Maxxforce, the one I was suckered into buying.
The school was not located in a collegial campus or in an industrial complex occupied by big cranes and heavy containers. Instead it was situated in the middle of a dying mall in the mean streets of Baltimore County.
Diesel Tech wasn’t all sit-down textbooks, slides and lectures. It was service manuals, diagnostic codes and on-the-job touch and feel.
I would be going under the hood and getting hands, face, every exposed part of the body, covered in a thick coat of grime. That suited “the clan”, a gaggle of grungy grease monkeys who felt more at home working entrenched in the back of a mechanic’s pit than sitting in front of a computer scrutinizing mounds of spreadsheets.
They were a bunch of guys (and a couple gals) who didn’t enjoy dressing up in a suit and tie. Instead they were keen to wearing long pants – sans belt and exposed Jockeys as if it was the fashion du jour. When they rose in the morning, they would take a drag, rub their eyes and apply a thick coat of grease on their faces, like a soldier applying war paint before descending into a foxhole for the day.
There were many roadblocks in working alongside students half my age. They were more limber, stronger and possessed longer staying power. They loved going under the truck and didn’t mind shooting the crap while sharing a smoke. They came from a different generation with a vastly different outlook on life, and for now they called the shots – they didn’t give a crap who you were or what you thought.
Perhaps they would embrace my experience and career skills and pick up priceless tips to bolster their budding careers. Or perhaps they would mock me as older and weather-beaten, a relic from the days before smart phones became their drug.
With age comes wisdom but reaching middle age also meant having to ingest a potent cocktail of pain killers before engaging in any sort of heavy lifting. At 50, I was no longer young and spry and able to lift heavy bearings with a single heave. But that wouldn’t stop me from getting under the truck drenched in grease, just like the rest of the clan. My bones creaked and I was grossly out of breath, but still could hang – both in the shop and outside.
Embarking on my third career, my curiosity was piqued by how a six-cylinder diesel engine can pull 80,000 lbs of gross weight. While a Dodge Charger has the horsepower to go lightning fast on a dime, a turbo charged engine has the torque to pull giant steel beams up steep grades, slowly but surely.
During its heyday, a half century ago, the Security Square Mall competed for shoppers from DC to Philly, and attracted a whole host of anchor tenants. Now there were only three remaining: Macy’s, AMC, and Sears was struggling to survive.
Still on any given day, there is a steady flow of pedestrians and street traffic rushing to catch a show or to grab a sale, and none of them were moving out of the way of a heavy duty Class 8 truck chugging along on fourth gear.
And the mall was a hotbed for crime. Thugs with guns, drugs and paraphernalia, mixing it up and living life on the large. Several years ago two students at the school stabbed and robbed another student in broad day light. Student-on-student crime is rare, but there have been a number incidents of students and others mall-goers been assaulted and robbed. The jewelry store seems to get hit almost every month. Recently, robbers entered the Gold Vally Jewelry Store and sprayed bear spray at employees. They then took a sledgehammer and broke the Rolex case, grabbing thousands of dollars of jewelry. The spray wafted into the mall causing itchy eyes and sore throat so stores was shut down and the mall evacuated. Bear spray can’t be worse than the smell of diesel, so for diesel tech, it was just another day. To this date, the bear-spray burglars are still at large.
Another group of robbers threatened the employees with a handgun and stole money from the register. The masked men fled in a black suburban but ultimately crashed while leaving the mall. They tried to get away but the police cruiser ran into the driver and eventually all four were apprehended.
More recently two U.S. Marshalls were attempting to serve a homicide warrant on a man wanted for 1st-degree murder. When the officers approached the vehicle, the suspect exited his vehicle and began shooting. The suspect was shot dead, while both officers were shot in the arm and leg.
The security guards mostly hunker down on station monitoring camera feeds. Perhaps Baltimore county should post police officers inside Security square. The name is actually an oxymoron – there’s really no security there — should be called “Insecurity Square.”
There are a lot of inherent dangers working with big trucks. But the real concern is outside the shop, inside the hallways of the mall, hidden pockets of the parking lot and on the mean streets of Woodlawn.