Even before Western let me go, I got a call from a recruiter. “How would you like to drive a 2015 or newer model Mack and sleep in your warm bed everyday?”
“Sweet, who’s the customer?” “Concrete Pipe and Precast (CP&P) in Jessup, MD, and they normally knock off by 4pm Monday to Friday, sometimes by 1pm”
“Wow that sounds rad. What’s the pay?”
“If you make yourself available to work all 5 days, we guarantee $800 – even on light days or if the loads get cancelled. There’s also a chance to make a grand if you hustle and do more than ten loads per week.”
I immediately googled the company, fascinated by the notion of working with heavy concrete pipes.
As soon as Western gave me the pink slip, I called DM Bowman to accept the offer. The key is to act quickly before the company writes a derogatory report on DAC. In my situation, there was nothing negative to say, but that’s what trucking companies do when drivers are terminated.
They’re heartless like that and they would rather not have you hired by their competition. There’s nothing more cut throat.
“So will I be assigned a trainer?”
“Well securing giant concrete pipes is no cake walk. So yes for the first two weeks your trainer will teach you the ropes.”
“Wow, I better get in shape. Those 20 foot chains can get heavy and I gotta throw them over that bad boy.” I heard a muted chuckle.
“Well I’m sure you’re in decent shape now. If not, you’ll definitely be by the end of summer.”
My trainer was Robert and he was the kind of instructor that resembled more a drinking buddy than a driving supervisor.
“Ok each pipe gets a chain. The chains in the front runs at a 45 degree angle to the rear. The chains in the rear runs at a 45 degree angle to the front. The chains in the middle criss cross each other,” Robert instructed.
Now I watched as the master deftly worked the chains like a securement maestro. I took notes and lots of pics and by the second load, I was able to assist. By the second day, I was able to take the lead and by the third I was doing it all alone.
I was clearly starting to get the hang of things. But by the second week, my muscles twitched just by the sight of concrete and the rattling of chains. Robert worked efficiently, and the faster we delivered our two loads each day, the earlier we were able to get done.
We were normally done by 3pm, but sometimes as early as 1pm. This gave me plenty of time to grab a bite, drive home, take a shower, go to sleep and be back at work by 6am. The hardest part of the job was having to commute 45 minutes from DC each day, so somedays, I decided to shower at the TA and just sleep in my car.
It wasn’t comfortable, but it guaranteed that I got to work on time. Jessup is located in Howard and Anne Arundel county, 10 miles south of Baltimore and 30 miles north of DC.
After a month breaking my back loading and chaining concrete pipes, I got a call from my Driver Manager.
“Hey Chito, how would you like to haul some steel?”
“What do you mean? Isn’t concrete hard enough?”
“Well we have an opening in the steel division, and perhaps you might be interested.”
The week ahead I was scheduled to haul steel coils loaded suicide from AK Steel in Butler, PA to Norfolk, VA. (suicide is when the coils face the driver – shotgun is when the eyes are facing the driver – thus the danger to other drivers on the road).
With names like “suicide” and “shotgun”, it was apparent that hauling steel coil is risky business.
When you’re hauling steel coils, you cannot stop like other truckers. If a car pulls in front of you and suddenly stops to make a turn causing you to hard brake, the coils can come loose and roll straight into the cab – thus the name suicide.
“How many chains and binders shall I put on her.” I asked my driver manager, Don, as I scanned the load consisting of three huge coils that resembled concrete pipes but many times heavier.
Build a pair of coil rack and rubber padding for each coil. Then add three chains and binders for each,” Don instructed. “Throw in a strap across the hole for good measure.”
Eventually I just put 10 chains and binders on the load. Everything I had I threw on like a cargo ship in port during a massive storm.
“Heck chains and binders weigh just as much on the load as they do in the box, might as well use them,” Don commented.
I remember my trainer warn me last week before I was ready to be released solo.
“If the coils aren’t properly secured with the right chains at the correct angles, and the truck turns a corner too fast, the chains may break and the coils will roll right off. And If a giant 42K lb steel coil falls off a flatbed even a bullet train would not be able to stop it. Cars have been run over and buildings have been smashed by runaway steel coils due to driver error.”
“So why are they coiled in a circle. Won’t it be safer to transport steel flat?” I inquired.
“If it was laid out flat, you would only be able to ship one bundle at a time. As a coil, I’m able to ship several bundles with each load as long as I don’t go past my weight limit,” he responded.
“And why do we have to tarp the coil – after all many of the coils are galvanized steel and stored outdoors at the receiver,” I pressed on.
“Because the customer paid for it to be tarped – that’s why” Don gasped.
“And the reason is to protect the coils from rock, salt, slag and sand, especially during the winter,” my trainer added as he looked at me glaringly.
Don, knew how much I hated tarping on clear sky days. And he knew exactly how to bait me, hook, line and sinker.
“Go get your TWIC card, and I’ll assign you to an account that doesn’t require tarping,” he suggested cunningly.
The TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) card issued by the TSA and would give me access to the ports, particularly the port of Baltimore.
He didn’t have to say it twice. Climbing on top of the trailer to secure and tarp the load was also inherently dangerous. Another driver at Bowman had fallen off 8 foot off the load and he was laid up for months.
“These port loads from Morimatsu to Proctor & Gamble are already tarped. All you do is have the port jockey forklift the entire bundle onto the flatbed. Then strap it down good with all 10 straps, but not too tight because they’re manufacturing equipment.” Don added, knowing that this would do the trick.
I made my appointment online and the very next week I visited my local TWIC office in Alexandria, VA to get my card. I was ready for my next adventure with the port of Baltimore.
The toughest part of the port loads is getting inside. There’s usually a long line that starts at the crack of dawn. And as expected security was long, drawn-out tough – probably easier to access the pentagon than the ports.
But once I hooked onto the load, it was a smooth sailing to Martinsburg, WV. When I drove into the P&G plant, I was astonished by the size and scale.
“What are you guys building?” I asked in amazement.
“The plant of the future,” the receiver spoke with pride. “All 2.5 million square feet of it.”
A team of 3-4 drivers hauled these loads several times a week. The two-hour drive took us on I-695 to I-70 to I-81 and with plenty of time on the clock.
One of the innovative features of the Quadrangle is operable windows to allow fresh air into the elaborate offices. The motorized windows would offer an efficient, sophisticated heating and cooling system. The building’s glass skin, with stainless steel horizontal panels and a vertical steel grill shrewdly work together as an external shading system.
What a sleek building this would be with an elegant skin respecting the tradition of Washington, but in a modern way reminiscent of avant-garde LA.
Since the windows were 11.5 feet wide, they were carried as oversized loads requiring a special permit and a specific route that took me all the way down south by the MGM in Oxon Hill, MD and then up 295 into the District. No, I couldn’t take 50 into New York Ave, but I certainly wanted to. Believe it or not, there’s a weigh station on 295, although, I’ve never seen it manned. Oversized trucks would park there from time-to-time before they rolled into the city after the mean morning rush hour.
For once, It was nice to deliver a load into the District and convenient that I could stop home after to check my mail and take a shower before I headed back up to run another load the next day.
I made several trips during the week for three weeks. My fellow trucker, Phillip and I were the only ones who were dedicated to this load. Eventually, I trained another truck driver named Todd who rode co-pilot so he could see how we secured and get familiar with the route. My last day at work was fairly uneventful and I turned my truck in at the yard in Frederick, MD. But then I got a text from my driver manager. He asked if I could come to work the following week. Since I was available, I agreed.
On Monday, after securing the load, I went over the Francis Scott Key bridge on I-695 over the expansive Patapsco River. Normally, I would take the last toll on the right since it was the widest, but today, that lane was backed up by someone not having the right change, so unfortunately my impatience got the best of me. Foolishly, I decided to take the adjacent lane to the left. As soon as I started to proceed, I began to regret my decision. And the impact hit me like a truckload of bricks.
To my dismay that lane was too narrow and my oversized load of 11.5 feet struck the pole that holds the EZPass LED display and bent it like a crooked branch. There was still a chance that I could squeeze through, but at the expense of my load. My instincts told me to stop, and for once I heeded my sub-par intuition.
I held up traffic, scornful drivers who looked glaringly with disgust. Thankfully, The Maryland Transportation Authority was able to turn the display around rather quickly to allow me to go through.
The trooper, a large, brawny man so austere he could intimidate my drill sergeant, instructed me to pull over to the shoulder while he checked my license, registration and permits. And the clock ticked to what seemed like eternity as I made several calls to the Driver Manager and Safety Officer. Neither were pleased, but thankfully both were kind and tactful. I was ready for a severe scolding.
I thought for sure I would be facing a ticket – points, even a fine. But for some strange reasons the sun was shining bright, and the ticket gods were been kind to me that day.
The permit was very explicit in directions from pickup to delivery. It instructed me to take the Key Bridge but did not state which toll lane to take.
“You should have known better,” he scolded. “But since you were just following the letter of the permit, I’ll let you slide this time.”
I smiled and graciously thanked the officer, apologizing in the same breath.
Amazingly, I had lucked out! My last load with DM Bowman was also my first accident outside the yard, and thankfully I survived relatively unscathed, albeit with a bruised ego.