Destiny Childs was breaking the mold. She was only 12 when her father left to grab some smokes at Mondawmin Mall and never came back. Maybe he never abandoned his wife and kids after all. Maybe he got robbed at gunpoint, shot when he tried to fight back, and his body disposed in the inner harbor, a dumping ground for criminals, the forgotten and the damned.
The family struggled to pay rent and moved from one low-income housing to another. Her brother was arrested for looting a CVS store after the death of Freddie Gray. Last year, she moved in with her fiance’, and the future was looking bright until he got locked up for drug trafficking and conspiracy.
Last year, Destiny broke the glass ceiling and became a certified truck driver, but then a terrible wreck set her back. The DOT piss test found traces of marijuana in her system as well as meth and alcohol – that was the end of her driving days, but she still wanted to work on trucks.
Thankfully, she survived with no criminal charges. Now Destiny had enrolled in the Diesel Tech program at the North American Trade Schools and like Theo was fighting for a second chance.
And she showed up with the right attitude. Hard working, determined, attentive But after the first few months, she started to go downhill. She would be absent from school, wouldn’t do her homework and would bomb tests, hoping to prove her worth in the shop. But probably her worst trait was her inclination to boss fellow students around like they were her inferiors.
“Ok let’s do a clutch adjustment,” said Mr. Hale. The first thing we do is check the free play. Stepping on the clutch pedal – we should aim for about 2 inches of free play – the distance the clutch moves before it starts to engage.
This wasn’t no tire change. Replacing a clutch and even repairing one required a lot of skill and finesse. There was no brawn here unless you’re lifting a clutch onto the transmission.
“Ok, Chito go under the truck and put the feeler gauge in between the release bearing and clutch brake. Biggie go up to the cab and step on the clutch all the way down. Then Chito tell us if the gauge clamps down. If it doesn’t Rick get ready to adjust the linkage.”
“And whatever you do, don’t turn the ignition – we don’t want anyone losing fingers today.”
And diesel tech has its fair share of hazards. In the back, a tight band of metallurgists were practicing TIG welding releasing a thick plume of gas and fumes saturating the morning air. In the front a forklift was moving a transmission around like it was a stack of cardboard.
This is the reason why Mr. Pontzer taught us 10 hours of OSHA so we would be familiar with all the inherent hazards in the shop and get our certifications to show our next employer that we were shrewd and safe.
Last month Jude was hoisting the fifth wheel off a Volvo frame when the load got free, swung around and crushed him on the forehead like a linebacker on a wideout. Needless to save, the instructor gave him the day off, but he was back, a full up round the next day. To this day, the deep gash on Jude’s forehead is a good reminder of Jude taking a bullet for the the class.
And in the name of safety, Destiny loved to boss the two of us around like she was the know-it-all queen bee. We were all equals and we all should assist and help rather than instruct and demand. And it really got to her head like she was our immaculate superior.
“Listen, I’ve been in the military. I know what it feels to be bossed around, and it’s usually by a someone, unlike you, who knows what he or she is talking about and has rightfully earned to be called Big Shot,” I asserted.
“Well get used to it. Think this is bad now. Wait till we hire more women. We may be in a male-dominated field, but the women are the real bosses here,” she demurred.
“Ok Nappy, whatever you say,” I relented.
“Stop making fun of our curls. Can’t help that it’s all messy – that’s the way it is when I wake up in the mornings, and I ain’t go no time to comb it.”
“Well you rock so many different styles,” Rick added. “Sometimes we just don’t know what to see next.”
“Yeah, which would it be tomorrow? Braids, weaves or wigs?” I asked. “And will it be neon pink or rockin’ red?”
“Well as you very well know, working under the truck gets my hair all greasy. So I have to change my hairstyles every so often. It’s way easier to change out than to scrub clean.”
“Really, it’s a piece of cake for us. We just lather up with body soap and rinse. If we decide to pamper ourselves, we might lather on conditioner. Just how long can you go without washing your hair?” Rick asked.
“Two weeks,” Destiny replied. “Unless, I’m working under the truck, and I happen to hit a pool of 15W-40, then it’s a week.”
“Well, I hear that Brazilian hair is strong and healthy, so I guess that’ll be fine,” I added.
We both shrugged our shoulders and rolled our eyes. Then we returned in anticipation to the task at hand.
On the International Prostar, there was no free play which is the distance of the clutch pedal moves before it engages the drive shaft. So we each took turns under the truck adjusting the clutch brake.
Destiny got the jarring message to chill out, and she rolled over to bother the next class who were working on changing out bearings and seals.
While the diesel tech class were learning clutch and transmissions, I would take the time to teach some of them how to shift. We wouldn’t go out on Security Road, of course – circumnavigating the grounds of the mall provided plenty of space, and we could go all the way up to 8th gear.
Driving a ten speed is like taming a ten-headed monster Not only are there more gears than you can shake a stick at, shifting into one takes more finesse than force.
Despite today’s playstation generation’s aversion to the manual transmission, any level-headed centennial who can count to five and possesses the rare virtue of patience can learn to shift a stick.
A semi truck, on the other hand, is a whole different beast.
Unlike automobiles, a semi truck doesn’t have synchronized transmissions. In other words, if you don’t match the RPMs by revving the accelerator (the fuel pedal), the gears will not mesh and you don’t get into gear.
This sounds terrifying, and it can get a lot worse. If you don’t find your gear soon enough, the truck will keep decelerating and you will have to settle for the next lower gear. If this happens, be patient and never panic.
Now imagine going up or down a hill and you can’t get into gear. Best you grind your way into a lower gear. Worse, your truck stalls and you lose control. You start applying your brakes but then you notice a strong, burning smell from your trailer and when you look out the side view mirror and see nothing but smoke and a long line of cars meandering behind you. You know you’re in deep tar and brake dust.
While a truck driver uses the speedometer to determine which gear to choose, he relies on the RPM gauge, or tachometer to know when to shift.
Large trucks have lower speeds and higher torque, so they can shift at a lower RPM than a car.
You shift up at 1500 RPMs and shift down at around 1200 RPMs. Every truck maker has its own unique characteristic and every driver develops his own sweet spot. That’s why many truck drivers float and can intuitively feel when their gears are in synch.
Newbies under the tutorship of an impatient trainer like to rush, and white knuckle the shifter into gear. This is the wrong way to shift. Remember: finesse not force.
If you miss the gear, you could grind it and eventually damage your transmission. A used tranny starts at a couple of grand and that doesn’t include the heavy cost of install. That’s why it’s best to learn how to find the sweet spot.
If you push the shifter with your pinkie from one end to the other direction, it will first go to the soft wall. The soft wall is the entrance to seventh and eighth gear. Now if you give it a little more exertion, you can push through the soft wall into the hard wall which is the ninth and tenth gear.
So despite its large appearance, the gear range is only seven inches and you don’t have to exert any force – pushing with your pinkie is all that’s really needed.
Finesse not force.
To make ends meet, some of the students got jobs at the Popeyes or Arby’s on Rolling Rd down the road. Others who wanted to get a head start on their careers got night time gigs at the TA in Baltimore or Jessup, MD. This suited them fine because their pay was based on commission, and they had to save up 17 Grand for tuition.
TA charged $135 per hour and the techs could get 35% of that. If they made road calls, they got paid for the time they left the shop to the time they returned. Sometimes they spent more time driving than repairing. But working on the side of the road can be dangerous, and it was also important to have your ducks in a row so you don’t make a mistake, resulting in loss time and money. If the tech made a mistake, they would have to correct it, and they would have to eat the commission, though they’ll still get paid a minimum wage of $12/hr. For the new techs out of diesel school, making mistakes was par for the course.
The TA would hire the techs with no experience just because of Pontzer’s name and the Trade Schools’ reputation. There was always a shortage of techs and many customers had to wait up to 24 hours just to get their trucks worked on. The TA didn’t take reservations. So disgruntled drivers would show up, check in and then hang out at the truck stop until they got a call to bring her in.
The techs worked hard, and they needed the income not just for tuition, but to pay their living expenses. Some even had outlandish car loans. And many had other habits that consumed time and money such as gaming, gambling and all things illicit. When they attended school the next day, those who worked overnight were found sleeping underneath the trucks that they were supposed to be working on. That’s why so many volunteered to go under and hide.
Sadly, most owner operators did not go to the TA to get their trucks repaired. The TA was used only for emergencies such as for a break down like a flat tire or a leaking hub oil seal. Anything planned or major, and most truckers would go to the dealership or to a local Mom & Pop shop who would do personalized work with a lot less overhead. Plus they didn’t work on commission, so they weren’t trying to sell you a new filter and belt.
“Can’t believe what happened on the TA last night,” said Rick. “I was doing a PM and the brakes were bad, so I put the driver out of service. That knucklehead refused and left with the truck. Obviously, we had no authority to stop that mofo, but we told him that if DOT catches him, he would be in big trouble. No way would I put my career on the line for that fool.”
“Absolutely you did right Bro. Isn’t the DOT just across the street from the TA?” I asked.
“Yes, indeed. They don’t need to go far to find trucks that are broken down and out of service. They can just wait on Assanteague Rd. Or perhaps our GM could tip them off,” he chuckled.
It was Friday. After a full week of school, work and no downtime, it was time to let off some steam.
A gaggle of us rolled over to our favorite watering hole, a hop and a jump away at Gwynn Oak. I bought Rick a pint of Guinness and showed him the proper way to break the head and end up with a foamstache.
The Irish pub is overwhelmingly amiable and chatty, and you can’t take them for granted. On one fall day in 2017, two thugs decided it was wise to rob the liquor store affixed to Monaghan’s Pub. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny and it was Friday afternoon when office workers at the Social Security Administration at Woodlawn Drive were planning one last outing to Rehoboth or Ocean City. They picked the quintessential perfect day for a holdup, but they failed to do their reconnaissance.
Next door, in the pub, a group of burly police officers were celebrating a retirement ceremony for their Captain with dozens of off-duty officers showing their appreciation for a man who served 30 years.
The two inattentive men entered the take-out portion of the restaurant and held an employee up at gunpoint.
Another employee behind the counter quickly alerted the officers to the heist. When the robbers left with the loot, they didn’t get far before the off-duty officers rushed out and tackled them like a hard hitting linebacker. From the mug shots, it was apparent that the two thieves got roughed up pretty badly and learned never to rob a store when police officers are present. Take a page from the criminal justice playbook – do some intel and perhaps open your eyes to your surroundings.
We all enjoyed the story and shared the laughs as we guzzled up pints of Guinness brewed locally in Halethorpe just 10 miles away.
On warm days, I would hike down to the Patapsco Valley State Park and go for a swim. The park was interesting because if you had to hike down a steep trail to get down to the river below. And since it was located in a valley, the park would often flood whenever it rained really hard. This happened in August 2016, and nearby Ellicott City had flooded with a cascade of muddy water rushing down Main Street, shutting down the entire town for weeks. In the 1800s the rapidly falling water provided power for a wide variety of mills. In 1868, a devastating flood hit the Patapsco Valley and decimated virtually all of its industries.
Sometimes, I would invite adventure seekers from the construction class, like Cam who is in the National Guard or Jada from the mall. It’s a bit hidden, and you never expect to see a beautiful oasis down here. There’s nothing more refreshing than jumping into a natural swimming hole with fresh, spring water flowing liberally. And when you’re done, you can hike the trails following the creek, or walk along the railroad tracks for miles. And by sunset, or when you got done, the hardest part would be climbing the steep cliff to get back to the park entrance before they closed. You had to be in shape, or you could easily run out of breath.
Jada was a friend who ran a custom T-Shirt printing kiosk in the Mall. She had skills as a graphic designer and could custom print a shirt for $20 a pop. People liked the idea that they could get their photograph on a shirt. With a cotton T-Shirt costing $3, she could easily bring in $50 per hour. The rent in the mall was fairly cheap, so it was good money on days that she was busy.
She had never been to DC, so I took her down for the weekend. She enjoyed visiting the Mall, visiting the museums and hanging out on base. It was an eye-opening experience, and she was happy to get out of Baltimore County.
Jada also got a tour of my truck, and loved the interior trim. She got to ride in it several times, and I even let her steer, even if it was just inside the parking lot.
I parked the truck at Security Square Mall and lived in it while attending school. It was a great treat and very convenient. Didn’t have to commute and it was way better than sleeping in the hot car.
My friend, Sam who I worked with hauling concrete pipes at DM Bowman was also excited to check out my truck.
“Are you going to get your own authority?” he asked.
“I already applied,” I replied. “Wanna drive for me?”
“If you can pay me $1 per mile. When can I take her out for a spin?”
“I’ve left the key zip tied under the hood. Keep her under 20 MPH and within Security Mall.”
It was raining but Sam used to be a trainer and a conscientious family man, and I trusted him with my truck like I would trust my brother with my wife, or an ex for that matter.
“Your prostar is real slick on the sticks, and the Eaton 10 speed shifts like honey butter #CoolTruck” I received an SMS later that afternoon, after the rain had petered out
“Glad you like it Brotha, maybe You’re be my first hire under my Big Authority!” I responded with glee.
The next week while driving the truck around the yard, I heard a mysterious thump every few seconds. Immediate scary thoughts of a cracked drive shaft gripped me in my stomach.
I asked Mr. Hyde, an instructor that taught Engines and Maintenance with Pontzer, to help troubleshoot the noise. I got behind the wheel and he stood outside so he could better determine the cause of the noise. I crawled steadily on fourth gear.
“Stop the truck,” he yelled in excitement. “I found it.”
I smashed the brake not knowing whether to be elated or sad.
While driving he pointed out to me that there was a large bald spot on two of my front drive tires on the drivers side. It looked like someone had taken a power sander and grinded the entire tread off until I could see the ribs.
How did this happen and why would someone do this. I had not driven the truck much and the only person besides me was Sam. Then it hit me like a stack of tires.
Sam was driving around the mall when it was raining, a perfect time to hydroplane.
“Hey Sam, I immediately texted. “By chance did you drive with the parking brake engaged?”
Within minutes I got a canned answer. “Not that I can remember, why’s that.”
“Well there’s a huge bald spot on both of my front drive tires on the drivers side. Looks like someone skidded and left skin on the parking lot.”
Minutes turned into hours and eventually no response. The next day he finally replied back. “Are you accusing me of burning rubber in the parking lot? For goodness sake it was raining bullfrogs that day.”
“No, I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just asking nicely. And rain actually helps you lose traction so it’s possible to hydroplane even with the brakes engaged.”
Sam failed to answer any of my inquiries the following week. I wasn’t mad at him, neither was I remorseful. I just wanted to know the truth, and it was no apparent what had transpired.
The next week, Mr Pontzer agreed to have his class change out my two drive tires. Upon further inspection, he noticed that my other front drives were mismatched. Small differences in circumference, diameter or tread depth in a dual can easily wreck both tires within weeks. He instructed me to purchase three drive tires which I did at the TA in Jessup, and I was glad to have the class help me change them.
Tire inspection and replacement was led by Sean Beagan aka “Mr. B” who also taught Intro to Diesel Mechanic and Electrical Systems.
Safety is a top priority and we first ensured the truck was properly chocked. Then it’s important to position the jack underneath the differential which sardonically called a pumpkin. This can be done because the differential, which sits in the middle of the rear axle, carries the full weight of the truck.
“Hey kids, remember to put on your safety glasses,” hollered Mr. B. “And don’t stand too close to the inflation cage – it could blow your ass to smithereens.”
We then connected the air to the jack and raised her up into the air. Then we hooked up the impact wrench with 150 psi high pressure air and removed all eight lug nuts, the high-pitched whine could be heard clear across the parking lot.
Then we removed the entire wheel off the hub. Steers (front) were a breeze but drive (rear tandems) tires was a Son of a B * * * *. They were so much heavier, bulky and unforgiving.
Then we removed the valve stem so the tire would start to deflate. Then using generous swipes of petroleum jelly some playfully called KY Jelly, separated the tire from the rim.
The goal of the lubricant is to reduce friction between the rubber tire bead and the metal rim flange allowing the surfaces to slide over each other like butter.
“Chito, it’s been a minute now. Why don’t you check the cage- make sure the pressure is at 100 psi,” Destiny implored.
“Yes Madame purple brains, I was hoping to mount the tire to the rim,” I replied.
“Nope, that’s Tank’s job – he’s a lot stronger and weighs a ton more than you do,” she barked back authoritatively.
“That may be, but Mr. B said it’s all about technique and lubrication,” I replied derisively.
Don’t think Destiny heard me. Her attention was diverted on Jorge who had dismounted a tire and was deflating it. “Don’t forget to remove the Schrader valve core,” Destiny yelled, acting every bit entitled like an imperious queen bee.
Jorge gave her a thousand yard stare than slipped her a finger. Destiny paid him no mind – she could care less, what Jorge or the rest of the guys thought about her – she was large and in charge and that was the only way for a female to survive in a male-dominated field.
Jorge messed up last week when he was mounting the tire. After installing seven lug nuts, he realized one was missing. We looked all over for it, only to find out that he had double nutted a lug nut. What a rookie mistake. From then on, he became the brunt of all our jokes and we derisively nicknamed him “our double-nutter.”
“All this heavy labor is making me hungry. Could sure use some crabs about now,” Destiny mentioned wishfully.
“What kind: Dungeness, Chesapeake Blue, Snow crab?”I snapped with a tone of sarcasm.
“There’s only one kind of crab that matters in B-town, and that’s the one caught in the traps and nets in the Patapsco or the Bay.”
“Perhaps, but that’s not the only tasty seafood that comes out of the Bay – there’s oysters, clam and rockfish, to name a few.”
“Well that don’t impress me much.”
Then I made a phone call, my face still stained with a thick coat of grease.
“Half a dozen male, half a dozen female – jumbo and steamed,” I requested.
The Crab Crib was only a hop, skip and a jump from the trade school. They were quick and efficient and we were back at the school before the evening class arrived.
Destiny lined the shop table with yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, then sprinkled a bucket of Old Bay all over the spongy meat. Old Bay, is a blend of every eye-tearing spice you could round up from Auntie’s kitchen cupboard.
I prefer mine with just pepper and butter, but Destiny like most native Baltimoreans was a “cayenne pepper” spice girl.
Crab to me tastes like a soft, squishy white meat that resembles fish or the lean part of the chicken. But to Destiny it was like morsels from heaven.
By the time we got done sucking up the steamed cetaceans, it was time to clean up those crab shells and head over to the Game, a lively sports bar offering a nice selection of bar treats and affordable drinks near the Horseshoe Casino.
If you’re a gamer or a Ravens fan or both, then GAME is right down your alley. A couple of other students from the graduating class joined Destiny, Jada and me. Mechanics enjoyed playing video games just as much as they liked working on engines. They were natural introverts, but tonight, they would let their social side show. It was Wednesday night which meant HiScore or Happy Hour for Gamers.
Rick enjoyed playing the American Truck Simulator. After working on engines all day, there is nothing more relaxing than sitting behind the wheel and driving on the open road. Some of us will get our CDLs after finishing trade school. While others can just live the dream.
GAME has more than just PS4. They also offer traditional games such as Pool, ping pong, Air hockey, Jenga, corn hole and darts. This appealed to the diesel techs who loved been on their feet, moving around, keeping their hands busy. Jada was partial to beer pong except she didn’t like the beer. Lucky for me, I was happy to oblige in her place.
Destiny was still her overbearing self today with the tires, but over the last several months, she has improved some and learned to chill out.
I bought her a Heavy Seas and mentioned that she did great today.
After satisfying our gaming addiction, it was time to head back to Security Mall to crash for the night. Had to catch some Z’s – Pontzer had an exam prep for us first thing. I drove Jada back to her home down the road from the mall. Destiny drove her old Toyota back to Security Square.
“Do me a favor, come to my car first thing in the morning and knock hard,” she pleaded. “Don’t let me be late for school again. I need to graduate.”
When I got back I drove by several trucks that were spending a night in front of Sears. Some nights especially on the weekend was so busy, they place resembled a TA. Sometimes Mr Pontzer or Sears would call the Auto Barn, a 24-hr wrecker service to tow, and the driver would be left with a $1,500 bill plus the charge for storage.
Past the line of trucks, I saw a couple of dozen free wheelers doing donut holes in the parking lot like it was the grand prix.
This was not a random collection of mischievous kids looking for fun. Instead, it was an organized group of guys and gals chasing danger, drugs and lawlessness – living life on the edge.
Kids in hot rods and illegal street racers spinning around in a dark, empty parking lot. They are natural-born thrill seekers who have nothing better to do and no other goal but to invite danger and elude the law. It was an accident waiting to happen, and I didn’t want no part of it.
Smoke mixed with the smell of burning rubber filled the night sky, resembling pressurized steam from a catapult on a busy flight deck of an aircraft carrier. It was exhilarating to watch but dangerous to be in midst of all this madness.
They didn’t know I was there. I sat in the safe confines of my car recording the entire event on my iPhone, hoping it would not be recalled as criminal evidence if something bad was to happen.
Finally after 10 months studying and getting our hands dirty, it was time to graduate. To prep for the final exam, Pontzer held another Jeopardy session.
“Emissions for $200,” I stated.
“Congrats, you just won the daily double!”
“Ok, I’m gonna wager $500, everything I got.”
“This liquid sprayed into the exhaust system breaks down dangerous Nitrous Oxide emissions into harmless nitrogen and water,” Pontzer read, as he started to whistle the Jeopardy think song.
My group huddled together. I looked at Destiny, then at Rick. Luckily, we were just talking about diesel exhaust fluid the previous night.
“What is DEF?” I asked in eager anticipation.
There was a long pause and a big smile.
“You got it Chito. I think you guys are ready for the final exam. Some of you will be working at the TA, some at Ryder or Penske, some at the local Mom & Pop. And some like Chito will be hitting the road as an owner operator.”