Saturday, December 06, 2008

Don't Do That Again!

My only picture of the truck I about wrecked is the topmost - it is of a 1980 Ford CLT 9000 powered by a 475 hp 8v92 Detroit Diesel tied to a ten speed. That pic has it hooked to a 42' Wilson grain trailer. I was pulling a Doonan hopper bottom - pictured in the middle. The bottom pic is a better representation of a Ford. Skillet Faced Fords and Two Story Falcons were among the slang names given these trucks.

We hauled a lot of wheat into one of the two flour mills in Arkansas City, KS, and then pick up crushed limestone rock from McAdams Limestone near Cedar Vale KS to haul home. My former boss moved a lot of 3/4 and 1 1/2" limestone rock - feedlots used tons of it in their alleyways and other people (including me) used it in their driveways. It is also an ingredient in asphalt pavement projects. It is fairly hard on hopper bottoms designed for grain, but if the person loading the rock dribbled it into the trailer carefully - the trailers would take it. If some knucklehead just dumped it in, the traps might get blown out. That never happened - the trailers were fairly tough and the loaders were pros at filling "grain wagons."

Plus, you should know about cabover trucks - COE or Cab Over Engine. They were born as a result of nationwide overall length laws limiting how long a truck/trailer unit could be. A "conventional" truck is by necessity longer than a COE hooked to the same trailer. COEs could pull longer trailers back in the day - and that meant more freight cubes and revenue. A COE is harder to climb to the driver's seat. Interior room is limited due to the "doghouse," or engine cover. It dominates the center of the interior, with a couple of small "wells" on the sides for the driver and passenger seats including the small amount of legroom.

There were three of us running together that morning. I had the front door. We'd spent the night in line at one of the mills, dumped our wheat, and loaded our rock to go home. I had purchased a can of pop at the quarry, and dumped it into my cup strategically placed in the cupholder on the dash. We headed up K15 towards Dexter to avoid having to drive through Arkansas City again. It is one of those narrow roads that when the white line ends, the ditch begins.

I started looking for my can of pop. I couldn't find it - having forgotten that I'd dumped it in the cup, and tossed the empty can into the footwell on the other side of the doghouse. I usually placed such items between the seat and the doghouse on the floor. I rooted around, and finally started looking down there. Maybe you've done this yourself - if you take your eyes off the road and bend over, you will steer in the direction you are looking.

I heard some rumbling, and that got my attention. Looking back up through the windshield, I was presented with a pretty good view of the pasture looming in my windshield. I was already partly off the road. The thought flew through my mind that I could go ahead and ride it out in the pasture, but I saw a little ravine dead ahead - with sheer walls and a dropoff of at least seven or eight feet, if not more. No way I could get stopped in time, and that would total the truck and trailer to drop it in that hole.

I can guarantee you in instances like this, time slows down. I made the decision to try to stay on the road, so I started steering hard to the left. The odds seemed better. The tractor lurched out of the ditch and headed across the road. No one was coming - at least I'd made sure of that before I started my ill fated search for a non existent can of soda. Just as the tractor was clear, I felt a real tug coming from the rear. The trailer had fallen into the ditch.

The tractor was in the oncoming lane at this point, and the whole rig was - oh, say about thirty to forty five degrees across the road into the ditch. Since the right side trailer wheels were further down in the ditch than the left sides - the trailer was at a bad angle - nearly tipping over. The right side trailer tires were also digging a pretty good gouge in the ditch (we saw it later).

Well, the whole thing was wanting to roll over. I was braced up against the door and looking out the passenger front window to steer. I happened to look out the passenger side window and it seemed I was staring at the pavement. I also caught a glimpse of the trailer in the rear mirror - and I'll never forget this as long as I live. I could see the top of the trailer (normally only seeing the side), and the tarp was stained with diesel smoke. I'd never noticed that before, because the tarp was always rolled back if I climbed up there. I couldn't see that high when washing the truck. When I noticed how dirty it was, the thought crossed my mind that I'd have to wash it. Here I was in the middle of wrecking the damn thing, and I was worried about a stinking dirty tarp.

So, as I felt it start to roll over, I'd feed in some right turn. As the cab settled, I'd let a bit of left out. Back and forth. Meanwhile, I was serenaded by some "whoooof whooof whooof" sounds. If you were to see a dramatization of this in a movie, you'd hear high pitched tire squeals just like a car makes. That isn't how truck tires sound. They kind of try to grip the pavement, roll over and release, then try to grab again. I was hearing the drive tires flop around in their failing attempts to hold on. Eight separate tires. Whooof Whooof Whooof.

So, this went on for a moment of time. Then, I was tossed against the door rather violently. The tractor was jerked from the oncoming lane to the center zipper. The trailer wheels had finally dug out enough dirt for a backstop, and the whole thing had scrubbed off enough speed to allow the trailer to be pulled from the ditch. I found myself idling in high gear with the motor about to die.

My running buddy behind me said: "Don't do that again!" I pulled over and stopped - basically blocking the northbound lane. There was no room to get off the road. A cursory examination showed I could go on down the road and find somewhere to pull over to inspect it further - we couldn't do it there. K15 makes a hard left north of Dexter, and there is a junction with a county road where we all had room to park.

The right side landing gear had sheared completely off, breaking eight bolts that held it in place. A brace had been broken and had punctured the hopper, but the hole wasn't big enough to leak rock. The main beam on the trailer above the drive tires was slightly "wallered out" from sitting on the drivers. The landing gear was still attached - the transmission shaft from the other landing gear was still in place. We took that apart and rolling the tarp back, tossed it all on top of the load of rock. Normally, the rock would be in a small pile centered over the trap, but this load was pushed up the right side of the trailer. The load had shifted in a big way. If I'd have tried this stunt with grain, with it's higher center of gravity, I'd have rolled the rig.

Well, I was ready to shut it off and just leave it right there. I had visions of riding home with one of my traveling companions to quit when we arrived, never to drive a truck again. They talked me into at least taking the truck to Wellington, where there was a truck stop with a cafe, where we could eat lunch. I wasn't the least bit hungry, but they were. So, I drove it that far.

By the time I'd had something to eat and some iced tea, my jangling nerves were calmed considerably. They pointed out what a pain it would be to have to come back and get the truck - I really should go ahead and drive it home. Of course, as the trip progressed and I didn't wreck anymore, my feelings about quitting changed. My coworkers were also responsible for my altered attitude. Both of them were and still are far more experienced truckers than I, so their advice and thoughts registered.

The boss wasn't very happy - but it didn't take much to bolt the landing gear back on, weld the hole shut, and reinstall the brace. That trailer was forever sprung after the incident - it noticeably leaned to the right. I've always said I did a piss poor job of driving to get into that situation, but I did some damn good driving to get out.

So, to this day, if I drop something on the floor or can't find a particular thing without taking my eyes off the road - well, it stays lost until I can pull over and park to find whatever I thought I had to have. It isn't worth the alternative!


Earl said...

Great story, had me ready to roll over with you, glad you didn't.

Jeffro said...

Heh, so was I....

Anonymous said...

It put me on the edge of my seat, too.