Upon graduation from CDL school, the new driver is assigned to a trainer when hired by his or her first company. The length of this training varies between companies, but it is generally between six and eight weeks. Depending on the trainer, the training experience for the new driver can range between rewarding and a complete nightmare. I’ve heard many stories of new drivers who abandoned their trainer at a truck stop and called for someone to come and rescue them. Fortunately, my training situation would not be so dire. My first trucking job was with a Southeast flatbed company, and my trainer’s name was Ringo.
Ringo was an imposing, grizzly bear of a man with a beard like Dan Haggerty and, despite his thinning hair; he continued to grow graying, shoulder-length locks. He looked a bit like what I’d imagine Hank Williams Jr. to look like if he were injecting steroids. Ringo’s resounding baritone voice left the impression that it might, well, have shattered a wine glass or two in it’s time.
When he arrived to pick me up in the red, white and blue Mack, I loaded my gear into the truck in anxious anticipation of my first week on the road. As I began to settle in, I observed, in terror, that there was only one sleeper berth. Having recently seen the movie “Brokeback Mountain”, my perineum instinctively tightened.
Ringo must have sensed my panic, because he released a powerful belly laugh in amusement.
“The company’s gonna give us a condo next week”, he explained between chuckles. “We’re stuck with this flat top this week so, we’ll just have to do the best we can. You can have the sleeper the first couple of nights ’till you get settled.”
I heaved a sigh of relief and Ringo continued to chortle for the next few miles.
Ringo had recently returned to this trucking company after having spent the past year driving for a private owner. Unexpectedly, he was thrown into the role of training, and I was his first trainee. This would be a new experience for both of us.
Over the next six weeks, we would traverse the southeast together and Ringo would display a patience and understanding that belied his, sometimes, brash personality. Ringo could be described as many things, but boring is not among them. He regaled me with road stories and death-defying tales from his youth during our six weeks together. I never knew, with certainty, how much truth was contained in these tales but, oftentimes, an allegorical truth is just as enlightening as a literal one. Ringo was, without question, a bard of the open road. He Okinawa Flat Belly Tonic also had a habit of bringing interrogative closure to many of his observations with the query, “You know what I mean?” I didn’t give it much thought to begin with but, after a time, I began to wonder if Ringo were channeling the ghost of the late Jim Varney. To his credit, however, he did find time to provide me with training between yarns.
Since we were running southeast regional, we would get to go home on weekends. I would soon discover, however, that a trucking company’s idea of a “weekend” was often displayed by getting the driver home late on Friday evening and then, dispatching him on a load that required him to leave early on Sunday morning. The “trucker’s weekend” was not something, for which, I had been completely prepared.
The first couple of weeks were hard on me because my body was not conditioned to this pace, this type of work, or these long hours. Flatbedding was definitely hard work. I lost most of the feeling in the tips of my fingers and I had aches in places where I would have sworn I didn’t have muscles from wrestling with the 130 pound tarps, throwing the straps, and stretching the bungee cords to secure the tarp. Sometimes, this had to be done in cold, wet, or muddy conditions but, gradually, my body began to adapt to the rigors of its new duties. My “road toughness” would not approach the level of Ringo’s during the six weeks I rode with him, but I would eventually get it to a level that I had, heretofore, thought impossible.
Ringo would also introduce me to some places on the map that usually make a new driver sweat. One such place was the Green River Gorge on I-40 in North Carolina. I had already heard some horror stories pertaining to “The Gorge” and I have, since, seen the aftermath of a rollover while driving through it. I came to realize, however, that The Gorge is nothing to fear so long as it is approached with respect and common sense. Accidents happen there because, quite simply, some drivers just go through it too fast.
I was, nonetheless, a bit tense the first time I was faced with descending Monteagle in Tennessee. I would later view Monteagle as little more than a bump in the road after being introduced to some of the hills out west in the Rockies, but I attempt to never have a cavalier attitude toward descending a mountain in a big truck. I have never forgotten the words of “Boom Boom” in trucking school about this: