Truck Driving School

The CDL School I attended was located in Priceville, Alabama. A Super 8 motel room would be my home for the next three weeks. I did not know what to expect on the first day, but I met a wide range of personalities in the other students. The range included a Mississippi farm boy with a middle-school education to a former software engineer with a Master’s degree. There was an ebony giant named Steve, who looked like an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots and, his foil, a rail-thin fellow named Ray. There was also Mike, from North Carolina, who had worked in the computer field in some capacity, but seemed perpetually bitter because of “lowering” himself to training for a trucking career. And, of course, there was the guy who already “knew everything” and for whom, in his mind at least, this school was a mere formality. Despite the varied backgrounds and personalities, everyone here had at least one thing in common: each person was seeking a better life for himself or, he was seeking to get his life back on track from a prior misfortune. So, it came as no surprise when a camaraderie quickly developed among most of us.

I became fast friends with Alan, the former software engineer. Alan had been laid off from his engineering job and, at 54; he’d been having difficulty finding suitable employment in a young man’s field. Like me, Alan had a lot riding on the success of this new venture. After the expenses of moving from New York to Alabama and the costs of CDL school and my motel, my savings were dwindling rapidly. If this trucking thing didn’t work out, I was screwed. However, Alan and I were not the only ones who had pushed our chips “all in” on this hand. The guy from Mississippi said that he’d ripped the stereo system out of his car and sold it at a truck stop in order to have gas money to get to Priceville.

As is often the case, most of us banded together and helped to alleviate the concerns of our circumstances through laughter and joking. Steve was the biggest comedian of all, both literally and figuratively. Steve wore a perpetual smile, and the clowning giant was the rare type of person whose mere presence tends to lift one’s spirits. He was always a joy to be around and he usually kept everyone laughing, except Mike, who maintained a sour view of the world.

The training format of the school put us in the classroom during the first week in preparation for the written tests, and the next two weeks introduced the road training for the driving portion of the test. I wasn’t too concerned about the written tests-but, I was VERY concerned about the road test. This could prove to be the potential worm in my apple but I was determined to give it my best shot.

The classroom instructor was a rotund, middle-aged fellow named Ron. He boasted many years of over-the-road experience and, although he may not have been the most entertaining instructor in the world, it soon became clear that he had probably forgotten more about trucking than most of us would ever know. Thanks to Ron’s expertise, 10 of the 15 students passed the written tests on the first try. Three of them passed the second time around and, the other two had to make a third attempt but, eventually, everyone in the class had passed. Now, it was time to drive the trucks. Oh boy…

Alan and I bantered nervously in the crisp morning air of the big day. Alan was a transplant from England and, although he had been in the States for sixteen years, he had not lost an iota of his Cockney accent. When he became aggravated or nervous, his accent tended to become even more pronounced-sometimes to the point where I’d have trouble understanding him. On this morning, I didn’t need to understand him. We were both nervous but, at the same time, we were excited about the new challenge before us. We’d be spending the first couple of days in the yard, learning straight-line backing and 45° angle backing.

The instructor entered the yard before the sun had fully risen and waved for us to join him at the row of trucks in the yard. The rank of about a dozen trucks was mostly ancient long-nosed Freightliners and dilapidated Volvos but, presumably, they all worked. They reminded me of ancient battle-scarred warriors who should be resting in retirement but who have been recalled to active duty for one last fight.

The instructor’s name was James, who was a little younger than Ron, but whose shoulders were slightly hunched, as if he’d been carrying a cinder block before he’d arrived. He had a cookie-duster mustache and spoke in a nasal monotone, which made me glad that I’d ingested plenty of coffee this morning. James, as we would discover, had a propensity for talking about women’s breasts. He didn’t just talk about them, mind you, he analyzed them: the shape, the size, the feel, the texture, the smell, the “rating system”, the color, the roundness of the areola, the smoothness, the pear-shaped ones, the apple-shaped ones… well, you get the picture. At first, the mammary musings of James was funny and entertaining but, after a time, it started seeming a little creepy. It was obvious that he was obsessed with the glorious globes. I’ll admit that I have an appreciation for female breasts myself, but they are rarely exposed as a topic in one of my normal conversations. James spoke of breasts as if he were casually talking about the weather. Be that as it may, James was our instructor now, and I fervently hoped that he had more knowledge to bestow upon us than the most plausible route to “Titty City” in Nevada.

After about half an hour of verbal instructions, James climbed into the old white Volvo and fired up the engine. The roar of the diesel engine drowned out the sounds of morning as it proclaimed itself the ruler of its domain. Even Steve was dwarfed standing next to the rumbling white giant. James maneuvered the truck between two rows of orange cones and told us that we’d be learning straight-line backing today. He then pointed directly at me and asked me to remind him of my name.

“Rick”, I said.

“Okay Rick”, grinned James, “you’re first-jump in!”

I climbed up into the rumbling vehicle with trepidation while some of the students wished me good luck, and others were wagering on how many cones I’d crush. James climbed up to the window and shouted a reminder at me over the noise of the thundering engine, “Steer into your trouble… if the trailer goes right-steer right, if the trailer goes left-steer left.” With that, he climbed down from the vehicle and left me to the task at hand. The old Volvo was shaking with authority, as if it were a rodeo bull eager to dismount me in less than eight seconds. The mirrors were vibrating so violently that I couldn’t even see the cones; they appeared as orange blurs.

I took a deep breath and began my backward trek. Amazingly, I managed to negotiate the 100-yard course without hitting any cones, but it didn’t take long to discover that this was trickier than it seemed in theory. If I’d had to go another hundred yards, there’s no doubt that I would have killed some cones. Over the next couple of days, I got to practice more and gained a little more confidence. Then, I was introduced to the bane of my existence: 45° angle backing.

Almost everyone is abysmal at 45° angle backing to start with, and I was no exception. I had been a submariner in the U.S. Navy and had gotten a commendation for serving as a helmsman/planesman during an ice expedition to the North Pole in 1981. I steered the ship through shallow, ice-covered waters on a daily basis without breaking sweat. So, it aggravated me to no end that the task of backing this truck between those stupid cones seemed to be so impossible for me. However, I was not the only one having difficulty. Alan even resorted to mathematical solutions to try and crack this puzzle but it didn’t seem to help either of us.

The “guy who knew everything” was, amusingly, one of the worst in the class. I cannot recall his name, so I’ll just call him “Douchebag”. Douchebag blamed the equipment, blamed the instructor for teaching him bad habits, and blamed the setup of the course. It couldn’t have been his lack of ability because he was God’s gift to trucking. Douchebag insisted that if they had allowed him to design the course, he’d have everyone transformed into a Super Trucker within a week. By this time, Douchebag was being looked upon as comic relief rather than a mentor.

In truth, backing a big truck is more art than science. The only way to improve is through sheer repetition. Unfortunately, there was a limited amount of time and opportunities to practice before our road test. Concern began to arise among some of the students. We didn’t see how we’d possibly be ready in time.

Enter Pat. Pat was another yard instructor, a petite middle-aged lady with closely cropped blonde hair and a forceful presence. Pat was a veteran of the road and traveled with her loyal companion, a terrier mixed-breed named Zip Code.

“I named him that because he’s been in every zip code,” explained Pat.

She said that the course in the yard was set up exactly the same way that it would be for the test. Then, she pulled a Joe Namath moment out of her hat:

“We’ve done this week in and week out with hundreds of students, and I guarantee that I’ll have you ready for your test.”

She seemed so confident and assured of herself that I didn’t write her words off as bluster-I believed her. True to her word, she began showing us some tricks that yielded immediate results. The “tricks” that she showed us probably wouldn’t have helped a whit in a real world situation of attempting to back into a dock at a crowded shipper, but they helped immensely in learning to set up at the correct angle on this particular course and getting the trailer in between the cones.

This brings up a point. A three-week trucking school is, essentially, a boot camp toward getting a CDL. Given the short time frame, the student is crammed with the essential knowledge to pass the test… period. There is no time to perfect or hone any of the basic skills that have been introduced. Make no mistake; a student fresh out of CDL School is, in no way, prepared to be on the road in an 18-wheeler. That is why, upon being hired by his first company, a new driver will spend 6-8 weeks with a certified trainer before he is cut loose on his own. The role of a CDL school is to whip a student into shape to pass a CDL test… that’s it.

In the meantime, we had been going out in groups of four with other instructors to drive on a low-traffic route in Decatur, Alabama to learn how to shift through the 10 gears.

Donny was the first instructor to endure the comedy of errors from my group. Donny was a laid-back country boy with rugged features, for whom being behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler seemed as natural to him as putting on his pants in the morning. Donny was as cool as a cucumber, and never got frazzled by any of our beginner mistakes. For the first couple of days, there was more grinding taking place in those trucks than in a Starbucks factory.

Another instructor I rode with was Rick, a compact and vigorous black man with an energy level that could only be rivaled by the likes of Richard Simmons-although Rick wasn’t nearly as annoying as Richard. Rick would earn the nickname of “Boom Boom” because, his method of instruction on the proper time to shift gears was:
“Okay, get ready-BOOM! Get ready-BOOM!” Boom Boom relayed countless road stories to us, and he became one of my favorite instructors to ride with.

Finally, the time to take the road test had arrived. We would be going, in small groups, to the testing facility in Hartselle, Alabama over the next 5 days. I would be testing on the second day, and Alan would test on the fourth. Everyone was nervous, so I guess that Alan just needed a laugh when he approached Douchebag and asked, “Do you think you’re going to pass?”
“I KNOW I’m going to pass!” boasted Douchebag proudly.
Douchebag failed on his first two attempts.

The test would consist of four parts: first, the student would provide a verbal commentary of an inspection of the truck and trailer, next would be straight-line backing, then, 45° angle backing and, finally, driving on the road with the evaluating officer.

On my test day, the diminutive Ray and, another student named Jerome accompanied me. Jerome was missing most of his front teeth, but that didn’t stop him from flashing an endearing smile. He had poignant circumstances for being here and I was in his corner rooting for him. The scuttlebutt among the instructors, however, didn’t give him a snowball’s chance in hell of passing. On this day, Jerome’s smile was missing and he was nervous, almost to the point of trembling. It helped to relieve some of my tension while I offered encouragement to him as best I could.

Ray was the first to test and despite the fact that he was barely big enough to reach the pedals, he managed to pass on his first attempt. Next was Jerome. Pat was the instructor who had accompanied us and she didn’t seem optimistic. Jerome, however, rose to the occasion and shocked everyone. He got what would hold up to be the highest score of anyone in the class.

“I didn’t see that coming,” is all that Pat could say.

Now it was my turn. We had gone two for two today, and I certainly wanted to keep the streak intact. I breezed through the inspection because Alan and I had unmercifully drilled each other on this until we had it down cold. Straight-line backing didn’t prove to be a problem either. Then, it was time for the dreaded 45° angle backing. After my heart skipped a few beats, I set up the way that Pat had showed us and I slowly maneuvered the trailer between the cones. It was perfection! I was dead center perfect! My confidence was now soaring as I got out to see that my trailer was already across the first line, which was a passing grade. I thought, however, that I could back a little closer to the rear cone to improve my score. I climbed back into the truck and backed up a little. I got out to observe my mastery, knowing that I’d just sent my score into the stratosphere.

My life flashed before my eyes in horror as I observed the rearmost cone lying horizontal, as if it were a bowling pin that had been struck with a Brunswick from the hand of Walter Ray Williams Jr. I looked at the officer with an imploring appeal but, with the cone lying there like a dead duck, he had no choice but to fail me.

I was devastated. I moped to the curb and sat down with my head in my hands. Our roles reversed, Jerome came over to offer encouragement. I was pissed off at myself because it was my ego that had caused me to fail. I’d just been trying to “run up the score”. I had deserved to fail, and I knew it. Jerome wouldn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself for very long though.

“Git up and go take that motherbleeper again!” he insisted. “I know you can do it an’ I’m gone kick yo’ motherbleepin’ butt if you don’t go take that motherbleeper again!”
His words were blunt, simple, and to the point. I decided to go and take that motherbleeper again.

This time, I collected myself and left my ego at the door. I backed the trailer between the cones and got out 3 or 4 times to assess my progress. When the rear of the trailer was across the first passing line, I looked at the officer and asked, “Is that passing?”
He could not conceal an amused grin when he said, “Yeah, that’s passing. Do you want to go for a higher score?”

“No, sir!” I stated with conviction.

The road test went well and, after the emotional roller coaster ride of today, I could rest easy now-I had passed.