How I Learned Never To Ask For An Educational Day

We’ve all had educational days or we wouldn’t be here. That said, how I learned never to ask for such a thing is a cautionary tale worth telling…if only to satisfy the curiosity of a friend who wanted to hear the full scoop after I mentioned it in casual conversation.

Shortly before Christmas, 1981, Glendive, Montana (eastern edge, 50 miles from North Dakota). I’d been driving for Halliburton, hauling dry cement in the oil patch, since that July. Was off duty but on call as always. Rose (3rd wife) and I were downtown, doing errands, spending what time we could together. Stopped by the bank drive-in window and made a paycheck deposit. Teller told me, “Have a nice day!” Whereupon I opened my big mouth and said, “Thanks, but I’d rather have an educational day!”

Now, I’d said that simply because it used to bug the dickens out of me when people said, “Have a nice day!” What if I didn’t WANT a nice day? What if they didn’t MEAN it when they said it? Did they even THINK before spouting with the platitudes? AR-R-RGH!

We drove on home. A couple of hours later, midafternoon, I got called out on a job. The trucks we drove were all corn binders (International Harvester) units, but very few of us had assigned trucks. Mostly, we walked into the dispatch office and got told, “You’re in truck # whatever.” So driver maintenance was often sloppy, and due to my relative inexperience (5 months on the job, mostly competent as a driver but a long way from knowing everything there was to know), there were things I did not yet comprehend about the machines…

…but I was soon to find out.

East of the tiny town of Wibaux, Montana, we had to hang a left, off the two lane highway and up a fairly steep grade–just a dirt track–for several hundred yards before turning right along the top of the ridge to head toward the drilling location. Dispatch had different rules for when chains were required. This day, they’d told us, “It’s a we-don’t-know if it’s really bad or not situation, so you get to use your own judgment on this one.” In other words, no penalty for not chaining up…except if things go wrong, and then, hey, it’s butt chewing time.

I was the lead driver for a three-truck convoy. It had been snowing a little, was definitely cold enough to be nice and slick, but the grade didn’t look too horrible. I made the call and charged on up without chains, the other two hanging back on the highway shoulder to see if I made it or not.

I didn’t. Not even close; only proceeded maybe 100 yards before spinning out. Set the air brakes and climbed out to start throwing iron. I had the last set of chains, had just thrown them over one of the right side drive wheels, and was about to crawl under there to hook the inside hook, when I heard this deep moan like some mythical sea dragon was having trouble giving birth and needed a C-section. I knew instantly what that sound meant: I hadn’t seen anything move yet, but the brakes were giving way. And boy howdy, were they. Now, you have to picture this: I couldn’t jump in the cab from the passenger side because I had my duffel bag leaning against that door and the door was locked. All I could do was try to run around the front of the truck to get to the driver’s door, but I knew from the first step it was a lost cause. For one thing, I was loaded down with winter work clothing, multiple layers, coveralls, insulated moon boots, the works. A desert tortoise could have moved faster.

The rig, all 80,000 pounds of it, fully loaded, started slowly but picked up speed in a hurry, arrowing straight back down the way it had come. In the end, all I could do was watch it and hope like crazy no traffic came along right then, because the beast was going to cross the highway. Fortunately, the highway stayed clear while the rig sliced across the blacktop, by this time moving like a shark smelling blood in the water. Once across the pavement, slamming down into the far side, snow filled ditch, the trailer jackknifed before everything came to a thundering halt. (No, not a screeching halt. Remember, the brakes were laughing at me.)

My buddies watched my moment of glory, of course. This wonderful snapshot of the Ultimate Trucker in action would be faithfully reported to management for sure.

Still, the drilling location was some distance away and none of the other crew assigned to this particular job had shown up yet. If the truck could pull itself and the loaded trailer out of there…yeah, right. Sure, I gave it the old college try, but mostly we just sat there and spun wheels for a little bit–at which point the Cementer, the Supervisor for this job, arrived on the scene. I was 38 years of age at the time and didn’t much feel like taking the ass chewing the 22 year old boss was dishing out, so I yelled right back in his face, tit for tat, until he left in a huff and drove his pickup on up to the location. I had to wait for a top driver, who as far as I know never once got his truck in trouble he couldn’t get out of on his own, to come along with his bin truck (truck tractor with a winch, no trailer).

He got me pulled out of there just fine. He was also the one who, as we were hooking up the winch, gave me my education for the day. He explained that these old 1970’s trucks and trailers most of us were running…well, when you set the emergency brake, you did not lock up every wheel like you did when pressing down on the service brake pedal. No no no! In truth, I’d been unwittingly trying to hold 80,000 pounds on a steep grade with the brakes applied to only one drive axle! I’d known the steer tires weren’t braked but had thought all four of the other axles were.

Thankfully, Spirit had me covered. Nobody got hurt. We got all of the cement to the drilling location on time. Only my reputation, and therefore of course my ego, had taken a healthy hit.

Which is why, from that day to this, I have never again asked for an educational day.