Columnist reminisces about first trip in tractor-trailer.

March-April 2020

John Bendel

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Fifty-two years ago this past January, Joe Bartash handed me a clipboard with three freight bills, a manifest and the keys to a truck.

“Three stops. Your unit’s on the side,” he said, pointing to the north side of the building facing the New Jersey Turnpike. “It’s already hooked up.”

Those last words were a great relief. I had never hooked a tractor to a trailer. In fact, I had never driven a tractor-trailer. Today would be my first time. Joe Bartash was the Newark terminal manager for Friedman’s Express, a less-than-a-truckload company based in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. It turned out to be a memorable day.

In January 1968, there was no CDL. If you passed your New Jersey driver’s test in a 1.4-ton Ford Falcon with an automatic transmission, you were good to drive a 40-ton tractor-trailer.

Only motorcycles and buses required special license endorsements.

The truck this day was a White 9000 single-axle diesel with a 10-speed Roadranger transmission. The trailer was a 40-foot Fruehauf van with sliding tandems, a roll-up door and a 12-foot, 8-inch clearance – low enough to clear most local bridges but still higher and longer than anything I had ever driven. And it bent in the middle.

Driving was a serious career goal I had pursued through my early 20s. I was 27 that clear January morning in 1968 when I finally lied my way behind the wheel. That morning I reached a goal driving across New Jersey’s industrial landscape in that White 9000. White was a major nameplate, but the company struggled, and in 1980 Volvo bought its assets.

‘Can you drive that?’

I had gotten my first truck-driving job a few years earlier after the boss took me outside, pointed to a Chevy truck with a large van body and asked, “Can you drive that?’’

I said yes, and the job delivering kitchen cabinets was mine. The Chevy was gas powered with hydraulic brakes. The White was different. This was the real thing, a heavy-duty diesel. And this was the freight business – big-time trucking, with bills of lading, air brakes, union work rules, and all that serious stuff.

I called Joe at 7 that morning and dropped the name of my friend Bill, who had worked for him once. Joe asked if I drove trailer, and I said, yes. Be here by 8, he said. I tried to look confident striding from the office into the yard that morning with the clipboard under my arm.

In the cab of the truck, I tried to remember all Bill had told me about air brakes, trailer brakes, and Roadrangers. I turned the key but nothing happened. So I pushed buttons until the diesel started. Somehow I released the brakes, then drove forward and out the gate into traffic. I didn’t hit anything. I congratulated myself. My first stop was not a delivery. Joe directed me to the Fruehauf dealership for a quick trailer repair first.

The Fruehauf shop was just across the Passaic River in South Kearney, and their garage was a drive-through. Hooray. I wouldn’t have to back in. They closed the doors. It was January, after all. Inside the building, a mechanic told me to shut down the engine. The fumes were suffocating.

I turned the key off. Nothing happened. The diesel continued to chug.

I looked around as more mechanics began hollering at me to shut the damn thing down. I pushed, pulled and twisted everything on the dash. No luck. The White kept running. Fumes in the garage were visible and thickening.

Finally I saw a button to my lower left that said Emergency Shut Down, or something like that. I pulled it and the engine stopped. They had to open a door a bit to vent the place. Meanwhile, I went looking for a driver who could explain the controls to me. I found one in the waiting room. Nice guy. Back at my truck he went over the gauges and controls, including the right way to shut down. Then he pointed to the Emergency Shut Down button and said, “Whatever you do, don’t pull that.”

Uh oh.

The Fruehauf mechanic who agreed to reset it charged me $5 – roughly $35 today. It would have been less, he hinted, had I not just tried to asphyxiate everyone.

No big deal. After all, it was a bright, sunny morning, and I was off to my first day driving a real live tractor-trailer down U.S. 1. Could life get any better?

Backing in

The first delivery was to a Purolator filter plant in Rahway, N.J. It would be my very first trailer back-in.

The warehouse was built right up to the sidewalk and had an inside truck bay – a single bay with a single door. You had to back the entire truck into the building. I’ve never seen a door look so narrow. As with most inside bays on a bright, sunny day, you can’t see a damn thing inside the building – in your mirrors or even hanging out the door.

After five minutes of trying and failing to simply put the back of the trailer in the vicinity of that narrow door, a warehouseman came out to direct me – then a few warehousemen and then a guy in a suit. He was followed by other suits and a secretary, who wanted to see what the hell was going on out on Randolph. They stood around the truck waving and pointing. It looked like an argument in truck sign language. Meanwhile, I was blocking traffic. Before long, the Rahway police arrived. A cop made me pull away and go around the block to relieve the jam.

I had once worked in a warehouse where road drivers would occasionally ask if someone would please back in the truck for them. I began wishing someone here would offer to do that, but no one did. It took two more trips around the block and more than half an hour to finally get the truck all the way into the building and up to the dock plate. It took no more than five minutes to unload the four or five pallets.

The rest of the day was a snap. I had done it! I didn’t hit anything. I didn’t run over anything. I didn’t cause any bodily harm.

It was a miracle.

I would make the seniority list at another LTL not long after that. But that day with Friedman’s Express was my hazing, my initiation into the brotherhood of urban, LTL trailer drivers. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.