Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mail Truck Memories


For about a year (31 years ago), I drove a straight-frame truck with a box between my hometown and Pittsburgh. It was basically an eight hour day up and back, including load time, but there was a four hour lay-over that I didn’t get paid for, so that wasn’t so great. Still, the rate of pay was such that it was worth my while, despite the inconvenience. What I actually did was share the job with my brother-in-law. I joked that It gave me five days to earn a living and nine to pretend that I was a farmer, and then back to work, etc.

Not long after I started, the owner put the truck I was driving into semi-retirement and replaced it with a newer one purchased at auction that had a 22 foot box. (The old one had a 16.) It had belonged to a Canadian company that blew in cellulose insulation and had the slogan “Canadians serving Canadians” painted on both sides of the box. One day, an acquaintance rode with me and we ended up at the Beaver Valley Mall to beat in some time during the lay-over. When we exited the mall an hour or so later and got in the truck, we noticed some teenagers sitting in a car nearby having some beer. They waved and then asked if we’d like a beer. We both said yes (I wouldn’t these days) and talked to the kids a while (we were only in our 20’s ourselves). When they finally figured out that we were West Virginia hillbillies, instead of Canadians, you could see the disappointment on their faces.

That slogan may have saved my backside one time, though. There was only one lane open through eight inches of fresh snow as I headed up I-79 in Pennsylvania. I soon found myself stuck behind a string of traffic doing about 45 miles an hour. That was actually as fast as anyone should have been driving, but snow the whole way had caused me to push the limit on my schedule. (The contractors get fined if they’re late.) After what seemed like several miles of tooling along, I swung out into the eight inches of snow in the passing lane and started up the highway. Behind me, I could see nothing through the swirling snow that I was raising. Finally, at the head of the slower-moving traffic, I saw a car with the markings of the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol. I figured that if he wanted me, he already had me, so onward I went at 55 miles an hour, throwing snow like the proverbial white tornado. Not wanting to cut him off in any way, I ran on a little while in the left lane. Finally, a disgusted voice came on channel 19 saying, “Hey, Canada, do you think you could pull back over now and quit raising such a blizzard?” I just pretended I didn’t hear him and stayed over there for another minute before pulling back in line. The voice came on again giving me a very insincere-sounding “thank you.” If he’d known that he was being passed by a hillbilly, I suspect the blue lights would have come on. I guess he just figured that I was from Canada and knew what I was doing. I made schedule that day.

I made good use of my break some nights by catching some Z’s on a pile of mail bags in the storage room at the airport facility. I stopped doing that the night a poor postal worker came in to get some bags and nearly had a heart attack when I spoke to him from the bag pile. Apparently, he’d forgotten that I was in there. From then on, I took my naps in the truck. That’s when I learned that the human brain can “turn your ears off,” allowing you to sleep within 100 yards of jets winding up for take-off.

I also learned why parcels don’t always do well when shipped. In the bulk mail facility of that era, there was a big cone in one area with slides going off in every direction. A great big black guy stood at the top of the cone, sorting mail bags and parcels as they came to him on a conveyor. Then he would either carefully start a bag down the slide, or throw a parcel clear to the bottom. Directly over his head was a huge sign that said, “DO NOT THROW PARCELS!” I had to wonder how many other postal workers in the country did the same thing.

My route partially paralleled another driver’s route who drove for the same company, so we ran the road together some nights to keep each other company on the CB. He usually ran in front, as he was phenomenal at spotting distant deer. One extremely bright moonlight night, I saw his lights go off ahead of me. In a couple seconds, he came on the CB and told me to kill the lights, AND I DID! Suddenly, the whole wide valley opened up to view, instead of just the little area lit up by our headlights. We were running down a long straight section of two-lane highway (rare in West Virginia) and I could see a lone pedestrian in the extreme distance. We left our lights off, but he heard us coming, stepped back from the road (a wise move) and stopped to watch us. We could literally see the curious look on his face as we shot by in the bright moonlight. It was amazing how much more we could see in the “darkness,” but we soon approached a bend, turned on our lights and never pulled that stunt again.

One of our “pit stops” was a donut shop in a small river town, and we were a couple of the “regulars” there. One night after exiting the john, my companion picked up a nearby cup of coffee and in his best phony hillbilly accent asked, “Is this yur’n?” I quipped, “No, it’s supposed to be coffee, it just looks that way!” He cracked up, but if the waitresses look could have killed, I’d have been a dead man.

Further down the river, he always picked up mail at locked-up post office at 2AM. The jail was next door, and the inmates would all come to the window to watch us load. They waved when we arrived, and again when we left. I suppose it gave them something to do when they couldn’t sleep.

There’s an old expression, common in some circles that someone is “carryin’ the mail” when they go speeding down the road. I suppose that either goes back to the old fast-freight mail trains, or maybe even the Pony Express. Interestingly enough, my route was timed to run the speed limit on the interstate, with time allowed for pit stops, as we called them. However, I found that I could take the two-lane a large part of the way, drive slower, stay awake easier steering on the crooked roads and still get to my destination in plenty of time.

I did a few foolish things back then but, all in all, it was the only decent paying job off the farm that I ever thoroughly enjoyed. © 2014


deborah harvey said...

used to drive the back roads with no lights at full moon. beautiful. new cars turn lights on at dark and you can't turn them off. rats! i like to control the machine, not have it tell me what to do.
deb h.

Gorges Smythe said...

I agree about automatic anything, dh!

Sunnybrook Farm said...

I wouldn't mention driving without lights on your next trucking interview though I would hire someone who could drive that well.
I am still laughing about the coffee.
Strange how you drove a truck and the mail to boot and now have to take a driving class.

Chickenmom said...

Good stories, Gorges! Let's hear some more!

Mamma Bear said...

Great memories GS...I hope you get a new truck driving job you like just as much.

Gorges Smythe said...

SF, I don't even tell them that I have a blog. If they really knew me they'd NEVER hire me! Glad you got the joke, some won't. lol I agree about the CDL, though this DOES allow me to drive a semi, rather than just a straight-frame.

Maybe a few lines about my feed truck route, Cm. There's not a lot more to tell on the mail truck route; I'm basically a pretty boring fellow.