Ch – 2 Backing School Dropout

We first started with straight line backing.

“First put the truck in reverse. Take the foot off the clutch, both feet on the floor and let the truck backup on its own. Turn your head side to side and look for any drift on both mirrors.  If you see it drift to one side, turn the steering wheel to the same side, hold for 3-5 seconds and return the wheel to center.  Remember go easy on her.”

“Shit this is so simple, I can do this in my sleep,” Todd mocked.  He grew up in a family of truckers and have been driving the farm grain truck since he was 8. Learned how to detach a Fifth Wheel before he learned how to ride a bike with training wheels off.

“Yes, it’s simple but even the most experienced truck drivers mess up straight line backing sometimes. They lose patience and often oversteer,” Sherry explained. “Why do you think most accidents occur in the truckstop or in the yard.”

We can’t run a marathon, if we don’t know how to walk. So after we all got straight line backing drilled into our brain housing group, we were ready for the next step: offset backing.

“Offset why are we wasting our time with this BS- why can’t we cut to the chase and start learning how to parallel or alley dock like the Big Boyz?” Todd insisted. “That’s where truckers make their mark.”

“While offset may not be something truckers do very often, it’s actually an important piece of the puzzle,” Jimmy answered.

“Offset is important because sometimes when you’re doing an alley dock, you’re just about there, but you just need to move the truck over one lane.  The last 10 feet can be the difference between making to it to the shipper by your cut-off time or having to park on the shoulder of an off-ramp.”

“So there are two types of off-set – one to the right and the other to the left.  Say you have to move the trailer to the right. Turn the steering wheel hard left. Back up and stop when you see 3/4th of the landing gear in the convex mirror.  Then turn the steering wheel hard right and back up until the trailer is directly behind the truck. Then back up straight, looking for the target cone in your right mirror. When the trailer tires clear the cone, turn the steering wheel hard right again and bring the truck in alignment with the trailer and push the trailer into the box. STOP.”

All eight of us took turns making two maneuvers at a time.  The rest of us stood around and shot the breeze or poke fun at our classmates as they ran over cones or completely mucked up the maneuver.  Martha and I spotted for each other and gave advice on how close we were getting to the cones.

When others did their turn, I found it a waste of time just waiting around, so sometimes I went for a quick run around the yard, away from the big trucks or even around town. Perched in a driver’s seat all day is unhealthy so it’s smart that I start exercising from the very beginning.

“Alright guys, stop making fun of your classmates – we can joke in the classroom, but when we’re in the range, this is serious – you could kill someone,” Jimmy warned.

Training in the Front Royal range was like camping.  We were 15 minutes from campus and there were no bathrooms except two porta potties that weren’t emptied as often as needed. One was for Sherry, the lead instructor (and the few females who trained with us) and the other for everyone else. Luckily, the range was located next door to a Thai restaurant. Ben’s Family Cuisine located on the foothill of the Skyline trail.

We started with the spring rolls – they were crispy and fresh sprinkled with ground turkey, cilantro and carrots.

“What are you trying to do – stuff me up so I can’t fit into the front seat of the cab,” said Martha.

Then Martha ordered the seafood stir fry which was zesty, succulent and filling.  She could barely make it half-way and realizing the lack of modern restroom facilities at the yard decided to take a doggy bag.

I ordered the Drunken Noodles with shrimp – 3 peppers out of 5 and boy those juicy Thai peppers were hotter than the engine exhaust pipes from the Volvo.

I had to order a 20 ounce glass of Singha just to put out the flames.  No wonder they call these noodles drunken.

After lunch I thanked Satya and quickly went over her website.

“Your site design is great. The menu is very readable and the font type is inviting and mouth-watering,” I complimented.

“My only beef is with the SEO – You don’t appear to be using the Yoast plugin so the menu is not fully optimized for search.”

“SEO?” She stared inquisitively.

“Search Engine Optimization – improving your ranking on search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing. “

After this, I went over Ben’s Google Business profile with Satya showing her how to update her info and responding to reviews.

Before I knew it I could hear the roar of a turbocharger in the distance. A half an hour had passed and Martha was probably already seated behind the wheel, mashing the clutch.

I rushed back to the range to the usual straggle of trainees waiting for their turn for their turn to play cowboy.

“Where have you been,” Todd exclaimed furiously.

“I’ve been eating at Ben’s Cuisine next door,” I answered.  “You should go there sometime.  The food is affordable and the beer is frosty cold.”

“Yeah, I know Martha brought back the stir fry which I enjoyed but she, unlike you got back to school on time.”

“Well, I had some business to take care. And after all, we’re all here for ourselves so if I wanna come back late, that’s on me.

“You’re a disgrace to the class,” Todd declared.

“F*ck you!”

I didn’t feel like I needed to explain my absence to my fellow classmate. My only responsibility was to myself and to my instructors.  To hell with this – I’m done with school for the week.  Glad to be returning home.  I would never get in the cab of a truck with Todd ever again.

The next week we were ready to start learning how to shift and roll.  We weren’t yet trusted to maneuver the rig through the shady streets of Front Royal, so we stayed circumnavigated the yard.

Driving a ten speed is like taming a ten-headed monster  Not only are there more gears than you can shake a stick at, shifting into one takes more finesses than force.

Despite today’s playstation generation’s aversion to the manual transmission, any level-headed centennial who can count to five and possesses the rare virtue of patience can learn to shift a stick.

A semi truck, on the other hand, is a whole different beast.

Unlike automobiles, a semi truck doesn’t have synchronized transmissions. In other words, if you don’t match the RPMs by revving the accelerator (the fuel pedal), the gears will not mesh and you don’t get into gear.

This sounds terrifying, and it can get a lot worse. If you don’t find your gear soon enough, the truck will keep decelerating and you will have to settle for the next lower gear. If this happens, be patient and never panic.

Now imagine going up or down a hill and you can’t get into gear. Best you grind your way into a lower gear.  Worse, your truck stalls and you lose control.  You start applying your brakes but then you notice a strong, burning smell from your trailer and when you look out the side view mirror and see nothing but smoke and a long line of cars meandering behind you. You know you’re in deep tar and brake dust.

While a truck driver uses the speedometer to determine which gear to choose, he relies on the RPM gauge, or tachometer to know when to shift.

Large trucks have lower speeds and higher torque, so they can shift at a lower RPM than a car.

You shift up at 1500 RPMs and shift down at around 1200 RPMs. Every truck maker has its own unique characteristic and every driver develops his own sweet spot. That’s why many truck drivers float and can intuitively feel when their gears are in synch.

Newbies under the tutorship of an impatient trainer like to rush, and white knuckle the shifter into gear. This is the wrong way to shift. Remember: finesse not force.

If you miss the gear, you could grind it and eventually damage your transmission.  A used tranny starts at a couple of grand and that doesn’t include the heavy cost of install. That’s why it’s best to learn how to find the sweet spot.

On the shifter, there is a hard and soft wall.  From one end to the other is about seven inches.  But in the middle is a soft wall. If you push the shifter with your pinkie from one end to the other direction, it will first go to the soft wall.  The soft wall is the entrance to seventh and eighth gear. Now if you give it a little more exertion, you can push through the soft wall into the hard wall.

So despite its large appearance, the gear range is only seven inches and you don’t have to exert any force – pushing with your pinkie is all that’s really needed.

Finesse not force.