Ch – 1 Destiny’s Diesel Tech School

Destiny Childs was breaking the mold.  She was only 12 when her father left to grab some smokes at Mondawmin Mall and never came back. Maybe he never abandoned his wife and kids after all. Maybe he got robbed at gunpoint, shot when he tried to fight back, and his body disposed in the inner harbor, a dumping ground for criminals, the forgotten and the damned.

The family struggled to pay rent and moved from one low-income housing to another. Her brother was arrested for looting a CVS store after the death of Freddie Gray. Last year, she moved in with her fiance, and the future was looking bright until he got locked up for drug trafficking and conspiracy.

Last year, Destiny broke the glass ceiling and became a certified truck driver, but then a terrible wreck set her back.  The DOT piss test found traces of marijuana in her system as well as meth and alcohol – that was the end of her driving days, but she still wanted to work on trucks.

Thankfully, she survived with no criminal charges.  Now Destiny had enrolled in the Diesel Tech program at the North American Trade Schools, and like Theo was fighting for a second chance.

And she showed up with the right attitude.  Hard working, determined, attentive  But after the first few months,  she started to go downhill. She would be absent from school, wouldn’t do her homework and would bomb tests, hoping to prove her worth in the shop. But probably her worst trait was her inclination to boss fellow students around like they were her inferiors.

“Ok let’s do a clutch adjustment,” said Mr. Hale.  The first thing we do is check the free play. Stepping on the clutch pedal – we should aim for about 2 inches of free play – the distance the clutch moves before it starts to engage.

This wasn’t no tire change.  Replacing a clutch and even repairing one required a lot of skill and finesse.  There was no brawn here unless you’re lifting a clutch onto the transmission.

“Ok, Chito go under the truck and put the feeler gauge in between the release bearing and clutch brake. Biggie go up to the cab and step on the clutch all the way down. Then Chito tell us if the gauge clamps down.  If it doesn’t Rick get ready to  adjust the linkage.”

“And whatever you do, don’t turn the ignition – we don’t want anyone losing fingers today.”

And diesel tech has its fair share of hazards. In the back, a tight band of metallurgists were practicing TIG welding releasing a thick plume of gas and fumes saturating the morning air. In the front a forklift was moving a transmission around like it was a stack of cardboard.

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This is the reason why Mr. Pontzer taught us 10 hours of OSHA so we would  be familiar with all the inherent hazards in the shop and get our certifications to show our next employer that we were shrewd and safe.

Last month Jude was hoisting the fifth wheel off a Volvo frame when the load got free, swung around and crushed him on the forehead like a linebacker on a wideout.  Needless to save, the instructor gave him the day off, but he was back, a full up round the next day.   To this day, the deep gash on Jude’s forehead is a good reminder of Jude taking a bullet for the the class.

And in the name of safety, Destiny loved to boss the two of us around like she was the know-it-all queen bee.  We were all equals and we all should assist and help rather than instruct and demand. And it really got to her head like she was our immaculate superior.

“Listen, I’ve been in the military. I know what it feels to be bossed around, and it’s usually by a someone, unlike you, who knows what he or she is talking about and has rightfully earned to be called Big Shot,”  I asserted.

“Well get used to it.  Think this is bad now. Wait till we hire more women. We may be in a male-dominated field, but the women are the real bosses here,” she demurred.

“Ok Nappy,  whatever you say,” I relented.

“Stop making fun of our curls. Can’t help that it’s all messy – that’s the way it is when I wake up in the mornings, and I ain’t go no time to comb it.”

“Well you rock so many different styles,” Rick added. “Sometimes we just don’t know what to see next.”

“Yeah, which would it be tomorrow? Braids, weaves or wigs?” I asked. “And will it be neon pink or rockin’ red?”

“Well as you very well know, working under the truck gets my hair all greasy. So I have to change my hairstyles every so often. It’s way easier to change out than to scrub clean.”

“Really, it’s a piece of cake for us. We just lather up with body soap and rinse. If we decide to pamper ourselves, we might lather on conditioner. Just how long can you go without washing your hair?” Rick asked.

“Two weeks,” Destiny replied. “Unless, I’m working under the truck, and I happen to hit a pool of 15W-40, then it’s a week.”

“Well, I hear that Brazilian hair is strong and healthy, so I guess that’ll be fine,” I added.

We both shrugged our shoulders and rolled our eyes.  Then we returned in anticipation to the task at hand.

On the International Prostar, there was no free play which is the distance of the clutch pedal moves before it engages the drive shaft.  So we each took turns under the truck adjusting the clutch brake.

Destiny got the jarring message to chill out, and she rolled over to bother the next class who were working on changing out bearings and seals.

_____

To make ends meet, some of the students got jobs at the Popeyes or Arby’s on Rolling Rd down the road.  Others who wanted to get a head start on their careers got night time gigs at the TA in Baltimore or Jessup, MD.  This suited them fine because their pay was based on commission, and they had to save up 17 Grand for tuition.

TA charged $135 per hour and the techs could get 35% of that.   If they made road calls, they got paid for the time they left the shop to the time they returned. Sometimes they spent more time driving than repairing.  But working on the side of the road can be dangerous, and it was also important to have your ducks in a row so you don’t make a mistake, resulting in loss time and money.  If the tech made a mistake, they would have to correct it, and they would have to eat the commission, though they’ll still get paid a minimum wage of $12/hr.  For the new techs out of diesel school, making mistakes was par for the course.

The TA would hire the techs with no experience just because of Pontzer’s name and the Trade Schools’ reputation.   There was always a shortage of techs and many customers had to wait up to 24 hours just to get their trucks worked on.  The TA didn’t take reservations. So disgruntled drivers would show up, check in and then hang out at the truck stop until they got a call to bring her in.

The techs worked hard, and they needed the income not just for tuition, but to pay their living expenses.  Some even had outlandish car loans.  And many had other habits that consumed time and money such as gaming, gambling and all things illicit.  When they attended school the next day, those who worked overnight were found sleeping underneath the trucks that they were supposed to be working on.   That’s why so many volunteered to go under and hide.

Sadly, most owner operators did not go to the TA to get their trucks repaired. The TA was used only for emergencies such as for a break down like a flat tire or a leaking hub oil seal.  Anything planned or major, and most truckers would go to the dealership or to a local Mom & Pop shop who would do personalized work with a lot less overhead. Plus they didn’t work on commission, so they weren’t trying to sell you a new filter and belt.

“Can’t believe what happened on the TA last night,” said Rick. “I was doing a PM and the brakes were bad, so I put the driver out of service. That knucklehead refused and left with the truck.  Obviously, we had no authority to stop that mofo, but we told him that if DOT catches him, he would be in big trouble. No way would I put my career on the line for that fool.”

“Absolutely you did right Bro. Isn’t the DOT just across the street from the TA?” I asked.

“Yes, indeed. They don’t need to go far to find trucks that are broken down and out of service. They can just wait on Assanteague. Or perhaps our GM could tip them off,” he chuckled.

It was Friday. After a full week of school, work and no downtime, it was time to let off some steam.

A gaggle of us rolld over to our favorite watering hole, a hop and a jump away at Gwynn Oak.  

The Irish pub is overwhelmingly amiable and chatty, but you don’t mess with them. On one fall day in 2017, two thugs decided it was wise to rob the liquor store affixed to Monaghan’s Pub.  The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny and it was Friday afternoon when office workers at the Social Security Administration at Woodlawn Drive were planning one last outing to Rehoboth or Ocean City.  They picked the quintessential perfect day for a holdup, but they failed to do their reconnaissance.

Next door, in the pub, a group of burly police officers were celebrating a retirement ceremony for their Captain with dozens of off-duty officers showing their appreciation for a man who served 30 years.

The two inattentive men entered the take-out portion of the restaurant and held an employee up at gunpoint.

Another employee behind the counter quickly alerted the officers to the heist. When the robbers left with the loot, they didn’t get far before the off-duty officers rushed out and tackled them like a hard hitting linebacker. From the mug shots, it was apparent that the two thieves got roughed up pretty badly and learned never to rob a store when police officers are present.  Take a page from the criminal justice playbook – do some intel and perhaps open your eyes to your surroundings.

We all enjoyed the story and shared the laughs as we guzzled up pints of Guinness brewed locally in Halethorpe just 10 miles away.

On warm days, I would hike down to the Patapsco Valley State Park and go for a swim.   The park was interesting because if you had to hike down a steep trail to get down to the river below.  And since it was located in a valley, the park would often flood whenever it rained really hard.  This happened in August 2016, and nearby Ellicott City had flooded with a cascade of muddy water rushing down Main Street,  shutting down the entire town for weeks.   In the 1800s the rapidly falling water provided power for a wide variety of mills.  In 1868, a devastating flood hit the Patapsco Valley and decimated virtually all of its industries.

Sometimes, I would invite adventure seekers  from the construction class, like Cam who is in the National Guard or Jada from the mall. It’s a bit hidden, and  you never expect to  see a beautiful oasis down here.  There’s nothing more refreshing than jumping into a natural swimming hole with fresh, spring water flowing liberally.   And when you’re done, you can hike the trails following the creek, or walk along the railroad tracks for miles. And by sunset, or when you got done, the hardest part would be climbing the steep cliff to get back to the park entrance before they closed.  You had to be in shape, or you could easily run out of breath.

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Jada was a friend who ran a custom T-Shirt printing kiosk in the Mall. She had skills as a graphic designer and could custom print a shirt for $20 a pop.  People liked the idea that they could get their photograph on a shirt. With a cotton T-Shirt costing  $3, she could easily bring in $50 per hour.  The rent in the mall was fairly cheap, so it was good money on days that she was busy.

She had never been to DC, so I took her down for the weekend.  She  enjoyed visiting the Mall, visiting the museums and hanging out on base.  It was an eye-opening experience, and she was happy to get out of Baltimore County.

Jada also also got a tour of my truck, and loved the interior trim.  She got to ride in it several times, and I even let her steer, even if it was just inside the parking lot.

I parked the truck at Security Square Mall and lived in it while attending school.  It was a great treat and very convenient. I needed to practice my shifting and would  drive around the mall several times a week, taking other students with me to practice.

Didn’t have to commute and it was way better than sleeping in the hot car.

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My friend, Todd who I worked with hauling concrete pipes at DM Bowman was also excited to check out my truck.

“Are you going to get your own authority?” he asked.

“I already applied,” I replied. “Wanna drive for me?”

“If you can pay me $1 per mile. When can I take her out for a spin?”

“I’ve left the key zip tied under the hood. Keep her under 20 MPH and within Security Mall.”

 It was raining but Todd used to be a trainer and a conscientious family man, and I trusted him with my truck like I would trust my brother with my wife, or an ex for that matter.

“Your prostar is real slick on the sticks, and the Eaton 10 speed shifts like honey butter #CoolTruck” I received an SMS later that afternoon, after the rain had petered out

“Glad you like it Brotha, maybe You’re be my first hire under my Big Authority!” I responded with glee.

The next week while driving the truck around the yard, I heard a mysterious thump every few seconds.   Immediate scary thoughts of a cracked drive shaft gripped me in my stomach.

I asked Mr. Hyde to help troubleshoot the noise. I got behind the wheel and he stood outside so he could better determine the cause of the noise.  I crawled steadily on fourth gear.

“Stop the truck,” he yelled in excitement. “I found it.”

I smashed the brake not knowing whether to be elated or sad.

While driving he pointed out to me that there was a large bald spot on two of my front drive tires on the drivers side.  It looked like someone had taken a power sander and grinded the entire tread off until I could see the ribs.

How did this happen and why would someone do this.  I had not driven the truck much and the only person besides me was Todd. Then it hit me like a stack of tires.

Todd was driving around the mall when it was raining, a perfect time to hydroplane.

“Hey Todd, I immediately texted. “By chance did you drive with the parking brake engaged?”

Within minutes I got a canned answer. “Not that I can remember, why’s that.”

“Well there’s a huge bald spot on both of my front drive tires on the drivers side. Looks like someone skidded and left skin on the parking lot.”

Minutes turned into hours and eventually no response. The next day he finally replied back.  “Are you accusing me of burning rubber in the parking lot?  For goodness sake it was raining bullfrogs that day.”

“No, I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just asking nicely. And rain actually helps you lose traction so it’s possible to hydroplane even with the brakes engaged.”

Todd failed to answer any of my inquiries the following week.  I wasn’t mad at him, neither was I remorseful. I just wanted to know the truth, and it was no apparent what had transpired.

The next week, Mr Pontzer agreed to have his class change out my two drive tires.  Upon further inspection, he noticed that my other front drives were mismatched.  Small differences in circumference, diameter or tread depth in a dual can easily wreck both tires within weeks.  He instructed me to purchase three drive tires which I did at the TA in Jessup.

His class was extremely helpful by installing the tires and pretty soon I would be well on my way to hauling loads.

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