Helping Each Other
While busy at work, this week, I have thought lot about Kent’s Blog, "Service". That, along with my recent blog about delivering a mobile home up in the mountains around Stanley, Idaho, has got me thinking about my mobile home toting days. My story starts back almost eighteen years ago.
As we prepared to close down our egg farm in Rexburg, Idaho in the fall of 1989, I searched for other work.
In early December, we were almost completely shut down, but I still hadn’t found any work suitable to support my family. It was at this time that Dad found an ad in the newspaper for drivers to deliver mobile homes from the Boise area to mobile home dealers throughout the Pacific Northwest.
We drove the 350 miles across state to Nampa to check it out. And by the end of the year, I had purchased a mobile home toter. A mobile home toter is a heavy truck with a very short wheelbase, which is designed to haul those oversized loads down the road.
I had never driven a truck like that before, so after paying for it, I drove it around the field it had been parked in so I could figure out how to operate it.
By early January 1990, I was back in Boise with my fixed up mobile home toter ready to start pulling mobile homes throughout the Pacific Northwest. Dad would join me later in the spring with another truck, so we could work together.
After signing up with Transit Homes of America, which was the company we were leasing into, to pull the homes for, I went back to the guy who sold me the truck. He had agreed to sell me the replacement tires I needed to do this kind of work and to help me set up a lighting rig for the oversized loads I would be hauling.
For the hour I was at his place, he constantly spoke of how everyone, who pulled mobile homes, or shanty shakers as they called us, would stick together and help each other like family.
Two days later, on a Monday morning, I was hitched onto ½ of a house, and barreling down the freeway. I was trying to keep up to the other ½ of the house I was pulling. We ran like crazy for 150 miles, and then suddenly pulled into a truck stop and parked it. Like over a dozen other shanty shakers, we were shut down because of bad weather over the mountain pass ahead.
I soon learned why all Shanty Shakers treated each other like family. It was because they all lived together at the same truck stop for days at a time while waiting for the weather to clear, so the State Patrol would allow us to go out on the roads again. So I stayed in the truck stop day after day, listening to the wild stories the other Shanty Shakers told to each other.
As I listened, I could visualize what it would have been like to be a new settler from the East, sitting around a western campfire, listening to the trappers and explores of the old west.
Included in the stories of wreckage and carnage which they spoke of, was reference to the mountain we were waiting to cross. They said it wasn’t too bad now, but in a month when the construction began again, it would be terrible. Most of our loads were 14 feet wide, and for 18 miles we would have a 15-foot wide path (6 inches on each side) down a windy, curvy, mountain road. They especially didn’t like the restrictions placed on us, that 14 foot wide oversized loads would be able to pass through only one time a day, and then only with two pilot cars, one in front and one in the rear of the convoy of mobile homes.
Finally the road opened up to us, and all the talking stopped as 20 shanty shakers scrambled to their trucks and headed up the mountain before the State Patrol changed their minds and closed it again. It was about noon when we got the ok to go. So we only had about 5 ½ hours of running time before dark when we would have to be off the roads again. This put most of us down in the Columbia River Gorge as we made our way towards Portland, Oregon and beyond.
It was getting dark as I brought up the tail end of the mobile homes, trying to make it to the next town before we shut down for the night. The road was crowded with cars and other trucks. The road was narrow because of mountains on one side and the river on the other side. The other Shanty Shakers knew they were over due as they hurried even faster down the road in the dimming light.
As the distance between the other drivers and me increased, my truck started running rough. I was losing speed, and then my truck stalled out completely. I tried to get as far off to the side as possible, but the river was right there. My house slid into the guardrail on one side, and the other side was still ½ way into the road.
Because of the mountains and the gorge I was in, I couldn’t contact the other Shanty Shakers on my CB radio. So now I was stalled in the road on a curvy Inter-State freeway while in the dark.
To add to my dilemma, I had poor lights on my trailer to warn others of the hazard I was causing. And I had no contact with help.
Eventually, I found a trucker on the CB radio that was headed in the same direction as I had been. He said that he would tell the other Shanty Shakers of my situation. After about 20 minutes, the toter that was pulling the other ½ of my house came back to help me. First he towed my truck off to the small town we were stopping at. Then we went back with his truck and pulled my mobile home into the safety of the truck stop.
My truck had simply run out of fuel in the one tank that I was running on. So I learned the hard way that my fuel gauge still showed 1/3 tank of fuel when it was actually empty.
Now at least 8 other drivers crowded around my truck and coached me on how to prime my fuel injectors so my diesel engine would run again. Someone taught me how to remove my large fuel filters using my belt as the fuel filter wrench. Someone else showed me how to bleed my lines to the injectors. Another driver brought his truck over and gave my batteries a power boost. In no time my truck was running again and I could hook back up to my mobile home.
If it hadn’t been for the other Shanty Shakers, I would have been stranded out on I-84, in the dark, until I’d likely caused a wreck, or at least received a traffic citation and a hefty tow and repair bill. I was thankful the other truckers didn’t just say “that’s not fair”, “It’s his fault”, “I’m tired”, “Why did he do that in the first place?” and so on. Thankfully I didn’t hear hateful comments, while they helped me get my truck going, like “That was stupid! Why’d you run out of fuel anyway?”
In my one year of pulling mobile homes, I saw many examples of this same kind of brotherhood from other Shanty Shakers whom I didn’t know. Doublewide mobile homes had plastic covering on one side. More than once, another Shanty Shaker warned me that the plastic was tearing loose. That’s something that is hard to see in a rear view mirror until it’s too late and the whole side needs to be replaced. Often, they would even stop and help with the repairs. This was always at a cost to the other driver who is only paid for the miles he drives, and not for the hours worked.
Another thing hard to see from the driver’s seat is how the tires on the trailer were. There were as many as 12 tires on a trailer, and they frequently blew-out or went flat. Many times other drivers would check and report tire condition while passing.
I was once caught in a traffic jam in a Portland, Oregon suburb. The cars were so crowded together that they were actually bumping into my truck and trailer. As we inched along, the sun was setting fast, making it illegal for Dad and me to be out on the road with our oversized loads. It became apparent that we had no hope of moving over to the outside lane as we tried to exit the freeway. The pushy cars just left us paralyzed in the middle of the road as they pushed past us. I was discussing what to do with Dad on the CB radio when a regular freight trucker from behind us said he would help out. In just a few minutes, two or three trucks had blocked the cars behind us so the road cleared and we could move over and take our exit.
Again we eased through an impossible situation because of the help of other truckers who had more experience and knew better than to get in that fix in the first place.
Again, I was grateful they just jumped right in and did what was needed instead of pretending they didn’t notice our problem or complain or make hateful comments because of our poor judgement which put us in that pickle in the first place.
These are just a few examples from many experiences I had that most truck drivers watched out for each other, even strangers, who had made stupid mistakes.
This last example is a glaring exception to all these good examples, which I experienced in my one year in the trucking business.
The incident happened on the 1st of March, 1990. I was still quite new at pulling mobile homes. Les Graham was an old timer who went south every winter and only worked 8 months of the year. This was before my dad arrived to work with me. I was pulling the “B” half of Les Graham’s house. This was Les’s first day back to work for the new year and also the first day that we would have to all go in convoy over the Blue Mountain pass between LaGrande and Penndelton, Oregon. This was the 18 miles of narrow mountain road construction that I had heard about on my first trip out.
The arrangement with the State of Oregon was that only one time each day at 12:00 noon, we would be allowed to go in convoy over this treacherous road under construction. We were to be taken through all together with a pilot car in front and one in the rear of the convey.
Les Graham was well known and liked by all the other Shanty Shakers. He had distinguished himself as the most careful of anyone in the business. He was also very punctual. So he was first in line and I was second, at the last exit on I-84 before the construction zone. This was the designated rendezvous point for all the trucks to meet.
As each additional mobile home toter pulled in line behind us, the routine was the same. First, the driver would get out and check over his truck and trailer. Then he would make his way over to the group of drivers at the front of the line so they could visit.
I heard over and over as each new driver arrived, how glad they were to see Les Graham back to work. The conversation would keep drifting back to the topic of the day, which was what a pain it would be all summer to go through this construction zone. I was told repeatedly how dangerous it was, I was also told how if my trailer didn’t track just right, or if a wind gust hit just wrong, I could hit the cement barriers on both sides of the road at the same time. Many drivers told of their personal heroics of how they did the impossible in similar circumstances.
Finally, it was almost 12:00 noon and our pilot cars had arrived. After we each paid the fee for the pilot service, we got in our trucks and started them up. Under the roar of 20 mobile home toters warming up and as each driver indicated on the CB radio that he was ready to go, I got a sick feeling in my stomach that I was in over my head.
The rear pilot car stopped the other traffic. And then we all pulled out onto the freeway. Behind the front pilot car was Les Graham. I was next in line. We numbered about 20 trucks in all.
As we just got up to freeway speed, we crossed a bridge over a deep ravine. This bridge was the beginning of the narrow construction zone we were going through.
As Les Graham’s truck bounced on to the bridge, something went wrong. From my front row seat, I watched in horror. His truck rolled back into the trailer he was pulling.
At first, the truck slid sideways, and then it completely jack knifed into the trailer. The front of the trailer broke open as it appeared to open it’s mouth and swallow the wreaking truck, which now was completely upside down.
This whole scene was very fast as the wreckage hit the bridge’s guardrail, nearly falling off into the ravine. It finally slid back over the center of the road and into the median between the east and west bound traffic lanes of the road. I was close behind this wreck, still traveling over 50 mph. I slowed as quickly as I could as I crossed the bridge and pulled off to the other side of the road next to the wreck. By now my CB radio was crackling with comments from the shanty shakers behind me.
As I set my air brakes and jumped from the truck, my radio echoed with “What the _____ happened? … I think he hit the guard rail!!! …He’s too old to be doing this anymore!!! …Oh _____, is he dead?” I also wondered if he were dead. The last I saw of him, he was flopping around inside his truck cab like a rag doll in a dryer.
I ran to the wreckage to try to help. His truck was completely upside down, and 500 gallons of diesel fuel was pouring over the hot engine. The fuel sizzled and smoked as it hit the exhaust manifold. I thought that any moment the whole wreck would be in flames. I decided to try to get Les out and away before he burned.
I tried to open the door, but it was jammed. Les Graham was just laying in a heap with blood dripping from his head. I tried to break the window with my fist, but couldn’t. So next I ran back to my truck for a crow bar to break the window with.
As I ran across the road, I noticed that not another person had gotten out of their truck. They all just sat there and talked to each other on the CB radios about what had just happened. I could hear it all on my CB radio through my open truck door. The tone of their comments continued to be critical and negative towards Les Graham, which at this time was presumed to be dead or dying.
I ran back to the wreck scene with my crow bar but I noticed that no more smoke was coming out of the engine area. Apparently, the diesel fuel had cooled every thing down. It was still pouring out over the engine and on to the ground. So the threat of fire had past. As I climbed up on to the truck with my crow bar, I could see that Les Graham was coming conscious. Everything was confusing to him, but I got him to roll his window down, which was really up, because the truck was upside down. I helped him as he crawled out of the window opening.
After Les was off to the side of the road in a safe place, I pulled debris from the wreck off of the road. As soon as I had cleared the road off, the shanty shaker convoy, which I was no longer a part of, drove on down the road and out of sight. Not once did any of these drivers ever get out of their trucks.
I have often thought of my experiences of years ago, pulling mobile homes. Usually a memory is triggered by a present day experience. Such things as being cold and unable to get warm. That memory will now take me back to a time when I thought I might freeze to death one night in my toter when it was 20 below zero and my truck wouldn’t start. Cold wet rainy and foggy weather puts me back to a truck stop in Troutdale, Oregon.
Of all the memories of pulling mobile homes, the one that is most troubling to me, is that of Les Graham’s wreck. The cause of his wreck was a faulty trailer tongue, which collapsed. But at the time it didn’t matter what the cause was. He needed help, not criticism.
For the rest of the year, as I mostly lived on the road, pulling mobile homes, I thought of this experience as I made a renewed effort to help others in need along the road.
I’ve needed someone like Kent to come along and remind me of what a good feeling it is to give someone in need a hand. Thanks Kent.