No Job's Too Tough For The Temporary Trucker


March 16, 1991|By Rob Kasper

Into each life, some heavy stuff will fall. When it does, you rent a rig and pretend to be a trucker.

Or maybe a trailer-puller. It depends on what kind of bumpers you're carrying. But either way, truckin' or trailer-pullin', you end up wheeling a rig down the road.

It happened to me last weekend. I had to haul a load of bed parts into Baltimore. The cargo wouldn't fit in my car. Even with all the collapsible seats collapsed, and the removables removed.

Bed parts are my specialty. I've hauled a lot of things in my time -- washers, dryers, and one player piano (nobody hauls more than one player piano) -- but whenever I rented a rig, bed parts have been part of the cargo.

I'm not sure why my family has a seemingly insatiable appetite for bed parts. Or why different branches of our family seem to give each other bed parts, the way other families exchange Christmas presents or old sofas. All I know is I haul them.

A big part of hauling is picking your rig.

For this job, I had my eye on a 6-foot by 8-foot two-wheeler. I saw its picture in the phone book Yellow Pages, under trailers.

In the lingo of trailer-rental, it was called a "van." That was because this trailer had a roof and was enclosed. This distinguished it from the 6-by-8 two-wheeled trailers that didn't have roofs. They were called "opens."

I think an enclosed rig is preferable to an open one. My reasons have to do with "securing the load." If you've tossed stuff in an enclosed trailer, securing your load consists of making sure the trailer door has enough room to close.

But if you're pulling an open trailer you've got to lash the cargo down so it won't suddenly take flight while you're on the Chesapeake Bay bridge.

The enclosed trailer I eyed in the phone book also had the right number of wheels, two. This is important because the hardest thing we occasional rig-riders have to do is back a trailer up. If you want the trailer to go left, you've got to steer right. Or maybe it is the other way around. Anyway, backing a trailer up is tricky, and it gets trickier when you add more wheels to the equation.

Once when I was courting a gal, I failed to successfully back a rented trailer up to her garage. I was loading up bed parts from her family's home in western Kansas to take to Chicago, where she was going to college. And as I took the wheel of her car, I wanted to make an impression as a take-charge guy.

I failed. I couldn't make the trailer mind. I'd get the rear end of car going one direction, and the trailer would head off in another. I finally had to relinquish the steering wheel to Merlin, a friend of the family, who, after a lifetime of driving combines, tractors and hay wagons, made short work of backing up the trailer.

That was more than 20 years ago. Since then I spent summers watching guys try to back their trailers down boat ramps. At last I felt ready to take another crack at backing up a trailer.

I never got the chance. The other day when I called the folks at the rental outfit, they told me the days of casual trailer pulling had ended. In the old days when men were men and bumpers were made of steel, a trailer was connected to your car by a temporary hitch that clamped on to the car's bumper.

But nowadays car bumpers have gone soft. They are safety bumpers made of rubber, or even more flexible material. They can't hold a hitch. So a trailer hitch has to be permanently attached to the frame of the car. These new hitches are serious pieces of metal that look like dental work for cars. They ain't cheap.

To rent a $15 trailer, I was told I would have to put a $188 hitch on my car. That was too high a price to pay, even for the chance to redeem myself in reverse.

So instead of a trailer, I rented a truck. It wasn't a "big rig." In place of the two gear sticks that the 18 wheelers have, this one had a shift lever for an automatic transmission. And instead of chattering away on the CB radio, I listened to the news on National Public Radio.

But it was still a truck, and it had its quirks. Like the key that was snapped off in the ignition. This caused me few moments of panic after I had shut down my rig to get a soda, then couldn't get the key back in the ignition. I called the guy in the rental office, who explained to me that I should use the sawed-off key, not the other full-size key on the key ring, to fire that mama up. He was right.

And soon my family was on the road. The kids insisted on riding in the truck with me. We brought those bed parts home, eating fried chicken and singing our favorite songs, mostly Christmas carols.

Later that night when the truck was double-parked in the middle of the street, the keys fell out of the ignition. The keys were on the floor, but the engine kept running. I didn't flinch. I just let her run. I locked the doors with the full-size key, and carried a couple of headboards in the house. Then after unloading, I unlocked the truck doors, parked the rig around the corner and shut her down, with the sawed-off key.

My bumpers might be soft, but those hours on road had made my nerves hard.

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