Mark wiped the last remnants of bacon and eggs from the corners of his mouth, tipped the waitress a couple of bucks and headed out to his rig, Mother Load II.
When he got to the truck, he picked up his cell phone to see if anyone had called. To his surprise he’d missed eight calls while he was having breakfast. Either he’d just won the lottery, or his dispatcher was in an awful hurry to get a hold of him. Just the thought of Bud frantically calling Mark and cursing him out each time he got no answer left Mark unsettled. Sure, maybe Bud had an urgent load for him, but maybe Mark was in some kind of trouble and Bud wanted to unload a bunch of crap onto his head.
While Mark thought about whether or not to give Bud a call, the phone rang once more.
“Hello?” Mark said.
“Dalton, this is Bud.”
Mark couldn’t resist the temptation to turn the tables on Bud. “Bud who?” he said.
“Bud who?” Bud said. “C’mon, Dalton you know damn well who this is.”
Mark laughed, then said. “What’s up?”
“What are you doing right now?”
“Talking to you. What are you doin’?”
“This is serious.” A pause. “I’ve got a load that needs to be picked up within the next half hour. Interested?”
Mark took his time answering. He wasn’t in the habit of bailing out shippers who left things to the last minute. One of his favourite sayings was, “Bad planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine,” and that seemed to fit the current situation well. “I assume,” Mark said at last, “that this guy is willing to pay extra for the rush service.”
“You know I wouldn’t have called you otherwise,” said Bud.
“All right, I’m interested.”
“It’s a flatbed of specially fabricated steel parts for a building under construction. The steel is at a shop in Innisfil called Alcona Steel and it needs to be on site in downtown Toronto before noon or the contractor’s going to lose the entire day.”
Mark was already north of Toronto and away from the city’s morning traffic. He could be in Innisfil in a half-hour, then be in Toronto less than two hours later. Since it was only just after eight in the morning, it seemed like an easy enough way to collect a paycheck.
“How much extra are we talking about?”
Bud told him.
“Wow, okay, yeah sure,” Mark said. It was great money for a three-hour round trip, and realistically, how much could go wrong in such a short amount of time?
“You the driver?” the elderly man said as he came jogging out of the Alcona Steel office to meet Mark in the driveway in front of the fabricating shop. The accent was eastern European, Polish, most likely, thought Mark.
“I’m supposed to pick up a rush load for a building in downtown Toronto.”
“Yes, yes,” the man said, nodding his head and half-walking, half-jogging alongside Mother Load. “Hook yourself up to that trailer there…” he pointed to the lone flatbed in the yard fully loaded with huge elaborately shaped pieces of steel “…and the papers will be ready by the time you’re done.”
Mark nodded and pulled Mother Load into position. Minutes later he was all hitched up and, good to his word, the old man was standing by not only with the papers, but also with a check made out to Mark.
“Guess you really want this load delivered on time,” said Mark.
“No time for talk,” he answered. “Now go!”
“As soon as I check the load to make sure it’s secure.”
“No, no time!” he said waving his hands in front of him. “I secured the load myself last night. There are more straps on it than one of Pamela Anderson’s brassieres.”
Mark burst out laughing. What the man had said was funny on its own, but the accent made it hysterical. There looked to be more than enough four-inch yellow straps holding down the load, and Mark had no doubt that the guy had done a good job of tying down the load. Besides, he’d probably shipped hundreds of these kinds of loads in his life while this was Mark’s first. And to top it off, he’d paid Mark in advance. If that didn’t show confidence the load would reach its destination nothing did. “All right, I’m going. But if something goes wrong…”
“You have insurance, right?”
Like most drivers, Mark paid through the nose for insurance coverage. “Of course I do.”
“Then stop worrying and start driving!”
Mark shook his head and laughed again. I guess it’ll be all right, he thought. He put Mother Load in gear and started on his way to Toronto.
The weight of the load was obvious as soon as Mark hit Highway 400. It took him what seemed like forever to get up to speed and most of the larger hills heading south required at least two downshifts to traverse. That’s why when he reached the 401, he was especially careful with his speed. The ramp from the southbound 400 to the eastbound 401 was particularly tight and a heavy load like his was apt to shift due to sideways G-forces on the curve.
Everything was all right when he hit the first of the rumble strips cut into the asphalt designed to warn inattentive drivers of the sharp turn ahead, but the moment Mark began turning left on the curve itself, he knew he was in trouble. Something popped behind him, sounding for all the world like a gunshot. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw a yellow strap waving in the air like a party streamer. He stomped on the brakes to slow his rig, but the sudden deceleration put even more lateral force on the load. More straps gave way one by one until the entire load shifted.
Mother Load shuddered and the air was filled with the deafening clang and clamor of 20 tonnes of steel off-loading onto the off-ramp. The noise went on for several seconds, fading away into a momentary silence that made Mark feel he was inside a church instead of inside of a truck. Slowly the ambient sounds returned and Mark was aware of the reassuring thrum of Mother Load’s Cummins at idle, and the heartbreaking screeching of tires of the vehicles behind him. In a few moments there were far off voices shouting, “Are you okay?”
The first thing Mark did was call Bud to tell him what had happened and ask him to inform Mark’s insurance carrier of the accident. Early notification of an accident like this would help the insurer avoid any costly lawsuits that might arise from the incident a few years down the road.
By the time Mark was done with Bud, he could see the flashing lights of an approaching OPP cruiser in the distance. There would have to be an investigation and Mark would likely be charged for having an unsafe load and who knew what else. Then there was the clean up that would take hours and all the angry motorists who would be late for dinner.
Mark cracked open the door of Mother Load, took a deep breath and got out, ready to face the music.
It was dark by the time everything was cleaned up. A crane had gotten all the steel pieces back onto the truck and another driver had been sent to bring the load back to Alcona Steel in Innisfil.
But even with the accident scene cleared, it took another hour for the OPP officer, a Constable Larry Sharpe, to finish his investigation. There had also been an adjuster from Mark’s insurance company on the scene, but he’d left some time ago after handing Mark one of his cards and saying, “I’ve got other accident scenes waiting…I’ll be in touch.”
That left Mark alone to deal with the police.
“I guess you know what’s coming,” Constable Sharpe told Mark through the sliding window separating the front and rear seats of his cruiser.
“A few Highway Traffic Act offences, most likely,” said Mark. “Some big fines and maybe a demerit point or two.”
“That’s about it.”
Mark let out a sigh. He knew he was ultimately responsible for the loads he carried, but he had to try setting the record straight on the circumstances surrounding his taking the load.
“Would it matter if I told you the load was secured by the company I was hauling for and their shipper assured me the load was safe?”
“It would,” said the constable. “I called them to check on that and they couldn’t believe you lost the load. It’s never happened to them before in the 25 years they’ve been in business.”
Great, thought Mark. First time in 25 years and I just happen to be the guy behind the wheel.
“Which is why I’m going easy on you,” the constable said, handing Mark several slips of paper.
Mark looked at them all. There were three charges totalling several thousand dollars in fines. “I thought you said you were going easy on me.”
“I am,” the constable said. “I’m letting you keep your licence.”
– Mark Dalton returns next month in Part 2 of All’s Fair in Love and Loads.