MONTREAL, Que. - I've slept under them, stared down the Fraser Canyon from the high cab, gotten B-train whiplash, thumbed all-night lifts in southern US rigs and even cooled my heels while my driver g...
GREENHORN: Carroll McCormick fulfills a long-time dream and gets behind the wheel for the first time while on assignment with Truck News.
MONTREAL, Que. – I’ve slept under them, stared down the Fraser Canyon from the high cab, gotten B-train whiplash, thumbed all-night lifts in southern US rigs and even cooled my heels while my driver got his ashes hauled in a Monkeytown brothel. But drive a rig? Never.
So when Michael Charbonneau, an instructor at the Centre de formation du transport routier Saint-Jerome (CFTR), one of Canada’s biggest truck driving schools, offered me a driving lesson, I thought, “Finally, I’ll learn how to use a split shift,” my main trucking idee fixe ever since I tormented the tranny of an overloaded dump truck one teenaged Alberta morning too long ago.
And, of course, get out of the office, where I cruise hyperspace for Truck News and other fine mags, with occasional midday naps…kinda like a real trucker, come to think of it. Charbonneau backed the new Western Star out of the garage bay and declared, “Now you drive.”
The odometer read 315.2 kilometres. I had already requested that, with the four hours granted me by CFTR director Benoit Rochon, we should go straight to the 3.6-kilometre road circuit and drive drive drive.
I scanned the dashboard, tapped some dials Chuck Yeager style and asked, “Is there anything special here I should be looking for?” (Telling my wife earlier about my upcoming adventure, I had declared that the big red button had to be for the ejection seat, and I knew how to find that out. “Yes Calvin,” she said, handing me my peanut butter sandwich.) But no worries. Charbonneau took care of the fine details and I skimmed the cream.
Once I got the layout of the 13-speed transmission and the first set of shifting rules (first to second at 1,100 RPM, second to third at 1,200 RPM, and so on) I was off like a…snail, creepy crawling toward the track. Clutch, neutral, clutch, next gear, don’t hit the fence.
Down the first straightaway, mumbling more rules: Hit 1,500 RPM in fourth, flip hi-lo switch to high, clutch, neutral, clutch, fifth. Hammer down.
Round and round the track I went, working the jerkiness out of my shifting, watching for F-18s in the mirrors, keeping the wheels on the pavement.
The back straightaway was my place to gear down from sixth, and where I kept hitting the snag that perplexed me all morning: how to get from fifth high into fourth low. “Just remember the 400 rule,” Charbonneau said.
The furthest that puzzle took me was 20 km/h in fifth, clutch, neutral, increase RPM to 1,500, clutch, fourth. I managed a few good downshifts but, forced to choose between deep thought or slipping into neutral and coasting through that last tight curve (“It would not be good to put a new truck into the ditch on your first day,” Charbonneau agreed) I cheated and kept my head up.
Trained to a standoff with the tranny and with other crocs to wrassle, I hooked up to trailer #5314, a 90% loaded 53-footer.
Being from down East, where finessing a trailer in reverse is the test of the man, I was keen to see if I had horns. Charbonneau sketched the pattern in the air for approaching two yellow construction dividers for The Big Backup. The first time took me two tries. I slicked the next few and even did a respectable job of backing down the track while staying in my own lane, and out of the way of oncoming students.
Nearing noon, we rumbled back to the parking lot, where I backed in next to another trailer and Charbonneau gave me a lesson in how not to jam the locking pin: Apply the trailer brake, but not the tractor brake. He put a dime beside the landing gear, which crept past the Bluenose as he let the air out of the trailer suspension. If the tractor brake is on, a leaky trailer suspension will jam the trailer against the locking pin, making it impossible to unhook the fifth wheel.
One more lesson: Once the trailer is up on the landing gear and the hoses unhooked, lower the tractor suspension before moving out from under the trailer. Otherwise, you’ll likely destroy the tractor suspension because it goes from being under, say, 30,000 pounds load to zero load too suddenly. “This happens,” says Charbonneau. Shiver me timbers!
Mine was a privileged morning – no bills, cities, snowstorms, four-wheelers, jackboot border guards or freedom fries, Lord help us, but it was a grand taste of a trade that consumes the passions of thousands, drives women to song, no? And dispatchers to drink. Lets see now: only 611.5 hours to complete my training and I can get a real job.