After Mark Dalton delivered his load of bottled water to a food service distributor in Winnipeg, he considered giving his ex-wife a call to find out how she was making out on her ride back to Toronto with Mick, the toothless truck driver. But as his thumb swept across the keypad of his cell phone in search of the on button, he imagined her screaming at him about how he’d left her all alone and at the mercy of a grimy man with more fingers than teeth.
That kind of abuse he could do without. Besides, after he called her, he’d have to speak to his dispatcher Bud, and when it came right down to it he had finite capacity for abuse, and if he was going to endure it he might as well get it from Bud.
So he called up his dispatcher looking for another load.
“Hey, Bud. It’s Mark?”
Mark shook his head. This routine was getting old, so he answered by saying, “Mark McGwire.”
There was a pause. “Sorry pal, but I don’t know any Mark McGwire.” There were sounds on the line as if Bud were about to hang up the phone.
“For cryin’ out loud, Bud. It’s me, Mark Dalton.”
“Oh, Mark Dalton… Hey, what’s wrong with your cell phone.”
“I’ve been getting calls from your ex-wife every half-hour or so.”
“Yeah?” Mark wasn’t about to let on about anything.
“From what I can tell between the screaming is she’s pretty pissed with you. Says a guy named Mick keeps giving her the creepy eye.”
“Hmm,” Mark said. “Well, sucks to be her, I guess.”
“What do you want?”
“How about, oh… I don’t know, a load?”
“The pickings are slim at the moment, my friend.”
“You must have something.”
“What do you know about reefers?”
“They’re great ice-breakers at parties.”
It wasn’t the first time Bud had heard this one. After a pause he said, “I’m serious here.”
“Okay,” Mark confessed. “I don’t know anything about reefers.”
Bud was silent several moments, then said, “Never stopped you from taking a special load before.”
“Well, these guys seem desperate for drivers. They’re paying thirty per cent over the usual fee for this sort of load.”
“Why are they being so generous?” Mark wondered. “Does it have anything to do with Mad Cow disease?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thirty per cent, and they still can’t get drivers?”
“They said they needed dependable drivers who they know can get the load to its destination no matter what. When I heard that, well, I naturally thought of you.”
“So? You want to take the load or not?”
“Sure, why not.”
Bud gave him the details. The company was named BETTER BEEF and was based in Regina, Saskatchewan. He’d have to bobtail it there, then take on a chassis and reefer container filled with frozen beef headed for Vancouver and ultimately, Japan.
Mark got off the phone and headed for Regina.
After stopping for the night outside of Wolseley, Saskatchewan, Mark was able to easily make it into Regina for his eight a.m. appointment at the BETTER BEEF loading dock.
As he made the turn off of Lorne Street into the BETTER BEEF yard, he noticed that directly across the street was a markedly newer operation called BEST BEEF. The building looked as if it had been recently constructed and every truck and trailer in the yard was a late model, painted in gloss black with the BEST BEEF logo on it and the company name in bright yellow, ten-foot high letters down the side of the trailer.
It was an impressive looking operation and their trucks had to be the envy of most of the drivers in the province. Looking at BEST BEEF it was no wonder BETTER BEEF was having trouble finding drivers. BEST BEEF had set up shop across the street to steal the business away from BETTER BEEF by paying the best rates and offering the best benefit packages in the industry.
It was a good strategy in the short term, but if BETTER BEEF held on long enough, the new operation might stretch itself too thin to continue without filing for bankruptcy protection.
Mark wondered how he had discerned all that from just the outward appearance of the company’s trucks, but hey, he had a feeling. It was also likely that BETTER BEEF was a better company and it was BEST BEEF that was the one on the ropes. The only thing for sure was that this town probably wasn’t big enough for both of them and it would soon be time for one of them to get the hell out.
Mark only hoped that if it was BETTER BEEF that went under, they held on long enough for his paycheck to clear.
It took him 10 minutes to find the shipper’s office, but when he did, the large man behind the desk named Wojek seemed thrilled to see him.
“Are you the Mark Dalton?” he asked. It was obvious he was of Polish descent and even though he’d worked his way up to a position of authority in the company, he hadn’t managed to lose any part of his thick accent.
“Yeah,” Mark said, wondering why the man had asked him if he was the Mark Dalton. “As far as I know I’m the only one.”
“Good, good, come in.”
Mark entered the office and took a seat. “You have a load for me?”
“Yes, I have load. As many as you want.”
“Just one would be fine for today.”
“One today. One next week. One next month.”
Mark smiled, wondering how desperate they were for drivers. “Why are you having so much trouble getting drivers?”
Wojek hesitated, like he didn’t have a good answer to the question. “Well, driver is responsible for load.”
“That’s not different than a lot of other loads, besides you guys have insurance, right?”
“So what’s the problem?”
Again, hesitation. “A reefer load is different. It takes extra work from the driver and how much work depends on the condition of the reefer container.”
Mark looked out the window at the containers lined up in the yard. They weren’t brand new like the reefers over at BEST BEEF, but they didn’t look all that rundown either. The oldest container in the yard couldn’t be more than five years old. “You’ve got some pretty good equipment out there. Breakdowns shouldn’t be a problem.”
Wojek hesitated for the third time. “Not all drivers are like you, Mr. Dalton. They don’t want to take chances on load.”
“But the money you’re paying is good, right?” There had to be a catch here, somewhere, Mark wondered. But where?
Wojek outlined the company’s pay rates and they were just as Bud had explained to him over the phone.
“Well, I guess I’ll be taking a chance on a load.”
Wojek’s smile grew even bigger. “Excellent!”
Wojek led Mark out onto the loading dock where workers were packing frozen meat into the rear of a reefer container backed up to the loading dock.
“How much do you know about reefers?” Wojek asked.
Mark looked at him a moment, then said, “I know they’re fun at parties.”
Wojek looked at him with a blank gaze. Mark figured he’d either heard the joke a million times before, or he didn’t have a clue what Mark was talking about. Finally, he said, “Okay, well anyway…”
Wojek began explaining the set-up and operation of reefers from checking the oil to inspecting the belts, from the basic operation of the control system to the procedure for defrosting the coil.
After a half-hour crash course in reefer operation Mark’s head was spinning. It all seemed straightforward enough, but there was a lot of information to assimilate at one time. He hoped he could remember it all, but a greater hope was that nothing would go wrong with the reefer on this trip.
“Now, if unit shuts down completely…”
That didn’t sound good. “Why would it shut down completely?”
“It shouldn’t, but…” he shrugged, “you never know.”
Mark was dubious, but he supposed it was best to cover all the bases. “Okay,” he said reluctantly.
“If unit shuts down completely… this time of year you got about two hours, maybe three, before the outside heat starts to affect load.”
“What happens after two hours?”
“Then the outside of the load could start defrost and you get damage.”
“That happens, you call me and I send a man to fix it.” He handed Mark his business card.
“But it’s a pretty new reefer unit, right?” Mar
k said. “It should be fine.”
“Yes, should be fine.”
By 11 that morning he was back on the road, confident that everything would be fine. After all, the reefer was humming away behind him like a long-hauler, the load was frozen solid and it was an easy run into the port of Vancouver. What could go wrong?
But as he ran Mother Load up through the gears, he noticed a long black BEST BEEF truck pulling onto the highway behind him.
“Hmmm?” Mark said aloud. “I wonder if he’s headed to the coast too?”
– Mark Dalton returns next month for more adventures in part two of Reefer madness.
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