Fire Truck Puzzle – The CDL school that I attended was located in Priceville, Alabama. The Super 8 motel room will be my home for the next three weeks. I did not know what to expect on the first day, but I met various personalities in other students. The range includes a Mississippi farmer child with secondary school education to a former software engineer with a Master’s degree. There is a blackwood giant named Steve, who looks like an offensive midfielder for the New England Patriots and his foil, a thin man named Ray.
There was also Mike, from North Carolina, who had worked in the computer field in several capacities, but seemed constantly bitter because of “lowering” himself into training for a career truck. And, of course, there are men who already “know everything” and for whom, at least in his mind, this school is just a formality. Apart from various backgrounds and personalities, everyone here has at least one thing in common: everyone is looking for a better life for himself or, he is trying to get his life back on track from previous misfortunes. So, it’s not surprising when friendship quickly develops among most of us.
Fire Truck Puzzle
I became a fast friend with Alan, a former software engineer. Alan was dismissed from his engineering job and, at the age of 54; he had trouble finding a suitable job in the field of a young man. Like me, Alan rode a lot on the success of this new venture. After the cost of moving from New York to Alabama and the cost of my CDL and motel school, my savings were rapidly decreasing. If this trucking problem doesn’t work, I’m screwed. However, Alan and I were not the only ones who pushed our chips “all” in this hand. The man from Mississippi said that he had torn the stereo system from his car and sold it on a truck to get petrol to get to Priceville.
As is often the case, most of us are united and help alleviate our worries through laughter and jokes. Steve is the greatest comedian of all, both literally and figuratively. Steve smiled eternally, and the giant clown is a type of rare person whose presence tends to lift someone’s spirits. He always likes to be around and he usually makes everyone laugh, except Mike, who maintains a bad view of the world.
The school training format put us in the classroom during the first week as preparation for the written exam, and the next two weeks introduced road training for the driving test section. I wasn’t too worried about the written test – but, I was very concerned about the road test. This can be a potential worm in my apple, but I am determined to give my best.
The class instructor is a fat middle-aged man named Ron. He boasted years of experience on the road and, although he might not be the most entertaining instructor in the world, it soon became clear that he might forget more about trucks than most of us would know. Thanks to Ron’s expertise, 10 out of 15 students passed the written exam on the first try. Three of them passed the second time and, the other two had to make a third attempt but, finally, everyone in the class had graduated. Now, it’s time to drive a truck. Oh Boy …
Alan and I joked on the sunny morning air on the big day. Alan is a transplant from England and, even though he has been in America for sixteen years, he hasn’t lost a single bit of his Cockney accent. When he is aggravated or nervous, his accent tends to become clearer – sometimes to the point where I have difficulty understanding it. This morning, I don’t need to understand it. We are both nervous but, at the same time, we are passionate about a new challenge before us. We will spend the first few days on the page, learning straight lines and 45 degree angles.
The instructor entered the yard before the sun fully rose and waved so we joined him in a row of trucks on the lawn. The ranking of about a dozen trucks is mostly old-fashioned long-nose Freightliners and dilapidated Volvo but, maybe, they all work. They reminded me of ancient war fighters who had to retire in retirement but who had been called to active duty for one final fight.
After about half an hour of verbal instruction, James climbed into the old white Volvo and turned on the engine. The roar of the diesel engine sank the sound of the morning as he proclaimed himself the ruler of his domain. Even Steve was dwarfed standing next to a roaring white giant. James moved the truck between two rows of orange cones and told us that we would learn straight line support today. He then pointed directly at me and asked me to remind him of my name.
“Rick”, I said.
“Okay, Rick,” James grinned, “you’re the first to enter!”
I climbed into a vehicle that rumbled with trepidation while some students wished me luck, and others bet on how many cones I would destroy. James climbed to the window and shouted a warning to me over the roar of the engine, “Steering your problem … if the trailer turns right, if the trailer turns left-turn left.” With that, he got off the vehicle and left me to do the assignment. The old Volvo trembled with authority, as if it were a rodeo bull who wanted to get down from me in less than eight seconds. The mirrors vibrate so hard that I can’t even see the cone; they appear as orange blur.
I took a deep breath and began my retreat journey. Amazingly, I managed to negotiate a 100-yard course without hitting a cone, but it didn’t take long to find that this was more difficult than it seemed in theory. If I have to go another hundred yards, there is no doubt that I will kill some cones. During the next few days, I had to practice more and get a little self-confidence. Then, I was introduced to the curse of my existence: 45 ° angle.
Almost everyone is in a position that doesn’t support at a 45 ° angle, and I’m no exception. I was a submarine crew in the US Navy and received praise for serving as helmsman / aircraft during an ice expedition to the North Pole in 1981. I directed the ship through shallow water, which was covered with ice every day without sweating. So, it aggravated me endlessly that the task of supporting this truck among those stupid cones seemed impossible to me. However, I am not the only one who has difficulty. Alan even uses mathematical solutions to try and solve this puzzle but doesn’t seem to help both of us.
“Men who know everything”, surprisingly, are one of the worst in the class. I can’t remember his name, so I will call him “Douchebag”. Douchebag blamed the equipment, blamed the instructor for teaching him bad habits, and blamed the course settings. That was impossible because of his lack of ability because he was a gift from God to transport trucks. Douchebag insisted that if they allowed him to design a course, he would make everyone change to Super Trucker in a week. At present, Douchebag is being viewed as comic relief rather than a mentor.
Actually, supporting big trucks is more an art than a science. The only way to improve is through mere repetition. Unfortunately, there is limited time and opportunity to practice before our road test. Concerns began to emerge among some students. We don’t see how we might be ready in time.
Enter Pat. Pat is another page instructor, a tiny middle-aged woman with short cut blonde hair and a strong presence. Pat is a road veteran and travels with his loyal partner, a mixed-race dog named Zip Code.
“I named it because he was in every postal code,” Pat explained.
He said that the trail on the yard had been arranged in the exact same way as the test. Then, he pulled Joe Namath’s moment from his hat:
“We have finished this week with hundreds of students, and I guarantee I’ll get you ready for your exam.”
He seemed so confident and convinced himself that I didn’t write his words as a bluster — I trusted him. In accordance with his words, he began to show us some tricks that gave immediate results. The “trick” that he showed us might not help in the least in the real world situation trying to return to the dock at a crowded sender, but they were very helpful in learning to set at the correct angle on this special course and carry trailers between cones.
This raises points. Three-week trucking schools, basically, are training camps to get CDL. Given the short time frame, students are full of important knowledge to pass the exam … period. There is no time to perfect or hone the basic skills that have been introduced. Don’t get me wrong; a student who has just left the CDL School is not at all ready to be on the road with an 18-wheeled vehicle. That is why, after being hired by his first company, a new driver will spend 6-8 weeks with a certified coach before he is released. The role of the CDL school is to whip a student to pass the CDL test … that’s all.
Meanwhile, we have gone in groups of four with other instructors to drive on low traffic routes in Decatur, Alabama to learn how to shift through 10 teeth.
Donny was the first instructor to bear the error comedy of my group. Donny was a relaxed village boy with a rough face, who was behind the wheel of an 18-wheel looking natural to him like wearing pants in the morning. Donny was as cold as a cucumber, and never felt tired from our beginner’s mistakes. During the first few days, there was more grinding in the trucks than at the Starbucks factory.
Another instructor I invited to ride was Rick, a compact and strong black man with an energy level that could only be rivaled by people like Richard Simmons – even though Rick wasn’t as bad as Richard. Rick will get the nickname “Boom Boom” because, the teaching method at the right time to shift gears is:
“Okay, get ready-BOOM! Get ready-BOOM!” Boom Boom tells us countless ways, and he is one of my favorite instructors to come with him.
Finally, the time to take the road test arrived. We will go, in small groups, to testing facilities in Hartselle, Alabama for the next 5 days. I will test on the second day, and Alan will test on the fourth day. Everyone is nervous, so I think Alan only needs to laugh when he approaches Douchebag and asks, “Do you think you will graduate?”
“I KNOW I’ll graduate!” boasted Douchebag proudly.
Douchebag failed on his first two attempts.
The test will consist of four parts: first, students will give oral comments from inspections of trucks and trailers, then will be a straight line, then, 45 degrees angle and, finally, driving on the road with the evaluation officer.
On the day of my exam, Little Ray and another student named Jerome accompanied me. Jerome lost most of his front teeth, but that didn’t stop him from showing a charming smile. He has a sad state of being here and I’m in a rooting corner for him. However, rubbing between instructors, did not give him the chance for a snowball in hell to pass. Today, Jerome’s smile disappeared and he was nervous, almost shaking. It helped ease some of my tension while I offered him the best encouragement possible.
Ray was the first to test and despite the fact that he was barely big enough to reach the pedal, he managed to continue his first attempt. Next is Jerome. Pat is an instructor who has accompanied us and he seems not optimistic. Jerome, however, rose to the occasion and surprised everyone. He got what was considered the highest score from anyone in the class.
“I didn’t see that arrival,” that’s all Pat could say.
Now it’s my turn. We went two for two days, and of course I want to keep the lines intact. I passed the examination carefully because Alan and I mercilessly drilled each other on this matter until we got it coldly. Straight line support also doesn’t prove to be a problem. Then, it was time for the dreaded 45 ° angle support. After my heart beat several times, I arranged the way Pat showed us and slowly moved the trailer between the cones. That’s perfection! I’m really perfect! My confidence now surged when I came out to see that my trailer had crossed the first row, which was the graduation score. But I think that I can back a little closer to the rear cone to increase my score. I climbed back into the truck and backed up a little. I went out to observe my mastery, knowing that I had just sent my score to the stratosphere.
My life flashed before my eyes in horror as I watched the rear cone that stretched horizontally, as if it was the bowling pin that Brunswick had struck from the hand of Walter Ray Williams Jr. I looked at the officer with a pleading appeal but, with the cone lying there like a dead duck, he had no choice but to disappoint me.
I was devastated. I moped to the sidewalk and sat with my head in my hand. Our role is reversed, Jerome comes to give encouragement. I was upset with myself because of my ego which caused me to fail. I just tried “running the score”. I deserve to fail, and I know that. Jerome won’t let me feel sorry for myself for a long time.
“Git and go, get the beggar mother again!” he insisted. “I know you can do it and I’ll kick your butt if you don’t take it again!”
His words were straightforward, simple, and to the point. I decided to go and get the motherbleeper again.
This time, I calmed down and left my ego at the door. I support trailers between cones and come out 3 or 4 times to assess my progress. When the back of the trailer was across the passing lane, I looked at the clerk and asked, “Did it pass?”
He couldn’t hide his amused smile when he said, “Yes, it’s past. Do you want to go for a higher score?”
“No sir!” I declare with confidence.
The road test went well and, after riding an emotional roller coaster today, I can be calm now – I have graduated.
Rick Huffman is a national long-distance driver who spent 20 years in the broadcast industry before becoming a truck driver. He described a career change as, “… the best decision I’ve ever made on one day, and the worst I’ve ever made the next day.”
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