They were odd birds but they fit into a nest…

February 17, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

Call it too much time on my hands (although with incurable cancer, how can one have too much time?) but from time to time I put some past work colleague into Google to see what might have happened to the person.

Did that a few hours ago and found out the guy died a month ago of acute pancreatitis. I’m, 59, he was 57. For some reason I had thought he was much younger. Still of course much too young to be leaving this world.

He was a newspaper reporter. I said he was a past work colleague. I did not say he was a friend. He was not an enemy either. We simply shared some space in time at the same publication. I had talked and joked with him on a few occasions and I think we might have compared notes on a story or two.

What I can say about him, though, and I hope it is not disrespectful of the dearly departed, he was an odd bird who had a droll mannerism and dry sense of humor.

At the time, we were two journalists seemingly stuck in the small time at a bedroom community newspaper always overshadowed by the larger metropolitan newspaper.

We both suffered the same fate: the chain that owned the newspaper, first gutted it, converting it into a three-day per week publication (nowadays it’s down to one day and is the most amateur of amateur with no serious news) and finally sold out to another chain, and in the process we both, along with many others, were unceremoniously dumped (I think we did get three month’s pay, don’t recall for sure).

And that was the end of my so-called journalism career. I had gone through a love/hate/indifferent relationship with newspapers for a couple of decades and abandoned the field forever (until I began this blog, a kind of offshoot from my journalism experience).

In my desperation to find out what an out-of-work small-time newspaper reporter does, more than anything else, I had contacted my former colleague a couple times. At one point he had a temporary gig correcting SAT tests or something like that. About the same time, I tried my hand at substitute teaching , an uncomfortable memory of which I have never been able to commit to writing but a few words).

I eventually shifted gears entirely, one might say; I became a truck driver.

At some point I saw that he had got on with the metropolitan newspaper’s suburban throw away. I tried to contact him, but got no response.

But as I read his obituary I found out that suburban throw away was merged into the regular paper and he became a regular reporter. He volunteered for the police beat and got rave reviews from readers and colleagues.

One of the rave reviewers was his assistant city editor, a woman who worked with us both as the managing editor of that other newspaper. And since I am not naming names and since I doubt she will ever read this (don’t know), I want to say that she had her quirks too. A kind of odd bird, herself. But I have no question that she was a good editor. I think she had a sense of news and a good command of the English language. We had computers at that newspaper, but that was the old type. No spell check or anything like that. I have to laugh when folks think that computer technology replaces the need for grammar and editing ability (just read my blogs). Not yet. And what an ugly dehumanized world that would be anyway.

I knew she had gone on to a stint at a local business weekly and even a competing metropolitan daily that eventually folded. But now I see she finally made it to the big time.

The sad news, besides the death of my former colleague, is that newspapers seem to be dying too, including that metropolitan daily (it’s not dead yet, though).

But not only that, the breed those two people were part of (she still is) is dying out too.

He was the seemingly introverted reporter, quietly peeking around all the corners and digging into public records looking for information (the kind that is supposedly open and certainly useful to all of us, but at the same time the kind we have no time nor inclination to research – and this was pre-internet days when I knew him. She was the English teacher who apparently felt more at home directing writers in the real world, rather than the necessary, but nonetheless artificial world of the classroom. She was a competent writer in her own right, as well.

I read in his obituary that he may have not been completely introverted. He engaged in amateur acting and stand-up comedy (well, I imagine introverts are sometimes good at both of those).

And pathetic blog writer I am, I’ll steal from the writer of his obituary who noted that my former colleague had said that he sometimes practiced his comedy monologues by delivering them to a cow. He figured if you could make a cow laugh, you could make anyone laugh.

Real newspaper people were or are often odd birds, usually not glamorous, and strange as it might seem, not easily able to fit into society.

You see, that newspaper breed differ from their broadcast showbiz counterparts where pizzaz, sex appeal, and all-around showmanship takes the lead, with objective and even interesting reporting taking second fiddle.

Was I part of that old newspaper breed? Yes, to a degree. But the difference between them and me is that they were odd birds who fit into the nest. I may have been the former, but probably not the latter.

I miss that breed, even so.

P.s. I have seen some sign, nonetheless, that maybe thanks to blogging, writing news, as opposed to performing it strictly for the camera, may be alive and well, not so much from the blogging itself, but the interest it promotes in the written word.

P.s. P.s. In interest of accuracy, when I worked with my colleague on a daily bedroom community newspaper I was serving double duty as a daily reporter and as an editor of affiliated weekly newspapers.

Take a long look before going long haul…

February 9, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

People out of jobs or fearing they soon might be are going to truck driving school, an article in my local newspaper said. Been there done that. In fact, a newspaper article is what led me to my more than a decade odyssey out on the road.

Things are not as bright out there today – while there has been a big demand for truck drivers for years, with the downturn in the economy freight movement has fallen off sharply.

But I just wanted to get something in here for anyone who might be considering going the truck driving route.

Most of the entry level jobs for big truck driving are in what is called long haul. You need to realize that the rules of employment are different in that field than most others. The normal laws of pay and working conditions do not apply.

Typically, long haul drivers find themselves waiting a lot, far from home, baby sitting a truck, as I call it. It’s officially or in truck driver parlance called “layover”. For the most part, as a long haul driver you will only be paid when your wheels are moving. Long haul pays by the mile, not by the hour, or fixed salary. Some companies do pay a little something for layover, but often not for the first night. And your layover can last for several days. I was once laid over for nearly a week, some 2,500 miles from home.

Employers often quote cents per mile, but what they either lie about or do not tell you is that you may well not get in enough miles to make a living. It costs the employer very little to let you sit out there at a truck stop, because the employer does not have to pay you. It costs you a lot. When I began truck driving, I found that a lot of drivers really were not making any money. They were simply drawing on their pay for subsistence and when it was time to get their paycheck they had little to nothing left. In fact, some of them owed the company.

Now this all sounds kind of negative. But long haul driving conditions, I believe, have improved somewhat since I got into it.

(And for those of you who have not read my blog before, I drove truck for more than a decade. I worked in long haul for most of that time. My last job was what you might call short haul and paid well, but I came down with cancer, and am not able to work now.)

But I just wanted to point out some things folks not familiar with over-the-road trucking need to know. Another thing you might not have thought of is your schedule. No such thing. While some long haul drivers may have dedicated runs (going to the same place each time), most do not. In the course of a week, you will work around the clock; your hours will vary each day. That’s because pickups and deliveries are made at any hour of the day or night.

I was going to give you an example, using federal hours of service rules, but frankly I don’t remember all of them, and few people completely understand them or their interpretation, including truck drivers and the police.

However, basically, under the current rules, you have 11 hours driving ahead of you before you are required to take a 10-hour break. There’s no limit to the time you can do non-driving work, but once you have reached 14 hours in one tour, you can no longer drive until you have that 10-hour break (remember, you could get to 14 hours with less than 11 hours driving, due to wait times and even loading and unloading, which you might be called upon to do or assist in, and don’t forget mechanical breakdowns and flat tires – they happen).

The 14-hour rule is relatively new. It used to be drivers could by working their log book stretch out their allowable driving hours over days. But at any rate, you’re looking at 14-hour days. If you were to drive solo across the United States (and I have done that) you will find that your start and stop times roll around the clock. It would be like working at a factory but doing a different shift each day. Remember, somewhere in there you have to eat and let nature call and maybe even take a shower (maybe).

Then there is loading and unloading. I will say for most of time I did not touch freight. But if you do not touch the freight, you or someone (your employer) will have to pay someone to do it. It is not uncommon for drivers to end up loading and unloading on their own time and not get paid for it.

Finally, there is weather. If you will be driving over the mountains, particularly on the West Coast, you have to be prepared to handle snow chains. If you are not up to that, you have no business on the road, because you will be a danger to yourself and everyone else (there’s no shame in not being up to it, but there is in getting yourself out there and not being up to it).

I only touched the surface of this road. Most of it was negative. Ironically, I enjoyed the work immensely (although not every minute or day of it). A lot depends upon your employer and yourself and the type of freight you haul.

Oh, and one more thing, long haul is not for anyone who wants a home life (that’s why I did not enjoy it all the time). I don’t care what employers promise you, from my experience, long haul drivers have no home life. I have heard many a long haul driver lament: “I didn’t get to see my kids grow up”.

Good luck!

No fan of snow because it snow fun for me…

December 13, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

It’s been bone dry here in Northern California, but we’re supposed to get a storm this weekend, to include mountain snow – maybe even some down to the valley floor.

I’m not worried about the snow this year, but I am no snow fan. And, really, I never have been a great snow fan, even as a little kid. I didn’t grow up in snow country, but I do recall playing in the snow in the mountains as a little kid. But I never had proper snow clothes and ended up getting sopping wet and cold, although I am sure I had some fun.

But I think my three winter seasons in Germany while in the U.S. Army was the first thing to turn me off on snow. I spent an inordinate amount of time outside and uncomfortable in it. I know what it is like to get so bone cold that you think you will never be warm again and in fact you feel as if you really don’t remember what warm is, except that it has to be better than cold. And I know, what am I complaining about? I didn’t have to dodge enemy fire.

And then what really turned me against snow is the dozen years I spent going over the Siskiyou Mountains between California and Oregon and a couple of treacherous trips over the Cascades up in Washington State over Snoqualmie Pass. I was a truck driver and many times I had to throw snow chains, which often means applying the heavy iron links to at least twelve wheels. I’ve seen some drivers make it look easy. I was not among them. A lot of people will ask how to apply the chains. It’s easy to tell someone how to do it, but not always easy for someone to understand how to do it. And , I guess there are different methods or slightly different variations on applying the standard big truck snow chain. Learning how to do the job in the dry weather is good for practice and getting the basics down, but in the real world it’s a different story (your hands get ice cold, but it is often hard to manipulate things with gloves on and you will tend to lose things in the snow and people tend to slide into you). However, if one can apply them on dry pavement before the snow, it is a good idea to do so. The downside is that you might wear your chains out, but the up side is that you stay dry and a lot less miserable and it is safer. However, this is not a tutorial on snow chain application, just a commentary.

How do you know when to put the chains on? Well my last employer advised that if you even think you might need them, that’s the time. That is good advice. Better to be safe than sorry.

You need to be in reasonably good health. I know a guy who got a higher paying job, but his new one guaranteed that he would have to apply snow chains. He died of a heart attack while putting on his chains.

It doesn’t take a he-man to put snow chains on a big rig, but I guess it would help. I  once saw a slender, albeit wiry, woman apply snow chains to her truck and double flatbed trailers. I was sitting in the nice heated cab of my own assigned truck debating on whether to put on the chains or wait it out (not a luxury I had with my last job – there I had no choice but to chain up and move on). I watched her move from wheel to wheel in a steady and yet almost casual manner. It seemed that in short order she got the job done. Meanwhile, I heard over the CB radio that there was an alternate road I could take that would go around the mountain and no chains were required. I took it. When I met up with the main highway, she was on the other side too, removing her chains. I’m not sure what the moral is there. Actually when you’re in that business, you’re just as well off to get the job done and move on rather than fret over whether to put chains on or try to wait it out or find another route (I could have got lost or ran into even worse conditions, or found myself on a non-truck route). At that juncture, I think that lady showed that she was the more experienced driver. I learned a lot on my no-nonsense last job. It’s strange how one learns when he has no choice but to do something.

The thing that puzzled me no end is why people who do not have to be out in the bad weather seem to run toward the storm and get stuck in it. A few years ago a lot of motorists and truckers got stranded for several days up on the Siskiyous, some without food or water or enough warmth. Emergency crews were able to get to some. I got caught on the interstate between the mountain pass and home, but fortunately I was in a dry spot and waited it out there. I was out there because I had no choice. Unless you’re into self punishment, I’d advice canceling or delaying a trip or even turning back at the first sign of bad weather. It’s dangerous and just not worth it. I’ve seen a lot of bad accidents and faced a lot of hair-raising hazards myself.

And weather, especially in the mountains, changes rapidly. You can have sunny skies and dry pavement one minute and blinding snow and icy pavements nearly the next. Been there, done that.

The bad news is that I had to go out on disability because I have cancer. The good news, if it can be called that, since I still have cancer, is that it appears I’ll be out of the snow this year.

Unless you plan to go skiing and you are prepared for the conditions, I’d advise staying out of it.