A Steep Learning Curve

Posted By Dennis Sova: I was always interested in the big rigs, so when a chance to retire early from my lifetime career came up, I took the gold watch, got my class 1 and hit the road. On 2020-09-05 21:26:08

Back in the late 70s, I worked in an industrial area of Vancouver and occasionally had coffee with an old trucker who worked at a nearby terminal. I was interested in the big rigs and was always happy to listen to his stories. He even offered to teach me and help me get my licence (I should have taken him up on it). But I had a busy full-time job with a steady paycheck, and besides, his trembling hands told me this was not an easy life.


Fast forward to 2004 (yup, it sure went by fast), and I got my Freedom 55. My wife still had years to go before retirement, so I was free to dust off the old dream and try my hand at trucking.


Armed with a learner's licence, I enrolled with a moderately priced local driving school. The theory went well, but when it was time to hit the road, I was paired up with a truly miserable individual. Short-tempered and excitable, he was avoided by one and all – not a perfect guy to be a driving instructor!
In our first lesson, I was given a short demonstration of how it was done and then turned loose on a fairly busy street in a bobtail. Now, I have never owned an automatic, but this was my first encounter with an unsynchronized transmission. And it didn't go well. I did manage to shift up, but when I was told to downshift, the grinding noises had pedestrians turning their heads. And all the while, the great teacher was yelling "gimme sixteen hundred"!


Things did not improve, and I began dreading going to school. All the other instructors were tied up except the bus guy who happily took me under his wing, but the bus was an automatic! So I got my bus licence and even got a job with a local company. At $10 an hour, they were happy to see me.


But the joke was on me - their buses were all manual unsynchronized, albeit only five-speed. They did their best training us fledglings, and then it was time to hit the road.


With all my experience, it was obvious that I would not be taking wealthy tipsters to Yellowstone anytime soon, and most of my work consisted of school field trips and airport runs.


One of my first trips was taking a kindergarten class to the Grouse Mountain Gondola in North Vancouver. As we neared our destination, the road narrowed and got steeper and steeper. I missed the downshift and stalled it. Like a frog pond, the cacophony of primal screams behind me went instantly silent - except for one little guy who, with a penchant for stating the obvious, loudly proclaimed "BUS DEAD!"
I was starting to feel that maybe boisterous children and testy tour guides were not my cup of tea when salvation appeared in the form of Gordie, a retired airline pilot who kept busy helping out on a local Ladner, BC potato farm. Gordie invited me to keep him company while he delivered seed potatoes and other produce in an International 9400 tractor with a 48' reefer or a self- unloading potato trailer. It was self - unloading all except for the guy who stood in the bottom of the trailer and pulled 40 some odd boards that allowed the spuds to drop onto the conveyor belt. That would be me, Gordie is no dummy!


We delivered produce and seed potatoes to the Pemberton Valley and  Washington State and Oregon. This was summertime, and some of the places in the interior of Washington State make Kamloops in August look positively balmy. But the best part was that I got to practice driving on the quiet country roads while Gordie offered advice.


Soon I was ready to go back to finish the Class 1 course, this time with a different driving instructor.


Old George was laid back and told me that I was a natural-born trucker; I later found out that he said that to all his students.


And so it was that I passed the ICBC driving test and got my licence without once backing to a loading dock- it was not in the curriculum.


The potato farm needed another part-time driver, and I was offered the job with virtually no experience - little did I realize my luck at the time. The farms that we delivered to were usually quite roomy, but some of the produce warehouses in Seattle were truly frightening to someone so lacking in experience. One time I was hopelessly stuck, and when one of the other drivers offered to dock it for me, I gladly excepted. Much to my surprise, he needed several tries before the job was done. As I thanked him, he muttered something about "the turning radius of the Queen Mary." That made me feel a bit better....


After only a couple of months, the farm owners sold the truck, but somehow  I lucked out again and quickly found a job with a small, family-owned company. Paul was the boss and main driver, while his wife Ivana was the dispatcher and problem fixer, and as a bonus, they are genuinely nice people. Theirs is a tough business,  the competition fierce. The days (and nights) were long and busy, and I was about to get a real taste of the trucking business. But that, as they say, is another story...