Feature: Be Careful Backing Up
A few weeks back, I drove a twenty-four-foot Ryder truck from Syracuse, New York to Durham, North Carolina. My girlfriend Monique and I were moving, and I say it was a twenty-four-foot truck because it is a crucial detail.
And yet, people are not struck by it. It slips by them, as if it's superfluous. There is, in fact, nothing superfluous about a 24-foot truck.
The twenty-four-foot truck weighs over 23,000 pounds when empty. It's equipped with air brakes. It has speakers in the bumper so that when I put the truck in reverse - and let me just say I really did not like putting the truck in reverse - it unleashes those piercing, pulse-like beeps. The back of the sun visor reads: "Never forget you are driving a truck." I felt incapable of thinking anything else.
These are the instructions that came with the 24-foot truck: Allow greater following distances. Be careful backing up. Trucks are longer and wider. Watch overhead clearances. These sentences appear in bold on the Vehicle Damage and Safe Driving Tips triplicate form. Inhaling the distinctive whiff of liability lawsuits, I placed my initials next to each tip. I imagined some Ryder attorney rounding a table, asking me, Are these not your initials, Mr. Maliszewski? Didn't Ryder inform you that trucks are both longer and wider?
Monique and I had a system for driving. She drove in front, in our 1984 Plymouth Reliant, with the two cats, the cat supplies, and the things we needed most essentially.
I drove behind, in the truck. My father loaned us his two-way radios to communicate. My father is sixty-one, and about a year ago, he had a heart attack. My mother bought the radios so he could keep in touch with her while working outside. Just in case anything happens. What happens typically is my father calls in and asks my mother if she wants to go to the hardware store, if she thinks it's time for lunch yet, or if she could bring a glass of water out to him when he swings by the door on the riding mower.
Monique and I used the radios to say things such as "I only have a quarter tank of gas left." "How are the kitties doing?" "I just heard on NPR that William Maxwell died."
I did not drive like a menace. I didn't speed. I remembered those four tips. Still, I sensed I must have been doing something wrong, endangering everyone who had the bad luck to be in front, beside, or behind me. I felt grossly unprepared to drive a 24-foot truck. I imagined hundreds of scenarios involving Monique, her car, me in the truck and squealing tires, smoke, spilled oil and gas. Flames.
As I drove, I filled with fear and worry, all of which stewed in the thick anxiety of leaving somewhere familiar and going somewhere new. As I drove, my chest seized up and my eyes clenched. Did no one know how unprepared I was to haul all our books, furniture, and possessions six hundred-plus miles behind the wheel of a twenty-four-foot truck? Then I criticized myself for being so self-involved and endangering others. I got a grip, you know, and kept driving.
In Frackville, Pennsylvania, we needed to stop for gasoline. This was our first stop, the first time I had to drive through small city streets since leaving home.
I missed the first gas station. I wasn't ready to turn. After conferring on the radio, Monique and I drove into the heart of town.
Frackville is like many small towns located near major highways. Gas stations, fast-food franchises, and motels cluster aggressively near the highway. The old town remains more or less undisturbed. Which means old Frackville is not constructed to accommodate 24-foot trucks driven by some guy versed only in Ryder's four safe driving tips.
In order to buy gas, I had to first circle once around the station, then execute a stunning slow-motion, three-point turn in an empty church parking lot - all to align the gas tank with the pump.
Once the truck was gassed up, I was not ready to drive again. My right hand went numb about an hour into the trip from gripping the wheel too tightly. Shaking it vigorously didn't help. I pulled out of the gas station, and headed away from the highway. I took a turn and parked in front of a block of houses. Monique parked behind me and came to sit in the cab. A hard rain started falling on Frackville, rain that followed us to Virginia. We had snacks and told each other we were doing fine, considering. So what if we drove too slowly and everyone passed us? We could take an extra day.
After a few minutes Monique left in the car to find a way out. As she circled around, we kept in touch on the radio.
"What if you go straight?" I said to her. "It looks like I may be able to turn around, if it widens enough."
"I'll check it out," she said.
A minute later she radioed back. "I don't think you can make it through there. Let me try this other way. I'll be back."
As I waited for her to discover the widest, most secure passage with the fewest tight turns, I tried to shake some life back into my hand. And I tried to forget that in a few minutes I would once again be driving a twenty-four-foot truck.
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