In the early 1970’s, when I was in my early 20s and trying to figure out the rest of my life, a good friend named Paul Arons and I decided we would become long-haul truck drivers. What compelled us to do this was a vision of driving all over America, listening to music and having adventures of all different sorts together. (Check out “Willin”, a song by Little Feat, that drove our interest.)
We both went to truck-driving school in Wisconsin. The attendees, about 20 of us, were a motley bunch, kind of like the platoon Bill Murray is part of in the movie “Stripes.” We were people from all over the U.S., each with his own reasons for wanting to be a truck driver.
I learned a lot. But like most schools, there were things that one would never learn until one had an actual job.
Unlike what we had been told when we signed up, the actual jobs available through the school were few and far between. A job opportunity became available just before the New Year. Paul and I flipped a coin to see who would get it. I “won.”
So on Jan. 1, Paul and I drove from where we were living in Moline, Ill., and Paul dropped me off at the Holdt Potato Co. in Red Cloud, Neb., a small town where author Willa Cather was born. I would be driving with a “senior” driver, let’s call him Tom, who was senior because he had graduated from truck driving school six months earlier.
We would be earning 4 cents a mile and had to cover all our expenses. We would be driving a Peterbilt tractor (the truck at the front of a tractor/trailer assembly) with 500,000 miles on it. This tractor had gear shifts mounted on the floor, one for the transmission and one for the differential, four gears each. The clutch did not work well. Neither did much of the electrical system.
Partner Tom did not trust me—or anyone else, for that matter. So after our orientation (which lasted less than an hour) we were on the road with him doing virtually all of the driving!
We hauled a load of wet cattle hides to Houston. The fifth wheel (the connection point between the tractor and the trailer) did not work so we had to sit at the warehouse while the hides were unloaded. The hides smelled so much that we then had to get the trailer steam-cleaned so future loads would not be affected.
We picked up load of carpet padding to take to Kansas City. In Tonganoxie, Kan/, just west of Kansas City, while driving the back roads so we wouldn’t get weighed (
Now, this being a truck with a diesel engine and us being in the middle of the winter, it was going to be hard to get the engine going again. All the air needed to be bled out of the fuel line. And we had to turn the engine over and over to do this, which ran down the batteries.
After several days of various efforts, including trying to loosen up the oil in the engine by building a small fire under the oil pan, we took all the batteries out of the truck and put them inside the repair garage next to where the truck was parked. The combination of the warmth and charging the batteries did the trick. With the batteries back in the truck we were able to get going again.
In the meantime, over the several days we were not going anywhere, we earned no money and we had to pay for lodging and meals. This was turning to be an expensive post-graduate course that I had not planned on taking.
After having the carpet padding unloaded, we headed to St. Louis, where we were to pick up a load of powdered milk to take to Los Angeles. Tom had told me that every time this truck went over the mountains to get to L.A. it had broken down.
I was running out of money, was getting very few opportunities to drive, and was generally not living the romantic ideal that had made me want to be a truck driver.
So late that Saturday night, I told Tom I was going outside to smoke a cigarette. I went to the truck and grabbed my duffel bag. Walking over to the highway, I stuck my thumb out and started trying to get back to Moline.
I was hitchhiking north through Illinois on a Sunday in the middle of January. When the morning came there were lots of well-dressed families on their way to church. Not the kind of folks likely to be going far or to pick up hitchhikers.
Fortunately a state trooper stopped and picked me up because I look like an escaped convict, someone who had been in a mental institution. The officer was courteous and his car was very warm, so I was happy for the mistake in identity, which did get cleared up eventually.
Eventually I made it back home, and my two-week truck-driving career was over.
If you made it this far you are probably wondering: What does all this have to do with running a business? Here are some points you might consider:
- Virtually nothing is actually like you thought it would be. Sometimes reality turns out better than you had imagined. More typically, what you experience is depressingly different than what you expected, at least for some time.
- Be careful of the terms you agree to. Four cents a mile with no expenses paid was a bad deal even back then. But my dream of driving got in the way of making a smart decision. You are the only one in a business transaction who will be looking out for your own best interests.
- If it isn’t working, consider bailing. I still feel bad about leaving Tom in that motel room without telling him I was taking off. However, I had considered a variety of options and saw no future in trying to make this work. So I made a decision and left. Many of us keep on trying to make a business work even after we have been given lots of messages that it never will.
Pay attention and don’t get
trapped. You often have alternatives that are hard to see when things are
challenging. Keep your eyes open so you don’t miss them!