Spring has busted out in the Northeast of the continent we share, and I know the warmth and sunshine have put me in the mood for this week’s edition from our guest columnist. From no-longer-frosty Canada comes the Sunday Cuppa of Paul Curran.
This week I’d like to tell you a short story about a character called Armand who was a colleague of mine for many years and who could be quite an enigma. Here’s an account of trying to discover his secrets. Please settle in with a cuppa of your favorite beverage and a sweet, if you so desire.
Armand (called Arm) looked so average and was so laid back that he should have been a spy. He could walk anywhere and no one would even notice him – unless you knew who he was and then you paid very careful attention. At about 5-foot-7, thin with dark hair and always a 5 o’clock shadow, he moved with a looseness that appeared careless but really concealed a sinewy strength. He was the best, most efficient, incident-free tanker driver that we had. As the safety manager, he never ceased to amaze me. We could throw anything at him, and it would be done quickly and safely. One day when Arm had once again accomplished the impossible, I asked him how it was that he had become the most efficient driver in the fleet. He just grinned and told me his secret: “First I discover all the wrong ways to do each task and then what is left has to be the best way to do it.”
That was another of Arm’s attributes – he had a very wry smile that slowly curled up the left corner of his mouth and his eyes sparkled with humor. He loved to tell stories about himself that made him look silly. As the Safety Manager, I was tasked with doing a ride-along with each driver about once a year or so to make sure they hadn’t acquired any bad habits. Normally I would just pick a day when the driver was staying in the city, but wanting a break one day, I chose to go with Arm to Montreal, hauling gas with two drops from Ottawa on the way down and three drops from Montreal on the way back. Arm’s first trick was starting before anyone else in the morning – 4 a.m. The shift started at 6 a.m., but his truck was available, and so we were loaded and leaving Ottawa by 4:40 – no waiting for any other trucks. When Arm loaded he seldom moved unless he had tools or hoses in both hands. And every move maximized every step he took. It was like watching a choreographed dance – elegant.
So we delivered our two stops on the way to Montreal before either even opened – no cars in the way. When Arm backed the two trailers into each gas station, he had made a note previously exactly where his eye lined up with a landmark out his driver’s side window, so he parked perfectly with the unloading valves pointing right at the delivery pipes. Again, every step was thought through and every motion perfectly economical while achieving the task. About 9 a.m. we were rolling into the private distribution center in Montreal – just when most other drivers were finishing their first drops.
The check-in and weigh-in were complex here, but Arm whizzed through with no pause. We pulled into the loading rack, and the meters to control the loading were antiquated – one button controlled five digits for volume per compartment, and a pause would switch digits (the meter started at 99999 and pressing the button quickly rolled the first 9 back to either 1 or 0 – then a pause and the meter switched to the second 9 which then had to be reduced to the desired number and so on). This was a very difficult system to operate, and Arm made no errors – getting it programmed the first try, and on each subsequent compartment. As we loaded, he told stories of loading here years ago and watching new drivers accidentally overflow the top of the trailer or short their loading. And, I noted, each time Arm learned something. It was becoming clear why he was so efficient. Every delivery and every mistake, his and everyone else’s, taught him something.
So we left the Montreal terminal and took Avenue George V back towards Rue Sherbrooke E. This was an uphill pull on a four-lane city street and, at a loaded weight of 140,000 pounds, we were quite slow. As we crept along Arm began to laugh and he told the following story. Apparently when he was new to fuel hauling, one of his first loads was on a hot summer day from this very terminal. The local teenagers had not missed the fact that huge fuel tankers were slowly groaning their way up the hill. Unbeknownst to Arm, a group of local kids had acquired a pail full of gasoline. On this hot day when the pavement glistened, the teens poured about five gallons of gas down the centerline between the right and left lanes on the Avenue. As Arm passed by the unnoticeable line of gasoline, one of the teens darted out behind the tanker and lit the gas on the road on fire. Arm looked out his driver’s side mirror and all he saw was a line of flames racing up the road behind him and quickly catching up to his tanker with 58,000 liters of gasoline aboard (about 15,000 U.S. gallons). His heart jumped up into his throat, and he assumed he had done something wrong and had only seconds left to live before exiting in a large explosion. That thought had just coalesced when the flames ran out of fuel and went out. Arm pulled over to the side of the road and once he had caught his breath and stopped shaking, he walked back to the area of the flames and spotted a number of teens running away through the park. He also discovered the empty pail with gas residue and upon inspection could see where the gas had been spread on the road. He chuckled as he recounted his story.
Would you like another cuppa? Perhaps a sweet as our story unfolds?
And so the rest of the trip progressed, Arm continuing to amaze me with the efficiencies he had discovered and the stories he told. He got very high marks on his ride-along when I finished the paperwork at the end of the day. We parted ways at the shop and as time went by, my job of Safety Manager became more and more demanding and stressful. About a year later it all came to a head when I put a piece of equipment out of service because of needed repairs, and the company owners threatened my job if I didn’t release the equipment. I refused because it was dangerous by any measurement – pieces of the frame were literally rusted away leaving a very weak structure that could put the truck off the road at any time. They were very angry but backed off and had it fixed. I resigned as safety manager citing incompatibility with management and requested a transfer to a driver position. They obliged and I asked that my first run be with a seasoned driver to refresh my skills. Lo and behold, Arm was doing one of two loads into northern Ontario and dispatch gave me the other load. And so it came to be a year after the Montreal trip that I was trucking once again with Arm as my trainer.
Husky Truck Stop Hwy 400
Our trip went well, and I discovered muscles that I had forgotten pushing a pencil. The next morning empty and having driven most of the night, we pulled off Hwy 400 S, at the Husky north of Toronto for breakfast. We had been hearing on the CB for many miles that the 400 was closed by a major accident just south of where we now sipped coffee. I had brought a map into the restaurant so Arm and I could look at all the options for skirting the accident which was said to be serious enough to keep the road closed for the rest of the day. The only detour we could find would take us 3 hours out of our way.
Arm looked at me with an expression that was inscrutable, as if weighing something. Then he asked; “You’re not doing the safety manager’s job any more, are you?” I told him I was finished with that and explained why. He nodded and asked if I objected to breaking a few laws, guaranteeing we wouldn’t get caught. I just shrugged – I had had a reputation as a bad boy years ago. Arm took that as agreement and he grinned at me as he stood from the table. Apparently I was about to get the down and dirty as to some of Arm’s hidden secrets. “OK then. Just follow me and stay off the CB, we don’t want anyone knowing what we are doing.” At that we got into our trucks and I followed him from the parking lot which was jammed with waiting trucks stranded.
We went down one exit on the 400 and got off on a secondary road that was paved but had no shoulders. We went west for about two miles, and then Arm signaled a left turn where I didn’t see a road. Remember now, we were driving 80-foot long tankers – two trailers weighing 45,000 pounds (about 22 tons) empty. I followed and we turned onto a farm service road that had not been marked on the map – signs indicating 10 tons maximum. It felt like we were driving through the fields as we sailed up and down rolling hills with crops on both sides. After about 10 minutes Arm put on his left signal again and slowed. He tapped his brake lights to signal beware and I stopped and watched as he negotiated a sharp turn onto a very narrow dirt road. It required serious maneuvering and the turn was not finished when the road became an old moss-covered stone bridge that was marked “Weight Limit 6 Tons.” Dear Lord, please keep me safe. I followed, repeating the intricate maneuvers necessary to make it onto the bridge as I watched Arm exit the stone roadway. My window was down, and I could hear snapping and cracking as I inched across.
Finally clear of the old bridge, we drove carefully along a single-lane dirt road with tree branches scraping both sides of the tankers. The road twisted and turned and after about 15 minutes it widened and started across fields once again. Then we passed a fruit processing plant and slowed as we turned onto a highway ramp entering the 400. There were no other vehicles on this major route – just us, because above us the road was closed. I got my bearings and found that we had traveled about 30 miles south and well below the accident. We were now only a few minutes from the Toronto fuel distribution center where we would reload and go our separate ways. Now I finally knew the dark side of Arm’s secrets and how sometimes he seemed to do the impossible. We were the only trucks in our fleet that got loaded that day and dispatch would forever wonder why.
That’s about all we have room for this week folks, so it’s time to settle in with another cuppa and pat Ellie B. Sweets anyone? Please join me in thanking Mark, Karen and Ellie B for their invitation to tea. We are all honored that you dropped by today to visit. I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself and the conversation and please look around at Mark’s other posts while you’re here. Have a great week.