Saturday, January 17, 2009


Wanted:  a tee shirt, with the slogan -- "I SURVIVED THE WINTER OF '09!"

I went to hell this past week. Not the Biblical hell, of course, but a hell on earth all the same. And unlike the real hell, I returned from the trip. And I can now report from first-hand experience, that hell IS NOT hot. Not at all. Hell is cold. Very, very cold. Location-wise, I was in the Chicago suburb of Joliet, IL, just in time for the Alberta Clipper weather system that brought a big blast of arctic air into the region. And I spent nearly 24 hours up there, with a frozen-up truck. Let's start at the beginning of this saga.

I went up there from Greeneville, Tennesse, where I finally picked up a load of tractor cabs, after a 30+ hour loadless layover a little south of that small city. I was a little less than 40 miles from home in Morristown, but I schmoozed in a truckstop and didn't go home. I can't draw layover pay if I'm at home and if I'm gonna sit and spin my wheels, I'm getting all the extra pay I can! Sure enough, I drew it. 

Loaded and on my way north Wednesday afternoon, they were predicting single-digit temperatures locally in the next couple of days. As unpleasant as that was, I knew then that the temps would be down a lot lower where I was going. Just how much worse it would be, I didn't realize. On the way back to K-Town my truck lost its fan belt and started overheating. There was a slight delay while I went to a shop in the west end of town to get it fixed. It didn't take that long to fix it and I resumed my journey. But I had now lost so much time that I knew I'd have to run straight up there, nonstop. No time for a short nap or anything else. Mileage was do-able in 11 hours, so I headed out again.

The thermometer in my driver's side mirror was reading zero by the time I hit Indianapolis. As I moved north, the meter kept running in reverse. It was showing minus 6 by the time I made Merillville, IN, the outskirts of the Chicagoland area. By the time I hit Joliet and pulled into the customer's parking lot, it was reading 8 below. I was early, so I parked until time to deliver and napped as much as I could. The radio was saying ten below when I got out to take my bills inside and see where they wanted me to dock. When I stepped onto the ground, the frigid air literally took my breath away. It was like breathing in icicles. I zipped up, put on gloves and my knit cap. I half-walked, half-skated to the door, got inside, then paused, to catch my breath again. One worker grinned and asked if it was cold enough. I didn't bother answering him. They assigned me a dock and my face fell at the prospect of having to go back out in that. But I did and put the truck in the dock. 

My load was delivered. Now please, dispatch, get me another load heading SOUTH and get me outta this winter hell-hole, ASAP. They did, and it went back to Tennessee. Great!!! I didn't smile for long, though, because as soon as I pulled out and hit the driveway, my truck began to sputter. SPUT! COUGH! SPUT! BLURP! It died. What the hell? I thought for an instant. Then, Oh, no!! I started it again. It idled strong and revved up okay. Put in gear and pulled out. Out the driveway, turned halfway into the street, totally blocking it and -- BLURP! Died again. Oh shit!! Fuel is gelling up -- while it's running???!!! Started again. Put in gear, let out clutch. BLURP! I finally managed to nurse it out of the driveway and got it parked out of the way up against the curb. It would idle but wouldn't pull a greasy string out of a cat's behind. 

Called our shop and told them what it was doing and what I suspected. My fuel was gelling up, which is to say that it was freezing up. Diesel fuel has a peculiarity to it in which it will turn to Jello in cold weather. Technically, it has to do with the additives in it, but practically it means that the damned truck won't run on a solid fuel. It has to be a liquid and not much of my fuel was right then. The long wait while I napped had done it. Although the engine's fuel return system generates heat while it's running, in the kind of supercold weather I was experiencing, if you're not moving, the reduced flow through the fuel lines will allow it to begin to gel up. That's where it starts and then it spreads from there. It idled okay for then, so I still had heat, but knowing what I did, I wondered how much longer it would continue to idle. The shop put me in touch with a repair service and told me not to expect fast response. There were stranded, frozen-up semis all over the map up there that day. I called, got an answering machine and left a message. 

It idled on maybe another hour before it began to sputter. The whole truck shook as the engine gasped for "breath." BLURP!! No idle. No heater. Very COLD cab. I restarted it and it ran for maybe ten minutes before it died again. Kept doing that as needed. Called the service's number again and got the same taped greeting. Shit!! Would they even bother checking their voice mail today at all?? Doubtful, I decided. Called our shop again and got connected to another service. I live human female answered. Told her my story. "I'm sure you've heard these tales all day," I quipped. Uh-huh. She got my location, phone number, and told me she'd get somebody out there as soon as she could. 

Meanwhile, while I sat there, I'd been trading text messages with another trucker friend of mine. I'll just call him "Bob" (not his real name). He knows who he is, when he reads this. Bob lives in the Chicago metro area, although NOT in Chicago itself, as he is quick to point out. He happened to be home that day and he came to try and help me out. He brought some stuff called Diesel 911, which is designed to liquify gelled-up fuel and we poured it in both tanks, then tried to get it to circulate in the system. It was the day before payday, so I was flat broke, as usual, with a half-pack of cigarettes and no money to buy more until my paycheck hit the bank on Friday. But smoking was the least of my worries right then. We had no tools to get the filters off and that's probably where the heart of the problem lay. The gelled fuel will stop up the filters in no time and then you're stuck,  unless you can change them, or pour the liquifier in them and thaw them out. Before he left, Bob went to a local Arby's and bought us both some lunch. I'm forever grateful to him for being such a great friend, when I really needed one badly. I won't forget, Bob, and it's my treat, the next time our paths cross again! 

I climbed back in my now-cold cab and tried to run it again. It only ran about two minutes now before shutting off and it wasn't much longer before it refused to start at all. I guess I weakened my batteries by trying too long, but I felt like I had to do all I could to help myself. Finally, I got out and walked to a Kenworth truck dealer, located in the front of the building where I'd delivered that morning. In case some of you might wonder why I couldn't just get them to help me out, it's because my shop has to authorize the outfits that service our trucks and I imagine that a dealer's labor rate is too expensive for them. They won't even allow us to go to a Pete dealer, except for major service. It was warm in the dealership, so I was out of that bitter cold at least. The walk in there was agony because the cold, dry air was playing hell with my allergies, making it hard to even breathe at all. You quickly learn to breathe through your nose in subzero weather. The hairs in your nostrils help to slightly warm the air you take in. If you breathe through your mouth, it's like breathing in icicles, as I described earlier. It is actually painful. 

I was puffing and gasping after that short walk. My nose had started running, my eyes watering, and the mucus was so thick with the cold that I was unable to spit, or blow my nose. It was frozen on my face after that short walk into the place. That's how it is at 11 below zero, with a -30 wind chill. Fortunately, that wind was pretty calm, at 10 mph, and wasn't the usual steady, sustained prairie wind that's so common up there. It was coming in weaker gusts. I could barely see through my frozen tears by the time I reached the door, but I made it inside and plopped down in the closest chair I could find. Out of  breath, thawing and recovering. 

"You the one stalled in the street out there?" a guy asked me. I gasped out an affirmative response. "Surprised you didn't come in here before now," he told me. "You trying out for a polar bear contest out there?" "Not on your life," I told him. 'Just trying to get it to run." "If it was gonna run, you'd have been gone a long time ago. Got somebody coming? Want us to look at it?" I told him someone had been called and they would be there -- sometime. "May be in the morning," he told me, "but you can stay here till we close at midnight. Can you get a motel?" I nodded. "Company'll pay for it, if I'm broke down and I definitely am." "If you're here when we close, we'll get someone to take you to the closest place." "Okay. Thanks. Hope they'll get me going today. Got a bathroom I can use?" He pointed down the hall and I went that way. 

I was in there another three hours before the lady from the road service place called my cell and told me they were on their way to me. It was a little before 6 P.M. by then. No way I was going to make the eta on my load now, I knew. They'd probably take me off the load, then what?? I certainly didn't want to go any further north, where it was even colder!! I wanted that southern run in the worst way. But I put that out of my mind when the service guy drove up. I got in and he went back to the truck and got to work. I won't go into all the details of the next five hours, but we both worked on it, my helping him when he needed me. The first filter he pulled off of it was frozen solid. He said he'd never seen one that bad and was suprised it had started or run at all. To make a long story short, he put two gallons of fuel thaw stuff in the tanks and changed the filters four more times, before all that jello worked its way out of my fuel system and the treated fuel started flowing through the lines. And we had to sit a half-hour every time he added the anti-gel, to give it time to work. For my part, I sat in the icy cab, cranked it over while he sprayed ether in it, then held the throttle all the way to the floorboard when it started, to get it flowing strong enough to get that crap out of there. Finally, it ran for fifteen minutes without stalling. I played with the throttle another ten minutes, making sure, and finally satisfied myself that I was good to go. 

After he left, I sat there with defroster blasting on full, to thaw my iced-up windows out, so I could see where I was going. They finally cleared and I could get some HEAT in that cab. I left it on the "Furnace" setting and it gradually got cozy in there again. After another twenty minutes,  I could actually feel my legs and feet again. Yep, they were still there. I'd wondered about that for the past two hours. Dispatch told me to go get the load, and they'd reschedule the appointment the next day. I went. Truck ran good, but made some weird noises. The brakes made a little squeal every time I applied them, but they stopped me okay. Well, mechanical things can do some weird things in cold weather, I knew, and it was decidedly cold that night. I knew I likely wouldn't make it home this weekend, but I didn't care at that point. I just wanted SOUTH. Anywhere south, away from Antarctic America. I headed for the shipper. 

Got there and had to get out in that cold AGAIN, this time, to drop and hook to a loaded trailer. Would this never end?? I bundled up again, and this time I protected my bare face with by putting a pair of my clean underwear shorts over my head. Nobody around at that hour and I wouldn't have given a single damn how I looked anyway. They filtered the cold air a lot and helped me with my allergy/breathing issue this time. Utilizing them allowed me to actually breathe through my mouth, without feeling like someone was stabbing my lungs with a needle when I inhaled. 

It had dropped to 18 below by midnight and the wind chill was a balmy, tropical-like minus 34 degrees. And the wind was steady now, blowing at 15 mph. I couldn't stand it out there longer than about five minutes, then I had to climb back in and thaw out. Repeat as needed. It took me more than 30 minutes to perform a simple 10 minute drop and hook. Finally, it was done and I headed out of there! One more arctic excursion awaited, though. I had to fuel. I got to the nearest Pilot truckstop, where we fuel, close to "Bob's" house and fueled the truck. None of the other drivers said a word about my improvised face mask; if the truth's known, most of them may have been wishing they had thought of that. I skated across the icy lot into the truckstop, bought a gallon of anti-gel, which my company forbids us to use normally. Screw 'em! This wasn't normal conditions. I tricked the company into paying for it by getting the clerk to ring it up on the "additives" key. That's an old trick that still works. The company can't tell it from oil, etc., when it's rung up that way. I dumped a half-gallon in each tank and headed south at last. I got as far as Effingham when, since I was drowsy enough to start weaving all over the road like a drunk driver, I pulled into a rest area, was lucky enough to find an empty space, and hit the bunk before I collapsed. I had forgotten in all the stress of the previous day that I hadn't slept for something like 32 hours. 

My dispatcher rescheduled my load  and it now didn't deliver until Sunday night. I went back to bed and slept until 3 A.M. this morning (Saturday), then drove here to Paducah, where I'll hang until early tomorrow night, when I leave for my delivery in Humboldt, Tennessee. It's in the upper forties right now and feels like a heat wave, after the past 48 hours. Thank God that ordeal is over, but I survived it. I only "quit my job" about 50 times the past two days. Might have mentally quit it a hundred times if I hadn't been so occupied with other things, like surviving and getting that thing running again.

And oh yeah -- the eagle finally crapped while I was beddy-bye and I bought me some more smokes this morning, after cold-turkeying over 24 hours. So, it looks like it's back to normal again for now, at least. I've got some good ideas about surviving  that kind of temperature again in the future, but I really just hope that's the worst I'll see this winter. 

Spring can't get here fast enough for me!!


Nancy said...

And here I've been complaining about having to deal with -8 degree weather to go to work here in MA. Glad you survived and here's hoping you get many, many southern runs for the next few months! Hang in there!!
Nancy :-)

M88 said...

Technically could'nt a Kentworth Dealership fix a peterbuilt because are'nt they both Paccar companies?

Dirk said...

I remember the winter of '77 in Chicago & I can relate to the 40's feellng like shirt-sleeve weather. That was the coldest I'd ever been. Bundling up in two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, two t-shirts, two flannel shirts, & a winter gooose-down parka did no good. The wind cut through it like I had on nothing but shorts & a t-shirt!

Glad you made it out of there OK & didn't lose any fingers or anything.