Saturday, April 11, 2009


If a reader asked me why that little round slotted thingie mounted between the frame rails of my tractor is callled the "fifth wheel" they'd most likely get a blank stare from me and a shrug of the shoulders. If they pressed the issue, they'd get an answer suitable for the average three-year-old:  "Because!" Uh -- it really don't make sense at all. If you count the wheels on my tractor you'd get two steer wheels and one, two, three, four, five . . .  eight wheels on the two drive axles, adding up to ten wheels, total. So, that round slotted thingie which couples my tractor to my trailer is really the eleventh wheel. 

I think they named it that illogical name way back in trucking's stone age, in the early days of the 20th Century, when Big Trucks weren't all that big and they only had four wheels, like a car. It would've really been a fifth wheel in that case. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. 

Fifth wheels have been around for quite some time and they've pretty well ironed all the gremlins and goblins out of them nowadays. They function quite well and are a part of the truck that is taken for granted by most drivers. What the hell can go wrong with a fifth wheel? Usually nothing, unless, of course, it's the one on MY truck. I would have the one-in-ten-zillionth fifth wheel that gives trouble and acts crazy. At least mine did on Thursday of last week, and for the second time in three weeks. 

First off, the trailer's dollies were set a little low, meaning, probably, that the previous driver had set the box down in a pothole, or some other low spot in the ground. I got under it without dumping my rear air bags, but it was a tight squeeze. The dollies were then lifted off the ground slightly by my tractor's higher ride height and the full weight of the trailer and load were on my wheels as I backed under it. It was not as smooth as usual. It was more like a scrape-jerk-jerk-jerk, and as hard as I tried to ease the slot into the trailer's kingpin, it went jerk-jerk-K-BANG in spite of all my efforts to be gentle. 

After my head stopped bobbing to and fro and my eyeballs stabilized in my skull again, I put it in low gear and did the standard "tug" test to make sure I was hooked. I wasn't. The tractor shot out from under it and I tromped the brake pedal hard, to keep it from coming all the way out. Another jerk that left my head bobbing like one of those figurines you've seen on the rear parcel shelves of umpteen cars. I threw it in reverse and dumped the clutch. The impact with the trailer this time almost gave me a case of severe whiplash as my head was tossed around. When my vision cleared, I tugged again. STILL not hooked, as I eased out from under the box a second time. 

I shook my head to clear it and got out for a look-see. "What's WRONG with this [CENSORED] thing?" I asked, rhetorically. Was the kingpin missing off the trailer? Looked underneath. No, it was right there, where it belonged. By the process of elimination, that left the fifth wheel as the culprit. I scoped it out. Release handle still pulled out in the "released" position. Hmmmmm. Yanked and pushed around on it. Didn't budge. Leaned over the frame rails, trying to eyeball the locking jaw mechanism that secures the fifth wheel to the kingpin. Poked around on the locking jaw clamp. Got all greasy in the process. Pulled and pushed on the release handle again, to no avail. Meanwhile, another driver had noticed my difficulty and walked over. He was looking at the locking mechanism.

"It's released right now," he informed me.

"Coulda fooled me," I responded. "Damn thing does NOT want to lock on the kingpin!"

"Give it another try and hit it harder this time. Looks like there's some rust down in there." 

"Harder?!" I asked, looking at him like he was insane. "Heck, I hit it hard the last time. Any harder and I might end up in traction, in the hospital!!" 

"Sock it to it," he told me. 


I climbed back in the cab amidst visions of myself in a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace, and poking a cute nurse, when she was all bent over . . . well, let's not go there. Anyway, I sat back down in my seat and eased as far out from the box as I could. Then I closed my overhead cabinet doors, put the cap on my bottle of soda in the cupholder and generally battened down the hatches. "Brace for collision!" I yelled, as I pressed the accelerator and let out the clutch. "Ramming speed!!!" KA-WHAM! It was a collision this time, nothing less, and I think I pushed the trailer back a foot, even with the spring brakes fully applied.  I whacked myself up'side my head, then shook it briskly, to jar my brain back in place. I put the tranny in low again and eased out the clutch. Tractor no move. I did the same thing again, letting the clutch out a little harder this time. Tractor no move and I was thrown up against the steering wheel. Hooked at last!!! I thanked the other driver for his help, got my bills, and boogied out of there a few minutes later. 

I gotta get that thing looked at, next time I'm at the yard!

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