"Lookout!? yelled Darwin Rhodes from the passenger seat. Our rig raced down the road. He lunged at the steering wheel, like an outfielder catching a fly ball over the fence. An abrupt jolt of the wheel yanked the Kenworth truck back to the middle lane. We missed a collision with a twenty-something woman in a compact car.

?That was close!? I exclaimed to Rhodes, a boyish George Jones look-alike and multi-million mile driver. Rhodes owns Rhodes Trucking in picturesque Penn Laird, Virginia.

A second earlier, a flip of the turn signal and check of the mirrors revealed no cars in the left lane. Surely nobody would zip around us as we merged left. But there she was. Equally confusing is the forward view from the driver?s seat. There?s a dizzying horizon of buttons, switches and lights ? enough to even send an airline pilot spinning to oblivion.
Most aspiring truckers would thankfully descend from the cab, like ice cream dripping down a cone on a hot summer day ? and slink back to the chaos, conflict and confusion of commuting in cars and congestion. Only to say the next morning ?why am I the only person who knows how to drive??




















Driving big rigs offers: the lure of adventure; seeing new places and faces; the crackle of characters on the citizen?s band radio; having an office with a view (even if the view is of a smelly chemical plant in New Jersey); the prestige of possessing the highest driver qualification attainable; the trucker?s jargon and camaraderie amongst fellow ?Kings of the Road.?

Also, I love trucks. The diesel beats out a soothing, rhythmic pulse. She helps me meditate about what is and what should be, as an endless stream of highway signs, exit ramps and panoramic views blur by.

TRAINING FOR TRUCKING

With the anticipation of early explorers bobbing in the ocean awaiting the new world, I found myself at Smith and Solomon, a Professional Truck Driver Institute member academy in New Castle, Delaware. According to Jim Bennett, Regional Director of Operations, Smith and Solomon trains 2,500 students annually at their twelve locations in mid and north Atlantic states. Major carriers woo and serenade graduates of PTDI approved schools.

?PTDI schools provide great base training and excellent general knowledge? says Rick Etinger, mid northeast regional manager for Werner Enterprises, employing twelve thousand drivers in North America. Etinger?s hour long recruiting presentation to Smith and Solomon students aims to solve driver shortages with promises of more pay through the best technology. Werner?s oldest truck is two and a half years old, says Etinger. ?With our satellite communication, we keep the wheels rolling so you make more money.? Werner team drivers can log as many as 24,000 miles (that's four round trips to California from the east coast) each month.

Before we even sat in a big rig, classroom studies filled our first week. We studied: pre-trip inspections; driving technique; regulations; accident prevention and vehicle weight and balance. Unbelievably, it take twenty-nine chapters to cover all of the subjects. Then there are Federal Regulations that affect truckers. Regulations read like an insurance policy: six hundred forty pages of fine print. But when one is in charge of a seventy-five foot long vehicle, it only makes sense that there are some rules of operation, no matter how arduous.

Sensing discouragement amongst the students with a difficult driving exercise, instructor Frank Marino of Philadelphia quips: "There are no idiots, just new drivers. Nobody was born behind the wheel of a truck. Maybe conceived there, but not born there." The class chuckles and the mood lightens.

A fellow student saw me contemplating the course work. ?Just do the class work. It?s easy after that!? he cheered enthusiastically, as he floated by on a cushion of air. Buoyed by preparation and encouragement from instructors, he?s off with General Manager and instructor Bill Applegate, 47, for a road test at the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Seventy five percent of Smith and Solomon students pass their driving test on the first try," says Bennett.

IN THE DRIVERS SEAT....Continued
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WHY DRIVE TRUCKS?
But cowardice in the face of challenge goes against my core. And I am a child of the seventies. Songs like BTO?s ?Roll on Down the Highway,? CW McCall?s ?Convoy? and Jerry Reid?s ?East Bound and Down? ruled the airwaves. It is easy to romanticize life on the road and frontiers to be discovered.
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An Office with a View: Learn to Drive a Big Rig
By: Bruce Peters