The Divine Breakdown

It was in December of 2004 that my mother gave me a book to read. With God, In Russia was the story of Father Walter Ciszek, a Pennsylvanian of Polish extraction who was a wild young man well on his way to becoming a good-for-nothing adult. Destiny, combined with circumstances of the times, set a different course for this budding reprobate.

He became a Jesuit priest and requested a posting to the Soviet Union. His wish came true in 1940 – on the eve of the 20 century’s greatest upheaval which, in 6 years time, would send 60 million souls to their Maker. He was arrested near Moscow, charged with espionage and spent over 20 years imprisoned in Siberia. Upon release from the gulag he was placed on parole and was forbidden to leave northeastern Russia. He obtained a job driving a truck in that frozen hinterland and was finally released during the Kennedy administration.

The United States had recently apprehended a high profile Russian spy and Khrushchev wanted him back. The two super powers haggled in a game of international quid pro quo. The Communist spy was the quid and Ciszek was the quo.

Back in the States, Father Ciszek was urged by family members (who thought he had perished in Russia in the 1940’s) to write of his experiences in that land run by the Godless. He took their advice and the result was the book which my mother gave me on that gray, winter afternoon.

It was a compelling book and of special interest to me were his descriptive passages regarding his truck driving days through the boundless woods rolling over a barely discernible narrow track. No truckstops out that way.

On December 23rd of 2006 I backed my 18 wheeler into an Air France loading dock in Queens, New York. The fork lift was offloading 8 huge crates which I had picked up in Orlando, Florida two days earlier. JFK airport is 29 miles from my house and I could barely wait to get home. Autumn was only 4 weeks old when I had left. The lunch buzzer sounded and the fork lift
driver started heading for the break room.

“Come on, man, there are only two crates left,” I called to him, “I haven’t been home in two months; how about throwin’ me a bone here?”
“Hey, mac, if I do it for you den I gotta do it for everyone – it’ll never end.”
“Well, I got $25 in my pocket and it’s tellin’ me that you’re having a late lunch today.”
“I guess I hafta do it,” he said as he returned to the machine with a big, non-union grin on his face, ”’cause I never hoid of $25 tellin’ a truck driver anything but the truth.” He finished me off in 10 minutes. It was now ‘Hammer down to the House’ time. My birthday was two days behind me and Christmas was two days ahead. Halfway across the Throggs Neck Bridge my cell phone rang. Caller ID told me it was Mike, my dispatcher in Boston.
“Hello-o-o, you’ve reached George, the trucker who is off for the next 8 days. If this call is urgent, then please…”
“Hey, knock off the fake recording, tough guy, I know it’s you. Listen, we got a hot load goin’ to…”
“You can stop right there, Mike, unless the hot load you’re talking about is goin’ from my kitchen to my living room.”
“You don’t even wanna hear about it?”
“No.”
“Let me just lay it out for you so when you talk to the driver who eventually takes it you can say to him: ‘Yea, I turned that one down.”’
“OK, what is it?”
“You, uh, I mean the driver who is gonna take it, will load up here tomorrow; 22 computers goin’ to Seattle for Cingular Wireless. Delivers on the 28th.”
I utter a derisive laugh. “Mike, are you kidding? That’s not even tempting; crossing two sets of mountains in the winter in four days.”
“George,” he said solemnly, “this is the highest paying load I’ve seen in my 20 years in trucking: $18,000.” I started some mental computations: my cut would be $9,000; after fuel, tolls and a truck payment are deducted, I’d walk away with about $6,600 for less than 5 days work.
“If Cingular can’t get someone to agree to do it by 4PM today, they’re gonna charter a plane,” Mike said.
I thought about it. I could really use the scratch, but, on the other hand, I miss enough holidays at home. Finally I said to Mike, “Let’m charter a plane.”
“Can I just tell you the clincher?”
“What’s the clincher?”
“They’re gonna pay all fuel and tolls – $1,800.”
When I started visualizing what the reaction of my family would be when I told them that I wouldn’t be home for Christmas, I knew that I was roped: ‘I try to get out but they keep pullin’ me back in.’
“OK, Mike,” I sighed, “gimme the address in Chowder Town.”
“There’s one other thing: this load is right at 37,000 pounds which means you’ll be right at the limit. If you fill your fuel tanks to the top, you’ll be overweight.”
“Most weigh stations will be closed over the holidays, so I’ll roll the dice. I feel lucky,” I said.

At nine in the evening on Christmas Day I fueled up just east of Fargo, North Dakota. I only filled up one tank to keep the weight down. Each of my two 150 gallon capacity tanks holds over 1,000 pounds of fuel.

Before I left Boston, I’d jettisoned everything that was not absolutely necessary, including my three spare tires, and I was still right on the cusp of being overweight. I’d left behind my cargo bars, plywood and even my chains. Going through the belly boxes of my trailer, I was tossing nearly everything that I came upon. I found an old, plastic bag containing a secondary fuel filter and a receipt from 1999. Every time I’d ever had fuel clogging woes in the past, the primary fuel filter was the culprit, so I wasn’t surprised that for the last 7 years that filter had sat there untouched. I’d never needed it and probably never would.

To this day I can’t say why I chose to keep that filter with me while I was leaving behind much more valuable items. Chances were much greater that I’d need one of my spare tires more than a lowly secondary filter. Yet, I had not one spare tire with me as I left the truck stop and headed west on that dark and lonely Interstate 90.

Something just didn’t feel right. It was barely discernible but it seemed that my big, Caterpillar engine wasn’t giving me its all as I climbed the grades between Fargo and Jamestown. I turned off my Christmas music and listened carefully to my powerful engine. Maybe it was my imagination; after all, my truck had never pulled 80,000 pounds before and there was a strong westerly wind. I started ascending another hill and paid close attention. There it was again.

I’d heard on the CB radio that drivers were getting tainted diesel in this area and maybe that was the problem. I got off the highway at the next exit and pulled onto the shoulder of the entrance ramp. I quickly crawled under the truck with my flashlight, found the crossover valve and closed it. If the problem was the fuel that I’d just taken on in my left tank then I didn’t want the good fuel in the right tank to be contaminated by it. I estimated that less than 20 gallons had crossed over into the good tank which, fortuitously, happened to be the tank that the engine drew from.

Slush and cold mud oozed down my back as I emerged from under the truck. I killed the engine and looked around for civilization. Nothing. I looked north, east, south and west and I didn’t see one sign of life. Not even a head light.

Hoping that the problem was a fouled primary fuel filter, I retrieved my filter wrench from my sidebox and took the suspect off. I got an empty bucket, put it beneath the right fuel tank, undid the drain plug and filled the bucket halfway up with fuel. After filling the filter with fuel, I shook it vigorously and poured it on the snow to see how much debris was coming out with the fuel. There was quite a bit and my hopes for quick fix soared.

I cleaned the filter 3 times just to be sure. I hurriedly screwed it back on and didn’t even bother cleaning the mud off my back or the diesel off my front before jumping back into the driver’s seat, so anxious was I to see if my side-of-the-road repairs did the trick. I slowly eased the semi back onto the big road.

It was worse than before. Now, the engine was coughing and spitting at 30 miles an hour on level ground. Even making it to the next exit was in doubt. I started getting seriously worried. Everything was closed and I was fresh out of ideas.

The next exit came up very slowly. My maximum speed now was 22 miles an hour. This exit was just like the last one with one significant difference. At the first exit I had a cell phone signal and at this one I had zilch. The irony was maddening: 37,000 pounds of the latest wireless technology in my wagon and not a drop to drink. I shut the truck down, turned off the lights and enjoyed the peace and quiet for a few minutes.

What to do? I knew that I’d have to get that tank drained tomorrow, if I could find a place that was open. My immediate problem, though, was getting the rig to that imaginary place. I could replace the secondary filter. I had the tools but that’d be a waste of time – I knew the problem wasn’t that filter. As I sat there mulling things over I thought of a similar calamity that befell Father Ciszek.

He told of a time when the truck he was driving through the wilderness of Siberia broke down. By his reckoning, it was about 20 below zero – at noon. It was a fuel problem and he just about got frostbite on his fingers while taking his fuel lines apart. He couldn’t find the problem, so he sat there for 36 hours until another truck finally came along and rescued him.

After considering that situation, my circumstances didn’t seem nearly as bleak as they did five minutes ago. I contemplated soliciting his assistance but decided against it. I decided that if ever I was going to pray to him it’d be for something really serious, like when I was about to go over the side of a cliff. No, I couldn’t ask for his help in a small matter like this. It would be impudent.

There were two things I could do: wait for someone to happen along and help me or put on the secondary filter. Well, I did the first thing with no result, as no one was happening along anywhere on this Christmas night, so I went into my sleeper compartment, changed into dry clothes and donned my overalls.

After removing the filter I peered into it with my flashlight. The interior of the filter looked as pristine as a brand new one. That was not good news. Nonetheless, I installed the 7 year old new filter and kept muttering to Father Ciszek that I wasn’t asking for any help. If it’s the filter, it’s the filter: I’m not asking for any crumbs from Providence. Maybe some other time. But, I couldn’t help wondering if he was, perhaps, looking down on me with a knowing grin.

I doffed my overalls, which now stunk of diesel fuel, and fired the Kenworth up. Easing the rig back on to Interstate 90, my heart was racing with anticipation, although I feared that the prospects were not good. Ten miles an hour, fifteen miles an hour – the moment of truth was approaching fast. Just before my speedometer hit twenty miles an hour I found myself saying out loud, “There’s still ten more minutes of Christmas Day left, so Father Ciszek, how about throwin’ me a bone here?”

Thirty miles an hour, forty, fifty. I couldn’t believe it. I was approaching a steep upgrade – the supreme test: uphill and into the wind, 80,000 pounds. If I pulled this hill without my truck bucking and snorting, I’d have it made. Well, I shot up that hill like a Roman candle in heat. I was stunned. I was amazed. It was all downhill from there, figuratively speaking. I got to the left coast right on time.

Although, I’m sure, any mechanic could explain exactly what happened to my truck in clear, physical terms, I like to think that Providence had a little something to do with it. There’s no mechanic alive who can tell me what synaptic connections in my brain compelled me to hold on to that useless filter, when all reason dictated that it be left behind.

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