As a truck driver you’re always moving. You’re always meeting new people. A few you remember, but most are gone from your mind as quick as you leave them in your rearview mirror. Darnell was one of the guys I remember vividly. He was more impressive than most.
A Rick Beck Story Editor: Jerry
This story begins with rice. I never knew Darnell’s last name, but he’s one of those people I met as a cross country trucker and couldn’t forget.
I backed into the loading dock deep inside of Louisiana to pick up a load of rice to go to Detroit. I knew it was a load of rice as soon as I went through the gates of Comet Rice. Right away I knew this was going to be trouble. I couldn’t imagine how much.
The one great thing about it was the three tackle sized guys assigned to load my trailer. The bad thing was the three huge guys who loaded my trailer. It was a floor load. There were no pallets under the hundred pound bags of rice.
The three massive fellows carried one bag at a time, not stopping until all 400 bags were loaded. Forty thousand pounds of rice would make a lot of rice pudding, but before it could end up in pudding, I had to get it unloaded. Weighing 150 pounds, the idea of dragging 400 bags of rice off my trailer didn’t thrill me.
A floor load for a driver represents a lost day and probably you’re going to take a beating when you get to the place where you unload. Almost all warehouses require the driver to get the load off his truck. If it’s a pallet load, they’ll furnish a forklift, and efficient warehouses let their men drive the forklift to expedite matters.
I was in the blanket wrap fleet. At North American Van Lines, this was a premiere division. What blanket wrap didn’t include were 40,000 pound floor loads. It was what was called a backhaul. The load of rice would get me close to a major shipping center for my fleet. To my dispatcher it was numbers and a name on an invoice. They gave no thought to the load. The heaviest thing a dispatcher lifts is his pencil.
I was lucky I didn’t have to load it myself, but when it came to unloading it, that would be no comfort. After unloading the first dozen bags, I’d be beat to a frazzle. So I didn’t drive to Detroit, I set my sights on Ft. Wayne, Indiana, home of North American Van Lines. (NAVL) to the drivers who leased their trucks to NAVL
When I shifted into gear, slid my cassette of Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again” into the player, I headed for headquarters. I was going to make my division chief a gift of 400 bags of rice and the trailer they were on.
When I walked into Doug’s office, he was immediately punching my driver’s number into his computer to see why I was there.
“You aren’t in Detroit?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“Is there trouble?”
I could always depend on Doug to get right to the point.
“No, actually I’m right here in Ft. Wayne. I’ve brought you a trailer with 40,000 pounds of rice on the floor. You may want to unload it, but this cowboy isn’t unloading it. I’ve got to drive tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that. There’s no future in me busting my back on that piece of crap.”
“Oh!” Doug said, rarely arguing when the driver was angry enough to drop by the Fort Wayne headquarters..
Doug and I got along pretty well. He was the chief of the division to which I leased my services. Mostly I picked up and delivered on time and said little about it. The idea I’d unhooked from the load and left the trailer in his parking lot was a serious declaration of noncompliance with my contract.
The other thing Doug knew when he looked at his computer screen, my truck was paid for. I stayed with NAVL because I was treated well for the most part, but it only takes one 40,000 pound floor load to ruin a good back.
“I’ll make arrangements for someone to meet you to unload the rice,” Doug said, leaning back in his chair to gage my reaction.
“I show up. No one is there, and I’m still stuck with a load of rice. You’ll have to do better than that if you don’t want the rice back in your parking lot tomorrow. I’m not off-loading that rice.”
“There’s a NAVL moving company three blocks from your delivery point. They’ll hire the guy. He’ll be waiting for you at seven in the morning tomorrow. All you need to do is show up. I’ll make arrangements for the agent to pay the lumper (man who loads and unloads trucks).
“Okay!” I agreed.
“I’ll give you something good once you get this turkey off your trailer,” Doug promised.
“That’s even better,” I said. “I better go get my trailer before someone decides to deliver my load of rice.”
“I think you’re safe,” Doug said.
At fifteen minutes to seven, I was in front of the NAVL agent and Darnell stood up off the curb and came over to get into my truck.
“I’m Darnell,” he said, after dropping into the seat.
Darnell wasn’t a lot bigger than me. He was maybe five nine but the sweat shirt he had on was stretched tight over some heavy duty shoulders. Darnell was a miniature tank. He was seventeen and took the day off from school to get the job unloading my truck.
“I’m unloading at Farmer’s Warehouse,” I said.
Darnell didn’t need to be prodded for directions. He told me to go around the block and make a right on the third turn to get us at the rear of the warehouse.
“No school today?” I asked.
“Not if I can make a hundred bucks. I’ll go late. Most of my important subjects are in the afternoon.”
“Did they tell you what you’d be unloading?”
“A truck. Do I look like a dude the boss explains things to?”
“I know the feeling. That’s how I got stuck with 40,000 pounds of rice on the floor of my trailer.”
Darnell didn’t blink. He didn’t ask to get out. He’d come to do a job and he was going to do the job.
Darnell wouldn’t be the only memorable thing about my load of rice. We pulled up behind the warehouse at seven. A small bent over man of an undetermined age, once you get past he was old, appeared beside my truck.
“You got my rice, boy?” he yelled up, surprising me. “We was specting you yesterday, son. Where you been?”
“Getting my help lined up. You do know what’s on here?”
The old man laughed and shook his head. I could tell he’d seen truck drivers who were real truck drivers, and they didn’t need help unloading anything.
“Don’t make truckers like they used to. Some aren’t smart enough to arrange help. I hate to tell you what they look like after they unload forty thousand pounds of rice,” he said, laughing down in his gut.
“Listen up, driver. You don’t got to do a thing. You watch me. I’m going to get you on my dock. Don’t think. Don’t even drive. You watch my hands and you do exactly what them hands tell you to do. You don’t need no help to translate hand signals, do you?”
“I’ll figure it out,” I said, having had other men try to get me on their docks.
“All you got to do is watch my hands. You can think about it after you’re up against my dock.
“Yes, sir. Can I ask one question before we get started?”
“Shoot,” the old man said, anxious to get started. “I been waiting here since yesterday. Don’t guess a question will slow us down that much.”
“Where is the dock?”
“See that pretty brick wall they built over there on the right side of your truck?”
“Yes, sir. It’s pretty all right. It’s big too.”
“The dock’s on the other side of the wall. I don’t mean over there somewhere. It’s right beside the wall. There’s stairs and a door and then the dock. You won’t see it until you get out of your truck and walk back there.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a forty-five foot trailer. How in hell am I going to get it around that brick wall to a dock I can’t see?”
“Son, you’ve forgotten my instructions already. Forget what you know. Listen to me. Quit thinking, OK. It’ll only confuse you. You follow my directions and it’s my job to get your trailer right where it needs to go. That’s what I do. Let me do all the work.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Let’s get it done.”
“Get your boy back there to pin your doors back. Once we get started you won’t have no time for a coffee breaks.”
“Don’t call me boy, old man,” Darnell yelled past my face in an angry voice.
“Yeah, Yeah. Get your black ass behind this truck and pin them doors back. That better, one black boy to another?”
It must have been better, because Darnell was out of the truck, pinning my doors back as the old man walked out into the street and stood in the of my windshield a few feet ahead of the truck.
“I’m going to back up,” he yelled. “You keep coming forward until I stop moving backward. When I stop, you stop. Watch my hand signals after that.”
I had to watch him close to catch all his signals. I didn’t have time to look in my mirrors. I couldn’t even see the dock from where we started. His hands moved in precise motions. One signal followed another and always the signal to keep moving backward with his free hand. He moved slowly forward as I backed up.
I’d never backed my truck up without being able to see where I was putting it. You’ve got to trust someone giving you hand signals for a dock you can’t find. That’s if you don’t want to knock over someone’s pretty brick wall.
I didn’t even have time to break a sweat, which I would ordinarily do in this type of situation. I didn’t have enough money to pay for a wall.
I turned left, back to the right, left again, and always the signal to keep backing up, until I felt the trailer settle up against the rubber dock stops. My truck was halfway out in the street and I could see about ten feet of my trailer. The rest was behind the brick wall.
“You’re better than I thought you were,” the old man said.
“You’re good,” I said, swinging out of my truck. “You’re very good.”
“Job security,” the old man said, disappearing up the stairs and into the warehouse.
When I walked back to the back of the truck, the trailer was perfectly squared off at the door where we would unload. He had never once looked out around the truck to see where the trailer was in relationship to the dock. He was very good.
The old man dropped a pallet at the back doors of my trailer with a bang.
“You’re the best dock jockey I’ve ever taken directions from,” I said, wanting to stay on the right side of the man. We still had rice to unload.
“Told those assholes not to build that damn wall there. Just makes more work. You followed me fine. Most guys want to drive and they forget to pay attention. We’ve rebuilt that damn wall twice. Told ‘em not to put it there. No one listens,” the old man said, walking away shaking his head.
“That’s a lot of rice,” Darnell said, looking at the wall to wall bags as he pulled on a pair of gloves. “That’s a whole lot of rice.”
Out of pity for the guy, I started yanking bags off the very back of the trailer. Those were the easy bags. Once you got up into the middle of the trailer, it was a long way to the dock from there.
I grunted each time I pulled a bag up on my shoulder to walk it back to the pallet.
“Hey, man, you aren’t getting paid to do this. I am. Go relax and I’ll let you know when I’ve got most of it knocked out so you can get your bills signed and get out of here as quick as I drop that last bag onto their dock.”
Darnell had taken off his sweatshirt. The shirt under it had the sleeves cut off. His bulging arms were impressive. I wasn’t going to argue with him. If I didn’t burn myself out, I might be able to get another load before day’s end. Besides, I was in Darnell’s way. For every bag I took off, he took off two.
After about a half an hour, I started hearing all this yelling. The school girls had begun to walk past on their way to school. Darnell stood at the corner of the truck yelling that he had something to give them. I had to look close into my mirror to see if it was him, but it was.
He’d been polite and soft spoken, and now he sounded like a street thug. It surprised me. I wrote everyone’s story in the first five minutes I knew them. I’d written Darnell as a quiet nice kid. Goes to show you how little you know about someone you don’t know anything about.
Even with taking time out to yell at the passing girls with the other dock workers, at half past nine Darnell knocked on my door.
“Go get your papers signed. I’ll be done in five minutes. I already told that old man we’re finished.”
“You’re done?” I asked.
“Just about. I took a few minutes break or I’d have been done sooner.”
“Damn, you’re hell on wheels, Darnell.”
“Remember me the next time you’re in Detroit and need a lumper.”
He smiled and jogged back and leaped onto the dock. When I walked back with my paperwork, the old man stood waiting for me. He scribbled his name on the paperwork.
“That boy’s a real worker, you know,” he said, handing me back my papers. “I’d give him a nice tip if I were you. You’ll be loaded by this afternoon. He saved you a day by not wasting any time.”
“Pull up and I’ll close your doors,” Darnell said, climbing up on the passenger side so I’d hear.
“Can you tell me how to get out of here?” I asked.
“Buy me breakfast and I’ll put you right on the Interstate,” he said.
“Deal,” I said.
“What’s the twenty for?” Darnell asked, putting it in his pants pocket.
“Old man said I ought to tip you. Says you’re a good worker. He’s a pretty smart old man,” I said.
“Thanks,” Darnell said. “You know they pay me at the moving company?”
“Yeah, that was the arrangement. I could have gotten someone who kept me there all day too.”
“True. Next time you know who to ask for.”
“I do,” I said.
It was perfect. There was a mall, restaurants, and the Interstate about twenty minutes from where we unloaded. Darnell said Pancake House had good food and he ordered the lumberjack’s breakfast.
As we waited for the food and sipped our coffee, I looked Darnell over.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, as he saw the confusion on my face.
“You,” I said. “You’re intelligent. You’re a nice looking guy. Talking to you I get the idea you’re a serious man. What was all that back there when you were yelling like you didn’t have good sense. It’s totally inconsistent.”
“That’s my street face. You can’t be yourself on the street where people see you. Not in my neighborhood you don’t.”
“Don’t people see you everywhere? Do you act like that for all of them? I don’t get it.”
“If you want to stay alive you better have a street face. I could be like I am with you around the brothers, but they’d take me apart. If you aren’t tough you might not survive. I plan to survive. My street face helps. That’s not who I am but I know how the game is played.”
“You are full of surprises,” I said. “Do you do well in school?”
“A’s and B’s. I like school. It’s my ticket out of here. I want to live to get out of here. I do what I need to do,” Darnell said.
“You should do well. I’m impressed. Most people don’t impress me,” I said. “Most guys wouldn’t tell me the facts the way you just spelled them out. I didn’t know any of that, Darnell.”
“You want to have a laugh? I can make you laugh.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m learning ballet. I take dance classes three nights a week. The brothers found that out, they’d kill me. They think ballet dancers are faggots. Faggots don’t live long in my neighborhood.”
“But you will?” I asked, picking up on Darnell’s inflection.
“If I admitted to it I wouldn’t. I am what I am. Live and let live. When I can get out, I’m gone. I hope to be a dancer one day.”
“You’ll go a long way, Darnell. Follow your heart. Find a place where you don’t need your street face. You’ll do a lot better there, and for the record, I’m gay. I rarely tell anyone that. It’s not important.”
“I figured you might be,” he said, smiling at the pile of food placed in front of him.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“I work for truckers all the time. Most call me if they need a lumper near the city. All they want is my muscle. You, I could see you analyzing me. What you say doesn’t sound like truck driver talk. I figured you might be gay. Doesn’t bother me. You should see the guys where I dance. Gay is okay.”
“I can imagine,” I said chuckling at how he framed his comments..
I gave Darnell an extra twenty for getting me out of town to a spot where I could eat and call for my next load. He smiled, shook my hand, and began jogging back toward town. He wasn’t going to spend any of it on bus fare, I figured.
When you’re out there, on the road, 24/7, a few people leave a lasting impression on you and I remember Darnell.
I don’t get to the ballet often, but when I do, I look to see if Darnell might be dancing with that ballet company. I hope he made it. He was an impressive guy, who made the most out of the hand he was dealt.