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His Love of Trucks Is Tested by a Storm and Drags on the Engine

DRIVING | First Person

July 29, 1999|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I've always liked trucks. The bigger, the better.

I hauled oranges as a teenager, but none of the trips was more than 150 miles. Later, as an adult, I owned a small avocado grove. That justified buying a truck of my own, but it was only a pickup.

So when my wife's parents--now well into their 90s--finally decided last fall that it was time to move to a retirement home, opportunity smiled.

Their new apartment, while comfortably spacious by most standards, is about half the size of the house they were leaving on the North Shore of Chicago. That meant they would have to part with a truckload of stuff accumulated during 60 years of marriage. A big truckload.

There were some nice tables, chairs, couches and beds, and some useful things like andirons and watering cans. There were other things too, like a scratched-up, '40s-vintage radio-phonograph cabinet lacking both the radio and phonograph, and a nondescript shotgun that doesn't work anymore.

It was up to their daughter, Martha, and me to deal with all that stuff, and the simplest solution seemed to be to load it all in a rental truck and haul it to our home on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Consultations with the folks at Ryder led us to settle on the largest vehicle they'll rent to ordinary folk--people, like me, who don't have a commercial chauffeur's license.

It was a 30-foot-long, diesel-engined moving van rated at 23,500 pounds gross weight--just a shade under 12 tons. As a concession to its driver, the truck had a radio and an automatic transmission. As a concession to all the other drivers, it was painted bright yellow, so they can see you coming.

*

Thus it was on a cold, overcast November morning that my truck and I lumbered out of a driveway in Glencoe, Ill., for what would be a five-day, 2,160-mile trek to Altadena. Martha, who has a good deal of common sense, had elected to fly back to California. I was on my own.

Getting out of the Chicago area took me awhile. To avoid tolls, I used surface streets, which led to some missed turns. Missed turns in a truck that's as long and wide as a city bus--and a good deal taller--can be problematical, since U-turns and even right and left turns on narrow suburban streets are virtually out of the question.

Nonetheless, after an hour or so, I found myself headed west for what would be the better part of four days on Interstate 80.

I quickly discovered that concrete highways--which are built in a series of short strips laid at right angles to the roadway--can set up a sympathetic vibration in long trucks that bounces them up and down like dribbled basketballs.

Physicists say that higher speeds would cancel out the vibrations, but my truck was equipped with an engine governor that limited the top speed to about 60 mph.

That meant greater safety and less strain on the engine. It also meant that--in addition to having to live with the bounces--I had limited power available for climbing steep grades. In that entire 2,160 miles, I passed a total of perhaps a dozen vehicles--most of them worn-out motor homes driven by octogenarians. I was passed by thousands.

Fortunately, the interstates are getting old, and a lot of the resurfacing has been done in asphalt. Asphalt may be uglier than concrete, but it's a lot smoother.

During one of those smoother stretches, I had time to peruse some of the warning signs plastered all over that truck. They advised me to obey all traffic laws, watch all clearances and monitor carefully the dashboard's array of gauges and warning lights.

Five minutes later, a yellow warning light informed me that the electrical brake pump was on.

At first, that seemed reassuring. The light at least meant that the air brakes were working.

About two hours later, I was passing through the outskirts of Iowa City, Iowa, when I spotted a roadside motel with a big parking lot--important when driving a 30-foot truck. I decided to call it a day.

*

But the yellow warning light was still on, which didn't seem so reassuring anymore. And when I turned off the engine, I could hear an ominous whining noise. The pump was still running.

That meant two things could happen, both of them bad. Either the pump would run until it burned out, or the battery would die. Not only that, it was beginning to rain, hard, and the wind was starting to blow, equally hard.

I called Ryder, and the company sent a repair truck down from Des Moines. Three hours later, a chilled and drenched repairman said the problem--apparently a loose wire--had been found and fixed. I went to bed.

By dawn, the wind gusts were up to 50 mph and the rain had been replaced by snow flurries. Television stations reported an intensifying winter storm--one that would make national news broadcasts for the next two days. Trucks were being blown over in Minnesota.

But the yellow light was off, and the worst of the storm seemed to be to the north. I clambered back up into my truck and headed out again.

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