In a ‘runaway’ truck….
While driving a tractor-trailer in the early seventies a good friend decided to jump in and take a trip in the truck with me – this simple four-‘leg’ trip took me from Florida to New Orleans, to the Mexico border, to the Canadian border – before the return ‘trip’ to Florida.
A quick overview of the trip was this;
- Deliver a truck load of Orange juice to New Orleans
- ‘Deadhead’ (empty truck’) to the Mexican Border (Pharr, Tx)
- Load cucumbers from Pharr, Tx to Michigan, near the Canadian border
- Return to Florida with a load of canned cherries from Michigan.
The last part of this trip was a ride down Monteagle that made me appreciate living a little bit more. This was the day that my buddy Hobbs and I inadvertently rode this seventy-four thousand-pound beast down that steep mountain section of highway, without brakes!
This is a short and very true story of what should’ve been our final day on earth;
On the first ‘leg’ of our trip we loaded the orange juice on a Friday for a Monday morning delivery in New Orleans – arriving Saturday gave us the weekend to explore New Orleans. Our plan was to stay within a block or two of Bourbon St. (in the truck) and walk back and forth.
We parked near a business and secured an electrical outlet where we ran an extension cord to a small television in the trailer, this is where we settled back atop the cases of Orange Juice for the weekend.
Saturday night we ventured out onto Bourbon St. and observed many of the activities that two young South Florida boys could only have imagined. There were scantly clad women, children dancing for tips – each stretch of Bourbon Street widened our eyes to a few more unique characters and their little worlds.
One character in particular was a “quick-draw” Texan wannabe in a black outfit, this older fellow had the name “Black Whip” emblazoned on his tall Stetson hat – a reincarnated gunslinger, continually pacing the center-line of Bourbon street searching for any challengers to his domain. Throughout the night this same character scanned the eyes of the crowd for challengers, then when a challenger arose from the mass of people the immediate area surrounding the two would clear of all activity, and a ‘face-off’ would ensue. ‘Black-Whip’ would stare intently for a weakness or twitch from his foe – this ‘gunslinger.’ The ‘Black-Whip’ was invincible and a certain pillar of insanity, after every imaginary win (or defeat) his stride became a little more pronounced and his ‘patrol’ continued through the night.
On Monday morning we unloaded the Orange Juice then proceeded into South Texas for an expedited load of produce to Detroit from Pharr, Tx – along the Mexican border.
From South Texas we traveled nonstop and hard to Michigan arriving cold, dirty, tired, and hungry. The adventure of hard driving and cheap travel had peaked for Hobbs, plus with the snow and cold the cab was feeling a bit smaller for me – it was time to head south.
From Michigan we loaded 44,000 pounds of canned cherries for Florida and headed South through Indiana, Kentucky, and down into Tennessee (max gross at the time was 73,280).
I knew the Monteagle grade from passing this way before, a steep downhill grade; a truckers challenge. The Monteagle grade was a curve laden, narrow, and steep Southbound section of the new interstate. The roadway only had two-lanes on the Southbound side – I had traveled it before. The section was dangerous for heavy trucks, in addition – at that time there were NO ‘runaway truck’ ramps..
I knew all of this but I suppose on this day I was looking beyond and focused on returning home to south Florida.
sure, we had fun relative to ‘the early seventies’
At the rest-area just before the summit I normally checked the ‘slack’ in my trailer brakes; on this date we stopped, whizzed, and shared a ‘party-favor’, no big deal – looking back we were essentially “laughing” in the face of this mountain and the danger ahead. With a few laughs we climbed back into the truck and crept back out onto the highway, slowly shifting through the semi’s gears with the load of canned cherries rolling easily behind.
As the downward grade became distinct the ‘nose’ of our truck lowered, and the 44,000 # of our load became much less noticeable. The heavy load now wasn’t being pulled at all – and the ease of ‘rolling’ was becoming too easy for my comfort-level. I had done this grade before – so I tapped the brakes to slow the momentum while at the same time ‘grabbing’ a lower gear (no ‘engine-brake’ at that time either), a normal effort to slow the rig.
With that single touch the brakes felt ‘spongy’ – not a good thing. I knew inside that this truck was not going to slow any further…. and the rig’s momentum continued to grow. – At this point the steering wheel was pretty much my only control – from that first little drop of the Monteagle grade – we were sitting on a 73,000 pound roller-skate – rolling downhill!
Naturally I continued with attempts to slow the trucks momentum – with little positive response. There was increasing smoke showing in my mirrors from the overheated brakes, the more I tapped the pedal the less responsive the truck became. Hobbs was now aware of our situation. I was also aware that the brakes needed to cool to be effective so I wasn’t completely ‘standing on them,’ at this time ‘Betsy’s’ brakes held no ‘stopping’ value. I remained in the lower gear hoping to maintain some resistance, but it seemed there was little – all the while the engine continued to rev well beyond its normal operating range of 2150 rpm – and we were still on the top third of the Mountain!
This gentle old truck that we affectionately called ‘Betsy Ross’ was now an eighteen wheel ‘BITCH of a roller coaster. The trucks doors began to rattle and shake and there were cars ahead… This iron bitch would not be denied passage!
READY TO ‘BAIL’
Once again, in the early seventies this was a much smaller interstate than of today’s comfort – there were NO ‘runaway’ truck ramps available!
I glanced toward Hobbs; he was perched with feet on top of his seat awaiting the order to “abandon ship;” and I know with all certainty that he would have thrown himself from the window had I given the word.
With the speed I countered the trucks high ‘center-of-gravity by using the entire road (including the partial emergency lane), ‘straightening out the curves’ to say. There were other vehicles present also; it was light traffic but still we were closing and rapidly passing each vehicle. My headlights were on as were my 4-way blinkers and I held steady to the air horn cable (to little avail). The smoke from the red hot brakes had now increased and rolled around the rear of the trailer like an airplane’s contrail against a blue Carolina sky.
Our situation seemed grave to say the least, as close to ‘out of control’ as possible and more than a hint of desperation within the cab.
These were my options – left, or right to stop this growing ordeal.
It would be sudden. I considered steering into the rock embankment to the left and take the chance of letting 44,000 #’s pound us from behind – or, I could burst through the guardrail on the right over the steep cliff – surely our remains would be found in the fall by hunters.
What was certain for this period of time was that DEATH was a real possibility! The landscape was now a blur as I held the steering wheel in a death grip – within those few moments of considering ‘left? or right?’ the rate of speed we were then traveling had already eliminated those options. There were NO other options but to “ride it out.”
Downhill and straight ahead.
Hobbs was waving and yelling and doing all that he could to signal upcoming motorists of our impending presence, but we passed before many even realized our ordeal.
‘CUT HER LOOSE
Somewhere during this precarious ‘frenzy we reached a point in the grade that I recognized as one of the final sections of the mountain, so I reached down and pulled the shifter into neutral sparing the engine from disintegrating. This move allowed the rig to gain even greater speed (thank goodness for those new tires on the front) and when Hobbs noticed what I had done he must’ve thought that I had given up and we were surely going to die in a ‘blaze of glory!
As our semi leaned around the final bend of highway we searched the horizon for that uphill section of highway – and it was a beautiful sight.
The front tires held and we simply ‘coasted’ until that heavy load of cherries finally slowed to a creaking stop along the shoulder of the interstate – to this day I still feel and think of that moment when I see the space-shuttle land.
Trembling, we climbed from the cab onto the sanctity of solid ground, my legs shook – as for Hobbs……
Surrounding the truck was the stench of brakes, a haze of smoke, and the sound of this haggard beast creaking and popping as that iron cooled around the brakes of the rig – motorists that we had blown-past on the downhill now honked in celebration.
THE BUZZ WAS GONE
Needless to say, the ‘buzz’ from the rest-area on top of Monteagle was long gone. We had just survived the ride of our young lives.
So we decided right then that a ‘vacation’ was in order. In Chattanooga we unhooked the trailer and took the remainder of the day sightseeing Lookout Mountain over-looking the city.
This true experience was indeed one of those “first days” of the rest of my life.