Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Immigrant : Part Two

Flew in on a Trans-Atlantic flight,
They put me in a motel, fifty bucks a night.
Then there was the test to take,
With pre-trip followed by air-brake.
Then a week of orientation
And how to behave at the border station.
 ____ Eric Slatcher met us at the airport; I was impressed that he turned out at 10.30 in the evening. "Us" refers to his four new drivers; all on the same plane, Paul Cook, Mike Muhling, Neil Ramsden and Chris Arbon. The four of us were pretty much inseparable during driver-training, right through until we signed on for our individual trucks. It was a great help to be team-handed; it saved money by sharing a motel room and eventually an apartment. It helped to have a buddy when practicing for the driving test. A British Heavy Goods Vehicle Driving Licence was not transferable to Canada; all immigrant drivers had to take a test.
____ On the first Monday after our arrival, we all trooped into Winnipeg to sit the written part of our test; sixty multiple choice questions. Neil and I passed but the other two needed to re-sit. Monday afternoon and Neil and I went to the Free Eagle Driving School and booked three half-day sessions. We had three different instructors during the sessions but there wasn't much they needed to teach us; apart from the test route around Steinbach and the complicated air-brake test. It took a hell of a lot of practice; but with each of us testing each other, we eventually cracked it. The driving school block-booked several test spots every week; so by midday, Friday, we were both ready to hit the road as qualified Canadian truckers.
____ But it was another two weeks before we went out with a load. Paul and Mike didn't take their tests until the following week and the week after that was "orientation" week. At most of the companies were I have worked; there has been no training. Just show your HGV licence and catch the set of keys thrown across a portacabin. But Big Freight presumes that you know nothing about trucking; a whole week is spent in the classroom covering a lot of stuff that I already knew but also some important customs and border-crossing information. Big Jim Penner was the training and safety guy while on Sunday he preached at a local Mennonite church. I told the others to not ask questions, not to argue and we would get through it just fine.
____ Outside work; there was plenty to do. Medical card, social insurance card, bank account, finding permanent accommodation, buying and insuring a vehicle; but with four of us going around together, all the problems soon became solutions. I did a couple of short day-trips as a passenger with other drivers which was a lot more worthwhile than orientation. One to Brandon for a load of steel beams; the other, south of the border for a load of quadbikes. Both regular customers. It took just over three weeks from when I landed until I rolled out the yard with my first load. A lot longer than I thought and longer than necessary; but I was paid from day-one and am not complaining. 
Big Blue, the Free Eagle training vehicle pictured in 2006, still on the streets of Steinbach in 2014.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Immigrant : Part One

I rocked-up to this seminar and told them about myself
They said "You seem like a trucking man and we are here to help."
They said there would be nothing to pay if I would commit to a two year stay,
So I filled in forms for the rest of the day and signed my life away.
____ My first recollection of the name "Big Freight" was from the March 2006 copy of Truckstop News. There was a half-page advert detailing a forth-coming recruitment tour by the Canadian company. I didn't own a computer but did have an e-mail address; so during a trip to the local library; I sent off my Cv and told them I would be at the South Mimms seminar on the Friday evening. Little did I know that the seminar was by invitation and limited to 20 job-seekers. There was a return e-mail saying that the company had enough applicants but, of course, I didn't read it and went along ignorant to the fact that I wasn't wanted.
____ Getting to the Travelodge Hotel at the South Mimms Service Area, just off the M25/A1M junction, proved difficult in the Friday evening traffic and I arrived late. The meeting was in progress, so I just sat down and listened without having to introduce myself. Another thing that worked in my favour was the poor attendance; just four couples from the 20 invited had turned-up. Eric Slatcher, Big Freight's recruiter, was on his first foreign  tour; the lack of bums on seats must have been a worry because I'm sure he knew I shouldn't have been there. But he was keen to sign up drivers to show his bosses that he could do his job. Eric was accompanied by Phil, an English driver who had already started in Canada. Both seemed extremely jet-lagged and the whole meeting was dominated by endless questions from a couple of the drivers wives; stuff that was totally irrelevant to me. It was only after everybody had gone home that I got to talk to Eric Slatcher, one to one. He was smoking a cigarette outside the front of the hotel; we chatted for about an hour and found we had a lot in common. He had gone behind a desk because of a heart-attack but I could tell he was still a truck-driver. We bonded like two drivers who find themselves parked-up together in a foreign country, telling tales, laughing, moaning about customs, customers and car-drivers.
____ Eric's recruitment tour had three more stops after South Mimms; the BP Truckstop in Wolverhampton, Whitwood in Yorkshire and Dublin in Ireland. He was concerned about the possible poor response to his invitations at the other venues. I think this is why he gave me the offer of a job there and then; which at least gave him something from his first seminar as none of the others from that night ever turned up in Canada.
____ For me, driving in Canada could have come two years earlier. Before the old Eastern Bloc countries joined the European Union; I had a dream job. Living in the Dordogne in France, driving for a German company, based in Munich and running the England, Germany, Spain triangle. It all came to an end in May 2004 when LKW Walter, the Austrian freight broker, cut the rate in half and gave all the work to the Poles, Slovenians, Lithuanians et al. There was no work in rural France and I had spent nearly two years doing agency and casual work whilst flying Ryan Air to and from Limoges Airport. Basing myself at my fathers place when in England; the exact same address when I first started truck-driving.
____ Faxes flew back and forth across the Atlantic and by the end of May I had all my ducks in a row and the all important police report that stated I was not a villain. I had references from past employers, certificates from school and a brand new passport. I took everything, plus the offer of employment, up to the Canadian High Commission in London and waited in the rain before securing an official letter that would give me entry to the promised land. [ This was 2006 and the goalposts have moved since then, so please don't think that reading this can be of help today.]
____ The health of my aging father was a big concern and my sister-in-law made it quite plain that she did not want me disappearing across the ocean and leaving her with all the work and caring. There fore I just intended to stay the two years before returning. Another concern was that it could all be just too good to be true. Big Freight were paying a guaranteed $3500 a month as well as the cost of the air ticket. But maybe I was signed up to slave labour; I needed plan "B."
____ Zoom Airlines were the only carrier flying direct to Winnipeg and although it was only one flight a week; it was good value at $420 from Gatwick Airport. Thursday, 15th June, 2006 and I was en-route to the New World. Bicycles flew free; so I took my bike and all my cycle-touring gear; if it all went tits-up, I would just ride away into the sunset; do a bit of touring and come back home. When I arrived the customs lady asked what was in the huge bike bag.
"Everything I own." I replied.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bartrums Road Services

The Nitram Road.
____ It was the Autumn of 1979 when I had a job interview with Philip Bartrum at Great Blakenham, just north of Ipswich in Suffolk. Bartrums of Diss were expanding and had bought-out E.W.List of Debenham. The major reason for the takeover was to acquire the ICI fertilizer distribution contract and the warehouse facility at Great Blakenham. E.W.List had a fleet of ten trucks but had enough work for thirty; Bartrums was their biggest sub-contractor who now wanted the well-paying work direct. All the E.W.List drivers took a redundancy pay-out rather than work for Bartrums; so here I was along with a dozen more hopeful drivers looking for a start.

____  Leonard Bartrum started his road haulage company in 1929 and although it was nationalised in 1949 and became part of British Road Services; he bought back the company and ran it until 1966 when he handed over the reigns to his three sons; Philip, Roger and Roy. Their main customers were Colman's; the mustard people, Howard; farm machinery, Boot's the Chemist, the British Sugar Corporation. They also carried bulk flour and malt as well as loads for numerous smaller customers. The ICI work was important as it gave the company loads to bring back to East Anglia from the three fertilizer plants at Billingham, Teeside, Heysham in Lancashire and Avonmouth in the South-West.

____ At twenty-five years old; I was far from the youngest of the new team based at the four-bay warehouse in Lodge Lane, Gt. Blakenham. Mr Bartrum seemed to have deliberately picked the youngsters; although we had to drive the old E.W.List lorries which were Volvo F88s and MAN 16.280s. I was given a MAN which proudly displayed "Truck of the Year" across the top of the windshield. ALT 31 S was an impressive truck; 280 bhp and a double-bunk sleeper but with a 13 speed Eaton-Fuller gearbox; column-change. Half an hour up the road on my first trip; I pulled a muscle in by left shoulder due to difficulties with the un-synchronised gears and the strange position of the gear lever. But once I had mastered cog-box it soon became the best truck I had driven; up to that point in my career.

____ The out-going work of E.W.List was mainly for Vicon; the Dutch farm machinery manufacturer. A typical load on a 40 foot flat-deck trailer would be fifty fertilizer spreaders for a dozen drops. The destinations could be any where in England and Wales. Delivering the spreaders and returning to base with a load of fertilizer would take a week. I loved this type of work and Bartrums were happy to have a driver who didn't mind how many nights-out they had. The Lake District and the West Country were my favorites but I soon began to like the loads to North Wales; once I overcame my aversion to the Welsh speaking locals.

____ I made some good friends with the other drivers and we became a tight-knit group when all the old E.W.List trucks were replaced by a brand new fleet of 1626 Mercedes Benz tractor units. Our new trucks incensed the loyal long-serving drivers at Bartrums' Eye depot on the Norfolk/Suffolk border; many of whom were driving old Volvo F86s. Their resentment of the Great Blakenham drivers never relented in all the years I was there. Plus of course; there was the old Norfolk/ Suffolk; Norwich City/ Ipswich Town rivalry.

260 horse power - 32 tonnes gross vehicle weight.

____ One of the outstanding differences between my old employer, BRS, and Bartrums was driver attitude. At the union dominated BRS; drivers would doing anything to get out of doing work and everything to make things awkward for the management. At Bartrums; the drivers showed tremendous loyalty and would do anything for the young master; a.k.a. Philip Bartrum. He had started as a driver, roping and sheeting in all weathers  and had earned the respect of the long-serving core of drivers. The company paid better than most and driver turn-over was low. The workforce was hard-working and competent; although there was a drinking culture and trouble-making side. The A1, Great North Road, was their playground; Newark, night-out central. I was always OK with the Norfolk drivers if it was one-on-one; but when they were team-handed they were a handful. Mr. Smith, the despatcher at Eye was always getting complaints about his "Cowboys"
 "Cowboys? I wish they were cowboys. Give me cowboys any day. They're all animals; nothing short of animals." was his legendary reply.

20 tonnes of ICI Nitram fertilizer tarped and fly-sheeted.

____ Nitrate fertilizer was big business at the time and the ICI plant at Billingham, Teeside, was sending thousands of tonnes of Nitram south to pastures of East Anglia. The problems of drinking water contamination had yet to surface and every farmer liberally used the snow-white granules in their bright blue plastic bags. Farm deliveries were common and forklift trucks were rare; hand-ball was the name of the game. My hands were a mass of hard-skin ridges and splits from all the roping and sheeting; add wet nitrate fertilizer to the cuts and it brought tears to your eyes.

Not the biggest of cabs but it did have two beds.

____The 1626 Merc was a reliable work-horse, if a little under-powered; it plodded along for two years before being replaced by a Volvo F7, lighter and more lively. In all, I did about three years at Bartrums, leaving to go across the water in search of adventure. The money wasn't better and I don't think I've had a better employer than Bartrums. I've good memories of zig-zagging across the country, driving new roads every day, in search of Vicon farm machinery dealers. In 2006, when I came to Canada, I needed a reference from a company where I had done roping and sheeting so I wrote to Bartrums. They wrote back to say they remembered me and wished me luck. Good to see that they are still going strong.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Herbert Victor Green: HGV Driving Instructor.

Sudbury to Mendlesham Airfield.
____ It was Christmas 2004 when I casually remarked to my father that I had been driving trucks for thirty years.
"Then don't you think that it's about time you got a proper job?" was his witty quick-fire reply.
Since then, ten years have flown by, with the last eight in Canada. A disabling accident on my sixty-first birthday has given me time to cast my mind back to the final quarter of 1974 and my time spent with Herbie Green; the second most influential man in my life, after my father.

____Twenty-one was the age limit for lorry-drivers and I sent off for my provisional licence as soon as possible. November 2nd was the date of my assessment at the Road Transport Industry Training Board's establishment at Mendlesham, Suffolk. A Saturday afternoon, where my first experience of driving an articulated vehicle ended as a miserable failure. Reversing: bad. Maneuvering: bad. Awareness: poor. Signalling: poor. Everything on the report card was either bad or poor except for "Road positioning" which was my only "Good." I honestly thought that the driving school would not want me as a pupil.

____ But the short Winter days were not a popular time for driver trainees and I was offered a three week course starting on the 2nd of December. The price was 180 quid including the fee for one test. Mendlesham RTITB arranged for me to be registered as a driver for Anglia Heavy Haulage; this cut the cost of the tuition by about a third as the company was eligible for a government training grant.

____Every morning of my training started in frosty darkness as I rode my 125 Kawasaki trail bike across Suffolk on B-roads from Sudbury to the driving school in the shadow of the Mendlesham  television transmitter mast. It was on an old World War Two airfield which was perfect for lorry driving learners to practice. There were offices and classrooms with all the servicing of the trucks done at the adjacent premises of Taylor Barnard, a large local haulier.

____The first morning was spent in the classroom; were I found myself paired with Nigel, another 21 year old, and Herbert Green, our instructor. Herbie was the senior instructor and made no secret that he was always given the pupils that needed the full three week course and were least likely to pass first-time. The first afternoon was spent in a Leyland Chieftain with Herbie at the wheel; showing us how it was done and confirming to me that I knew nothing.

____The Chieftain was a 4x2 tractor unit coupled to a 33 foot tandem axle flatbed trailer rated to run at a maximum 28 tonnes, fully-freighted. The gearbox was a constant-mesh six-speed; which Herbie informed us, had been converted from a synchromesh six-speed just to make things harder. We were given the keys and told we could come in as early as we liked to practice early morning maneuvering on the concrete airfield runway. Nigel perfected his reversing whist I thawed out from my pre-dawn motorcycle ride.

____A pattern soon emerged in our training. Nigel would drive from 8 until 10, when we would stop at a café for breakfast. My first shift was 10.30 to 12.30 then lunch. Nigel 1 o'clock to 3, then a quick switch and I drove the last session; back at base at about 5 o'clock. We sat three-abreast in the Leyland day cab with Herbie in the middle. Week 1 and Herbie never stopped talking; telling both of us each and everything we had to do and when to do it. Mirror, signal, gear. Left, right, straight-on. Brake, stop, go, get a move on.

____Week 2 and Herbie cut the instructions down to just left, right and straight-on but was now telling us both about each and every mistake we made through out the day. He still never stopped talking and the annoying thing was that he never missed a mistake. We got away with nothing.
"You don't seem to be enjoying this?" Herbie remarked after one particular mistake riddled session.
"Don't worry, I'll shut you up." I snapped back at him.
"That's the spirit, boy, now lets make progress."

____Slowly, things began to fall into place. Herbie's tuition in reversing finally began to make sense. The endless driving around the Ipswich ring-road and port area gave us enough practice of the test route while the grating gear-changes of the first week were now just clicks. Herbie also expanded on endless transport topics; teaching us not only "How to drive a lorry and pass the test" but also "How to become a lorry-driver." The difference between the two might be too subtle for some people but the stuff that Herbie taught me is still a big part of my everyday driving technique, even after 40 years.

____The man had my respect from "day-one" with his clutch-less changes of the gearbox and in the following weeks I saw just how much respect he commanded amongst the lorry-drivers of Suffolk. There was never a single time in any transport café where Herbie was required to open his wallet; always there was a former pupil on hand to bring over a mug of tea. Every driving session was punctuated with head-light flashing and waving from on-coming trucks as ever-thankful drivers recognised the master. Every wave was acknowledged with a swift karate chop slash of the right arm. Quite disconcerting at first; as Herbie would normally sit motionless in the middle of the cab with his arms folded.

____Freezing fog greeted me as I made my way to Mendlesham on the morning of the test; Friday 20th December 1974. Herbie was  confident that the test centre examiners would not venture out in such weather but we would have to turn-up at our allotted time in order to get another test slot at no extra charge. Sure enough; Nigel's 08.30 test was postponed and we all went for breakfast. My test should have begun at 11 o'clock and I had resigned myself to coming back and taking it after Christmas; but then the wind got up and it started to drizzle. The fog cleared and the test was on; a series of set manoeuvers at the test centre, reversing, slalom, emergency stop. Then the rest of the two hours was spent out and about in Ipswich followed by thirty questions. I honestly thought that I had failed when a car came out of no-where at a round-about and I locked-up all the brakes. After that , the examiner seemed to be taking me back to the test centre and didn't bother with the hill-start test. But he did pass me; mentioning the incident at the roundabout and saying that if there had been a collision he would have been forced to make me take a re-test.

____ Herbie said afterwards that he knew I would pass; I think he was proud that he had managed to teach someone who knew so little and got him through in just three weeks. During the following years; our paths crossed on numerous occasions. I bought the teas and received the right arm swipe when we passed on the road. I will always be thankful for his tuition and his safety orientated tips that helped me so much through five decades of driving.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Living with the Pain of a Dislocated Shoulder

Just about the only driving I am doing these days.

____Sympathy for the Devil.

 "There but for the grace of God, go I." has always been my thought when I see the bad luck suffered by others. But now it's my turn. Your guardian angel steps out of the office for a cigarette and in a heartbeat your life goes from "Fair to middling" down to "Down-right shitty." I could write a piece moaning about my moaning but I'm going to be positive and give some advice on what to do if you find yourself in my situation.

____Do not Google.

The Internet is great and I love it; information at your fingertips on every subject under the Sun. But when it comes to medical issues; maybe there is too much information. Reading all the stuff about your condition will only leave you feeling worse. You may become an expert and understand such phrases as "Multiple fractures of the rotator cusp due to reduction failures." But this will lead to mental health problems; especially when realise that you know more about shoulders than some of the doctors who have treated you.

____Phone a Friend.

With hind-sight; my first mistake in this saga was going to the nearest hospital. A small urban facility that would not have been my destination if I had called an ambulance. Now back at home; I didn't want repeat this by going to the local Steinbach hospital and just hope they could get me back to fitness. I'm sure they would do their best but shoulders are special so why not go to the specialist first? If your local health-care provider fucks it up; you'll end up at a specialist anyway and will have wasted a hell of a lot of time. My good friend and fellow blogger, Bobthedog, suffered serious shoulder damage in an atv/quad-bike accident. Now back to full fitness, a quick call told me that the Pan-Am Clinic in Winnipeg was the best place to go.

____Be a patient Patient.

The Pan-Am started out as a small sports injury clinic attached to the Pan-Am Pool, a facility built in 1967 when the Pan-Am Games were held in Winnipeg. It is now a large well-regarded centre for all types of injuries; with a first-come-first-served hobble-in service. Be prepared for long waits between check-in, exam, x-ray, re-exam; but they do know their stuff and it's not like a normal hospital where you are waiting around with a whole bunch of sick people and are liable to catch something. Life has to be planned around clinic appointments with only total uncertainty controlling the future.

____Buy a 1990's beige Buick Century.

A black Mustang is not the right car for you if you are pottering along at 35 mph in an opiate-induced haze with your left arm strapped to your chest. Some do-gooder will phone it in as a DUI. If it's an old guy in a Buick Century; it's expected. Get used to acting as if you are in God's waiting room. Everything takes time; washing, eating, even sleeping. I've always gone to sleep; laying on my stomach so sitting-up with a pile of pillows behind me is not what my body expects. The drugs don't help either; I doubt if I've had more than four hours of continuous sleep in the last three weeks.

____Shit Happens.

Make sure shit happens. Morphine is a great pain reduction drug but it does have side effects. One is: the Workers Compensation Board don't like it's habit forming qualities and won't authorise prescriptions for it. You have to pay for it. Second: it binds you up. Avoiding one-armed visits to the crapper might seem like a good idea at first; but you will pay for it in the end. The pain in the arse will match the pain in the shoulder. Keep constipation at bay with plenty of fibre and fizzy drinks. Get in a supply of laxative chocolate; even if you don't use it, you can have some fun with it afterwards. You don't want end up sitting on the bog for hours; thinking about the wonderful times when you over-did the truck-stop buffet and it went through you faster than a Ferrari.