I was about ten months into my wasted years driving 18-wheelers, and I had left Northern California with a load going to the North-East – I-80 all the way.
Truck number 82 was a well-worn 1978-ish Kenworth cab-over with 3406 Caterpillar, 13-speed, air ride, and manual steering.
Manual steering is perfectly fine – you simply turn the steering wheel 'round-n-'round a lot more than with new-fangled power steering.
The steering became so hard it was difficult to change lanes on the freeway, and I barely made it down an offramp and into a parking lot, pulling on the steering wheel with both hands and both feet.
Safely stopped, I looked at the front of the truck.
Like all cab-overs, the cab was hinged at the front for access to the engine, and there was a gap of a few inches across the front of the truck, between the top of the bumper and the bottom of the cab.
And sure enough... the steering gear was right behind that gap, receiving the full blast of the bitterly cold winter air. The grease inside was probably close to solid from the cold – at least, that is how it felt.
I found a cardboard box behind a store, flattened it, and I probably used bailing wire, and I covered that darn gap.
By then, engine heat had thawed the steering gear, and the cardboard kept it from freezing up again. But I now had "a pretty good idea" this was a cold winter.
In Pennsylvania, at night, I was asleep in a truck-stop, engine humming steadily at high-idle, when I was awakened by a loud bang, followed by an ominous hiss.
To this day... I feel "I must live right", because the problem was inside the cab, in the instrument panel which opens easily.
An air hose had blown out of its fitting. I reassembled it, restarted the engine and watched the gauge – which headed straight off the scale.
The air compressor governor had frozen, and the compressor kept pumping until the weakest link blew. Again, "...must live right", for the weakest link to have been right in my nice warm lap.
I sure as shooting-match wasn't about to leave the engine off for more than a few minutes – and not be found until April -- so I might as well put it in gear and continue east.
To regulate the air pressure, I pinched the loose hose with vice-grip pliers, adjusting the leak to keep the pressure in vicinity of the normal range. Basically, I was steering with my left hand and managing the air pressure with my right – up to my elbow inside the instrument panel.
Come mid-morning, I found a truck-stop which let me park inside the shop until the governor thawed out.
They had little other business, since precious few trucks were trying to go anywhere. For one thing, the weather was the coldest they had known in "human memory". And Christmas was approaching.
Hopefully, no-one noticed the frazzled look on my face when I delivered the load. It may have been in New Jersey -- I do not remember exactly.
Dispatch then sent me to pick up a load of aluminum in the same general area – I want to say Baltimore, but it might have been Pittsburgh. The destination was a company called Rockwell in Southern California.
Rockwell... turned out to the airplane company, and this was the year they started their second production run of the B-1 bomber.
The load consisted of a handful massive aluminum extrusions in the approximate shape of I-beams.
And there were many trucks picking up the same aluminum beams going to the same Rockwell plant.
And we were all given strict delivery deadlines...
...At the same time as the newspaper-headlines screamed about the whole freezkin' North Pole blowing into the mid-west and beyond. Christmas – only a few days away – was being cancelled left-right-and-even-south.
And all these trucks needed to high-tail it right thru the Stuff, which was worsening by the hour – from the level of winter I have already described on my way east. Now it was "go west, young man, and quickly!"
So, I headed south.
Down I-95 all... the... way... down... to... Jacksonville, Florida, before I turned west on I-10.
My most distinct memory is of passing thru Houston, Texas, on Christmas morning. The temperature in Houston, Texas, on 25 December 1983 was 16 Fahrenheit.
I remember Houston specifically, because that morning I picked up my only hitch-hiker in 27 years of trucking – a man who was near tears, trying to make it home for Christmas. Not kidding. With practically no cars on the roads. So, truck 82 was it.
The radio told of Dallas/Ft. Worth and I-20 being a thick-and-solid sheet of ice and no humans going anywhere whatsoever up there.
Somehow, I gave no thought to the other trucks headed for Rockwell, presumably even further north on I-40. (They were found in April. Kidding. But only a little.)
My load of very-fancy aluminum beams arrived in Los Angeles on time.
A cheerful gentleman told me I was the first truck to arrive, and all the others were reported severely delayed. I told him the route I had chosen.
For the next hour or so, the gent gave me a royal tour of the plant, and especially the humongously long mill on which my massive extrusions would be machined down to "wafer" thickness, to serve inside the wings of the B-1.
To maintain the required precision, the bed of the mill had to be re-leveled several times a day as the temperature rose.
(I could tell you more, but you do not have high enough security clearance.)
When I telephoned and told my boss, George -- the owner of the truck and the man who paid for all that extra fuel for my detour to Florida -- of said detour, he only grunted, very much to my relief.
At home base a few weeks later, George walked up to me and handed me a letter. The letter was from Rockwell, and it was a commendation to truck 82 for service above and beyond the call of duty. It mentioned "professionalism" and that sort of thing.
Along with the letter, George handed me a hundred dollar bill – which was "real money" in 1983 -- and the keys to an almost new truck with power steering.
To this day, there are plenty of articles online about "the coldest Christmas ever" in 1983. One mentions 14 F in Galveston, which confirms my memory of 16 F in Houston.
Alas, I no longer have the letter from Rockwell.
But I can still "see" that entire trip in my mind.
It does not matter what kind of work you do.
What matters is that you bother to do your best at it.
And that you always carry bailing wire and vice-grips.