As promised in the Home Page, it is my intent to share some of my ongoing writing projects. Today I am releasing the first chapter to the sequel to Whipping Post. To be titled "Against the Wind", I have this novel about half finished, and I am hoping for some input from readers as far as further interest. Your comments would be very much appreciated. Hope you like it.
“Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then…”
From the song “Against the Wind,” by Bob Seger
Thursday – Socorro Texas
Besieged by a blistering sun bulging above the barren desert backdrop, and bucking an abnormal twenty-mile-per-hour headwind, a solitary trucker kept the hammer down on the brawny diesel engine. Driving a sleek, black Peterbilt model 386 conventional tractor-trailer rig, Virgil Waters pushed the tractor-trailer rig eastward into the fiery sun. He should have been long past Odessa by now, with five hours of bleak desert terrain behind him, rather than staring at its yawning expanse stretching out relentlessly ahead.
Virgil was irritated. Once again, Lady Luck was showing him her nasty temperament. After what seemed an eternity, a Mexican driver had finally arrived with the trailer from across the border, six hours behind schedule. The poor bastard claimed to have been held up in customs, which was indubitably not out of the ordinary. The Saxon Brothers Trucking dry van Virgil was pulling was crammed with boxes of computer monitors bound for Roanoke Texas, just north of Ft. Worth.
Virgil was thankful he could finally hit the highway and earn some money. For the past five years working at Saxon’s, this trip had been Virgil’s assigned route. He preferred this dedicated run. In his mind, it beat the hell out of having to run all over the country, never knowing where he was headed next. He had been there and done that for a number of years and knew he had no desire for that lifestyle again, even if it meant waiting at the border for his loads to arrive.
His dedicated run consisted of hauling consolidated freight, or LTL’s in trucker-speak. The freight consisted of everything imaginable in assorted various sizes, weights, and piece counts. The LTL shipments would start from the Dallas-Ft. Worth multiplex areas from a variety of different shippers distributing products in the west.
Once hooked up to one an LTL trailer in Dallas, Virgil would truck, or beat feet in trucker lingo, seven hundred miles straight west through desert and mountain oblivion, mercifully concluding in the city of El Paso Texas. Virgil was to deliver the loaded trailer to a small, overly-priced satellite terminal Saxon’s leased in El Paso on the east side of the city. Upon arrival, the driver could turn around and, like a ping-pong ball, head right back to Dallas again. This back and forth freight made up his dedicated route.
If ever there was a conurbation established smack-dab the middle of nowhere, it was the town of El Paso. The city is located on the north side of the Rio Grande River, where the Rio isn’t actually so Grande, just across the border from the vast and dangerous city of Ciudad Juarez Mexico. There are times when a person can walk across the river without getting the tops of their shoes wet.
The region had been inhabited by tribes of humans, including the Manso, Suma, and Jumano Indians for thousands of years before the Spanish ever stomped a boot in the dusty desert sand. Don Juan de Oñate is credited as the first explorer to reach El Paso in 1598, almost a hundred years before the Pilgrims hastily fled Mother Europe. Originally part of the territory of New Mexico for over two centuries, El Paso was greedily gobbled up in a land grab by the state of Texas in 1850.
Upon arrival to the El Paso terminal, another Saxon-employed driver peddled the freight around the sprawling city consisting of 250 square miles within the Franklin Mountains and surrounded by the Chihuahuas Desert. The delivery process would normally take the entire day, depending on the amount of freight crammed in the trailer.
Once Virgil’s log book allowed, or with some other drivers – even when it didn’t, the next trip would be a load of either electronics for one shipper or auto parts for another, depending on the day of the week.
In a somewhat expanded version of the maquiladora system, a process that allowed raw materials and equipment into Mexico duty free, to be assembled and sent back to the States, electronics and auto parts, as well as a multitude of other goods, were manufactured with absurdly cheap labor in Juarez Mexico. Virgil chaffed at the thought of all the large US corporations moving their production lines out of crumbling factories all across America to build huge and beautiful factories tantalizingly just south of the border. They not only took good jobs away from American workers, but were taking advantage of the Mexican labor with miserable wages as well. In his mind, making obscene profits off the backs of workers was just not right. When wages began to increase nominally in Mexico, he heard some manufacturers even headed off to China in search of even cheaper labor. Virgil knew he was a part of that process by hauling the freight, but he had to feed his family too, and this was the best job he could get.
Once manufactured, finished product is loaded onto a variety of American owned trailers, including Saxon’s, for shipments bound for the United States and Canada. The Saxon trailers are then transported over the border to the Saxon terminal by drivers from Mexican-owned local cartage companies, but not before enduring a miserable lengthy wait in blistering weather through mile-long lines at the border in order to pass clearance at Customs.
Lately, it seemed as if this cross-border process with the electronics shipments was getting further behind, making it increasingly difficult for Virgil to make a living. Over-the-road and regional drivers at Saxon’s, as with most trucking companies, were paid by the mile, not by the hour. Virgil was considered a regional driver. Delays were costly to drivers because he didn’t get paid to wait for the freight to reach the Saxon terminal. When the loads were ready on time, a driver could accumulate 3,500 miles a week running back and forth between Dallas and El Paso, making for an excellent pay check.
Delays however, cost drivers at least one leg of the trip, and sometimes an entire round trip. A driver had little to do but sit and wait, often watching television in the small driver’s room while listening to other drivers complain, or hanging out at the truckstop irritating the waitresses, or cleaning their truck. Virgil’s truck was spotless, inside and out.
There was another driver from Saxon’s, Jimmy Dale Tolliver, JD to his friends, which ran the same route as Virgil. They were supposed to be on opposite ends of the state when the schedules were running smoothly. If Virgil was in El Paso, then JD should be in Dallas, and vice-versa. Recently, it seemed they were both being delayed so long in El Paso that they were invariably running together more often than they wanted. And on this sunny dry day, JD’s rig was just ahead of Virgil, battling the same scorching sun and unrelenting wind hurtling down the road at seventy miles per hour.
The only difference between the two Saxon Brothers trucks on this day was that Virgil’s rig was black, and JD’s was white – the company color scheme at Saxon’s. Lately, the trucks were being pinstriped so as to add a little flair to the dull black and white color scheme, but even then the design was the same regardless of the color of the truck. The drivers called it tattooing, although most were more impressed with the way the trucks looked now with the fancy pin-stripped swirls. The fact that swirls were not skulls, or football team logos, or anything else other than the official company swirl did give a driver something more to complain about though.
All the trucks were the same model of Peterbilt with Cummins engines, and for conformity purposes, every truck was spec’d identically from a mechanical aspect. A driver’s only choice was whether to drive a black truck or a white one. The new drivers didn’t even get that choice; they drove what was available, and then, just due to a naturally contrary nature, usually wanted the other color. Many of the drivers of the white trucks swore the black trucks ran faster, and vice versa.
Still aggravated by his wait and feeling the need to unload on someone about it, Virgil picked up the mike from his CB radio to shout at JD.
“Hey, big ‘un, ya still awake up there,” Virgil asked sarcastically.
“That’s a big ten-four, Virgil my man,” JD’s gravely voice boomed through the small speaker mounted on the dashboard of Virgil’s truck. “Say, how’s my butt lookin’ back there?”
“Looks the same as it did last week when I was held up.” Virgil answered acerbically. “Seems like these damn computer loads keep gettin’ further and further behind schedule.”
Virgil was all too aware that JD was hauling an auto parts load, and it had not been delayed. Auto parts were rarely delayed as there was a schedule to meet production lines. Delays with automotive shipments were going to cost somebody dearly, so glitches were rare. Computers weren’t on quite the same critical schedule because they were going to a distribution center, rather than directly to a production line. Drivers that had the audacity to deliver late to a distribution center were usually “punished” by being made to wait a day, or even a week to be unloaded. Drivers called this “hurry up and wait.”
Computer loads were also more likely to be stolen as well, so there were many more rules to hauling computers. Regardless of which type load was hauled though, it paid the same to the driver.
As the schedule was supposed to work, each driver would haul east bound electronics one week and then auto parts the next. Unfortunately, when loads were behind, it altered the schedule for both drivers. The result was that Virgil was getting more of the delayed electronics freight, which was costing him more time, and JD had to wait in Dallas for the consolidated loads. People outside the trucking industry could not possibly understand the dynamics and ultimate ripple-effect delayed freight had on a driver, or even multiple drivers, and sometimes even the families of the drivers. Of course, even if the shipping public knew, why would they care about the schedule of some truck driver, Virgil thought?
“Know what ya mean, my man,” JD replied.
Virgil detected a smirk in JD’s response, but it was hard to ever know when JD was being sincere or just busting somebody’s balls. JD must have sensed Virgil’s thoughts because he replied again, before Virgil could respond.
“It’s messin’ with our schedules, little buddy” JD agreed. “And your beauty sleep too!”
Virgil grinned before responding. “Look who’s talkin’ ‘bout needin’ beauty sleep, you ugly bastard,” Virgil taunted back into the mike that dangled from the roof of the cab from a multi-colored bungee cord.
“Seriously though, we need to say something ‘bout this to the old man,” Virgil complained. “I’m tired of Gary giving us that placating bull that never leads anywhere. It’s cost me seven hundred miles a week over just this past month.”
The ‘old man’ Virgil referred to was John Saxon, the founder and owner of Saxon Brothers Trucking. Drivers that had been with Saxon’s for any length of time called him ‘Old Man Saxon,’ although never to his face. He earned the title by being more of a father-figure to all of his employees, particularly the drivers. Having been a driver himself for many years, he was one of ‘them.’
Gary, on the other hand, was the operations manager and had never driven a truck in his life, a topic of some discussion, and ridicule among the drivers, although it was unjustified in Virgil’s opinion. Gary had been around drivers and trucks long enough to understand what needed to be done, but he wasn’t always honest about the reasons.
“Not me, dog!” JD replied apologetically. There was a bit of lull in the conversation before he continued. “I’ll remind you I just got back on this run not too long ago…after that little…uh… misunderstanding.”
This time it was Virgil that smirked. When it worked properly, this was one of the best routes to be had in all of Saxon’s. Only the most senior drivers were given these kinds of dedicated routes. JD had been assigned to the route for a couple of years until he got into an argument with, what he said he believed at the time, was no more than a Hispanic day laborer on the dock at the terminal. As it turned out, that day laborer was the new El Paso terminal manager for Saxon Brothers Trucking. He had been hired specifically by John Saxon to make changes with dock workers and replace a few local drivers over their serious lack of safety practices. As the old man succinctly put it on more than one occasion, “he was tired of the god-damned tail waggin’ the fuckin’ dog at the El Paso terminal.” Evidently, JD might have been part of that tail.
The manager, a small, wiry, and no-nonsense man by the name of Raul Gonzalez, had been working the dock that day instructing in the proper technique transfers were to be done. He was the son of proud Mexican immigrants striving for a better life for their children. Raul was determined to become successful in order to support his small family, which now included his mother living with him after the death of his father. He hadn’t appreciated being interrupted in his safety presentation by a company driver complaining about a load.
A smile broke out on Virgil’s face as he recalled that day. On that particular day, Virgil was on schedule, and it was JD who was being made to wait. At the time, JD, a mountain of a man, was sporting shoulder length bleach-blond hair, a gold earring, and a massive handlebar mustache that hung from both sides of his chin. A yellow bandana and purple tights were practically the only items that were lacking from his attire that separated him from the professional wrestling circuit. His appearance was menacing even before he opened his mouth and unleashed the gruff gravelly voice that sounded as if he was constantly losing a battle with laryngitis.
The result of the clash had been that it was requested JD’s presence in El Paso become less frequent. In other words, stay out. In typical Solomon-like fashion, old man Saxon kept JD off the run for three months, letting heads cool before allowing the burly driver to resume the route. JD, who had had to go back to running all over the country for awhile during the imposed sabbatical, had vowed he was not going to be making any more waves with Raul.
“That was no misunderstanding, big boy,” Virgil shouted back. “Ya’ll was just lucky Raul didn’t whoop your ass. And I bet he could he do it, too!” Virgil teased.
“Hey, me and Raul is cool, man,” JD croaked before changing the subject. “What you say ‘bout us stoppin’ up here at the truckstop for some breakfast? I’m so hungry I could eat the asshole right out of a walrus.”
“Nah,” Virgil replied, somewhat repulsed by JD’s remark as an unwanted visual of his trucker buddy and a walrus formed in his mind. He tried not to think of it, but it was like trying not to think of a zebra when someone said ‘don’t think of a zebra.’
“I’m just too far behind this week,” Virgil continued. “I need some miles. I’m gonna push this load right on into the terminal so that I can get another. If he’s not lyin’ to me again, Gary says if I get back in there right away he’ll turn me back ‘round for another one on this week’s check.”
Virgil didn’t actually believe Gary would lie to him, but he was known to stretch the truth a little. Freight dispatching was usually a moving target and Virgil often marveled at some of the miracles the operations guys had to perform.
What Virgil didn’t tell JD though was that he needed the money. His wife, Bonnie Jo, was distressed that he had been gone so much lately with so little paycheck to show for it, thanks to sitting too many hours in El Paso. She understood the situation, and was not upset with Virgil directly, but the smaller paychecks weren’t helping to pay the bills either.
The situation was being further strained by the fact their son, Virgil Jr., whom they called VJ, was soon to graduate from high school. He wanted to go on to college to get a business degree. Due to some past medical bills over a bout of breast cancer Bonnie Joe had recently overcome, the Waters’ hadn’t been able to save enough money to meet the tuition, so they were going to have to pay as they went along.
Ironically, VJ wanted to go to UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso. John Saxon had promised there would be a management training position waiting for the boy when he got out of school. Nobody from the Waters’ family had ever gone to college, and Virgil and Bonnie Jo, youthful sweethearts married right out of high school twenty-two years earlier, were determined to do whatever it took to get their only offspring into a university and, hopefully, employed with management at Saxon’s. And if VJ did go to UTEP, Virgil would be able to see his son on his frequent trips to El Paso.
“Suit yourself, dude,” JD replied. “I’m gonna stop here and look them pretty waitresses over there at the choke-and-puke. Maybe take a shower too. I’ll see you on the backside.”
With that, JD eased the Peterbilt onto the exit ramp of Interstate 10, the engine retarding jake-brake baffling loudly as the rig slowed up the ramp. Virgil gave the air horn a long blast as he went by the exit.
They would never see each other again.