Easy as Falling Off a Log

My Generation

Driving a semi or a straight truck? Here's what I've learned in my short history of trucking.

Published on: October 4, 2010

Back when I turned 16, my dad decided that I needed to get a Class B license. This bummed me out at the time because back then, if you were just getting a basic Class D license, you could take your written test during driver's ed, do the driving test with your teacher, then coast into the driver's license facility on your birthday with little more worry than what to wear for your picture. On your first real driver's license!

But Dad decided I needed a license to drive the grain truck. My skills did not support this. Even though I'd been driving the old farm pickup and tractors since I was in the single digits, the grain truck and its manual transmission perplexed me. I could kill that puppy in a heartbeat, even though Dad's coaching including phrases like, "it's easy as falling off a log." Actually, not so much.

And so, since I could drive the dually pickup and 24x8 livestock trailer, and because it qualified as a combination vehicle and weighed more than 28,000 pounds when Dad got it loaded up with cattle, straw, hay and feed for a show, I drove that and got a Class A license. Score.

Fast forward to today. I still can't drive a straight truck. In the early days of our marriage, John tried to teach me to drive the tandem grain truck, which had 13 ridiculous gears and had to be shifted by "feel" as opposed to actual clutching. Right-o. Giant fail.

Then, a few years ago, we got a nice used semi with – get this – automatic transmission! I didn't even know this little marvel existed, but thanks to the Freightliner organization, it totally does. And it's a dream to drive. Turn off the air brakes, push-button shift into drive and away you go. Easy as falling off a log! But don't forget to set the brakes when you park. And un-set them when you take off again. That's important.

And the great thing is, I'm not alone in this little endeavor. Farm wives all over the countryside are learning to drive semis, as straight trucks become more expensive to both purchase and repair, and as used semis flood the market. My friend, Janelle, even got her CDL this fall. Giant score for her! And she's probably even driving a manual. Way harder and way cooler.

So with all this in mind, and given some time to contemplate in the semi this fall, here's a quite brief look at what I've learned so far about semi driving:

  1. Roll your window up before the auger wagon unloads. You'll only make this mistake once.
  2. You're not stuck in the mud. Unlock the air brakes.
  3. If the field's already been opened up, get there before everyone else does in the morning. It's a good place to practice your backing, without anything to back into. And without everyone watching.
  4. And while we're talking reverse, don't be intimidated by your husband's mad backing skills. He can't help it; he was born with it. The very morning I was patting myself on the back for moving the truck in reverse approximately two feet to the east in a wide open stalk field, I watched my husband back a 90-foot auger with a swing-away-drive-over pit past a large bin, under a guy-wire and right to the top of a hopper bin. Show off.
  5. Maybe don't ask your obstetrician to sign your trucker's medical card. I did this the last time I needed an updated card, only because I was pregnant and I was in the guy's office all the time anyway. His comment, "Well, I don't think we've done this before!" has to be one of the greater understatements of all time.
  6. Watch your gauges. You'll feel like you're screaming down the highway, then you'll look down and see you're going all of 50. No idea why 50 feels like 75, but it does. It's a mystery. I wonder if my husband has something to do with that.
  7. Take your cell phone. It's your lifeline to female conversation. But don't use it while you're driving. I'm all for multi-tasking, but that's just crazy talk.
  8. Speaking of communicating, turn down the FM just enough so you can't hear all the mindless banter, but you can hear if someone's yelling at you. That's important.
  9. Don't underestimate the value of a co-pilot. At any given time this fall, I've had my niece, Kaity, my nephew, Ryan, and my youngest with me. But not all at the same time. Regardless, it's a fun diversion in the day.
  10. Don't take any flack from male-chauvinist salesmen who pull into the farmstead and give you a hard time about moving their van because you're a woman driver. They think they're funny…but you know better! You can do it! You rock! You're driving a semi! And you've got the license to prove it!