Thursday, December 31, 2009

Road Test

Three rentals from Penske, and all were the same truck.

Road test day? Different truck. ~sigh~

And this one, of course, was the toughest bitch to shift yet.

The clutch grab was nearly at the top and the brakes were very touchy, all easily surmountable with a little time getting used to them. And I had exactly that - a little time to get used to them. The pre-trip had to be modified, too, as it was a completely different make.

We headed to our McYuppie's practice area and ran through a few pre-trips. I've been forgetting the parking brake stress and the fifty foot brake test as of late, so we played with the routine to fit them in where I'd be sure to not forget them. As is always the case, there was one item I consistently forgot: pointing out the reflectors on the rear of the truck (but in my defense, these were unique to the truck model and I wasn't used to them being there). I solved that by picturing the number 4 as I looked at the back of the truck - four items to be pointed out. And to ensure I didn't forget the fifty foot brake test, I purposely kept my gloves in my lap until it had been done. Stupid little tricks, but for me they work, and that's all that counts.

We again hopped 481 down to 690 and practiced call-outs, then got in line at the testing area. After only a few minutes, we saw a tiny woman wearing the latest in dreary DMV fashion approach. She abruptly motioned us both down from the cab and demanded our licenses. Joy. She's one of those. She rapped the passenger side fender and barked "Start your pre-trip from here."

I think Hoss felt a twinge of panic at that point, because we'd worked so hard to stick to two pre-trip routines - a full and a curbside - so I wouldn't freeze up or forget anything.

I said "Sure. Let me go back and get my gloves," and I started back toward the cab.

"No, you won't need them. Just talk through it."

I hesitated for half a second. "Er, okay." I was in front of the truck, and started by pointing out the box lights ---

"No, here. Start it here." She again rapped on the fender.

Dammit. She hates me already.

So I started under the fender, pointing and talking, while she walked down the length of the truck and disappeared behind the rear end. I kept talking, but looked at Hoss with WTF expression on my face. He answered with his own WTF expression and shrugged. I dogged on. She met me at the back and ordered me back to the cab to do my lights tests. Sheesh, it felt like being sent to my room.

Lights checked, she climbed in the cab, and instructed me to start my in-cab pretrip, during which she set up her handheld unit and reviewed the registration and insurance paperwork. Watching her fumble between the seat cushions to retrieve the seatbelt buckle that Hoss obviously hadn't used on the drive down seemed to stretch into an epic that would require an intermission.

"Ok, pull out."

A phrase she's used innumerable times, I have no doubt.

She directed me with disturbingly vague instructions ("take a left up there" - "at the stop sign?" - "no, the one after that") and told me to point out hazards I saw along the way. Lady, the most imminent hazard to my safety is sitting to my right. Sheesh.

Heading toward the first overpass, I started my call out: "Approaching overpass, no height restrictions poste---" when she interrupted with "So what's the maximum height you could drive under it?"

"Fourteen feet."

"Correct. Continue."

This woman could curdle vinegar.

She directed me to the Bear Street onramp of 690 West, a 2 laner that quickly merges into one just prior to the main highway. Upon turning left onto the ramp, I hit my right turn signal to move into the right lane when she began jabbing her handheld at the right lane and announced "You should be in THAT lane."

Yes, Dearest. That's why my right turn signal is on and I'm turning the steering wheel. Thank you.

After a few bridges and overpasses, she told me I could stop announcing them. I took a chance and commented that it probably got on her nerves after hearing it for a while, but she replied with "No, I'm just trying to make it easy on you guys." What's this? An unexpected thaw?

After a few minutes of driving, she asked who I was going to work for. When I told her we were looking at expediting as a husband / wife team, she got downright perky. We discussed relationships in close quarters, what we planned to do with our house, and the ability to take pets with you on the road (including a rather lengthy description of a truckdriver with his "cute little white dog" that she met on the road once in Pennsylvania). Meanwhile, she directed me to a quiet area of Van Rensselaer Street for the straight back and parallel. She had become so casual that I wasn't sure how formal to be with this portion of the test. I stopped the truck and put on my hazards, then said "At this point, I would jump down and walk around the truck before I back." She nodded and said "Yes, go ahead with that." Okey doke. I did my walkaround, took a good look at the distance to the curb, then climbed back in. I did a ten foot straight back and a nice tight parallel. She didn't even unbuckle her seat belt, roll down her window, or open her door, let alone get out to inspect the results. "Okay," she said "Drive us down to Spring Street."

Huh. This was difficult?

At the stop sign at West Kirkpatrick, I struggled with getting into a gear. No luck with third. Second wasn't cooperating, either. I told her that despite using the same truck in the past for practice, my luck ran out and they'd given me an unfamiliar one for the test. She said "Oh, don't worry. You're doing fine."

I am? Oh. Good.

I think.

Back to Plum, where we'd started. Hossman was just down the street, hands in his pockets, kicking snow boogers. She printed off the results from her handheld, turned it over, and proceeded to draw a diagram on the back with purple ink. "Look, when you're in a two laner, you need to move to that right lane. Got it?" Yes. Yes, I do. Got it. "Okay. Sign this. Wait seven days, then take it to DMV to get your license. Good luck."

Huh. I passed with only one violation: Improper Lane of Traffic. I guess I can live with that.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fourth Drive

I stand corrected. According to Tammy, our friendly rental agent at Penske, we've used the same truck for the last three drives. I suspect that Hoss thought I was full of it when I thought the 2nd rental was a different truck than our 1st ("Well, it's kinda odd that the side steps are bent in exactly the same manner as the last truck, don't you think?"), but he was gentlemanly and didn't challenge me on it. Thanks, Hossdaddy. Why, then, did I have trouble with 3rd on our 2nd drive with that truck? I dunno, but it's obviously an issue between my ears and not the gears. ~sigh~

Anyway, our fourth drive went spectacularly well. I didn't freeze during the pre-trip and missed calling out only one thing during the first run-through ("nothing between the duals" on the passenger side). My first parallel park was too far from the curb - not by much, but enough to likely fail. Several subsequent attempts were perfectly nailed. Straight backing, no problem.

We again drove 690 and practiced call-outs, then doubled back a few exits so Hoss could show me a couple of odd off-ramp and lane change setups, in case they were included on the road test. We skipped the tight turn practice entirely, as I seem to be fine with that.

It was cold and snowing, and the roads were potentially slippery in some spots. I kept my speed down and made sure to leave plenty of space between me and the cars in front. There's construction on a section of 690 downtown, on a curved overpass, where cement barriers are up, leaving no shoulders and very little wiggle room. As we drove through that section, a Wegman's truck passed me on the left. Hoss complimented me for holding my lane and not moving closer to the cement barriers, which could have resulted in accidentally sideswiping them. I'm pretty comfortable with my lane space, though. As long as I stay centered in my lane and they stay centered in theirs, there is plenty of room for us both. He chuckled and concurred, but reminded me how many times he's had close calls in the bus. It's true; not all drivers stay centered in their lane, and some situations will make doing so tricky for even the best drivers (such as wind gusts and road hazards, but that's all part of being aware of your surroundings).

Hoss is very pleased with my progress, and said so a few times. It feels good to know he thinks I'm doing well. I'm a very confident driver, and have never doubted that there's nothing I can't drive and drive well, but my progress is as much an indicator of his ability to teach as my inherent skills. He lets NOTHING slip, whether it's a pre-trip component, a call-out, a traffic infraction, a technique, or a bad habit. He knows exactly how to handle me to make sure I'm the best I can be, and I love him for that.

As it gets closer to becoming reality, we're both getting more excited about driving together. Yes, it'll be a big adjustment in our lifestyle. Yes, it'll be very hard work with long hours and numerous frustrations. But we'll be together, we'll be making decent coin, and our successes (and failures) will be ours alone, not due to the whims and cerebral limitations of others. Hoss is, quite frankly, fed up with his current employer, who mis-manages the business to the extent that I don't know how they expect to survive much longer. Yet he works hard for them and continues to represent them well, and I love him for that, too.

I'm having dreams about driving together. Two nights ago, I dreamed that I'd found the perfect place for the cat's litter box in our sleeper - in the stairwell of the rear RV door. And I was putting away two weeks' worth of socks and underwear each, in case we had a very busy period and couldn't take time to do laundry. I guess I'm nesting in my head. It's kinda fun.

The fleet owner we'd talked with a month ago remains "very interested" in hiring us on when we're ready, and at our current pace, we're planning for mid-January. Hoss likes her and from their conversations, thinks she's good to her teams. She's based in Binghamton, only an hour south, so the logistics work out well, too. We'll meet with her after the holidays.

The road test looms less than two weeks away. Christmas week will be busier than usual this year, since Hoss has business in Scranton on the 23rd, and that will take all day. The 24th is the Big Annual Christmas Eve Party for the family, which takes a full day of preparation. If he's going to work at all that week, it'll have to be Sunday through Tuesday -- if there's work. It's slow for motorcoach drivers then since school is out. We haven't yet made a reservation for another drive prior to the road test, but we'll try to work one in somehow.

Almost there.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Third Drive

I can't think of a better motivator for nailing the pre-trip than 45 mph wind gusts on a cold December day.

Penske again. Another 26-footer, but a different beast than the last drive. How do I know? Because again, I had trouble with 3rd. I've got no problem finding it when upshifting, but downshifting? Nope. Hoss says my right arm must be deformed somehow. ~sigh~

We drove to our street behind McYuppies (in the interest of full disclosure, it's actually an Outback nestled behind a Chili's and a Barnes & Noble) and went through an amazingly fast pre-trip. I'm getting better, but still missing a few things here and there, and mainly the in-cab portion, for some odd reason. I need to practice it in my head more often.

Although I've done pretty well with parallel parking, Hoss gave me a different perspective to use. Rather than drop it in like you would a car, he suggested cranking then adjusting the angle as necessary while continuing to back. It feels like you're taking a mile to get parked, but it can be done in less than a truck length. That worked very well, and once we adjusted the mirrors so I could see the lower corner of the box, I was good. Straight backing is a cinch. In fact, at one point I'd parked very close to the curb and Hoss warned me that doing so means I'd have less leeway on the straight back and it would have to be done perfectly. So I backed straight as an arrow and with the thickest self-congratulatory sneer asked "Do you mean more perfect than this?"

Once again, we headed south on 481 and picked up 690 west. Traffic wasn't as heavy as our prior drive, but with stiff wind gusts bashing us, I had to concentrate. I was 15 when I had my last road test. You can pick up an awful lot of bad habits in 35 years - driving one-handed, letting the wheel slip under your palms after you turn, speeding, etc. I need to be aware of them and make sure I don't use them during the test.

We got off at Jones Road and practiced more tight turns in Seneca Knolls. I'm sure the neighborhood is wondering why that big yellow truck shows up every few days and aimlessly lumbers around, but so far no one has come out of their house with a shotgun to chase us off. I seem to have turning down pretty well, so we drove back up 57 to our McYuppie street and pre-tripped some more. Pointing out the obvious is tedious and takes concentration. Yes, I'm quite sure I'd notice if lug nuts were missing or my hood latch had popped open or a leaf spring had broken, but the objective is to prove to the tester that you're looking for and making note of their status. You can glance at a wheel and note several things at once - the condition of the tire, the depth of the tread, the condition of the wheel, whether the hub is leaking, if all the nuts are present and secure, if the valve stem is centered - but you have to verbally point each one out or points are deducted. Hence, the never ending pre-trip practice.

After only three hours, we topped off the fuel and took the truck back. Hoss shmoozed the rental agent and she knocked fifty bucks off the rental bill because we'd brought it back so early. He's such a character.

So, drive number three was another success!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Second Drive

Practical driving? No problem. I ran a bit close to the curb on a few corners, and rolled back twice while waiting at lights ("YOU'RE ROLLING! ROLLING! STOP ROLLING!! ~Hoss ;) I love to hear him panic).

This time, we rented from Penske. Considerably less expensive. This truck is easier to nail 3rd and shift. Higher gear ratio.

We hit our unused street behind McYuppies and practiced parallel parking several times. It's tough to judge when to start cranking the wheel to nose in, but I did make good progress. Hoss then directed me to the McYuppie parking lot to practice tight turns around parking islands and pretend rows of restaurant patrons' cars. I did pretty well.

We then headed down 481 toward the Eastmost 690 on ramp. More calling of bridges, overpasses, hazards, work zones, speed limit changes, on ramps, and merging. Once again, Hossman enjoyed hearing my frantic call outs.

We ran up to the Seneca Knolls neighborhood in Baldwinsville to practice tight turns and narrow streets. Again, I did well. Although I need more finesse, the practical portion of driving seems to come fairly easily.

We took a break at home for a short while, then drove up to Sam's Club parking lot to practice more pre-tripping. It was too dark to pre-trip at home, and since we planned to top off the tank at Sam's, it made sense to park there and practice.

For some odd reason, I seem to freeze up at the beginning of the practice pre-trip, during the air pressure testing. There's no difference between engine off / key on / watch gauges / release spring brakes / press pedal / etc etc etc and the logical, physical steps required with a front end check, yet when Hoss, my pretend road tester, sits in the cab and tells me to begin, I blank out. I stumbled through the first two or three pre-trips, and when Hoss laughingly asked me WTF was wrong, well, I got pissed. Really pissed. Not at him, but at myself. I'm not a rocket scientist, but jeez louise, I should be gliding right through this crap by now.

And so, adrenaline kicked in. I'm mad. Air pressure testing, the very start of the pre-trip. 1st run through, screwed it up. Dammit. Restart. Another stumble. Double dammit. Start again. After 3 or 4 restarts, I finally get it right without freezing. I jump down from the cab and start the outside pre-trip, angrily rattling off the check points and going through the physical motions, rapidly, aggressively. I missed only one or two steps in the pre-trip, and only one consistently (why can't I seem to remember the rear license plate??).

We ran through the entire pre-trip several times, and although I wanted to continue until I'd had it perfected, I had to agree with Hoss that it was time to quit. We were both exhausted and ready to fuel up and return the truck. We were spent.

Today was very beneficial in many ways, but perhaps the most useful discovery was that getting pissed increases my ability to concentrate and recall. This could be very helpful, indeed.

God help the Brownie that tests me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Road Test Scheduled

This morning, Hoss scheduled my road test online:

30 December 2009 @ 13:00

A good time choice, as this gives us a few hours in the morning to practice with the truck I'll be tested in.

Although daunted, I'm very excited. :)