The morning sunlight was bright over the horizon bouncing off the cold metal dash into my eyes. Squinting, I pulled my face from the jacket wadded on the steering wheel. I can feel the creases in my cheeks left by the folds of the jacket. I had been sitting motionless for some time, the motor’s vibration keeping me company. I was waiting for the Firebaugh tomato inspection station to open. Firebaugh is one of many farming towns in the middle of the California Central Valley, surrounded by thousands of acres of tomatoes, melons, garlic, onions, cotton, and dairies. I am sitting in a freshly painted 1945 Autocar two-axle truck tractor. The truck was ancient and smelled of old grease and dirt with a hint of new paint. Sitting directly behind the cab, cabled one each atop two flatbed trailers, are large fiberglass tubs the size of small swimming pools filled with ripe tomatoes.
Although my day started at 10:00 pm last night, my partner Mike would wake up after a full night’s sleep. He would pour coffee and prepare for his long day at the auto detail shop we co-owned. However, today was my turn to drive the truck. I would continue to drive the truck all day and night Monday until Mike and I switched duties Tuesday morning. During my shift in the truck, I would complete three trips between Hollister and Firebaugh before turning the truck over to Mike on Tuesday morning, beginning my shift at the detail shop, where I would spend eight hours cleaning cars. Tuesday morning, the smells would change from the oil and diesel fumes of the old truck to the soap, wax, and polish of the detail shop. For me, Tuesday night would not come soon enough.
The air was still pleasantly cool from the night before. Soon the pleasant cool temperature would give way to extreme heat typical of the Central Valley during the summer. Temperatures in the triple digits were common. Knowing what was to come, I cranked out the bottom of the windshield to allow more air to enter the cab; this was the only air conditioning provided inside the cab of a 1945 Autocar.
Mike and I named the truck Old Charlie after the original owner who used the truck to haul seasonal fruit from the thousands of orchards to the many canneries of the Santa Clara Valley after the second world war.
We purchased the old truck from an oil-soaked dirt yard in San Jose for cash. Oil-soaked dirt yards were typical for many of the agricultural trucking companies of the time. The smell of drain oil spread over dirt to keep down dust or poured into open pits, along with the smell of diesel leaked from trucks, would give these yards the distinctive odor of Richmond, California, I remember as a kid.
Mike and I bought the truck from a sketchy couple who acquired the title through a lien sale and sold it for a quick buck. The man wore a blue mechanic’s shirt and dirty work pants soiled from a day of crawling in, out, under, and over trucks. They drove into the yard, sitting side by side on the 1968 Chevy El Comino bench seat. Mike and I quickly figured out the woman’s husband owned the yard and the dude in the mechanic shirt was not her husband.
They told the story of Old Charlie, who passed away abandoning the truck in her husband’s yard. Her companion had spent some time getting the old truck running before placing the ad in the San Jose Mercury News. We handed over one thousand dollars in cash, and Mike headed to the shop with the truck.
Once we got the old truck to the shop, Mike and I quickly painted it a dark maroon color with “Old Charlie” written in gold on the air cleaner. Later, we added a seven-hundred-dollar stereo system before the tomato season. Of course, we could have spent the money on more essential items like tires and brakes, but we were young and dumb.
Tomato grading stations consisted of a long line of trucks overflowing with ripe tomatoes; their juice dripped onto the ground from the leaking washout gates at the back of the tubs. When my turn in line came, a large probe was lowered into several areas of each tub. The probe pulled tomatoes from the tubs and deposited them onto an inspection table. Once on the table, the tomatoes are inspected, graded for quality and contaminants, and returned to the tubs.
The seasonal Ag drivers of California were homeless except for the tiny cabs they occupied. There were no showers, laundries, or clean facilities for them to use. The best they could hope for were highway rest stops, porta-potties, and catering trucks. Around the clock, drivers occupied their small truck cabs without the benefit of air conditioning or a place to sleep. As a result, drivers often smelled from days without showering. In addition, Ag drivers falsified their logbooks to maximize their income and meet the demands of the trucking companies. As a result, drivers routinely ran with multiple logbooks. In addition to living paycheck to paycheck, drivers and their families rarely saw one another. These were tough men driving rugged trucks in demanding conditions. Truck driving was a dangerous, thankless job in the nineteen-seventies.
Drugs were easy to find at a grading station and on the road. Cocaine and bennies were common. The initial goal was to stay awake. However, at some point, often staying high replaced that goal. Drivers staying awake for days was not uncommon; drivers who did were favored by trucking companies and admired by fellow drivers.
Once the mice, gophers, rotten fruit, and rocks are verified to be under the allowable limit, the inspection process is completed. Next, drivers are handed a load manifest containing the grading information and weight. At this point, the race to the canneries begins. Due to a lack of horsepower, Ag drivers raced everywhere, speeding when possible and cutting others off as needed. Unfortunately, Old Charlie was the slowest of the slow. The motor in the old truck only put out two-hundred-twenty horsepower when new, less now.
Because of the lack of horsepower, drivers who drove older trucks never wanted to give up momentum. Braking rather than passing would cost time accelerating up through the gears again. Time in route determined how many trips were completed. Drivers were paid a percentage of what the trucking company billed; trucking companies were paid by the ton. Drivers had a real incentive to ignore the law and haul as much weight as possible in the shortest amount of time, so they did.
With my manifest in hand, I climbed back into the tiny cab for the trip back to Hollister, California. The temperature has reached the mid-80s, and the flies are beginning to wake up. Unfortunately, due to the dairies and farms, the Valley was full of healthy flies and foul odors from large piles of cow waste and filthy dairy retention ponds. For this reason, moving was usually better than sitting.
I gradually pulled the old truck from the gravel yard onto the pavement of Nees Avenue, heading west. Except for the short trip to the grading station, I had never driven a fully loaded eighteen-wheeled semi-truck alone. A paper temporary Class 1 commercial license was in my wallet acquired just days earlier; I was now in command of a 1945 relic weighing 87,000 pounds. At this point, I am not sure either of us is up to the task at hand. I knew nothing about driving a truck, but what little I learned from working one summer as a truck mechanic’s helper for one of the several trucking companies in Gilroy. I moved trailers short distances within the yard, never shifting a gear. I knew how to change tires, oil, brake shoes, and fix lights but not much more. I certainly am not qualified to drive a truck over Pacheco Pass. Sink or swim; I was not turning back now.
My hometown of Gilroy, a small town on the Central Coast of California best known for its pungent odors of garlic and tomatoes during the summer, was home to several agricultural trucking companies who transported the tomatoes, garlic, and onions to the canneries and dehydrators that gave Gilroy an aroma of Italian marinara. I was now sub-hauling for one of these companies.
Because the trucking company dispatch staff did not share my foolish optimism, they bet among themselves on the success of my first trip. Truck safety wasn’t a consideration in 1977. The industry, in general, was indifferent to safety and instead possessed a fatalist attitude: unfortunately, bad things will happen to good people. A highway littered with fresh tomatoes and wrecked trucks was typical during the summer. Bad outcomes were just an accepted part of ag trucking.
Old, worn-out, poorly maintained trucks crossed over the Pass daily during the harvest; Old Charlie was one of many. One Hollister company, Highway Garage, owned by an eclectic gentleman referred to as “Bicycle Joe,” was infamous. They operated the oldest trucks painted dirty orange out of what could best be described as a wrecking yard of old trucks. Keeping these relics on the road required a talented machinic with an iron will. Surprisingly, a Highway Garage truck I witnessed during one trip was missing a hood covering the motor, giving the truck a weird hot rod look. Also, the view of the giant fan spinning behind the radiator was a bizarre sight. Later I saw the same truck wrecked at the bottom of a ravine. Just bad luck, I guessed.
As I turned the Old Charlie onto the asphalt, I let up the throttle, pushed the secondary transmission’s gear lever into the second position, and pushed the throttle to the floor. While still turning, I repeated the procedure placing the same lever into the third position and stomping on the peddle. Once the RPMs climbed to 1900, I pulled the secondary lever into neutral while simultaneously pushing the main gearbox into second. Old Charlie had two transmissions and twelve gears to manage. Shifting both levers simultaneously without using the clutch each time the main gear changed took some practice to perfect. However, I quickly became good at shifting the old truck. Driving an old twin-stick truck is a complex process and requires a degree of physical coordination and timing.
While I kept an anxious eye on the water temperature and pyrometer gauges for any sign of trouble, the truck slowly picked up speed until it reached a crawl of about forty-five miles per hour. A pyrometer monitored the exhaust gas temperature. Keeping the exhaust temperature below 900 degrees and the water below 180 degrees determined how much throttle a driver could apply. Too much heat burned holes through the pistons or froze them to the cylinder walls. So, I kept the RPMs up and the heat down by dropping gears as needed.
Black soot billowed from the exhaust stack as I pressed my foot to the floorboard. I quickly became anxious, arching my back from the seat as the old truck struggled to gain speed. Not until this moment had it occurred to me that the little Autocar might not be able to climb back over the Pass. I just assumed it would.
Mike and I were friends and gearheads from our high school auto shop days. We spent lots of time drinking beer and under the hoods of our cars, making them faster, racing when we had the chance. After high school and several dead-end jobs, Mike and I would open a pressure washing and auto detailing business. We added the old truck to move trailers between our shop and our customer down the street. Before opening our shop, Mike had plenty of experience driving much better tomato trucks over the Pass.
As Old Charlie struggled to pick up speed, I became concerned we would not make it over the Pass. I envisioned leaving the truck parked on the side of the road, exhausted, unable to pull such a heavy load, hiking in the heat to the nearest phone to make what was sure to be an embarrassing call for help. I imagined money-changing hands and shouts of “I told you so” at the dispatch office. But, at this point, I was still twenty miles from knowing the answer.
The morning sun was at my back, and there was a shadow of the black smoke boiling upward from the exhaust stack on the farming road. I would follow the shadow to the onramp onto I-5 north. During the short handful of miles to I-5, I observed the flight of a crop-dusting plane spraying cotton fields on both sides of Nees Avenue. The aircraft would fly low over the fields until it reached the power lines between poles alongside the road. The pilot would pull the plane up and over the power lines and the road when traffic was approaching. However, when there was no traffic, the pilot would continue under the wires and across the road. The plane crossed back and forth over the road until my old truck made it to the intersection of the plane’s path and our route to I-5. The Autocar pierced the carpet of spray left in the plane’s wake covering Old Charlie and the tomatoes with what I assumed was a pesticide.
Foot on the floor, I ease the truck off the ramp and onto I-5 north. I monitor the truck for any sign of overheating or melting pistons. Keeping up a speed suitable for the highway was difficult. It wasn’t until I reached the short, slightly downhill portion of the road just before the Highway 152 overpass that the truck and I achieved a top speed of fifty-eight miles per hour. During the entire three weeks of driving Old Charlie over the hill, I managed to pass one other vehicle not otherwise stopped on the side of the road: an old cab-over tomato hauler pushing more black smoke out of its exhaust than a coal-burning locomotive climbing a hill. As I passed, I was astonished to see several pornographic centerfolds from Hustler Magazine, or a similar publication attached to the inside of the rear window.
The photos were visible to all who passed. What was this guy thinking? I still wonder how far he traveled before landing in jail.
The truck was being driven by one of the scariest individuals I had encountered on the road. He was Unshaven, covered in sweat, wearing a dirty white tee-shirt, staring straight ahead, not even glancing at me creeping past. It seemed like an eternity and several miles for me to make the pass. Behind me was a long line of pissed-off drivers breathing the heavy soot emitted by both trucks. Once back into the right lane, I endured the angry drivers’ blaring horns and middle fingers accelerating past. They would soon get over their inconvenience, not knowing our triumph. Old Charlie was no longer the slowest truck in the Valley.
The onramp to Hwy 152 was coming up soon. But, until now, I had not had to use the brakes for much more than stopping in the field and parking at the grading station. So, I reached over and pulled on the trailer brake lever slightly, hoping for a noticeable change in the truck’s speed. I knew my tractor’s brakes were sketchy; I had no front brakes, and the trailer brakes would be my primary source of stopping. The tractor immediately reacted to my movement of the brake lever, the trailers tugging at the tractor, gradually slowing its speed. What a relief, I had brakes.
It is still early, and the sun is again behind me after turning west onto Hwy 152. The shadow of the exhaust has returned. The sun is higher now, and the shadow is much shorter. A few miles from the onramp, I started to gain some speed. I was approaching the entrance to O’Neal Forebay, where I learned to water ski, located at the bottom of the first long climb. However, as the grade quickly increased, the truck’s pace promptly diminished. I downshifted hastily to keep the RPMs up, skipping gears as I went: trying to keep from missing a shift. If I missed a shift at any time climbing a grade, the truck could come to a halt while I struggled to find a gear. Once stopped, I would not start moving again without a tow. I witnessed this situation several times during the summer. Trucks would be stopped in the truck pull lane, their front wheels hopping off the pavement like a chevy lowrider, struggling to get started again without success.
Old Charlie maintained a steady 1,900 RPM with the main box in the first gear position and the “brownie” gearbox in the second. I still have one more gear to use on the steepest hill. I was moving at about five miles per hour, with the tachometer jumping between 1,800 and 2,100 RPM as the wheels slipped on the black goo left on the road from thousands of leaky tomato tubs. I was successfully climbing the same grade in second gear that I would later descend with the truck kicked out of gear.
The practice of coasting downhill out of gear in old trucks is commonly known to truckers as Oakie Overdrive. Okie Overdrive allowed Old Charlie to speed past its top geared speed of fifty-eight miles per hour. Once kicked out of gear, there was no putting it back in gear until the truck slowed to under fifty-eight miles per hour. Somewhere between sixty and seventy miles per hour, the truck would shake, rattle and growl with a rhythm of a blinking stoplight, the steering wheel vibrating to that rhythm. Steering Old Charlie reminded me of a Border Collie herding sheep down a hill, swinging the steering wheel left and right through the considerable slack in the middle.
It would take Old Charlie and me more than an hour to get from the bottom at O’Neal Forebay to Dinosaur point at the top of Pacheco Pass. The last climb to the top was the steepest and required the one gear not used previously, granny gear. The truck would only climb about three miles per hour in granny gear. The average person walks at three to four miles per hour. I set the throttle lock at 1,900 and fixed my eyes on the temperature gauges. The old truck pulled the hill with RPMs to spare.
The extreme temperature inside the cab wet my back and legs with a sweaty lather against the vinyl wrecking-yard seat. The temperature gauge I placed on the passenger seat indicated 130 degrees. There was no wind to cool the cab at three miles per hour. There was no insulation, nothing to diminish the heat radiating from the asphalt, the motor, or the exhaust. With the throttle locked at three miles per hour, it was tempting to get out of the cab and stand on the running board to escape the heat of the cab. Instead, I drank water from a plastic picnic jug whose ice had vanished long before. The water tasted and smelled of warm plastic.
I made it to Dinosaur Point top of the hill, Old Charlie and me. I am just past the summit, picking up speed with air passing through the windshield again. The temperature in the cab is coming down quickly with the added air through the windshield. The outside temperature is falling as we leave the heat of the Valley and move closer to the coast. I feel a real accomplishment; I managed to get the old truck to the top of the hill.
Shortly past the summit, I stop at the truck brake-check area just before starting down the west side of the Pass. Although I walked around the truck and trailers, I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I assumed the brakes were in good condition and would keep me under the posted truck speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour on the way down.
Pacheco Pass highway, east of the summit, was a modern four-lane divided road with additional truck lanes built at the same time as the San Luis Reservoir. The west side of the Pass was a narrow two-lane nightmare that claimed hundreds of lives. Pacheco Pass demanded respect.
I jump back into the truck and slowly pull Old Charlie back into traffic to start my first trip down the grade. The truck picked up speed much faster as I started down the hill. It wasn’t long before I got to thirty-five miles per hour and began finding the right gear and hand valve position to hold the current speed down the hill without overheating the trailer brakes or over-revving the motor. Finally, I found the correct combination; an occasional tap on the brake pedal controlled the truck.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, finding my way to Buster Intravia’s yard on San Felipe Road outside Hollister, where I dropped the loaded trailers and picked up an empty set for my next trip.
During the next few weeks, I would learn how to sit on the hood of Old Charlie, lean against the windshield, and rest under the stars rather than planting my face on a jacket wadded atop the steering wheel. In addition, I learned the hand signal that gave ag drivers notice of a CHP cruiser ahead. I learned to endure. Once, Mike and I operated Old Charlie for one week without shutting off the motor due to a faulty parallel switch, adding a gallon of oil after each trip while the engine was running. Finding a good parallel switch for a 1945 Autocar proved to be impossible.
We charged the air brakes from our shop compressor, allowing us to pull-start Old Charlie using an old Ford pickup to start the week. Finally, I learned how to stay awake with bennies and RC Cola.
My biggest mistake and most important lesson that summer was not stopping at the brake check during one of my last trips. I assumed the trip down the hill would be routine. However, that turned out not to be the case. It was after midnight, and there was little to no traffic. As I began to slow down to the truck speed limit of thirty-five, I noticed I was applying more pressure to the brake hand valve than usual. Eventually, the hand valve was pulled to the stop, and my foot smashed the brake pedal to the floor. Although the truck initially began to slow, it quickly started to gain speed. It took my brain a little time to acknowledge what was happening. Then, the red low air pressure warning flag dropped in front of the windshield. It confirmed what I already knew. I no longer had enough air pressure to stop the truck. The tachometer raced to 2000, then 2100, then 2200 rpm. The motor roared and sounded like it would come apart.
I began shifting to higher gears to keep the engine from flying into pieces while using the motor’s compression to help slow the truck. I was skipping gears almost immediately, trying to keep up with the truck’s momentum. As luck would have it, there was no other traffic in front of me. So, I would not be running over anyone tonight. Once I had run through all the gears, I pushed the clutch to the floor. I was now riding in the lead car of an 87,000-pound roller coaster. After reaching the bottom, the road started up a slight incline, and the rig started to slow. Finally, the air compressor started to catch up with air pressure with the hand valve closed. I began to breathe again and loosened my grip on the steering wheel. Once stopped on the side of the highway, I climbed out of the cab into the fresh night air. No one got hurt or killed from my lack of judgment that night. Instead, I felt a rush of euphoria.
While walking back to the rear trailer, I heard a loud hissing; leaves and dust was blowing up from the ground. Once at the back of the trailer, I discovered air rushing from the petcock at the bottom of the trailer air tank. The petcock was not closed before I picked up the trailers, or it somehow managed to loosen during the trip. I should have checked before leaving the field. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about air brakes. I don’t remember telling anyone about losing my brakes on the pass. It should not have happened, and I could have cost someone their life.
Old Charlie required a significant amount of ingenuity to operate. Parts were mainly impossible to find; we were often forced to swap something worn out for something not so worn out. In the case of a broken parallel switch, no option was found; our solution; was never to turn off the motor and add a gallon of oil daily.
The news Elvis died broadcasted on the radio on my last trip in the truck between Hollister and Gilroy. Mike and I would never drive Old Charlie again.