Friday, January 11, 2008

Trailers and Tribulations

I admit real pride in few things, and boast on even fewer. But I DO pride myself on my ability to back a trailer.

This is not puffed-up self-flattery. I have been--more than once--certified as a Real Good Trailer Backer by a Real Authority, the guy at Lonnie's Recycling.

Lonnie's is a metal recycling business that misses being an old-fashioned junkyard by frequent exports of truckloads of mangled metal STUFF. Because they buy not just scrap steel but also other metals, including aluminum, Lonnie's has a characteristic smell of stale beer/pop/rust/grime. Despite that, I like going there. They REALLY don't care if my boots are muddy, or I'm tired and gruff. They give me money for stuff that's too rusty to use on the farm any more--not much, but a little. That makes it a LOT cheaper than the landfill, and it's just a few blocks away which means less gas and less time. And usually I see something that the last person dropped off that looks like it's still good, to me, and I haggle a bit with the Lonnie's guy and it ends up in the back of my truck for what is probably just a stay of execution, the first half of a round trip that will ultimately end where it started, in the yard at Lonnie's. Things like a really high-quality tempered glass storm door with all the hardware; many sheets of corrugated galvanized roofing; a bucket of clamps for fastening chain link dog run panels together.

And I like Lonnie's because they acknowledge my backing ability.

Sometimes the yard is pretty cluttered, especially when they're sorting and loading their trucks for an export. This one particular day, they wanted my load of stuff--in a pickup bed trailer--w-a-a-a-a-y back at the back, at the end of a narrow lane meandering through canyons of scrapped appliances. They'd never seen me with a trailer before. I could see by the look on the guy's face, he was settling in for a long, frustrating job of directing me back to the right spot. That well-there-goes-my-coffeebreak look.

I calmly ignored the guy, took my time, lined up the truck and trailer, and began to back...around to the left...back to the right...angle a bit that way...and on back, in a perfect, sinous double "s" curve traversing a good 100 feet.

"D***n!" He said in pleased disbelief, seeing a coffeebreak coming after all.

"You can back a trailer." He paused. He looked me in the eye with frank approval.

"You can back a trailer better than most men!"

Then he scuffed his foot at something on the ground. "Aw, heck. Most men can't back a trailer."

I'm still proud of that act of backing--it WAS beautifully done--and I'm still grinning over his response.
Backing a trailer is relatively newly learned art in my life, however. For all intents and purposes, I first backed a trailer about 6 or 7 years ago, the fall of the year I bought the van. The van was great for going to Farmer's Market, but I needed to haul sheep to the meat processing plant, and the trucks that I'd been borrowing from friends for that purpose were no longer available, for various reasons. So when I had the chance to buy a pickup bed trailer that would hitch to the van, I jumped at the chance. In the back of my mind was my lifelong dread of backing a trailer under any circumstances, right next to the mental image of the stock pen loading dock at the processing plant: a long, low, unforgiving concrete wall right next to the driveway, and not much leeway for lining up the trailer door with the pen door.

The night before I was to deliver the sheep, I hitched up the newly-acquired trailer and drove to a nearby deserted shopping center with a huge lot. For an hour, with no one looking, no one confusing me with directions like "Right! Right! No, I meant left! No! No! Other left!"--I backed the trailer in and out of painted parking spaces and when I felt OK about that, I practiced backing it right alongside curbs, mentally picturing that concrete wall.

And ever since, I can pretty much put a trailer where I want it, mostly by totally ignoring anyone standing around waving their hands. "JUST TELL ME IF I'M ABOUT TO HIT THAT POST I CAN'T SEE," I tell them. So there they are gesturing wildly and yelling "Cut hard to the left! Other way! Now back" ???? I'm still 30 feet from the post! Like I said, ignoring them.
This train of thought arose from moving the trailer this morning, from the side yard (where it was storing green firewood) to the new property (where it will serve as a trash trailer for cleaning out the barn). Not a difficult backing operation, but a good learning experience for the new apprentice, who had virtually no trailer experience. And a good chance to appreciate how far I've come with respect to trailers.

I grew up with trailers being an intimate part of everyday life, thanks to the family hobby of sailing small boats. 3/4 of the year, I was present at hitching, trailing, backing, least one day a week. What I learned, first and foremost, was to NOT BREATHE the entire time a trailer is being backed within 100 yards of me. Because anything that went wrong might be blamed on the sound of my breath.

Or that's how it seemed to that little kid. As an adult, I can put myself in Dad's shoes a lot easier. It had probably been 12 hours since we'd left home that morning. Everyone was tired, hungry, grouchy, sunburned, and sick of togetherness; had sand (or something) in their shoes (or somewhere); and had lost something either in the car seat or at the lake. The do-hicky had broken, and the thing-a-ma-jig had jammed. The kids had bickered and whined the whole 1 1/2 hour drive home from the lake...or else had sung 99 Bottles of Beer all the way down to 1 Bottle. And then, THEN, with this car full of kids still squirming and griping, he had to back the boat down the barely-wide-enough driveway, between the neighbor's overgrown hedge and the brick wall of the house, around a slight curve, and into far side of the almost-two-car garage.

At any rate, my general impression was that backing a trailer was a horrible thing to have to do, and doing it well was next to impossible, and I might as well just quit while I was ahead and avoid the issue entirely. After all, many people in the world have been extremely successful who have probably never backed a trailer in their lives. It wasn't a required course.

And then I took up farming.
We went over a lot of procedural stuff in detail, especially safety precautions.

--First and foremost: Never do anything with a trailer when you're in a hurry or have limited time. If there is, unavoidably, some sense of pressure or necessity about the operation, energize your strongest force field against it to keep it at bay. Hurry is a sure-fire way of ensuring a back trailer-backing experience, over. Murphy is always present at trailer backings, flinging hitch pins into the tall grass, mysteriously sliding blocks back under the wheels, wreaking havoc with the fit of the electical connector.

--Never put any body part where it could be crushed or pinned if the trailer rolled, tipped or fell. Especially never put fingers between the hitch and the ball to try to figure out why the ball won't seat properly on the hitch. If you need to examine the inner workings of the hitch mechanism, pull the vehicle forward so the ball is not under the hitch.

--Always chock both sides of both wheels before doing anything else when parking a trailer, and remove the chocks last when hitching. This is especially important with a trailer that has a wheel on the tongue jack.

--Always install the hitch locking pin, safety chains, and electrical connection all at the same time, lest you get distracted and forget to go back and finish something. When unhitching, same thing. Otherwise you will eventually end up driving off with the electrical connection still plugged in, and regret it. You can pull a trailer off its blocks and/or jack in the process. Not good.

--Never climb into a trailer that isn't hooked to a vehicle, unless you have blocked the rear of the trailer up. Otherwise you are playing teeter-totter with the trailer, and apt to get some nasty bumps.

--Criss-cross the safety chains under the tongue when hooking them up so that the tongue would be supported by the cross if the hitch became detached.

--The person guiding the driver for hitching ideally should stand on the driver's side of the truck, for best communication. This is hopefully the broader side of the angle between truck and trailer, if the tow vehicle is not in a straight line with the trailer (common at the farm, since I tend to park trailers alongside fences, and yet still need to be able to get the cab door open).

--All vehicle windows should be open, for best visibility and to be able to hear each other.

--People being people, if things are suddenly and catastrophically going wrong, the ground person may not be able to think of anything more articulate or explicit than "Ack!" at the moment. If the ground person's comment is EVER not fully intelligible, the driver should stop IMMEDIATELY and find out exactly what's going on before proceeding.

--Having a goundperson should not replace getting out periodically to visually assess progress.

--Driver and ground person should establish a common language before starting to maneuver.

Happy trails to you, Dear Reader!


Catlady said...

I love your common sense approach to things... I love your deep explanations of things... I love the great working-with-a-trailer advice you've given...

If only I'd known those tips before...

Many years ago, I discovered that the tongue of a trailer can very quickly wrap around a bumper of a truck, as soon as the "groundsperson" says, "you're ok now, just go straight back"...

Now that I've read this post, I'll probably retract my decision to NEVER AGAIN drive while a trailer is attached behind... :)

Hugs to you - BC as always.

Anonymous said...

I can much identify with the sailboat tribulations! My dad had one named after me for a number of years, but sold it to help pay for college. Haven't checked up on you in awhile, hope all is well on the farm. I am waiting to hear back from a the grad. program in sustainable agriculture at iowa state, very impatiently I may add. Thanks for the continuing education Natalya;
Mae Rose