The Seductive Power of Power
April 11, 2012
In my previous post, I explored the problem with short-term thinking and the need to think like a rock. I suspect part of the reason we have trouble doing this is the seductive power of power.
My Dad was a truck driver. Over his lifetime, Daddy estimates that he drove around four million miles. His Daddy owned a trucking company. With Papa’s drivers, my Dad began driving from North Carolina to California when he was about fifteen. This was before interstates, and Daddy needed blocks taped to pedals to reach them. (When I said drive, I meant drive.) My brother and I followed in Daddy’s tire tracks, so to speak, when we were around four or five years old and began taking trips with Daddy and other drivers, a practice that continued through college. I still remember the trip I took with Daddy to Florida in my cousin’s red conventional International. (My cousin owned a trucking company, too.) We hauled empty Coke cans to a Coke plant down there, then hauled chip potatoes back to New Jersey. I ate a bag of potato chips made from the potatoes we hauled. But what I remember most was my turn behind the wheel.
Southbound, Daddy drove I-95 deep into Florida. It was around 2:00 a.m. Reflecting the truck’s lights, the white lines receded into the distance, creating the sensation of driving on a treadmill. Few other cars or trucks broke the monotony. Over the roar of the diesel, Daddy asked: “You want to drive this thing?”
“OK. I’ll set the cruise control, stand up, and you can slide in front of me and grab the wheel. See that rivet in the middle of the hood? Keep that on the white line and you’ll know you’re good. And check your mirrors. If the trailer’s outside the lines, you’ll know you’re not in the lane.” He stood up. Because the engine was mounted in front of the cab, we had room to walk around between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and the bunk beds in back, a small, travelling hotel room. I could stand up without bumping my head. I shuffled over to the driver’s seat and, careful not to bump his arm, slid into it and grabbed the wheel. Eyed the rivet and white line. Checked the mirrors. He turned off the cruise control, and I pressed the accelerator. The Cummins roared and the turbo whined as I steered that 65’ truck south. Just like that, I was driving 40,000 pounds of aluminum, steel, and fiberglass down the interstate. After I settled in, I marveled at the power. I felt huge, transformed from a skinny nineteen-year-old into a badass cowboy like Clint Eastwood, riding my horse across the prairie with an itchy trigger foot. I suddenly understood one reason Daddy loved driving so much.
We drove north the next day loaded with potatoes. The truck was heavy now—roughly 80,000 pounds. Steady traffic accompanied us. We switched seats again, and I drove for about two hours, taking great pleasure at flipping on the Jake brake (BLAAAAAPPPPPPP) and pushing cars doing 55 m.p.h. out of the left lane. Slowpokes blocking traffic. (Asinine, I know.) At one point, I checked the driver’s side rear view mirror and noticed a sheriff’s car half in the lane, half in the median. I pulled into the right lane pronto and watched as he raced by, lights flashing. The police car following pulled up beside me, the cop leaned over to the passenger window, shook his finger at me, and then took off in pursuit. Chastised (I had been speeding) and a bit rattled (no CDL), I stayed in the right lane until we pulled off for a piss break. That was the only time I’ve driven a truck other than around my cousin’s shop when I worked there, but that delicious sense of power stays with me to this day.
Fast forward a few years. I worked for a general contractor out of Charlotte as a job superintendent. I didn’t know a damn thing, but I learned fast and listened. One of my jobs was raising a spillway outside York, South Carolina. One day I showed up at the job site, only to find out our grading contractor was short a dozer operator and needed someone to clear trees from the borrow area (the place where we got the dirt to raise the spillway). The sub’s boss, Eddie, had known my Dad for years, and he and I had become drinking buddies. We were talking about the problem, when he asked, “You ever run a dozer?”
“Well, it ain’t hard. I’ll show you.” We walked over to the International TD-15, he gave me instructions (you let off a pedal to accelerate a dozer), and I clattered off across the dam to push down trees. A TD-15 is a big dozer. The blade is about three feet high and around ten feet wide. Once I clackclackclacked across the dam, I turned toward the trees, most of which were between forty and eighty feet tall. In the next couple of hours, I pushed down and cleared away twenty or so trees, cutting the roots on one side with the corner of the blade, backing down between trees in order to push them out toward the newly cleared area (didn’t want a tangle of downed trees), driving straight up onto the tree as far as I could (dared!) until it leaned precipitously, backed off, lowered the blade and drove forward, catching the root ball with the blade and popping the tree out of the ground. Trees that had been growing for thirty, forty, fifty years, bam, felled in minutes. I relished the work, the roar of the diesel (much louder than Daddy’s truck), the clatter of the tracks, the controlling of something much more powerful than me. Although I’ve always preferred bicycles to diesels, I understand the pull machines have on a person. They made me feel powerful in a world bigger than me.
I was in no way a skilled operator. I tried to put a swale on grade with a TD-8 once (a baby dozer), but all I got was laughed at. Eddie, on the other hand, could work magic with a bulldozer. Daddy was the same way in a truck. They were both skilled with their machines the way Lilace is skilled with writing. Their skills are a gift, they made the most of it, and many people benefited.
I suspect there are people as gifted operating tractors, trucks, dozers, track hoes, and drill rigs around here, and I admire them for that. There’s something seductive about the kind of power we see on display in Tioga County, and no matter how much I question the process, I think I understand part of the drive as well. My Dad said once in jest, “Hell, in my twenties, I would have driven a truck for free.” He felt that power in his bones.
We’re weak sauce without our fossil fuels. Compared to many other living things, we’re downright fragile. Soft-bellied. Slow. Fossil fuel power belies that, makes us feel like gods. It’s an illusion, but so seductive.
I wonder if we’ll ever see the power in saying no.