Odd Jobs and Then Some!
You Load 16 Tons, What Do You Get?
Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt
3 June 2022
Robert C. Steele, Sr.
The title is from the lyrics of a song by Merle Travis that became a hit in 1955 by country music singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. It seemed an appropriate banner for one of my more memorable job experiences. In a period of twenty-five hours, I physically lifted more than 113,000 pounds. Yep, I hoisted more than 56.5 tons. That was a far sight more than the coal miner from the song.
It happened when I was a truck driver for Estes Express Lines. I worked at their terminal in Springfield, Virginia. I believe I was 23 years old at the time. I drove 18-wheelers and made deliveries in the greater Baltimore-Washington area.
On the day in question, my dispatcher told me he had a nearby delivery. It was to a warehouse about a mile from the terminal. I could tell it was a heavy load as soon as I hooked up the trailer and started to pull away from the yard. I made the short drive and backed up to an open loading dock bay door. The trailer was 45 feet long and 8.5 feet wide.
When I presented the bill of lading to one of the dock hands, he walked over to look at the load. The cargo consisted of 480 bags of concrete mix. Concrete is sold in various sizes from 40-pounds up. These were large bags that weighed 100-pounds each. Until I was standing there with the dock hand, I hadn’t noticed that the bags were not stacked on wooden pallets. They were stacked on the floor, two bags lengthwise across the trailer from the left wall and a perpendicular row down the right side of the trailer. I can’t remember if the bags were stacked 4 or 5 high. What I can’t forget is the dull weight of each of the bags.
Thankfully it was not a hot autumn day as the trailer did not have any air vents. There was roughly eight inches of clearance on each side of the trailer at the loading dock bay door. There were other trailers docked nearby, which robbed me of the cooling effects of any lateral wind movement. I was soon to learn that I would get no help in stacking the bags on wooden pallets. All they would do is drive a forklift onto the trailer to fetch a pallet when I finished stacking it. The wooden pallets were likely 48” x 40” (standard size). I was able to stack five bags per layer and four layers per pallet. Back in the 1970s, they did not wrap the bags in plastic like the photo below.
Representative pallet stacked with 100-pound bags of concrete mix
Given that I had to lift 100-pound bags, I had to take brief breaks to stretch and rest about thirty minutes. It took about four hours to finish unloading the trailer. I took a short lunch break before heading back to the Estes terminal. I handed the paperwork to the dispatcher and was stunned when he told me I had a second trailer load of concrete to deliver back to the warehouse. I groused under my breath as I walked away.
I found the trailer, hitched up, and drove back to the warehouse. I backed up to the same loading dock bay I had used before. The dock workers laughed when I walked through the door with paperwork in hand. The joke was on me!
Having already lifted and stacked 48,000 pounds of concrete, I worked much slower and took more frequent and longer breaks. I wondered if I was going to be able to finish the job. The dock hands were sympathetic but still did not help me stack the bags on the pallets. They mentioned something about insurance regulations. It sounded pretty lame to me.
I finished unloading about 7:30 PM. When I got back to the Estes terminal, the evening shift dispatcher told me that he was in a real bind. All the other day-shift drivers had gone home. While the terminal operated around the clock, local deliveries were only made during normal weekday working hours. A rush shipment of perishable Russel Stover chocolate candy had arrived and needed to be delivered to a warehouse in Baltimore. He begged and pleaded with me to make the delivery. He told me he would authorize double-time payment for the delivery and that I could take the next day off with pay. That was a no-brainer for me. I routinely worked as much overtime as I could get.
I took a leisurely long dinner break before hooking up to the trailer and heading to Baltimore. I arrived at the warehouse at about 11:30 PM. There was only one dock hand at the warehouse, and he was busy overseeing the unloading of another trailer. I waited for a couple of hours before he came over to check my paperwork. That was fine by me, I was on the clock. Thankfully, the chocolate candy was packed with lots of Styrofoam which made for light boxes. The trailer was about 80-% full, but the cargo weighed only a little more than 17,000 pounds. I finished unloading at 6:30 AM. I stopped for a well-deserved breakfast at a diner that had ample parking for tractor-trailers. I pulled into the Estes terminal and punched out on the time clock just past 8:00 AM. They ended up crediting me with 13 hours of overtime. Overtime was based on total working hours in the week rather than the day.
I doubt many people have ever lifted more than 56.5 tons in a 25-hour period. It likely would have qualified for an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. However, at that time I hadn’t heard of it.