"What's this?" I asked when Andrew handed me a page he'd ripped out of a magazine.
"Just read it."
There was an ad featuring a quote from Henry David Thoreau in the headline: "'Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you've imagined,'" I read aloud, then handed it back. "That's cool," I continued, pausing to choose my next words carefully. "So, um, you're into poetry now? Gosh, that'sjust great." I was already fearing the moment we'd run into a Four Wheeler reader and I'd be asked how manning-up Andrew was going as he walked alongside me sporting a pipe and cardigan with elbow patches, saying things like, "The Jeep-a thing of beauty is a joy forever."
"No," he replied. "I just thought it was maybe what Real Men do, follow their dreams. I think maybe I've lost sight of mine."
You see, there are aspects of his life that aren't exactly where he thought they'd be at this point, and he's been struggling over whether he should figure out how to get them back on track or simply let them go. Part of how he's doing that is by meeting and learning from Real Men, such as Ivan Stewart and the soldiers in the U.S. Army in our previous installments of "Are You a Real Man?" The goal is to help Andrew become a better man and live a better life based on the examples of how other Real Men live theirs.
You control the clutch, do not let the clutch control you. Both hands on the wheel unless you're actually switching gears.
But how exactly do we lose track of our dreams if they're that important to begin with? And does living life, with all its challenges, like just trying to pay the bills, sometimes make it necessary to let them go? I've joked about having a drawer full of my hopes and dreams, but is that because being in a drawer means they will never escape my grip, or because I don't need a reminder of what never will be?
It was either botulism or Thoreau that got Andrew and me trying to remember the age at which we'd first start dreaming, and whether that ended up shaping who we are today. I loved reading and writing as a kid, and would hole up for hours in my room tearing through book after book and writing story after story as my imagination ran wild, all the while my mom screaming for me to go outside and get some sun. Andrew was a voracious reader too, who also dreamed about what his life could be through other people's words. He ended up writing a short story in grammar school that he refers to now as "the first time I was published," since it appeared in a classroom-based book with other students' stories. Now we're both writers. And still pasty.
True, that means we're both living out a dream, but what about our other dreams? I mean, can you even get a dream back on track? And while we're at it, do you eventually become too old to dream?
I was in need of Botox or Botox Cosmetic from all the wrinkles these thoughts were causing.
We got to talking with Cappa about this subject, too. When they were really young, Andrew and Cappa would spend hours watching heavy equipment on job sites. They dreamed about what it would be like to drive something like that. An 18-wheeler, a dump truck, a bulldozer-the grown-ups who drove and operated those types of trucks were truly the coolest people ever, because they got to command big vehicles that were capable of doing all sorts of neat things, and these were the biggest vehicles in the world, as far as those young eyes were concerned.
And when Andrew was around 6 years old, he and his buddy Dent would play with Dent's 18-wheeler toy in the sandbox. One day he'd borrowed it, but then Dent moved to a different school and the two lost touch. Years later, the toy was discovered in a box that Andrew's parents were unpacking. Because he knew Dent had loved that truck as much as he did, Andrew took it to his house to return it. In fact, Andrew's mom told me he was so obsessed with toy trucks as a lad that his grandparents quickly realized the only way to spend quality time with their grandson was to crawl around on the floor with him as he played.
It was starting to make sense for this edition of Real Man to be about Andrew rediscovering that early dream of driving something big like a bulldozer or 18-wheeler. I mean, this is Four Wheeler and we're all about driving things, right? Plus it was something that spoke to him as a child. He's also told me that as an adult, he's often had to create his own paths. Maybe a bulldozer would make that a little easier.
If anyone was in full support of this idea, it was Cappa.
Cappa: "Come on, Andrew, you drive a Prius now. You've gotta get something on the other end of the spectrum."
Andrew: "Hey, if you can drive a Prius, you can drive anything."
Cappa: "Oh, really?"
In the blink of an eye, Andrew and I were standing in the dead center of five acres of dirt and mud, with the other end of the spectrum on either side of us: an excavator and a bulldozer.
We were in Las Vegas, home of Dig This (www.digthisvegas.com), which is billed as a "heavy-duty playground." During a 90-minute session, you can fulfill your dream of operating heavy equipment.
"I used to be a fencing contractor, and there was a lot of bulldozer work, because we used to clear roadways from forests and so on. Every now and then, and as a kid I did this too, I would stop and look at people operating heavy equipment; there was always a desire to operate," explained Ed Mumm, president of Dig This. "It wasn't until I built a house that I realized 'This is pretty cool,' because I was in an excavator and I had never operated an excavator before. After two hours of being on that machine I said, 'Wow! If I'm having this much fun, imagine all the people who don't get to do this.'"
It's interesting how people will pay to do for fun what others do daily as a way to make a hard living. It's also interesting that no one wants to pay to be a writer for 90 minutes.
Andrew's Dig This instructor was Travis Heeringa, who started him off in the excavator, the tool for "digging," even though he's been chomping at the bit since he was pint size to get inside a bulldozer, the one for "pushing." Travis first walked him through how to use the controls, then from a distance and via headset instructed him on not only the process of digging and filling a hole, but also through certain challenges, such as lifting,
transporting, and restacking three mondo tires. After successfully doing each task-including a slam dunk in a basketball-style game-Andrew then switched over to the long-lusted-after bulldozer, called a "finishing" dozer, which is used mainly for grooming; he spent time making a dirt pile that he then drove up and over, both forward and in reverse.
As it turned out, Andrew was disappointed in operating a bulldozer. "With the dozer, there's really only a couple things to do: right, left, and push. With the excavator, you're going backward, tilting, going up and down, sideways, maneuvering the bucket-you can do a lot with it." He found controlling the excavator a bit like a video game, since it's all done basically via joystick, making it about precision and light touch. He also preferred the ride quality of the digging machine. Even Ed admitted the excavator tends to be more popular. The reason he'd settled on a fleet of dozers and excavators for Dig This is because they both have the most visual recognition; people are used to seeing them at construction sites.
Cappa has family members who own Arthur's Excavation & Farm Drainage in New Ross, Indiana, so he's had a lot of seat time in the same equipment. Whereas Andrew is now a full-on excavator guy, Cappa is all about bulldozers.
Andrew: "I think driving that stuff is stereotypical male, but at the same time I think it can be pretty monotonous in a lot of ways. I got bored very fast. However, I now have a lot more respect for anyone who does that kind of job. I learned it's hard work and you have to stay focused. They make it look easy."
Cappa: "Yeah, despite what it seems, you don't just sit in the cab all day. Stuff breaks and you have to fix it. At the end of the day, you're often filthy and freakin' tired. I don't know how my cousins can do it every day. It's just the mentality of 'it has to get done no matter what obstacle gets in the way.'"
At the end of a Dig This experience, each participant receives a certificate with a gold seal. "The gold seal is going to take you places," said Ed, when he handed Andrew his certificate. As we were leaving, I asked Andrew where he thought it was taking him. He didn't know yet. "But I do know when I get there, I'll be able to dig a pool."
While in Vegas, we decided to stick around and explore more of what's on the other end of the spectrum: a big rig and a bus.
We headed to Southwest Truck Driver Training School (www.swtdt.com), which offers courses in Class A, Class B, and passenger vehicles; in other words, professional truck and bus training. Whereas Dig This tends to attract more people over the age of 30, Southwest Truck Driving School has seen more diversity since the economy has been tough, with students ranging from 21 to late 60s. "I think the oldest gentleman we had in our program wasborn in 1933!" said Director Mellody Guajardo. And yes, a company took him on as a driver.
Students wanting a commercial driver's license learn everything from vehicle basics and map reading to log books and parallel parking, and class size is generally up to 16, which is about four students to one instructor, so it's very focused. Most students are male, with maybe one or two females per class. There are also many husband-and-wife teams. The school has an incredible success rate at placing students with companies after the graduate.
We first met instructor Chester Murray, who would be training us on driving a big rig. Mr. Confidence, as Ivan Stewart had called Andrew, climbed into the driver seat, and Chester immediately went to task to ensure his driver was equal parts confidence and humility, because you got a big ego? Know that your truck will always have one that's bigger and harder to control. Therefore, when he's training potential future truck drivers, Chester has to access whether it's simply nerves he's dealing with in a student or arrogance (or stupidity). With Andrew, it was newbie nerves, and Chester had fun with that. Footnote: Chester would make a first-rate auctioneer if you're hiring. Footnote 2: He should have his own TV show if you're hiring. Check it:
Chester: "When you drive your car or truck, you're pushing in your clutch and shifting the gear, correct? It has synchronizers in it. This truck's 10- speed has one; you are the synchronizer. You're the one who has to keep the engine and transmission in sync with each other. How come this truck doesn't have synchronizers? Good question. A couple of different reasons. One, less moving parts, so less likely things are going to break. Also, less weight. It's not much, but the more weight you can get off the truck and trailer, the more freight you can haul. Everything is about the freight. Now, because we're the synchronizer, we have to double-clutch. So, how much time do you have to actually shift? I don't know, it's not based on time, it's based on rpm. When you come out of gear, you can only lose between 400 and 500 rpm. So if you come out of gear at 1,500, you're going to have to have your shift completed by? I'm waiting for an answer. You can only use 400-500, so if you come out of gear at 1,500, you're going to have it completed by 1,000, correct? And you have to double-clutch it, so if you're coming out of gear at 2,000 rpm, when do you have to have your shift completed by? 1500? Trick question-you rev my truck up to 2,000, you're going to sit in the back for the rest of the day."
In previous Real Man stories, Andrew would create a bottled-water drinking game to entertain himself. Right about now, I figured he wanted a straight- up drink.
Chester: "You control the clutch, do not let the clutch control you. Both hands on the wheel unless you're actually switching gears. You sure want both hands on the steering wheel, I'm telling ya."
Andrew: "I understand."
Chester: "No, you don't. If you blow a steer tire, you better have both hands on that wheel. Now, put your hand on the shift lever. You feel that spring? OK, don't crush the spring. Come to the spring, straight back. Third gear every time, OK? Just 'cause I'm old and handsome doesn't mean you can wink at me later tonight. Right now I just want you to keep getting used to how the truck feels. This is what it feels like...hard right, hard, hard right, easy on your throttle, hard right, left, left, left, left, left, all the way left, left, left, left, all the way left, and right, right, right, right, straight, and not yet, you turned too soon. Hard right, hard right, hard right, easy on your throttle, easy on your throttle, get off the throttle. Did you see that? Watch the trailer, watch the trailer."
Chester: "Pretty close that one. It's a long way back there, isn't it?"
Andrew: "Yeah, I see that, but I made it, though. That's excellent and no property damage so far."
Chester: "Now go ahead and go to Fourth and Fifth. Easy on your throttle, double-clutch, clutch out, clutch out, clutch in, shift! You as dumb as you want to be or still working on it? Now we're going to work on a downshift. Go ahead and push the clutch in, push the clutch in, push the clutch out, push the clutch in, shift to Neutral, let the clutch out, pack the throttle, push the clutch in, shift to Fourth."
Andrew: "Oh God!"
Chester: "Fourth, not Third, Fourth! Clutch out, let the clutch out, pack the throttle, clutch out, out, not in! Not the throttle, push the clutch in, push the clutch in! Now shift it up, now down. Easy on your throttle, easy on your throttle! What gear are you supposed to be going to?"
Chester: "Don't tell me you're sorry when I teach you something. You're sorry 'cause you don't know what you're doing."
Andrew, sweating profusely: "So do they make an automatic?"
Andrew actually did do really well as a driver. Despite the jabs he gave him during the process of learning to drive a transmission with so many gears, Chester commended Andrew on being a quick study in the short amount of time he had to familiarize himself with the truck's size and quirks. "He listens and follows instructions." Good qualities in a student, whether in a driving or Real Man lesson. And while Chester may have sounded gruff, keep in mind he's responsible for safety on the roads-his drivers and yours-and he takes that part of his job seriously. "If a student is not a safe driver, I'm not going to pass them. It's just not going to happen."
After cracking that gruff exterior, we also found a Real Man similar to what Ed described as those who work in the construction industry: hardened campaigners who are in a machine all day; all they think about when in there is production and getting the job done well. Chester has logged countless hours driving cross-country. "It's more than just a job. It's a lifestyle. It's what you make of it. When they say trucks move America, trucks really do. Just about anything you can think of, a truck at some point in time had something to do with it."
Chester then introduced us to Karl Lantz, who would be our bus-driving instructor. As it turns out, Chester had brought Karl onboard at the school. "I didn't think I had it in me to do it," explained Karl. "I surprised myself. I guess the thing that kept me going once I got in was, 'I want to see how far this is going to take me.'" I nudged Andrew as he took his place behind the giant steering wheel. "In a sense, Chester gave Karl a gold seal that's taking him places," I whispered. "Yes," Andrew whispered back. "And did you see the size of this steering wheel? When a guy's used to holding something that big in his hands, women will want to give him money at every stop."
After Karl's rundown on the interior buttons and switches, Andrew powered down the training yard. It was much easier for him to drive compared to the big rig in many ways, and also because he'd driven an RV before and they handle similarly. Since it was a more calm pace in this vehicle, we had a chance to talk to Karl about what's it like driving a bus for a living. "I used to work 10-12 hour days," he said. "I'd come home from work and be deadbeat. It's mentally stressful. You're looking around constantly as you're driving, and the people are always on your mind; you're safety-minded.
It's a big responsibility. But my father was a bus driver when I was a kid growing up, so it was kind of in my blood. The only reason I really got out of it was I wanted to experience something else. I used to watch the big rigs all over the world all the time, and I thought, that's what I want to do."
As a mentor himself to many students, we asked Karl who his own mentor was. He thought about it for a moment or two. "I guess Chester would kind of be my mentor in this situation, because he pulled me into this and he knew more that I could do this than I did. I guess he just trusted that I could do this job more than I even did. I really didn't think I could do this. I guess I can say he had more faith in me than I did in me. He proved me wrong and I proved myself wrong."
We later asked Chester about what makes teaching others to drive so rewarding. "You have no clue how nice it is when you've got somebody out there you've been struggling with for a day and a half to back the truck up into the alley and they can't get it. Then they finally get it and they come flying out of the truck screaming and hollering because they finally got it. That makes you kind of feel good."
He added, "And what's really cool is if you take somebody that has been on unemployment for a year and a half, they get through the school, they leave, they come back six, seven months later and say, 'Hey I brought home 1,100 bucks last week.' You've given them a career."
As we waited for our taxi to collect us for the airport, Andrew and I circled back around to what we learned from the Real Men who drive bulldozers, excavators, big rigs, buses, and the like.
"These guys are unsung heroes," Andrew said. "These are tough jobs that not a lot of people appreciate. They're building and constructing our homes and highways, and they're hauling vehicle parts and building materials across America. As Chester told us, without trucks, we wouldn't have buildings, and none of us would be dressed."
Even now, Andrew isn't sure where that gold seal is taking him in life, but he does know he'll be getting there via Real Man Road, which was built by an excavator and bulldozer and has been well traveled by trucks and buses. And maybe because of the instruction and insight from Travis, Chester, and Karl, he'll be able to grab the wheel-he'll need a giant one now-and take those curves along the way with more confidence, maybe even occasionally following a detour that sends him in the direction of the life he's imagined.
"The mind is a powerful place, and a dream is as real as you allow," he said.
Oh no, more poetry. "I don't know that one," I pondered. "Author unknown?"
"Schuth," he replied.
Sometimes a dream is realized when someone like Chester believes in you, while at other times it's about learning to make it happen for yourself by thinking outside the sandbox. It might also be about those second chances in life, like for Andrew now, or when Dent was able to recapture his youth.
Right then our taxi pulled up, and before we could even get in and shut the doors, our driver, Zelalem, exclaimed, "Is this where you learn to drive trucks?!" He was full of the same wide-eyed enthusiasm and childlike wonder that Cappa and Andrew had once had. We explained to Zelalem what this school was, how the program worked, and its job-placement success. In turn, he told us how he'd been driving a cab for about seven years and had just started looking into truck-driving schools because it was something he'd always wanted to do. As if on cue, a big rig blew by us on the freeway.
"I look at those and think, 'That could be me! That's my dream!'" We immediately handed him Mellody's business card. This was a case of a dream within reach, literally.
Vegas may not be known for its "real" women, but Andrew and I learned it's where you can find Real Men who go confidently in the direction of their dreams.
And perhaps the key to making a dream come true is to never forget who you were when you first dreamed it.
One other thing: There might be something to what Andrew had said, that if you can drive a Prius, you can drive anything.
Zelalem's taxi was a Prius.