The Mennonites in the South Fork area specialize in growing cantaloupes and watermelons; when the season comes, lots of roadside stands will put up signs announcing that Casey County melons are in. Daniel Burkholder and some neighbors started a produce station this year, a sort of co-op that brokers the melons for local farmers. Since I bought the refrigerated truck he has asked a couple of times if I would be available to transport melons for him, which I was glad to do, but then one thing or another came up and it didn’t happen.
Wednesday night Daniel called and asked if I could transport a load of melons to just north of Chattanooga, about 200 miles away. During the melon season there is a fellow named Denny who lives and teaches school in northern Alabama who also gets melons from here and resells them in the Chattanooga area. Usually he fetches them himself in a rented truck, but this year school started earlier than ever, and he needed to hire someone to bring him a load. I said I’d be glad to do it.
We’re in the middle of a heat wave, and Thursday was the hottest day so far, hitting 100 degrees. But it wasn’t especially unpleasant, and so at 4:30pm I was at the produce station. Denny wasn’t able to take delivery until late in the evening, so it was going to be a late night and there was no rush to get started. They sent me to a second location to pick up a couple of 700 pound bins of melons, and when I got back they began to load the other fourteen bins while I watched. I left about 6:15pm.
The road out is not particularly hilly, just a few small stretches, but by the time I got to the parkway I noticed that the temperature gauge was running awfully high. I figured it was because the temperature was still in the high 90s, and so I pulled off the road and waited about fifteen minutes for the engine to cool. When I started again the engine was a bit cooler but still needed watching, especially when climbing hills.
In a car I probably would have driven straight west to I-75 and then taken that south through Knoxville to Chattanooga. But I knew there was a truck weigh station on I-75 between Corbin and London, and even though I wasn’t doing anything illegal it would be the first time for me at a truck station, an experience I would just as soon save for another night. So at Somerset I headed south on US 27, which is a lesser but perfectly fine highway. All the way I was easing up hills and watching the temperature gauge.
By the time I got to Stearns, within ten miles of the Tennessee border, I was getting nervous; not about the current state of the truck, but about the steep hills I assumed were ahead—I knew from driving the interstate that there was a high range between me and Knoxville, and I was concerned about climbing it on roads which allowed steeper grades than the interstates allow. So seeing a sign pointing east towards I-75, I decided to be prudent and cut across to there for the rest of the trip.
It turns out that Stearns at 1450 feet is about as high as US 27 goes, whereas I-75 climbs to about 1800 feet, and although the grades are not super steep they are very, very long, which is why they stuck in my memory. But I didn’t know that at the time.
I also didn’t know that Hwy 92, which cut across to the interstate, was narrow and twisty and up and down, with one very steep climb of its own. I made it to the top of that hill around 9pm and had to stop, since the temperature gauge was nearly pegged at the high end. I opened the hood and saw steam coming out of the coolant reservoir cap, and no visible indication of any liquid inside the reservoir.
After letting the truck cool for 30 minutes, I started again. Fortunately it was almost all downhill from there to the freeway, and since I coasted whenever possible the engine continued to cool as I rode. I stopped at a Pilot truck stop, bought the four gallons of pre-mixed coolant they had, and poured it in. This cooled the engine further, and so I hoped that doing that had fixed the problem.
At this point it was about 10pm, and Denny called me to see how things were going, and to tell me that because there had been an accident at the exit where we had originally planned to meet we would have to meet elsewhere. I told him about the evening so far, apologized for running so late, and told him that if things ran smoothly from then on I would probably see him in a couple of hours.
Adding the coolant did not fix the problem. As I started on those very long grades towards Knoxville, the truck ran very slow and very hot. Suddenly the “Stop Engine” light came on, which means you’ve gone as hot as you can go without doing serious damage. So I stopped by the side of the road. And waited. And eventually, when the engine had cooled to the point where it would start again, I continued crawling up the hill until the “Stop Engine” light came on again, at which point I would stop by the side of the road and wait. As this went on, I could drive slowly for maybe fifteen minutes, then have to wait for forty-five.
Periodically I would get calls from Denny, who was surprisingly gracious as this continued on. I suppose if you’re in the produce business you have to get used to plans being frustrated by malfunctioning equipment. Our plans were slowly pared away as the night dragged on; first he had to send home some men he had hired to help unload, then he had to give up on getting the melons in time to be loaded onto other trucks that would be leaving to make deliveries, and finally he had to give up on meeting me at all, since he had to drive 90 minutes home and then on to the school where he was teaching.
The last time I talked to Denny, he gave me directions to a place where they would unload the melons and keep them for him until he could arrange to have them picked up. At that point it was 5am, and I had pulled into a Pilot truck stop in Knoxville in search of more coolant in case it might help. The road was much more level at this point, but I had no idea how long it would take me to drive the final fifty miles and so I told him I would just continue on as best I could.
Turns out that not all Pilot stores are truck stops these days, and this one was just a glorified convenience store with no automotive supplies at all. But luckily at the store across the street they had one gallon of concentrated coolant. I bought it, poured it into the reservoir, then went back and asked the clerk to fill the jug with water, which I then poured into the reservoir. And headed on.
At this point I remembered that one trick for cooling down an overheating engine is to run the inside heat full blast, so I turned the heat on, and that managed to keep the engine just cool enough that I was able to drive continuously the rest of the way, still very slow on grades but without the “Stop Engine” light coming on again. I found my exit, followed Denny’s directions to the end of a long and very narrow road where farm workers were unloading trucks full of produce. It was 7am by now. When I got it across to them who the melons were for, they unloaded them right away and I was soon on my way again.
Fortunately Denny had told me about a truck repair place not too far from the melon drop point, one that opened early, so I headed over there and talked to the guy who owned it about how the truck had been behaving. Without even turning off the engine, he opened the hood, stuck a water hose into the coolant reservoir, filled it until it overflowed, then pulled out the hose and watched. He had me rev the engine and watched some more. Finally he hopped down and told me that my radiator was leaking, and that I would have to take it to the International Truck dealer in Knoxville to get it fixed. He wouldn’t take anything for his time, so I thanked him and headed for Knoxville.
Strangely enough, filling the reservoir with water did more to help than any of my earlier ministrations; the truck ran at almost normal temperatures for more than half the way and only began to
get hot near the end of the drive. That was the good news. The less welcome news was that I had to pass a weigh station going into Knoxville. But since I was empty (and I guess they can tell somehow) they just passed me through.
I arrived at the International dealer at 10am, told them about the trouble and what the mechanic had told me, and asked them to look at a few other things while I was there. It’s a very busy place which runs 24 hours during the week, and they told me the radiator guy wouldn’t be in until 4pm so there would be a wait. So I waited. I wandered over to the Shoney’s across the freeway for an early lunch, sat in the waiting lounge watching the Sci-Fi channel for hours, had my ear bent extensively by a fellow waiter who would rather talk than watch the Sci-Fi channel, and did whatever else I could think of to pass the time.
Finally around 4:30pm the radiator guy came to the lounge and told me that, yes, my radiator was completely rotten and they would need to order one to replace it, one that wouldn’t be there before Monday. So I got on the phone and called Debbie to come pick me up, and settled in for another bout of waiting. All this time my waiting room buddy is also there, and when I figured out that we could actually have an interesting conversation once I got him off the topic of how badly his company was treating him, we passed the time pleasantly enough. Debbie arrived around 9pm to fetch me, and we made it back home at about 12:15am.
No doubt there are plenty of lessons to take away from this, but the one that stands out for me is that things looked much bleaker at the time than they do in retrospect. I have a high threshold for frustration, but in the wee hours when I was pulling off the road yet again with an overheated engine, not knowing how I was going to deliver the melons that someone was waiting fore, there was surely the temptation to despair. But actually falling into despair would have been far worse than the things that were unfolding. In the end I got the melons there, the truck to the dealer, and myself back home, tired but not much the worse for wear.