My dad loved to hunt rattlesnakes. Whenever he was down, depressed or simply tired to the bone from working all night on the Oklahoma oil rigs, all I had to do to cheer him up was to say, “Let’s go rattlesnake hunting!” Immediately, that little grin would appear and within the hour we would be in the car headed to the cliffs of Mangum, Oklahoma. That is what they were known as . . . “The Cliffs.” After all, if you’re going to hunt rattlers, you have to go where they live.
At fourteen, I had gotten pretty good at hunting rattlesnakes. We would gather them up and head to the Rattlesnake Roundup in Mangum every year. You could win prize money for the biggest snake, the smallest snake, the most snakes caught and all kinds of various categories. It was a fun time growing up and at the moment, I never realized that my dad was teaching me things about life. One of those “things” was fear.
The cliffs were a stretch of steep rock formation in Western Oklahoma where rattlesnakes were always waiting to be captured. Our goal on this particular hunt was to bag the biggest rattler ever caught. Spotting a large hole nearly three-quarters of the way up the cliff, my dad told me to climb up there and take a look inside. Being fourteen, I had two things going for me : (1) I had no fear and (2) you always do what your parents tell you to do. So, I started climbing.
It took about thirty minutes, but I finally reached the area of the darkened hole. It was still just out of reach, so I had to reach up and grab the edges of the cliff and pull myself up in the form of a chin-up. Raising myself up, I peered into the hole. It was so dark, I could not see anything. Moving my head from side to side in order to let the sun rays poke through, I finally caught the glimpse of something. Having no fear, I stuck my eyes and nose deeper into the hole. Finally I saw it . . . two really black eyes looking right back at me.
A few seconds later, the rays of the sun landed a good hit and I saw the flickering of a forked tongue. I yelled down to my dad, “I think we’ve got a big one.” As I turned back to face the serpent, it struck. Throwing my head back, I lost my grip and began falling straight down. What seemed like an eternity, I finally landed on the ground and realized that the story wasn’t over. The rattler had struck out with such force that it had literally over shot its target and came flying out of the hole. The snake was now falling down to Earth right along with me.
As I had hit the ground, I rolled to the side and a few seconds later the rattler landed right where I had been. It immediately raised itself up in its fighting coil. I had been right, though. It was huge. I was standing there looking at a seven footer and as big around as a baseball. Expecting my dad to be running over to help, I looked over his way and he was laughing so hard that his face was a deep reddish color. He was literally down on one knee, unable to move from his fit of laughter. Not realizing it at the time, but I had made the biggest mistake one can make while hunting rattlesnakes . . . I had taken my eyes off of the enemy. I was about six feet away from a seven foot venomous snake . . . and it struck again.
The precision of the strike was unbelievable. The fangs found its mark right on top of the boots I was wearing. Now, the angry rattler had its teeth stuck in my leather boots and I was shaking my foot frantically, yelling “James . . . James . . . James!” My dad yelled back, “Take off your boot!” Kicking the boot off, we watched in awe as the creature twisted and turned, finally breaking free from the leather. I discovered that I had fear after all.
It still did not run. It returned to its fighting stance. Looking at my dad, I said, “It’s not afraid of anything. It has no fear.” It was then that he said something that I have never forgotten. Always calling me “boy” he said, “Don’t kid yourself, boy. Everything has fear.”
Fear can be a good thing. A soldier on the battlefield can live through the fear of dying. A cage fighter can win through the fear of losing. This reptile was not in a fighting stance because it had no fear . . . it was coiled and ready to strike because of fear. Now, 37 years later . . . my dad is gone, but his lesson remains even in relationship to professional truck driving.
Many CDL students will get their first glimpse of how big an 18-wheeler really is on their first day of truck driver training when they stand beside that huge rig. For many, fear will creep in. Fear has a way of talking to you and throwing doubt in your mind. It will say things like:
- “You can’t drive this thing.”
- “You’re going to wreck.”
- “You’ll stall out.”
- “You’re going to roll over.”
- “You will start rolling backwards down a hill.”
- “You can’t learn how to shift 10 gears.”
- “You can never learn how to back up.”
What many do not consider, is that the professional driver with millions of miles under his or her belt . . . at one point in their lives . . . have faced the same fears. Doubt, anxiety, uncertainty . . . whatever you want to call it . . . “everything has fear.” That huge rig can be very intimidating. The trucker lifestyle can be very intimidating. Understand that you are not expected to jump into a tractor-trailer rig and perform in an expert manner. This is why you are in truck driver training. The rig should never be in control of you, but you are in control of the rig. That 18-wheeler will go where you want it to go . . . it will stop when you want it to stop . . . it will turn when you want it to turn, and it will back up when you want it to back up. It will go down a street at 35 MPH or along the highway at 70, if that is what you want it to do.
One thing I tell new drivers is that you have to respect the rig. As in flying, you must respect the aircraft. If you get out of your area of skill, then the airplane will take over and you will most likely lose. Same thing goes for the 18-wheeler. It is a huge piece of equipment that deserves respect, but it will never take control over you unless you allow it to. You are in charge of it, not the other way around. Operate it in the manner it was meant to be operated, and you can have a long career in truck driving.
Truck driver training is there for you to learn. Learn how to shift through the gears, learn how it feels to steer, learn how the trailer tracks . . . take your time once you are out on the open road. Do not let other drivers push you further or faster than what you feel comfortable doing. There is no need to back blind-side when there is another spot open that does not require it. When you find yourself in an empty truck stop, practice blind-siding then. Take your time and take it easy. We’ve all been where you are at.
Trust me . . . before you know it you will be looking back at when you first started truck driver training and thinking to yourself, “And I was afraid of this?” Fear can be a good thing. Turn your fear of CDL training into a positive. Make it work for you, not against you. You will learn how to drive and you will be a safe and professional truck driver. Millions have done it and so can you.
As far as the experience with my dad and the seven foot rattler, we didn’t win the biggest prize. Also, as we pulled into the driveway of our home, I still remember the last words of the trip that my dad said to me . . . “Don’t tell your mother.”
© 2010, Allen Smith. All rights reserved.