Teaching monsoon driving in a open pit copper mine
I have been a teacher, not in the traditional sense, but I have taught in many of my occupations. This is about one of those teaching experiences that maybe went not quite as expected.
First off, let me explain something about haulage trucks and rain. These are two entities that are polar opposites. When the rains come to the mines, one thing is true, all haul truck drivers are in for an adventure. While the rain keeps pouring from the sky, haul trucks drive just fine, but when the rain stops and the dirt on the road becomes more like clay, it is like driving on ice. There is no feeling like sliding down the road in a machine the size of your house with no true control. Just as one tops the hill and is ready to head down the other side, the driver tenses up, especially in the buttocks’ region. There were many times I thought I might actually have to call out mine rescue to remove the seat from my butt. After about six months or so, it becomes more of a game than a total fear of life ending drama.
There are still times, no matter how many years you drive one of these big machines, that you will have that scare put back into you. Here in Arizona, where I drove in the mines, we have a monsoon season every year. Sometimes the monsoons aren’t too bad, other times they are downright fierce. This instance is during one of the bad ones.
I trained a lot of haul truck drivers during my time working in the copper mines. Almost all drivers taught, but I taught more than the average amount. I’m not sure if it was because of my ability to talk to almost anyone and find out what works best for them, or maybe I just had a death wish. Some trainees would get behind the wheel and scare the trainers. I only had this happen to me one time in twenty years teaching to drive these trucks. I may and probably will write about that time in the future. This post however will be about the teacher scaring the student.
Whenever we got some new drivers in the mine, one thing we always told them, was if they made it through the monsoon season, they would be alright as long as they wanted to do this job. Once every couple of years. It seemed like we would get a new batch of students during the monsoons. This was the times the students truly got thrown directly into the fire. Learning to drive a haulage truck in the worst possible circumstance is very difficult, not only for the students, but for the trainers as well.
One day at work I was told that I would be training John, (truth be known, I can’t remember his name. This was many years ago). The rains had been bad for a week or so and the mine roads were a complete mess. John was excited to get started. He told me that he had driven many types of equipment, but never in a mine setting or anything as large as a haul truck. I explained how the rains affected the trucks and how bad the roads were right now. It didn’t seem to phase him. Maybe this guy will do alright, I thought. I have, and still do believe, the only way to learn to drive one of these monsters is to get behind the wheel and do it. I never allowed a trainee to just ride around all shift watching me drive. The first day it’s ok to ride and watch for half a shift, but after that, it’s time for the student to drive. This day was the exception.
I believe there were thirteen students that showed up that day. All the driver’s that would have trainees with them, including myself, decided, the students would just ride today. This was going to be a suck your seat up the butt kind of day. If the students didn’t quit today just by riding, then maybe they would make it through training. When the experienced drivers were worried, then I could just imagine what the students were going through. These poor trainees were going to have the ride of their lives and didn’t even have to buy a ticket!
The first half of the shift was a circus. Drive up the hill, slide down the hill, and hope you didn’t hit anything. The bosses all parked their pickups at the top of the mine to watch what was happening below. There was no way in the world they were going to be on the road with us, doing everything we could to keep from playing bumper cars! I was doing fairly well keeping my truck out of the ditch, which was quite the challenge. I told John once that it was his turn to drive, and his eyes got huge until I said that I was just kidding. With a sigh of relief, he said under his breath, “Oh, thank God!” I laughed and told him that even I wasn’t that big of a jerk.
Maybe six hours into our shift, one of the shovels went down, and they had to start another one up. This wasn’t that big of a deal except, the road to the shovel hadn’t been worked on all day and I knew it was going to be extremely slick. The rains were turning on and off all day, keeping the roads in terrible condition. This road hadn’t been worked on today by road crew because they had their hands busy with all the other roads. Dispatch told me to let them know the condition of the road, so they knew whether they needed to pull someone to work on it. I knew It was going to be bad, but I didn’t know it was going to be that bad.
I stopped at the top of the hill, looking down the other side, and told John, this is going to be the best ride in the park today. John let out a small groan, which is what I would’ve done if he weren’t here with me. I have to keep up good appearances for the student, I thought to myself. Slowly we started down the hill. I knew it was going to be slick. I knew we were going to slide. Furthermore, I knew that my butt would try to eat my seat. Furthermore, I also knew that I had a trainee in the seat next to me, and I had to play it cool, so I didn’t scare him into quitting on his first day. What I didn’t know was how awful it was going to be and how hard it would be to keep my cool for John’s sake.
We started down with a small slide toward the driver’s side. This soon turned into a very large slide. One thing kept popping in my mind, stay cool for John’s sake. So I started explaining what I was doing to keep us on the road and out of the ditch. I explained every turn of the steering wheel, how much brake pressure I was using and how to watch what the road was telling me with the dips and potholes we were navigating over and around. I explained these things all the way down the hill towards the shovel we were heading for. Furthermore, I even told John that was the shovel as we passed the shovel, still sliding for another three hundred yards on the flat and heading towards the berm! The truck came to rest about fifty feet from the berm. I locked the parking break and took a deep breath. John looked as pale as a ghost, and I wasn’t sure that I didn’t as well.
Over the radio came a familiar voice of my ole buddy Pat, who was running the shovel. With a small laugh, Pat said, “Hey Billy, the shovel is over here, come on over and get loaded.” I answered back, “John and I are going to step out for a small break and clean our shorts out first!” I smiled at John to let him know everything was okay. Truth be told, even though I had to play it cool for John, my heart was running about ten times faster than I was letting on. I asked, “Are you okay, John?” He said, “I didn’t mind the sliding and all, but I guess what bothered me was how you explained what you were doing as we were coming down the hill.” I answered, “What do you mean? I just wanted you to get the idea of what I was doing to keep us out of the ditch.” He said, “Ya, but you were looking at me the whole time!” John, I said, “Actually, I was looking at the road, it just happened to be out of your window!” This did not sit well with John, as his pale white took on a light shade of green. Maybe that was not what he wanted to hear, but it was the truth.
We got through the rest of the shift without incident, and I assured John that today was not normal and tomorrow would be better. He shook my hand and thanked me for everything. The next day came and as my shift was beginning soon, I asked my boss where John was. The supervisor told me he was one of the five students that quit today. Well I hated to see John go, but it let me know that he probably wasn’t right for this job anyway. Yes, it was extreme conditions, but that is part of the job.
We all have our limitations. As for John, I hope he found a great career outside the mines. I’m not sure if he just didn’t have the stomach for the job, or if maybe he was just smarter than the rest of us that continued with this line of work. Sometimes you just have to find the right place in life for you. Oh, just to set the record straight, I only lost one other student during training in the mines, and he was the one that scared me, whom I talked about earlier.
Take care, enjoy what you do and remember, we are all in this together.