Just Freight

1959 White 5000 "HiCab" by the White Truck Corporation

(which came to be known as a Japanese White)

This photo dates from the 1970's. That's a whale. And that's the author, hauling a whale up to the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California.

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The phrase "Just freight" is something truckdrivers say when, for one reason or another, they don't feel like telling you exactly what they are hauling. It's part of the subtext of I-5, created by inflection and context.

In I-5, Barton refers to the sculpture he's hauling as just freight, because it's easier than getting into a discussion about art; everybody's an expert, and it's a big pain in the ass to have to get into it in a phone conversation. The person he's talking to on the phone isn't even going to get to see the art, so the hell with it. Later on, Ron, another trucker, refers to the barrels of chemicals on his flatbed as just freight, because that way he doesn't have to get into a discussion about toxic waste (something people tend to have strong opinions about.) This all leads up to the Nuclear Trucker, jerking a finger back toward his load of spent nuclear fuel, stuff that in Karen's imagination just wiped out Los Angeles. The mythical Nuclear Trucker casually says "Just Freight." That's what the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) would have us believe, that it's okay to haul the stuff around, because spent nuclear fuel is, after all, just freight. If it weren't just freight, you wouldn't be able to just haul it around on a flatbed or on a railroad car like a load of lumber or iron.

The movie Donnie Brassco has some dialogue that is a long spoken exegesis, about a similarly interesting phrase, "Forget about it". One of Donnie's fellow policemen asks him what the phrase "Forget about it" means, because it seems to come up all the time on the undercover tapes that Donnie is accumulating, and the other cops are trying to interpret Donnie's tapes. Donnie, played by Johnnie Depp, does a great job of detailing out how inflection and context create meaning and thereby communication. "Just Fuhgeddaboudit," can mean anything from "Forget about it, it's trivial so the hell with it," to "Forgeddaboudit!" meaning "Don't mess with me, don't mess with this, you mess with this we'll both be in a lot of trouble we don't need." Maybe in the real world it could be said with enough in your face emphasis to just mean "Don't fuck with me."

More about the truck, and a little about the trucking business

This model of truck - the "HiCab" 5000 by White Motor Truck Company of Cleveland, Ohio - was known as a Japanese White. It was (and still is) the only tractor ever made that was made entirely out of Fibreglas.

That was (and to some extent this still is) the era of the Corvette; the deeply sculpted "look" that the designers got from the fiberglass was admired by hotrodders and hotshots of all stripes. They say the fiberglass made the tare weight of the tractor a little too high, though (a little over 12,000 in a two-axle configuration, when the same vintage Freightliner was ten thousand or less).

The tractor had a lot of other innovations, too, like an air-powered gearshift and a radiator that tilted up with the cab; and it was the most extreme example of the "pancake cab", a super thin shape that allowed the trucking company to haul longer doubles and still stay within the overall-length regulations imposed by the vehicle code.

I found the truck sitting forlornly out in a field in 1976. My friend Richard Christiana (a Diesel tow-truck operator) went out and looked at it, and reported back that "It's okay". I bought it and restored it: Rewired it with a transplanted nervous system from a 1959 Ford sedan (a big car) and re-plumbed it with a pickup truck load of Aeroquip that I found at a flea market. And then I and went out and hauled tomatoes. Just like that.

That particular year turned out to be the biggest harvest of tomatoes ever in the State of California. Anybody with a tractor and insurance could haul loads for Del Monte or Hunt's twenty four hours a day and pick up a big check at the end of the week. All you had to do was stay awake. And keep your R's up.

It turned out that Christiana's cryptic "It's okay" didn't refer to the lunched-out filthy cab and the rotted wiring harness and the broken cab-tilt hydraulic, or even the stupid Full-Air air-powered shifter (by Fuller Transmission), or the busted this and the busted that. It just meant that it had a Cummins engine, so it was basically gonna be all right. And better yet, it was a naturally aspirated Cummins 220, so an amateur (like me) could take it out and haul 80,000 and not punch a hole in the side of the block the first time out. Christiana knew that it would take a mile or two until you learned how to keep your R's up in the real world, even on flat ground like they have a lot of out in California's Central Valley, where the tomatoes are. Going up steep hills and then down the other side, with eighty grand of truck pushing you as hard as it can, that's definitely best left to the professional drivers. And one way or another, I became one.

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