For my story, I needed to get a close-up look at the world of expedited shipping - but I also hoped to live out my boyhood fantasies of life on the road. I certainly didn't mean to jeopardize a delivery, let alone come close to interfering with Senator John Glenn's return to space. But I guess you just never know what's around the next corner.
The whole thing started with an innocent request: Could I tag along with a Roberts Express driver for a few days? That's how I wound up in Dave Tuttle's truck, barreling down I-495 outside of Washington, DC. Dave had assured me that he'd enjoy the company. He and his wife, Nancy, used to drive as a team. But with a fleet that's grown to seven trucks, she stays home, in Perryville, Maryland, handling the paperwork. I met Dave in a booth at the Buckhorn Family Restaurant at the Travel Port in East Baltimore. He said that since his truck was equipped for White Glove Services deliveries (extra-sensitive cargo), we might get some interesting freight. "I've seen things and places while driving this truck that I never imagined I'd see," says Dave, who has driven for Roberts for 11 years and has no fewer than nine stickers from NASA - a frequent user - on his rig.
So who calls while I'm with him? NASA, of course. It needs something transported from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to Lockheed Martin in East Windsor, New Jersey. We cruised an hour south of Baltimore to Greenbelt, loaded a shiny, 10-foot metal beam into the back of the truck, and took off for Jersey. Dave put me to work manning the C-Link keyboard, our lifeline to headquarters in Akron. Then, I guess you could say, I distracted Dave. With four hours to kill, I just couldn't help but barrage him with questions. The next thing we knew, we'd missed the turn for I-95 North. Adding insult to injury, a few minutes later the C-Link chirped with a computer-generated message: We were running late.
Dave, a former thoroughbred-racehorse trainer built like Boog Powell - with red hair and massive forearms - shrugged off the warning with a smile, confident that we could make up the time. "Nerves of steel," he likes to say. Me? I panicked. Late? We can't be late. This is NASA! Step on it! Then a second message arrived, this time from a dispatcher telling us to turn around and return to Greenbelt. Saved by the computer.
Why did we have to turn back? Dave's premonition was right. We had picked up some interesting cargo. When we arrived in Greenbelt and parked at the loading dock at Building 29, a crowd descended on us. Seven NASA types, all members of the Hubble space telescope team, surrounded that naked beam - an I-Beam they called it - like paramedics at an accident scene. They examined it, photographed it, and conferred about it. "This is going up in October," one of the Hubblers said.
Wait a minute - October? Dave and I, I realized, weren't delivering just any I-Beam: We were delivering John Glenn's I-Beam! Apparently, there had been a mix-up at NASA. After we'd left, someone realized the I-Beam hadn't been crated, something required for in-flight hardware. So NASA contacted Roberts: Akron, we have a problem.
NASA told us to come back for the crate the next morning. At 7:30 a.m., three NASA types watched intently as Dave secured the crate with 5,000-pound-capacity straps. "Drive carefully," said one Hubbler. We were due in New Jersey at 11:54 a.m.
Our one Convoy moment came on the New Jersey Turnpike, when Dave pulled close behind a tarp-covered rig, which he called "Covered Wagon" on the CB. It wasn't much of a convoy, but we made good time. Really good time. Even with that burst of speed, though, we were cutting it close - 30 minutes to deadline, then 20, then 10. "Nerves of steel," muttered Dave, who doesn't wear a watch because it makes him nervous. We pulled up to the loading dock at Lockheed at 11:50 a.m. - a full 4 minutes early. Senator Glenn, your I-Beam has arrived.
Assuming our beam passes the test, it'll be headed into orbit on October 29, bracing the Hubble's two new heat resistors in the cargo bay. Dave and I will follow the flight, knowing that we'd played our small part: We delivered the right stuff.
A version of this article appeared in the September 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.