Thursday, December 3, 2015

Rearview: Our own ‘Happy Hamster’ hauls the Capitol Christmas Tree

Editor’s note: We’re looking “in our rearview” to bring you some of our favorite stories, column and items from Land Line’s 40-year-history. In honor of last night’s lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree, we bring you a 2014 dispatch from Field Editor Suzanne Stempinski (aka “Red the Happy Hamster”) about her experience hauling last year’s tree for one leg of the journey.

The Capitol Christmas Tree moves across the country under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Forest Service, state and local law enforcement and the public. The journey, which began in north central Minnesota in late October, spans about three weeks and more than 17 stops as communities across the country share in the joy and fellowship of the season. For this truck driving reporter, it was a dream sandwiched between two celebrations.

On a blustery day in Wilmington, Ill., schoolchildren gleefully lined up to sign the tarps cocooning the 88-year-old white spruce making its way to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

According to U.S. Forest Service representative Mike Theune, the tree has a crown spread of 30 feet and a trunk diameter of 30 inches. It was 88 feet tall when it was harvested. Trimmed and prepared for transport, it is roughly 75 feet tall.

To keep the tree at its peak condition, a forester monitors the tree, making sure it stays hydrated and healthy. A specially designed bladder is refilled with up to 45 gallons of water per day. While the chilly temperatures were tough on people, cold weather is good for the tree, allowing it to go into a dormant, resting state.

OOIDA Member Elwood Higdem has been driving truck for 55 years. He’s the man behind the wheel of the Kenworth T880 that hauls the Capitol Christmas Tree. OOIDA Life Member Ken Lundgren is the wheelman for the second truck – a Kenworth T680 Advantage, carrying the ornaments and additional trees that will decorate offices throughout Washington, D.C.

Higdem relinquished his seat to me for one leg of the journey – a 10-mile trip from Wilmington to Elwood, Ill.

I’ve been a commercial vehicle driver since before there was a CDL; and I’ve got more than 1.5 million safe miles under my wheels. I’ve pulled reefers and dry vans, flatbed and horse trailers. But I don’t have a lot of experience with over-dimensional loads, so I was excited to have the opportunity to deliver the tree from one destination to another. From the front bumper to the oversize load sign hanging off the back of the trailer, it measured just under 105 feet. No tight turns for this combo. With flashing lighted escorts in front, and a convoy of support vehicles running behind, it was quite a drive.

People lined up along the street waving, cheering and taking pictures as the truck rolled out. I lined up with the curbs and took turns slowly and with great care as the logistics team had scouted the accesses and angles.

“Be sure to keep the stake on your left and don’t hit the sign as you go around,” advised Higdem as we made our way out of the Wilmington Middle School parking lot.

These charming old communities with narrow streets were never designed to accommodate equipment this big. The trailer seemed to grow in my mirrors, longer each time I looked. Eventually we made our way onto a main artery and with smiles that got bigger for every mile turned, the procession wound its way to the Community Center in Elwood.

The team waved me to a stop in the middle of the road; my job for the day was done. I set the parking brakes and shut down the engine. Load safe and secured.

Chief of Police Fred Hayes welcomed us to his community. The Kenworth and Capitol Christmas Tree were the centerpieces of their official holiday lighting ceremony, with a huge turnout from the locals. Sandwiches and hot chocolate, cookies and good cheer were in plentiful supply as the day wound down, and the lights came up with stockings and snowflakes adorning light poles throughout the community.

I left Elwood Higdem and his wife, Joan, as well as Ken Lundgren and his wife, Pat, and the caretakers of the trees and their crew, who were planning their travels for the following morning. They were headed to Grand Rapids, Mich., with road construction and a time zone change to factor into their routing. It was another special day in the trip to Washington, D.C.

And for me, I’ll be watching the news as Speaker of the House John Boehner flips the switch at the official lighting ceremony on Dec. 2. The stuff of dreams – delivered.