They deliver the goods

From trucks to tugboats to coal trains, John McPhee offers us the world of transit in delightful and quirky detail.

By

When in the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse, slugger Ken Griffey Jr. accepts calls from only a select few: his wife, his family, and a woman named Charlotte Jones, who heads the Pro Bat Department at Hillerich & Bradsby (better known as the parent company of the Louisville Slugger.)

When Griffey calls Jones or, of course, when he accepts her call, as he always does, he is eager to discuss another shipment of C271C model bats with a double dip of lacquer. The second dip makes the wood harder. And the purveyor of these bats relies on a nearby shipping hub - the mammoth operation set up by UPS at Louisville International Airport - to get Griffey's bats to him overnight in whatever city he happens to be playing on that day.

In all, the Louisville Slugger spends $30,000 or so each week with UPS, ensuring its magical wands reach their intended big leaguers without delay.

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These delightful morsels are not the work of prolonged research by this reviewer; rather, they are but a few small examples of the fine reporting and expert vignettes percolating in just about every paragraph of John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers. The veteran New Yorker writer has done it again, delving into seemingly mundane topics - in this case, the various methods of moving freight - and emerging with indelible portraits of anonymous, everyday people.

McPhee spent eight years tracking everything from UPS's head-spinning automated shipping system to the comings and goings of 19,000-ton coal trains. His book could have just as easily been titled, "Hmmm, I Didn't Know That," since the phrase pops into a reader's head every 10 seconds or so as McPhee reels off jaw-dropping statistics and trivia.

Such as what, you ask? After emptying its contents, a hazmat 18-wheeler hauling WD-40 retains residue of just one ten-thousandth of the 6,000 gallons it was carrying. Or this little nugget: A towboat burns 2,400 gallons of diesel fuel per day. If the gas pump leaves you in tears, remember this: A towboat gets 200 feet per gallon.

But no matter the topic, it is the people who resonate most in McPhee's tales. Whether he is aboard a 20-foot scale model of an ocean ship (it is part of a $15,000-per-week skipper school located on a pond not far from the French Alps) or retracing the five-day New England river journey of Henry David Thoreau, McPhee captures the essence of the expert laborers he encounters.

The star is Don Ainsworth, whose 65-foot chemical tanker starts and ends the book. As he pilots 79,000 pounds of hazardous materials, Ainsworth both confirms and defies the stereotypes of long-distance truck drivers.

Professionally, Ainsworth loathes toll roads and frowns upon the many predatory, deceptive tactics employed by state troopers along America's interstates. Personally, he swears by The Wall Street Journal, devours the works of Joan Didion and occasionally quotes Patrick Henry.

People talking about their jobs usually produce nothing more than a sound night's rest for the listener. Not so with McPhee's cast of characters. Ainsworth can't stop spooling out fascinating tidbits of observation, humor, and what may or may not be urban legend.

Of the perils of hauling hazmats, Ainsworth describes truckers being blown off the tops of their trucks and into walls because of faulty methods employed while attempting to empty the chemical cargo.

At times, McPhee's unusual travelogue morphs into an oxymoron: a freight thriller. In the Pacific Northwest, a harrowing descent of 2,000 feet in 10 miles requires a tanker that weighs as much as Ainsworth's to travel at 18 miles an hour or less. On the Illinois River, aboard a towboat strung up with barges, Captain Tom Armstrong explains the dangers his crewmen face. "Lines break, slice 'em in half like a damned banana. Or a nineteen-year-old kid falls off a head barge, goes under, and dies."

Don't look to the friendly choo-choo for relief, either. Aboard a 7,485-foot coal train, McPhee relates a claustrophobic journey to pick up coal at a Wyoming mine. With 134 empty hoppers, the train enters Black Thunder Mine and awaits the one-second fury of 115 tons of coal being dumped into each container.

And, just in case the reader misses the enormity of this mass-transit exercise, McPhee fires up one last detail. Along the Orin Line, the primary coal-freight rail line in Wyoming, 23,000 coal trains emerge each year. That, he notes, is the equivalent of 34,000 miles of rolling coal.

As with everything else in "Uncommon Carriers," that is one heck of an impressive load.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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