The Truck Gets In Your Blood

Ahhh… life in this little video community of ours. And each of us with our own role to play.

Just as Main Street has its butcher, plumber, lawyer and doctor, so, too, do we all have our own little video jobs. The editor toils day and night in his little shop, seldom outdoors long enough to see the sun. The studio camera operator masters the rhythm of tilt up, pan right, zoom out, over and over. The assistant director sticks close to her watches; the technical director’s finger darts here and there, and pictures are pushed down the line.

And then there are the truck guys.

In our little Main Street scenario, you’re the former checkout bagger—male or female—who broke free, and went off to fly for the airlines… visiting a never-ending parade of exotic ports of call, never knowing what you’d find when you got there; living by your wits, bronzed and toughened by the weather, and still, somehow, one of us.

(click thumbnail)”Flipper,“ an aging utility trailer with an audio control room in its nose, has a well-worn storage bin for every possible accessory and ancillary item a remote could ever need.As a truck guy, when you show up for work, you’ve got no guarantee of a good meal or a clean restroom or even electric power. You’ve got to figure things out for yourself. When you’re holding a hot cup of coffee, it’s only because of that $12 Wal-Mart coffee pot you bought with your own money and stashed in one of the belly bins. And your idea of relaxation is wiping yesterday’s NASCAR mud off a thousand foot roll of Triax. It’s the most boring job in video, loaded with things to whine and complain about; and in the same breath, it’s a live-TV adrenalin rush played out on the high wire, without a net, a far edgier life than a studio brat will ever know. So unpleasant and disagreeable that it’s got to be the coolest job ever.


I was never really a truck guy. Right out of school, a bunch of classmates landed jobs doing “local origination” for a forward-thinking cable system, one which had big, well-designed trucks for things like regional high school sports coverage. No 40-footers, mind you, but trucks with pedigrees like Gerstenslager and Lerro Electric. I worked a couple dozen jobs on those trucks, and the memories remain: the generator vapor-locking on a hot autumn day; the beautiful slow-motion sky shot after the 50-yard line handheld operator got tackled; and the bellowing, foul-mouthed director who ended each shoot with a pat on the back and his warm, sincere thanks.

I’ve booked a few trucks over the years for live, multicity medical symposia and the like, and each time, the response has been a visceral one—a thin line of sweat on the upper lip, a quickened pulse. No site survey has ever, in the history of television, accurately reported the pitfalls that await the truck and its crew, and the only thing you can properly plan for is to know when to abandon your plan, and to think up an entirely new one. It’s a thrill, and a terror, and a multidimensional puzzle, all in the same instant.

Two summers ago, the PGA championship came to town. Having seen nationally televised tournaments—and their attendant hoopla—blow through this championship golf course on other occasions, the locals all busied themselves cooking up ways to make money. Forty thousand spectators per day ought to translate to a mountain of meatball subs, beaucoups après-golf dinners, and a lot of front lawn parking lots.

For my part, I wangled an assignment from this publication to report on CBS’ broadcast coverage of the event, and soon met Engineering Vice President Ken Aagaard behind the course for a backstage tour.

And there it was again… the visceral tremble and buzz of the truck job. Except, in this case, there wasn’t a truck—there were around two dozen of them, all told, including two just for the wireless mic and camera links. CBS runs two HDTV packages, each made up of two 53-foot expando trailers, during football season… and both sets of them were there. Engineering and camera control for the 30-odd HD cameras had a truck of its own, in addition to mobile edit rooms; sub-mix audio trucks and pool feed facilities. My personal favorite was “Flipper,” an aging utility trailer with an audio control room in its nose and a well-worn storage bin for every—and I mean every—possible accessory and ancillary item a remote could ever need. Truck guys like this quirky method of organization; having at least one constant in life—Flipper—leaves them free to adapt elsewhere, and to get the job done.


And so it was we found ourselves, just a few weeks ago, maneuvering a small box-truck remote unit into a slot alongside the main drag downtown. Loaned by the local office of the mega-behemoth cable TV conglomerate, the shopworn, neglected three-camera truck was ours for the day, covering the town’s sesquicentennial parade. Gotta love those freebies.

The cameras were out of phase by at least a mile. The character generator never actually did come on line. One of the brand-new camera cables was kinked in the shape of some sort of Greek alphabetic character. The switcher flip-flopped seemingly at will, and you couldn’t coerce it into dissolving between sources. Sync just sort of let loose from time to time, unrelated to the faulty voltage regulator, which caused the generator to nosedive almost into oblivion every few minutes. And one audio channel was wired out-of-phase.

It was miserable, degrading, aggravating, infuriating… but it was a truck job. No amount of technical misery could take away the thrill and the spark. “Ready fade up in five, four, three…” and off we go. There’s nothing in the world like it.

There’s an old joke about the folks who sweep up behind the animals after the parade, and why they don’t look for better work; the punch line belongs as much to us, crews and wannabees alike, as it does to them.

“What, and give up show business?”