Capital Letters: Manly Pursuits

In which our man in Washington considers the challenges facing plumbers, wrestlers, and truck drivers.


Date: Fri, Aug 20, 1999 12:30 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Poop Scoop

I'm starting to get a bit worried about the $150 I have bet on Al Gore's promotion. His chief pollster, Mark Penn, moved a crew into the office next door a couple months back, and the floor's bathrooms became disaster areas. It could be a case of poor upbringing. Or it could stem from the stress of poring over Gore's numbers.

At any rate, the mess got so bad that the building's general manager posted a memo complaining of "numerous reports of papers in an untidy fashion, toilets remaining unflushed, sinks clogged with paper, etc."

My first reaction was to blame the new tenants, since all was fine until they arrived. Then it occurred to me that summer interns could be at fault. But a little investigation turned up numerous eyewitness accounts of the surveyors' malfeasance.

"There's been documented evidence of them coming out of the throne and leaving [unmentionable debris]," says one second-floor tenant, who complained to the building manager. Another reports that at 5:30 one evening this week he discovered both sit-downs filled to the brim.

"It all started happening when they moved in," the second source adds, a claim bolstered by building staff who not only use the second-floor restrooms but also clean them periodically throughout the day. "They don't flush the toilets. They leave towels strewn everywhere. It's disgusting."

Perhaps the reluctance to flush is an attempt to make up for 97 million gallons of water Gore wasted on his photo-op canoeing trip on the Connecticut River earlier this year.

Date: Wed, Aug 11, 1999 1:30 PM EDT
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Pinned

Forget women's soccer, with its sports-bra-celebrating stars, in-the-buff Nike ads, and down-to-the-wire shootouts. What about men's wrestling? It, too, offers stripped-down athletes and excitement. Yet instead of being celebrated, it's under assault, according to members of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, which is in town this week for a convention. Some coaches took time to stop by Capitol Hill and brief a handful of congressional staffers on the plight of wrestling and other men's collegiate sports.

The issue is Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, which prohibits sex or race discrimination in educational programs. Under Department of Education regulations, to avoid expensive lawsuits, a school's gender breakdown of athletes must match that of its overall student body.

It's a basic parity test, or quota, which the less inhibited freely admit. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) enthused at a 1997 subcommittee hearing: "It's the biggest quota you have ever seen. It is 50/50. It is a quota–a big round quota."

To get to parity, schools can add women's sports, cut men's, or blend a little of both. Since 1992, just 5,800 female spots have been added, while 20,000 male collegiate athletic opportunities have been lost, according to the Independent Women's Forum, which sponsored the Capitol Hill event.

The morning's presenters had the look of retired warriors, solid with chiseled features. They were deliberate and methodical, with the plodding assurance one might expect from coaches. They prepared handouts. They spoke in historical terms. Wrestling, said incoming NWCA president Roger Reina, who coaches at the University of Pennsylvania, "is woven into the fabric of civilizations worldwide."

The emphasis wasn't solely on wrestling–the problem extends to every male sport except basketball. Sure, 45 wrestling teams have been cut in the last five years. But the feminist battle-axe has also killed 91 track and field programs, 53 golf programs, and 39 tennis programs, all male, since 1993.

It is both a good and bad time for the wrestlers to make their case on the Hill. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, after all, is not only a former teacher but a former wrestling coach. Surely he cares. And Hastert isn't the only man in power who knows the joys of struggling mightily on a padded floor with another man. There's a possibility for a bicameral, bipartisan coalition. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) also wrestled.

Yet the aging wrestlers are up against the myth that America's World Cup soccer champions are Title IX babies. (The team was largely formed in the 1980s, before Title IX was enforced in today's rigid manner.) They are up against that damned sports bra, the WNBA, and the excitement every father has now knowing that his daughters, like his sons, can provide meaningful sporting opportunities. Fathers finally have a way to communicate with their daughters: "Set a pick. Roll to the bucket. I don't care if you have homework, get outside and practice your free throws." Equality at last.

Date: Fri, August 27, 1999 2:55 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Saftey Check

It's August, and D.C. is dead. So I figured I'd make the long haul to Alexandria, Virginia, to check out the tools of what I had always figured would be my trade–trucking.

I had a fortunate childhood–my dad owned a construction company. So unlike other kids who had to satisfy themselves with Tonkas, I got the real thing. Every so often, my dad would arrange for me to spend a day riding shotgun for his lead truck driver Jimmy Mayoral.

As we traveled the Northern California highways and made equipment deliveries, I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do for a living. Shortly after I turned 18, Jimmy taught me how to shift those 13 gears and I got my truck license. But I went to college after that summer, and my career was thrown horribly off path.

Now I had the chance to relive those happy days. It's National Truck Drivers Appreciation week. To celebrate, the American Trucking Association was hosting a truck show and cookout Tuesday for its friends in the media, on Capitol Hill, and in the Department of Transportation.

A dozen or so trucks, red, gold, blue, green, ranging from the very old to the Y2K models, were arrayed on an expansive lawn outside the ATA's headquarters. The idea, said Mike Russell, director of public relations for the 4,000-member ATA, was to display antique and brand-new trucks side by side to show the changes in technology that lead to improved safety.

Some in Washington believe that trucks and truck drivers just aren't safe. They clog up roads and are claimed to have more than their fair share of accidents. Locally, the authorities have taken to pulling trucks over for spot inspections and insisting that they have such things as operating brakes. There's even an effort to give the job of regulating truckers to the safety freaks at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That must scare Russell, who came to the ATA after a year at NHTSA.

He started rattling off what makes the trucks today so much safer: antilock brakes, power steering, better mirrors, and automatic transmissions. "That one has 18 speeds, automatic," he said, pointing to a Peterbuilt tractor hooked to a van. "Big difference from the days of suicide shifters when you had to take both hands off the wheel to shift," he said with great earnestness, squinting in the afternoon sun.

As I wrote this information down in front of an antique, red and black REO dump truck, I recalled old war stories and wondered if automatic transmissions are really the answer to any safety problems. I know the pain of suicide shifters, as I once had to drive a truck with such a transmission from San Diego to Sacramento without any instruction. "You'll figure it out," my buddy told me, as he sent me on my gear-grinding way.

But drivers take their hands off the wheel for other reasons–especially boredom. I thought of a story that a Yale professor who dated a long-haul driver as an undergraduate had told about her time on the road. To ease the boredom, she said, her beau's buddy used to set the throttle, burn a joint, slip back into the sleeper, and steer with his feet.

I climbed up into a Freightliner Classic XL, and company rep Don Shara was on hand to answer all my questions. The first thing I noticed was the spacious luxury. Its sleeper had two bunks, too many speakers to count, a refrigerator, and a place for a TV. "There's 47 pages of options just for cabinetry," Shara told me. Depending on options, he said, the truck's price range was $80,000 to $120,000, of which 12 percent is federal excise taxes that land just "1.5 miles away from here." We talked mileage (5 to 8 miles per gallon), market share (Freightliner is the most popular truck, with 32 percent of the heavy-duty market), and cab over vs. conventional rigs (only 5 percent are cab over).

As I swung down from the beast, a guy came bounding up to the historic tractor next to it. "That's the first truck I ever drove," he said of the 1959 rig, explaining that at 18 he used to hook his GMC Cannonball up to a 42-foot triple-deck trailer and haul hogs from Iowa to New Jersey.

I struck up a conversation with the truck's owner, Fred Craig, who owns a moving company and restores old GMC trucks as a hobby. I spent the next half-hour climbing the three trucks he had on display and discussing the moving business, the difficulty of finding truck drivers (Russell claims there are 80,000 open jobs), and toll roads. One by one, each of the trucks left, and soon Craig and I and his three trucks were all that remained in the field. It was time to return to my college-graduate life.