Monday, December 18, 2006

Uncommon Carriers (Copy)

It is 4:45 p.m. on a sunny, 70-degree, Friday afternoon, as I emerge from Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee to find a FedEx deliveryman at my door. Did he know I was just reading about his competitor, UPS? Is he here in my driveway to chastise me for being unfaithful?

What are the odds? I was reading how UPS perfected a sorting technology known only to them, right before he rang the doorbell. I quote, “The technology is not new, but nowhere else in the world is it used on this scale, including Memphis.” Can he see the guilt in my eyes as he hands me a package from relatives?

FedEx experienced their biggest day of the year December 18, 2006, a Monday before Christmas, when 9.8 million packages shipped to satisfy our gift giving needs. That is an alarming amount of L.L. Bean robes, Pottery Barn initialed towels, and Harry & David fruit baskets.

According to author McPhee, the busiest day to ship lobsters by UPS is Christmas Eve. Apparently, the traditional Christmas dinner in France is not turkey, but fresh lobster. In the chapter titled “Out in the Sort,” there are more crustaceans flying in 757s to Paris than humans.

Uncommon Carriers is the story of our nation’s freight transportation system. Short articles include how 18-wheelers transport hazardous material from coast to coast, how tow boats maneuver barges on the Mississippi River, how fuel tankers handle the open sea, how trains with miles of coal cars ascend a grade, and how lobsters fly.

Each article, first written for The New Yorker, provides fascinating information about men and women who navigate uncommon carriers. McPhee shadows major players like Don Ainsworth, a true “road” scholar, who’s shiny, chemical-tanker truck carries “hazmats.”

Unfortunately, the chapter, “Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” isn’t about movement of freight, but about the passage of time as McPhee and his brother recreate Henry David Thoreau and his brother’s canoe trip in 1839. Even a fanatic Thoreau fan will find this article a little slow.

This book is an enjoyable read filled with unique phraseology, slang and manly banter. Now, if I could just swap my FedEx box from Crate & Barrel with a Clearwater Seafoods.

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