Forklift at Benford Brewing in Lancaster, SC
Bryan O’Neal, founder of Benford Brewing in Lancaster, S.C., uses a forklift to transport spent grain. (Photo by Daniel Hartis)

“The restlessness and the longing, like the longing that is in the whistle of a faraway train. Except that the longing isn’t really in the whistle—it is in you.”

― Meindert DeJong, The Little Cow and the Turtle

If you want to get a brewer or beer distributor misty-eyed and nostalgic, ply him or her with a few beers and then ask them about their first forklift experience (also called a lift truck, a fork truck, or in Texas, a tow-motor).  There is no more poignant milestone in a brewer or beer distributor’s career than when they learn to move around pallet-loads of beer on a motorized forklift, usually having graduated from manually pushed pallet jacks.

As the only son of a beer distributor, forklifts stoked my imagination from a very early age. Powerful, fast, and in skilled hands, amazingly effective in moving beer around and conversely, in wrong hands incredibly dangerous, forklifts represented to the little boy in me the ultimate in the power and intrigue of heavy machinery.  Most boys worship bulldozers or trains or airplanes—me, I was enamored with the mighty forklift.

I worked every summer in my father’s beer warehouse in a variety of mundane jobs, but my ultimate goal in life was to become a forklift driver. There was one forklift driver at the time that I admired as a king among kings.  His name was Rufus, and he had a gloriously enormous afro with a straight comb stuck in it. He wore ropes of gold chains, and donned expensive red Adidas track suits in complete defiance of the company’s uniformed dress code. And he always had a lit menthol cigarette dangling precariously from his lips that he talked around. In the Houston of the late 70s, this guy was about as kool a kat as you could get. And he was a damn good forklift operator—the best by far, actually. He could unload a rail car or long haul trailer in half the time it took others, whipping around corners so fast that I recall the stacks of beer on his forks bending alarmingly against the turn, but never actually falling over. He was so good that management overlooked his lapses in observing company policy on dress code, smoking while driving a propane fueled forklift, and sipping Colt 45s in the draft cooler on breaks.

As such, he had his own assigned forklift heavily adorned with the appropriate 70s bumper stickers: “Terlingua Taxi,” “Keep on Truckin’,” “I didn’t Shoot the Armadillo” (huh?), and “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute.” His forklift also had the most scuff marks and dents on it, because as he put it, “speed ain’t always pretty.” He was my God.

He always called me Little Bossman, and during breaks he would show me how to operate his forklift. It didn’t occur to anybody at the time that allowing an 8-year-old boy operate a half-ton forklift in a busy warehouse was perhaps a federal OSHA violation. But something tells me in retrospect that Rufus didn’t give a shit about OSHA regulations. Soon I became proficient enough where I could pull up to a pallet of beer, adjust the forks at just the right height (about 2 inches off the floor), and slide them into the pallet slots without so much as slowing down.

And then after mastering basic forklift maneuvering, Rufus taught me “The Move.”  The Move consists of approaching a pallet of beer, picking it up, and reversing out of the stacks—but all in one movement.  Here’s how it’s done: the second the forks are all the way into the pallet slots, you simultaneously use one hand to both raise the forks a few inches and tilt the pallet of beer back so the stack doesn’t fall forward, and with your other hand jack the forklift into reverse and peg the gas. You do it all so abruptly that your wheels are spinning on the concrete as you haul ass backwards to wherever the beer needs to go. As Rufus taught me, you can go much faster on a forklift backwards rather than forwards, because you can see where you’re going without the beer obstructing your view, and forklifts steer with the back wheels anyway.

With a few weeks of practice, at the tender age of 8, I became one of the fastest forklift drivers in the warehouse. Speed was everything. Despite a few humiliating spills, it was a glorious time to be an unsupervised kid operating a fast forklift in a beer warehouse. (We took the regulators off our forklifts so they moved faster). I loved unloading trucks and railcars so much I would take over the other guys’ shifts so they could jack cigarettes and read dirty magazines on the loading dock, without clocking out of course. Little Bossman became somewhat of a local hero with the daytime warehouse staff. My father, naturally, was completely unaware of what was going on. He thought I was repacking beer and fetching coffee. Nope. Rufus and I were tag-teaming 100-plus degree rail cars full of Tecate from Mexico in 20 minutes like two maniacs with a mission.

I unloaded containers of beer for three summers before there appeared two great innovations in forklifts that outstripped my ability to drive them, with my limited coordination and athletic skills. One was the double forked forklift. This machine could carry not one but two pallets of beer. It was particularly effective in grabbing pallets of beer that are right next to each other in a long haul tractor trailer.

The other, much more ominous innovation, was the forklift which would triple stack pallets of beer. A pallet typically has around 100 cases of beer on it, about 6 feet tall. Most forklifts were able to stack one pallet of beer on another, doubling the warehouse capacity of a warehouse. But a warehouse with a very high roof, like my father’s, could accommodate triple stacking. And finally, some evil engineer at Toyota or somewhere invented a forklift which could lift a pallet of beer to those dizzying heights. It defied gravity and several other laws of basic science. Seeing a pallet of beer wobbling so high in the sky scared the shit out of me, and I never mastered this forklift like Rufus did. I was always afraid of it raining bottles of beer on my delicate head.

So my forklift driving days slowly dwindled to an end as I entered college and moved my focus away from warehouse operations to the more “glamorous” work of filling shelves in grocery stores. But after joining Houston Distributing as a young exec after college, on a heavy sales night I offered to help load the trucks—and I think I may have even boasted that I could drive a forklift with some agility and skill. The night was cold, and as soon as I drove onto the rail dock (which had a nice sheen of ice on it), my forklift spun out of control and fell onto the railroad tracks after I bailed out. Totaling a $40,000 piece of machinery didn’t ingratiate me with the warehouse staff—much less the owner of the distributorship—and after that I realized my forklift driving days were drawing nigh.

But as a kid, I can’t remember a more powerful feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction than when I was, briefly, the chief apprentice to a forklift empresario who took tremendous pride in his amazing skill. My father is long dead and his company was sold off many years ago, but I’ll never forget my first boss Rufus. I sometimes wonder what he is doing now, and if he ever thinks of me.

I doubt it.

Harry Schuhmacher is publisher of Beer Business Daily, and tweets at @beerbizdaily.