Faces of Trucking: Gary - A real drivers story

There are over 3.5 million truckers in America, and 3.5 million great trucking stories. This one is about Gary, check it out!

If you ask him, Gary Smith doesn’t mince words: “Trucking rescued me from a very uncertain future.”

Gary is referring to his financial future, which, back in the recession of 2007, looked pretty bleak. He had worked for 25 years as a master craftsman, making cabinets for a small company. Life was good, the wife was good, and the mortgage was in full retreat, thanks to his steady pay.

All that changed for him when his company had to let him go, just to survive. Everyone else was going out of business, so even opening his own woodworking shop, Gary says, “would have been fiscal suicide.”

Add to that, Gary was pushing 50 years old, so college or a new trade were not realistic options. In fact, he didn’t know what options to consider.

Until the idea of driving a truck came up—unexpectedly.

“Some drivers are the kind who knew by the time they were 8 years old they wanted to be a truck driver,” says Gary, who has lived most of his life in Gomer, Ohio. “I never had any of that. What I had was a desire to pay my mortgage.”

It didn’t take much more than just being conscious to know there was a shortage of truck drivers. Gary got his CDL and hired on with Garner Trucking in 2008. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but nearly 10 years later, he sure knows what he has received: a good living with a good company and a schedule he’s okay with.

Learning About Life On The Road

Gary drives a new Freightliner dry van. He delivers goods all over the Upper Midwest, but Garner makes sure he’s home on weekends, which Gary appreciates very much.

Starting an entirely new career like this wasn’t necessarily easy. But Gary kept a positive attitude. “It’s like anything else. You have to set your mind to the fact, okay, yeah, this is a completely different skill set than what I’m used to. But I can do this.”

The hardest part was going from his 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., front-porch-by-5:15 life to what he calls the “ultimate swing shift when you’re OTR. And there is a stamina issue, to where you’re on guard constantly. I’m driving an 80,000-pound vehicle, 70 feet long, 13-and-a-half feet tall, 9 feet wide. You have to drive for others; safety is the ultimate issue, it’s my driving force.”

The adjustment period for him was harder in some ways because he had no truck drivers in his family before him. These are people who could have told him things that the pamphlets, schools, and websites don’t. It’s the kind of stuff you learn on the job.

“There’s no substitute for experience,” Gary says. “When you experience this life, yeah, there’s been a few moments when you think, ‘They didn’t put this in the brochure.’”

It took him about three months to make the adjustment, he says, learning a variety of little tricks—like keeping those ear plugs handy—and learning to live life in a rig.

Luckily, his is a pretty darn nice one, Gary says. “I’ve got all the comforts of home. Heated seats, a dinette set, flat screen TV, microwave, and a coffee pot. I’m all set.”

Yes, the adjustment days are far behind Gary now. He has logged more than 1 million accident-free miles, one of many reasons he is one of America’s Road Team Captains, designated by the American Trucking Associations (ATA). He also has won ATA’s Million Mile Safe Driver Award and Garner Trucking’s 2015 Driver of the Year award.

His good driving record has twice earned him the right to drive the Garner Trucking Freedom Truck, which bears all kinds of patriotic images. Gary has driven it in parades, on recruiting trips, and even to Arlington Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

Some Advice For New Truck Drivers

Today, as a veteran trucker, he can offer some advice to newcomers. “I like this job, but like any other profession, there are certain sacrifices. The most important thing for a truck driver is you have to be wired for it. We work 14-hour days; we drive 11 hours. Today, I’ll drive close to 600 miles.”

There will be times when things go awry—for a variety of reasons you can’t control: the weather, breakdowns, problems with shippers or receivers. “You can feel squeezed. When that happens, I just think, ‘Shake the Etch A Sketch,’” he says, referring to the toy that allows users to create an image, and, with a shake of the device, erase it.

Gary also has learned how to be sure he gets enough rest by planning ahead what his parking options will be at day’s end. He also tries to exercise whenever he can. He parks in the back row at the truck stop, so he must walk further. He eats healthy food. An organic gardener, he brings his own vegetables on the road during summer.

Bottom line, he advises new truckers, “you have to know yourself. When you start to feel like, okay, maybe it’s time to just pull over, do that. Take a five-minute break, walk around the truck or grab a cup of coffee. It’s important to know yourself in this way. With electronic logs, there’s no need to push things beyond what the log will allow you to do.”

Key to continued accident-free driving is to be “situationally aware of what’s going on at all times.” Yes, he listens to music or sports, or takes calls from his wife and friends, but only “at the proper time,” Gary says. “If I’m in a construction zone and it’s raining, I want all distractions off, even my phone.”

So, life is good, that mortgage is paid off, and the job brings lots of enjoyable trips delivering to places such as Petoskey, Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of New York.

But of course, Gary says, “the most important trip is always going to be the one home.”

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