By Charlie Morasch
Jimmy Ardis grew up like a lot of farm boys in rural Manning, SC.
He and his buddies spent most days running around the small town, playing games and getting into trouble.
Other times they’d sit on the hillside along Interstate 95 and watch tractor trailers stopping in at the Manning truck stop. Seeing those big rigs rumble into town, Jimmy just knew one day he’d be a trucker.
“It’s just being around it, I reckon,” Jimmy told Land Line. “It’s like a sickness. Who knows why you’ve got it – you’ve just got it.”
Jimmy, an OOIDA member who now lives in Sumter, SC, said he’s driven trucks for more than 30 years and has been an owner-operator for the past 25 years. Jimmy said he’s logged 3 million miles without a reportable accident, and has spent the past two years hauling poultry with Two Rivers Transportation of Sioux City, NE.
“I call it the rockin’ rooster cruiser,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy’s career, however, was nearly quashed before it began.
‘You’ll never drive’
Jimmy noticed a large knot on his left arm one day when he was 6 years old.
His parents took him to the doctor, and before he knew it, Jimmy had been admitted into the hospital and given a sedative.
His parents waited until after the surgery to tell him he had sarcoma, a cancer of the tissue surrounding his elbow joint.
“They didn’t sugarcoat it,” he said. “I woke up without one arm.”
Jimmy adapted quickly as he grew to adulthood.
In 1976 he began logging his first miles in a tractor-trailer at age 18 on trips to the West Coast with Herman “Junior” Anderson, a friend of Jimmy’s dad.
“I’d drive at night and he’d drive in the daytime,” Jimmy said. “He said, ‘don’t drive over 55 and you won’t get stopped.’ ”
The experience proved valuable, and Jimmy prepared for a career in trucking by enrolling in a truck driving school and graduating No. 1 in his 35-student class in 1979.
When the class took a trip to the DMV, Jimmy was singled out and told he couldn’t obtain a CDL.
“He said, ‘Son, you’ll never drive a truck,’” said Jimmy, recounting what the state official had said, “‘I say who drives and who don’t. You’re not going to drive a tractor-trailer. Not with one arm you
Back in the day, truckers with disabilities could have found themselves in a Catch-22, Jimmy said, because of a federal government requirement that handicapped drivers had to possess a medical waiver and another requirement that drivers be employed before they get a waiver.
The experience was the first in a series of setbacks that Jimmy said made his family and friends question whether he should be a trucker.
Jimmy called his state representative, who set up another CDL exam at a different office. Jimmy passed and earned his license. He hauled gravel locally for a few years before choosing to haul produce out of Bishopville, SC.
He borrowed $2,500 from his grandmother to buy a truck and trailer, and worked for a few months before a Florida Department of Transportation worker noticed both Jimmy’s prosthetic arm and his lack of a federal waiver.
His company’s safety director made him park the truck, and Jimmy thought he might be done with trucking.
But he wrote a letter to Elizabeth Dole, who was then Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan and the wife of former Sen. Robert Dole, whose right arm was permanently injured during World War II.
Within days, a representative of Elizabeth Dole’s office called and told Jimmy to report for his CDL exam the following Monday and that following the exam, he’d have a job waiting for him at Refrigerated Transport Company of Atlanta.
“If I had a hero, Elizabeth Dole would be my hero,” he said. “She changed the world for me – she gave me the golden opportunity.”
Jimmy spoke with Land Line as he waited in his Peterbilt to unload at an Atlanta dock. He was wearing his newest prosthetic arm, which includes a laminated green John Deere handkerchief, which he refers to as his “tattoo.”
Jimmy holds the steering wheel with the prosthetic arm, and shifts with his right arm.
He said the prosthetic serves him well.
“It doesn’t ever get tired, I don’t ever cramp up. It’s got a heck of a grip on it,” he said.
Every few months, Jimmy said, officers at weigh stations appear puzzled and question him about his arm. The conversation often continues with Jimmy’s educating others about his arm and the red tape it causes him.
“Next thing you know I’ve got 10 or 15 people standing up there and I’m giving a sermon on the federal waiver,” Jimmy said, laughing.
The recent politics surrounding the U.S. government’s proposal to allow Mexican trucks into the country angered Jimmy, who is required to have multiple physical and mental exams every two years.
“Here I am, a taxpaying American citizen, and every two years I have to get evaluated, but they’re going to let (Mexican trucks) come up here and operate,” said Jimmy. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
People still stare at his prosthetic arm at truck stop restaurants, and many have approached him as he’s eating a meal to ask about his arm.
He’ll always expect some dock workers to try and take advantage of the arm.
“Lumpers – I get crucified by them a lot,” Jimmy told Land Line. “I’ve caught some of them overcharging me – but what are you going to do? They say you can’t unload your truck, you’ve got one arm.
“I ask them, ‘how do you think I got it here – I flew it in on a helicopter or something?’”
The prosthetic arm has often played into Jimmy’s humorous streak.
One day at the Refrigerated Transport terminal, he joked around with Shirley McClellan, a friend and dispatcher at the company. As Jimmy laughed while leaning out the back of his trailer, he slipped and fell to the ground, shattering the prosthetic.
“She went into a frenzy and I told her, ‘Shirley, I just broke my arm – my bad arm,’” Jimmy said.
Jimmy said he’ll retire in 13 years after turning 62. Until then, he’ll continue meeting and making friends in trucking.
The good people in the industry more than make up for those who stare, he said.
“I’ve been blessed my whole trucking career that I’ve been around people that cared about me and wanted to see me succeed,” he said. “I’ve cleared all the hurdles and now, I just love to truck.”