Good News

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for the battles we have to fight.
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 One that no one else can play.
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An Angel On His Shoulder

Pantagraph staff

     Lonnie Weaver wants to be known for going the extra mile.  And he says that with a straight face, not even realizing what a great quote it is coming from a guy who's driven more than 1  million of them -- accident-free.  Standing next to his perfectly white semi-trailer truck, diesel engine idling, he looked it over to make sure all the chalky winter slush had been washed away.  When his wife, Sue, suggests he let his truck get dirty before he washes it, he just laughs.  He takes care of things. It doesn't matter that the 18-wheeler really belongs to his employer, Verizon. During the summer, he'll drop by on the weekends and hand wash and wax it, stooping to scrub all 18 tires.  "You just do it in sections," he said. "After about two weeks, you get it done," he laughed.

     Calling himself a glorified UPS driver, he loads up his truck with everything from company mail to gigantic spools of cable and bumps over to Indiana four days a week, returning near midnight.  "I've loved my job from day one," he said, in a Tennessee drawl borrowed from his mother. "I'll do whatever I have to do to get my load delivered because I know people are counting on me. I'm kind of the cavalry coming back to give the troops the supplies."  When he was within a thousand miles of hitting his million, he didn't want to talk about it.  "When I was within hollerin' distance, I thought something's going to happen, but it never did."  To recognize his feat, Verizon had his name swirled in light blue script over the doors of his cab above the words, "Over A Million Miles Accident Free."  "I'll tell you the thing that tickled me most is when they put my name on the door," he said, tucking his hands into his jean pockets. "I'm pretty proud of that. You go through life and you wonder, with everything you're doing, is anybody really noticing?"

     Not only are they noticing but some have taken the time to write. The latest came in the form of an e-mail from a man whose 24-year-old fiancee was stranded on an interstate exit ramp on a painfully cold January night.  When the woman, who suffered from epilepsy, reached for her cell phone, she realized it wasn't there. After watching dozens of trucks and cars go by, she started to panic.  But when Lonnie approached, he noticed her car jutting out onto the ramp, tire flattened. He slowly pulled up behind her, switched his emergency flashers on and jogged up to her window.  Pointing to the truck stop ahead, he told her he'd park and return on foot to change her tire. Within a few minutes, she saw him walking, safety flares in hand.  "The poor thing, she was upset," he said. "She kept saying, 'I have seizures.  I have seizures.' I finally got her calmed down and got her tire changed. She wanted to buy my supper but I said, 'No, I'll have none of that.' "  "He would not so much as take the price of a cup of coffee," her fiance wrote.  Lonnie told her he was on his break and besides, helping others just goes with the territory. The incident wasn't something he even mentioned to his supervisor, Lona Juers, and his time card reflected only 8 hours that day.

     "He has a big heart and he wears it on his sleeve when people are in need," she said. "This is one of those acts of kindness that are few and far between."  "I guess I'm from the old school," he said. You treat people right, you respect them and you do whatever you can to help out.  "I still believe the trucker's supposed to be everybody's friend," the 46-year-old said, although he admitted it's a little more difficult now than when he let out his first clutch 28 years ago.

     Lonnie still laughs when he recalls how much trouble he had convincing an elderly woman to let him change her tire.  "She was scared to death. She cracked the window an inch and I said, 'I'm the telephone man. I can change your tire for you.' "  Finally, she pushed her keys through the crack so he could get the spare out of her trunk.

     But the tale that makes him laugh the hardest involved two horses and a blizzard on Interstate 74. The driver of a pickup truck hauling a horse trailer was stuck in a snow-packed lane, unable to budge up the hill.  "He came running over to me saying, 'You've got to help me. You've got to help me. My animals are freezing and I can't get up the hill. ' "  Lonnie told him to climb back in the truck and he'd nose the trailer up the grade.  "I pushed this truck up a mile and," he stopped to laugh, "all I could see was the back end of these two horses and I'm sitting here thinking, 'I don't believe I'm doing this.' "

     Of the 50,000 miles he rolls over every year, the winter miles are the longest.  "It gets pretty scary out there," he said. "When I confront bad weather, the adrenaline gets going and I'd be a fool if it didn't. Those guys who say, 'Oh, bad weather doesn't bother me,' should be afraid. You must not let your guard down. I still have 100 percent respect for this truck and what it can do."  He'd be the first to admit there are truck drivers who shouldn't be on the road. Sometimes he even hesitates to tell people what he does for a living.  "Some drivers out there use the size of the truck to intimidate people. I'm the opposite. I'm more careful because I'm afraid for you. I'm constantly watching out for the little guy because I know what these trucks can do."

     Fully loaded, he's pulling 80,000 pounds. And he stays within a few miles of the speed limit, setting it on cruise.  "You'd be surprised in a truck how fast you come up on something. These things are too big to be rolling down the highway at 80 to 90 mph. It's a rolling death trap for people who don't know what they're doing."  As for accidents, he's seen his share, the worst being on old U.S. 51, when he arrived before the rescue squad and could see there were fatalities.  "I call it a wake up call," he said. "You can't dwell on it. But never assume everything's going to be all right."

     After he reached the million mark, Lonnie was involved in an accident. An impaired driver coming toward him crossed the center line of a two-lane highway. Lonnie veered into a ditch to avoid hitting him head-on but the van grazed his trailer.  "I did everything I could to get out of his way," he said, shaking his head.  The man emerged with a broken arm.

     While his career spans 28 years and many miles, driving trucks wasn't what Lonnie was hired to do at the age of 18. But it didn't take the warehouse storekeeper long to figure it out.  "I spied these trucks and I knew right then and there," he said, with the enthusiasm of a small boy who's discovered his first dump truck. "Every time they'd come in, I'd say, 'Let me back the truck in, let me back the truck in.' "  And now he's adjusting the power seat in a '99 International, his seventh semi-trailer truck. In the cab, there's a half-empty bag of salted peanuts carefully folded and placed in a holder. But there's no trail of soft drink cups, fast food wrappers or dirt from the edges of Lonnie's steel-toed boots.  "I guess I've been a little different," he said, almost apologetic. "This is my home every day."  And he doesn't plan on moving  anytime soon.

     "As long as I'm healthy, I'll be driving. I just found something I loved and stayed with it. Other than family being first and foremost in your life, it's your work."  Someone once told him he's driven the equivalent of 40 times around the world.  "That took 25 years. I don't think I can get a second million," he said. "The math isn't there."