Thursday, December 21, 2006
Owens just keeps on trucking
By SUE WATSON
At the 25th anniversary of a tragic accident, Barry Owens has logged over two million miles from a wheelchair. Determination is the name of the game, the truck driver said recently.
Owens, who sustained spinal cord injury November 19, 1981, is a perfect example of the kind of never-give-up, can-do attitude few have the courage to develop.
He was driving a tractor rig on Highway 72 just east of Mt. Pleasant - a young man of 22, engaged, and with a promising future of trucking ahead of him - when he touched his breaks and they froze, causing his tractor to turn sideways and flip end over end and skid 30 feet off the highway.
Firefighters with Holly Springs Rescue Squad were able to free Owens, who was trapped in the overturned and smashed cab, after removing the seat and pulling the steering wheel out.
That freak accident changed Owens’ life, he says, for the better, although he has had to battle for almost every break he has ever gotten. That day he had something to live for, the same as every day since. He’s a truck driver who makes mostly solo runs with 18 wheels under him and two wheels under him when he’s out of the truck - a paraplegic driver who has committed himself to making a decent living for his wife Kathy and their two girls, Molly and Katie.
Owens has put together a book detailing his accident and his struggle for independence. As he gets older, now 47, he wants his truck to be used as a demo at trade shows.
At his age and with the back problems that goes with trucking, Owens said he has to find a way to curtail his road miles but make money from his rig.
His rig is outfitted with the essentials for handicapped drivers - a wheelchair lift and hand controls. He puts the petal to the medal, so to speak, with his hands.
Trucker’s father dies in accident
Owens was riding with his brother and father Robert “Pete” owens December 30, 1971, when his dad, who drove for Howard Carpenter, hit a cow on Highway 311 in front of Thomas Funeral Home in Holly Springs. His little brother was thrown to the floorboard, he was thrown out of the truck, and his dad was pinned and killed.
Barry Owens was 12 years old and fatherless.
At age 20 (1979), Owens started hauling cotton for Carpenter. For two years he hauled baled cotton for two plantation owners in Friars Point - a small Mississippi River community down in the Delta - to a Memphis warehouse. He was in his second season of hauling for the two plantation owners, the only hauler for that gin, and had already hauled 10,000 bales in the 1981 season before his November 19 accident.
The big decision
Owens, who was engaged to marry his fiancee’ Kathy on January 15, 1982, was hospitalized for just over a month and released at the end of December. He had rehab ahead of him in the coming months.
Instead of getting dumped, Kathy, who had hip damage from an infection at age 12, moved in with his mother and the couple said their vows on New Year’s weekend at the courthouse. At the time, Kathy’s family did not want them to marry due to his accident, Owens said.
“She could have cut and run,” he said. “I wouldn’t blame her if she cut and run right now. She and the kids are the reason I do what I do.”
The Owenses took the $32,000 he received as compensation “for being in this wheelchair for the rest of my life,” and invested it in the motel business.
They built 10 units of the Shady Rest Motel on Highway 72 and added 10 units later. Kathy was destined to run the motel. They sold it in 2000.
Owens said it didn’t take him long to realize “that it was not what I wanted to do.”
So he bought a one-ton pickup in 1985 and started running hotshot locally with his truck and a gooseneck trailer.
His load was machine shop products - rebar and specialty material used to make columns and shapes. The rebar he hauled was used to build a new gym for a college in Jonesboro, Ark.
That job lasted about six years when in 1991 the Department of Transportation decided the hotshots were not safe.
If he was going to be a hauler, Owens had to get a commercial driver’s license.
A good samaritan trucking company loaned him a truck to take his driving test and after he was certified, Owens bought his first truck from the good samaritan - a six-speed Freightliner with 275 horses - in 1992. He put 275,000 miles on it and in 1994 bought a 365 horsepowered FLD with a 70-inch sleeper which he put 375,000 miles on. He sold his trucks before they needed expensive overhauling.
Lift and cab conversions have made solo driving easier, he said.
His current truck, a 1998 FLD with 430 horses, has taken him over 1.2 million miles. Along the way, Owens has received some help with expensive modifications to make his truck more accessible and safe.
He has travelled across the country hauling loads to all but six or seven states.
Driving is all he knows and independence is his goal - determination his ally.
“When I got hurt, I had nobody to help me,” Owens said. “I had to make my own way. This is the only thing I can do by myself and make a living. I didn’t even know I could do this, but I had to try.”
All along the way at truckstops across the country he is often asked for food money. Owens said he will buy anyone who is truly hungry something to eat, but sees to it that they don’t use him for things besides what they ask for - food.
He has his pet peeves, he said.
He is peeved at a handicapped person who wants someone else to set him up in business. Or at a person who asks a person who is in a wheelchair for a handout, ostensibly asking for food money, when it is really for their habit.
His first job was working for his uncle’s service station for $5 a day, he said.
He’s an owner/operator because no company will hire him due to his handicap, he said.
“That’s one thing I wish I could change in the world,” Owens said. “It’s harder for me to do everything, but I get paid the same thing as every Joe Blow.”
Trucking business has changed just like every other endeavor, he said.
Some changes he’s seen in the trucking business include the increasing number of women drivers; fewer truckers helping truckers when they break down and fewer cars stopping to help a trucker; less road courtesy; more truckers turning down the down and outs asking for handouts because there are so many of them; more selfishness and greed among drivers; more comfortable rigs and ease of driving; more people mugging good Samaritans; and law enforcement turning a blind eye to CB radio trafficking in drugs and sex.
Owens was born and raised in Moscow, Tenn., about 10 miles from where he had his wreck.
“I drive by the wreck site daily,” he said.
He has his ups and downs in dealing with his handicap and the accident, but it is more of a problem for him now around the anniversary of his accident.
But good things come from bad experiences, he said.
“To be 100 percent honest, I might not be where I am today,” he said. “By me getting hurt, it made me roll out there on that limb and try things that wouldn’t normally work.
“At 22, I thought I could tackle the world. He left me here for a reason.”
Lesson learned - forget about what you can’t do and do what you want to do.
“It’s easier to go to bed with success if you wake up with determination,” he said.
That’s the quote on the front of Owens’ yellow book, entitled “Determination Transportation.”
To share information or inspiration with Owens, he can be reached at 901-826-8165.
(662) 252-4261 or email@example.com
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