Owner-operator Jimmy Ardis of Sumter, S.C., leased to Moultrie, Ga.-based Sapp Trucking, learned to drive “in a 1971 International 4070 cabover with a 250 Cummins in it,” he says, running to the West Coast and back. He’d driven farm tractors prior to that. “I pretty well had it mastered by the time I went over the road.“
This might be a story emblematic of so many owner-operators’, but for the fact that, as is well evident in the photo here, Ardis lost his left arm at the age of six to cancer. Against the odds, this year at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association will present Ardis with an award acknowledging his now 4 million miles of safe driving. “It is a pretty big milestone in my life,” he says. “I have walked amongst the best of the best now.”
And what a milestone it is, given that at age six in Oklahoma, Ardis was at one point not expected to reach his next birthday. “I had sarcoma cancer,” he says. “I had an uncle in med school at the University of Oklahoma. He’d picked me up by my arm, and when he did I passed out. They rushed me to a joint clinic in Oklahoma City — I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Doctors did exploratory surgery on Ardis, telling his parents they didn’t like what they were seeing — “When we go in, if we have to, we’re going to take his arm off,” they said.
“They didn’t tell me this,” Ardis says. “I woke up, and I didn’t have a left arm.”
The young Ardis never let it beat him, though. Records he received when his doctor in Oklahoma passed away several years ago show that doctors at one point estimated he may not make it past two weeks. Then they scheduled a six-month follow-up appointment. All clear. Then another six months. Pretty soon years had gone by without a single recurrence.
His early voyage into over-the-road truck driving hit a bump when at age 19 “they caught me driving,” he says. The fact that he didn’t have an arm disqualified him from running interstate with a chauffer’s license, but he determined early on that “I’m not going away, I’m going to drive a truck,” he says.
By then in Sumter, S.C., where he lives today, he went to a local vocational rehabilitation center that agreed to pay for him to go to truck driving school. The first night in the program, “they tried to kick me out because I only had one arm,” Ardis says.
He would eventually graduate no. 1 in his class.
But there was a catch. He bought his first truck and, back out looking for a lease, he realized the limitations of the federal waiver program for drivers missing limbs at the time. “It was a Catch-22 situation,” he says. “To get a waiver you had to have a driving job, and to get a job you had to have a waiver. Here I was with a truck and trailer, no income coming in, I’ve got a new baby that’s just been born, and my world was coming down on top of me.”
Elizabeth Dole was the Secretary of Transportation under President Ronald Reagan at the time. Her husband, Bob Dole, who would run for president in 1996, Ardis knew, had one of his arms crippled in World War II. “I wrote a letter to her,” he says. “My wife told me I was crazy, but Dole’s staff called my house three days after receiving the letter. The phone call was to make arrangements to have a field tester to come to our house and test me and give me my waiver.”
Around the same time, Richard Beauchamp of then Atlanta-based Refrigerated Transport and vice president of the Georgia Trucking Association received a letter Ardis had written him. “This is a Cinderella deal the way it all came together,” Ardis says. “He called me: ‘This is Richard Beauchamp of Refrigerated Transport – I got a call from Elizabeth Dole…'”
He wanted Ardis to drive his truck to Georgia for testing as part of the on-boarding process. “I said, ‘I can’t be there until I get a waiver,'” says Ardis. “He said, ‘They’ll let you drive that truck to Atlanta,'” where the Refrigerated Transport drive tester told him, “you’re a natural born truck driver”
Two years on, Ardis was Refrigerated’s top earning owner-operator, he says, and the rest is history.
“I’m scrutinized by the federal government every two years for the waiver,” he says, but “my driving record is spotless. I haven’t had a ticket since 1994-95, and I reckon the reason I’ve done so well in trucking is that I’ve been surrounded by a bunch of great drivers and people in the industry who cared about me through the years.
“Trucking’s been very good to me. I’m very proud of what I do, and I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished – I don’t know of anybody who’s driven this far safely with only one arm.”
Keep on trucking, Jimmy.
My colleague James Jaillet had the chance to meet with Ardis yesterday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he took the pictures in the gallery below of the owner-operator and his immaculate 2007 379, powered by a 475 Cat turned up to 500 hp, 10 speed overdrive transmission and 3:55 rears. Give them a look, and for more about Ardis, you can check out his “Monkey Gouger” (that’s his CB handle, yes, garnered at a young age) website here.