CORDOVA, Tenn. — Gerald “Jerry” Fritts Jr., is feeling a little depressed after retirement, but he just needs to find his next adventure.
Fritts has spent 60 years in trucking, and as a third-generation trucker, his history with the industry spans almost his entire life.
Now, as his retirement is in its second month, Fritts said he feels a little lost.
“I’m one of these people, according to my wife, that needs to have a mission and adventure,” he said.
Given his record of driving accomplishments, which include numerous awards and 6 million miles of safe driving, one would think he would do what any other new retiree would do — enjoy a bit of rest and relaxation.
But Fritts can’t rest. That’s just not his MO.
Fritts didn’t stop trucking when he was told by doctors — twice — to retire after injuries.
And he certainly didn’t stop when he fell and broke his left arm while out on the road. Instead, he proceeded to splint the arm with duct tape and Truckload Authority magazines; then continued driving another four days to finish a delivery.
Fritts says trucking is in his blood. When he was born in 1946, he rode home from the hospital in his father’s K7 International Truck. Trucking has been his life ever since.
Fritts was put to work on his father’s farm at age 6. Soon, farming would become his primary responsibility.
Even before he began junior high school, Fritts was driving the family’s cattle truck back to the farm after unloading the livestock. He remembers seeing his cousin looking back to make sure Fritts didn’t hit anything.
Looking back at these moments, Fritts, remembers why he was actively working at such a young age.
“We were being trained,” he said. “There were plenty of us in those days, us young people, especially out in the farm. Our heroes weren’t in sports, Hollywood or anything like that. They were the adults in our community, who were rugged, hardworking men. We aspired to that because we didn’t know anything but that, really.”
But even as a boy, Fritts didn’t need have to aspire to be a “rugged, hardworking man.” He was already one of those men, even if he didn’t have big, calloused hands and work boots, and instead stood small and skinny.
When he was around fourth or fifth grade, one of the men in the community told Fritts’ dad, Gerald Fritts Sr., that his son was getting “to be a big boy.”
As Fritts Sr. put his left hand on his son’s head, he said, “Yeah, and he can work like a man.”
With a butch haircut and wearing suspenders, the youngest Gerald of the family was filled with pride. It flowed through every fiber of his body to become the theme of his life — to always work like a grown man.
From beginning work at the early age of 6 to cutting off two fingers on his right hand at age 15, with no rehab or proper healing, Fritts persevered.
“I think it really was that lifestyle, or something of a different generation,” he said. “You’re judged by your character and how hard you work. That’s something not to be prideful of, but it’s something that’s valued a lot in the rural agriculture community. You know if it’s valued, then you want to be valuable.”
In 1964, he entered Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey to study transportation. Two years later, he started a full-time career in trucking.
Fritts then embarked on a lengthy career with Landstar, and was selected for the Citizen of the Year award by TravelCenters of America and Petro.
Fritts even has a Petro Truck Stop in West Memphis, Arkansas, named after him, and was recognized with the prestigious Roadstar designation from Landstar.
In 1984, Fritts and his wife, Bonnie, started counting how many new owner-operator jobs were being added to their newspaper’s job list. It went from four listings in 1984 to more than 50 in the next three or four years.
Eventually, he became an owner-operator for American Overland Freight, a career move that he says meant added responsibilities.
Over the course of his career, he accumulated 63 years without an accident and 6 million miles of safe driving — all accomplished despite a battle with prostate cancer, a hernia, a heart attack and knee operations.
Fritts lived through it all, although he feels as if his humanity wasn’t prioritized during the years he worked.
“Somehow, we need to find a way on how to get that on a spreadsheet,” he said. “I would go out a month or two at a time. I remember leaving out one time after Thanksgiving and didn’t get home until Easter.”
Fritts and his wife got used to celebrating anniversaries and the holidays whenever one of them got home from a trip.
“Looking back, I gave way too much to this industry and way too much to this career,” he said. “When I can finally look back and run the numbers after selling the equipment, by a long shot, that wasn’t worth it.”
Despite a few criticisms of the industry, Fritts said the trucking life is a part of who he is.
“Some of us just gravitate toward it,” he said. “I can’t tell you why. We’re kind of like misfits.”
Fritts said he learned to embrace his own humanity when he volunteered at the American Red Cross after one of his injuries led him to temporarily park his truck. At the time, Fritts thought it would be permanent.
He spent the next year wondering if that was the end of his career and feeling depressed. He tried acupuncture, counseling, a hypnosis doctor. Eventually, he was advised to find a way to volunteer.
Volunteering became his new mission, and one of the best roles in his life.
As a volunteer for the Red Cross, Fritts was a shelter manager, providing comfort to victims in crisis. He says he wasn’t sure he could be a leader and comfort victims in a time of need, but he was determined to keep going.
As with trucking, he felt needed and depended on as a volunteer, but for a different reason. He particularly recalls families looking to him to provide help during the Nashville, Tennessee, floods in 2010.
“All of the exciting adventures and near-death experiences that I’ve experienced as a truck driver pales in comparison to the human experiences I’ve experienced working as a volunteer at the American Red Cross,” he said.
He saw men and women, with tears and their eyes, asking him if their family was going to be OK — and, Fritts says, he didn’t know if they were going to be OK. But he continued to set up cots while he challenged himself on his personal beliefs. He wasn’t sure if he could help everyone during the floods, and the thought unsettled him.
Still, he worked — sometimes forgetting to eat and sleep — until his feelings of depression went away.
“It turns out, the best way to get over a depression or a bad time in your life is to help other people through the inevitable bad experiences in life,” he said. “When you’re doing that, you’re forgetting all about your own (trouble).”
Helping others will likely be the focus of Fritts’ next journey, he said.
With his trucking and volunteer history, Fritts has enough connections that he feels a new opportunity will come along soon. In the meantime, he’ll be serving on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) new advisory panel, advising new truck drivers in the industry, and spending time with Bonnie.
Soon enough, he’ll find a bigger adventure to tackle — and a new way to give back.
Hannah Butler is a lover of interesting people, places, photos and the written word. Butler is a former community newspaper reporter and editor for Arkansas Tech University’s student newspaper. Butler is currently finishing up her undergraduate print journalism degree and hopes to pursue higher education. Her work has been featured in at least nine different publications.