Back in 1975, Alyn Jones was putting together pole barns for farmers around his hometown and dreaming of something better. When he got hurt on the job, the company showed him the door. That’s when a buddy asked him to come along on a cross-country trucking trip. That ride changed Jones’ life.
“One of the guys that I knew drove over the road,” Jones said. “He wanted to know if I wanted to ride with him one day, and we went out to Denver and delivered. And then, he let me drive in Nebraska. I never drove a truck before, but he said, ‘Just keep it between the lines and wake me up if you hit something.’”
At this Jones gives a hearty laugh.
“That’s how it all started,” he shared. “And then, (when) we got back, he grabbed another trailer and we went down to Dallas, Texas, and back. He goes, ‘Well, we don’t always do it like this. Sometimes, we do pull over and sleep.’”
While this story may make most safety directors cringe, the experience was enough to hook Jones on the trucking industry for life. The following year he landed a gig driving for a dairy near his hometown of Whitewater, Wisconsin. He has never looked back.
“The guy that did the hiring over there for the transportation, said, ‘Well, I’ll hire you until I can get somebody better,’” Jones remembered. “I always said, I’ll prove you wrong. And I did.”
In fact, Jones’s career outlasted the dairy itself. After the dairy went belly up in 1993, Jones made the switch to Perlman Rocque, later to become Martin Brower — the second of only two employers he’s ever had in more than four decades on the road.
“Perlman Rocque was a distributor for McDonald’s,” Jones said. “They had built a warehouse in Whitewater to cover Wisconsin, part of Illinois and part of Michigan.”
Jones proved so skilled at driving, he’s never been at fault in an accident over the entire course of his career. It’s something he points to as a personal point of pride.
“I’ve been very fortunate there,” he said. “There’s been a lot of close ones, but I never got in the middle of one, a bad one. I had people run into me, but it was their fault. They didn’t see the truck. It’s like, ‘How the heck do you not see the truck?’ It was always funny with the county cops. They just looked at them like, ‘How do you not see the semi?’”
Jones’ experience and attention to safety made him the natural choice to be a trainer which he did, both at the behest of company brass and to accommodate more unusual requests.
“They’d bring in new guys and they would ride with you for like a week or so,” he said. “And then, you would let them drive and try to learn and observe what they’re doing. Just training them on what to do.
“We had a supervisor for 17 years, and he was tired of being supervisor; he wanted to drive,” Jones continued. “So, he asked me if I would train him and teach him how to drive. I was like, ‘OK, I will.’ But, I said, ‘You will listen to me.’
“After he started driving for a couple months, he was the biggest bitcher that there was,” Jones laughed. “He complained about the supervisors and they all just laughed at him like, ‘You did that to us for 17 years, and now you’re standing here complaining.’ It was pretty funny, you know? But yeah, I trained a supervisor to be a driver.”
Jones said the secret to being an effective trainer, as well as being a good, safe driver over the long haul, was to work “as one” with the equipment. He said where many people go wrong is assuming there’s just one way to do things.
“With the new guys, they would stay with you for a couple weeks, maybe a month, and then they would go with another guy,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own routine. That way, they’d have a variety to choose from and they would stay with it, if it was good.”
“I got complimented by that supervisor I was training. He says, ‘Do you drive an automatic? Because your shifting pattern is like an automatic.’ I was like, ‘No, no, I drive clutch.’ I was just always taught to listen to the motor. Don’t watch the gauges all the time. Listen to the motor, and you can shift.”
Jones is as passionate for other causes as he has been for his profession. A serial volunteer, he’s driven a tractor-trailer in support of relief efforts in the wake of East Coast hurricanes. He’s raised money for a St Jude’s Food Pantry. He’s donated time and money to the Moose Heart and is a longtime supporter of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. He’s also assisted his local Ronald McDonald House (RMHC) by building bikes and donating backpacks with school supplies — and he even has a recipe in the RMHC cookbook.
However, Jones said his love for people is one of the most rewarding things he’s discovered during his long driving career.
“Meeting a lot of different people, it just made it a lot of fun,” he said. “And there were ups and downs. I mean, there were snowstorms and everything else you had to deal with. But you live in Wisconsin, so you deal with that.
“Seeing the country and dealing with a lot of people is what I loved most about the job,” he explained. “You dealt with so many people that had different mood swings, it was always interesting to try to get on the good side of them. Like, it’s not so bad today, you know? The sun came up and it’s a good thing.”
After 4.3 million accident-free miles, Jones decided to call it a day this April — but he retired with one final exclamation point. After advancing four times as a finalist for Driver of the Year honors, the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association finally bestowed Jones with the award for 2020.
“I’ve gone four times for the state — 2010, 2015, 2018 and then 2020. Out of the company, I was the only driver to enter four times in 10 years. I got the record,” he said, the pride ringing in his voice.
“At work they said, ‘There’s nobody that’s going to go through this again, Alyn.’ I said, ‘I know.’ But, I said, it’s cool that I was able to do it.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.