NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Trucker Jefferson Ray Thomas felt compelled to whip out his license, just to prove that his real name was actually “Jefferson Thomas.” He proved it was not a cheap attempt at an alias, switching the names of one of our founding fathers and presidents.
But like Thomas Jefferson’s unwavering commitment to claim our independence, Jefferson Thomas has his own independence of sorts — the freedom of the open road. And he lives in Philadelphia — Philadelphia, Tennessee.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” Thomas, 47, told The Trucker at the Petro Stopping Center in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He began driving in 1987 after graduating from high school, but received on-the-job experience as a kid tagging along with his trucker stepfather.
“I remember the strike of 1978,” he said, which gained national attention when widespread trucker strikes broke out against rising fuel costs. They were shut down for two weeks. “We shut down in Dallas, I had to stay in the truck because it was violent. Just a bunch of bottles, rocks being thrown.”
“There’s too many now for us to go striking,” he added.
Thomas drives a 2016 Volvo 780 for Koch Transport out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, hauling general freight throughout the Midwest and West Coast.
“I guess a whole lot,” he said of the changes since he was a kid riding shotgun. “It’s all automatic, computers. I said I wouldn’t do computer logs, but here I am.”
And he says that without a hint of exasperation in his voice.
“I love them; I’m not lying,” he said of electronic logging devices or ELDs. It makes it easier to keep track of his time and miles. “We don’t have to look to the ‘good ol’ days’; I think today is the good ol’ days.”
Thomas said since he began his career, he’s been through about every hurricane stirred up in Florida and has rarely had to hunker down.
“I just drive,” he said, adding the wind would blow a traditional vehicle over, but “if you’re heavy, keep going.”
While helping someone on the road nowadays can be dangerous, Thomas said he remembers several years ago seeing an accident while driving with his wife Stacy on I-80 in Nebraska, about 75 miles west of Omaha, and stopping was the only option.
On an ice and snow-covered interstate, a minivan in front of them hit a bridge, spinning out of control. The couple rushed to their aid.
“She opened the side door and got the baby out,” he said, but the child appeared to be uninjured. “I couldn’t get the lady out; she was all bunched in. I pulled the driver out who had passed out.”
A state trooper soon came and thanked them for their help, letting them know more help was on the way so they could continue on their route.
“It shakes you up,” Thomas said of the experience, adding that people don’t understand the dangers of driving. “People think they’re safe in a car with a metal cage around them.”
When Thomas is home in Tennessee, he enjoys spending time with his six children and fishing for “anything I can get ahold of” at Watts Bar Dam. His claim to fame isn’t any of his catches, but he said he’s proud of “my son’s biggest, a 75-pound catfish.”
Thomas, who said he wants to stay in the trucking industry for another 15 years, breaks the myth of how most truckers prefer the isolation of the job.
“My favorite thing is meeting new people, talking to people at the fuel islands,” he said.