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Keep on trucking

Trucks move some 70 percent of all the freight in the United States, but the trucking industry is struggling to replace aging employees even as the demand for quick transport is increasing.

Kenny Woodiel, however, is holding steady at the wheel.

Woodiel lives near Nesbit and works for Saia Motor Freight.  At age 55, he’s a trucker who’s paid his dues, beginning with three years of long hauls as a rookie. He’s seen 48 states through his windshield.

“How can somebody drive a truck and not know there’s a God?” he shakes his head. “I’ve seen the sunset coming over the desert. It was just magical. I’ve seen stars shooting across the mountains in Montana.”

The father of five worked his way up to week-long stints, then did night runs for 18 years. Now, with seniority, Woodiel has a plumb pick — a daily run from Memphis, Tennessee, to Mt. Vernon, Illinois. That means he’s up at 4:15 each morning to drive 528 miles round trip. But he likes coming home every night to his wife.

“Being a trucker, in the early stages of your life, you’re going to miss a lot of stuff,” he explains. “I’ve missed a lot of stuff.”

Inside a truck, Woodiel points out dials on the dash like air pressure gauges and the braking system, then he lands on some newer tools of the trade. 

“We’ve got a Bendix up here that tells how fast somebody’s going in front of us, how many feet we are from them. I’ve got lane deviators. If I go across a line, it’ll ‘brrrr’ and let you know. Got a camera facing me, filming me. If it triggers something — an accident or something — it’s going to film what I’m doing, and it’s going to film what happened in front of us. It’s big brother riding with us,” he laughs.

E-logging regulations hit the industry in 2017, leading many older truckers to seek retirement. But Woodiel welcomed the changes: “Anytime a truck moves, it’s going to log on. So you’re going to have to run the legal now — 11 hours and you need to stop. There were times in my career I would probably drive 20, 22 hours non-stop. It was very unsafe.”

Still, 11 hours is a long stretch. Woodiel says the key for him is grasping opportunities, like the opportunity to spend time alone with God.

“I listen to a lot of preaching and a lot of praise songs. I bet some people think I’m a nut. They may drive by me, and I’ve got a good praise song going, I’ve got my hands raised up. I mean, there’s times that God’s just so evident, so powerful in my truck.”

One of those powerful times happened six months ago, when Woodiel was going through a personal trial. In his Bible, he read Paul’s admonition to examine yourself. “I knew I had 10 hours to drive. I said, ‘All right, God, I’m going to turn the radio off. I’m turning everything off. I’m going to give you this 10 hours.’ And I took inventory of myself. When I got back to Memphis and climbed out of that truck, I was a different man. And I give God all the glory.”

A 32-year trucking career means Woodiel has come upon his share of wrecks. He’s held the hands of traumatized victims and comforted hysterical mamas. One middle-of-the-night scene just outside Monroe, Louisiana, left him with nightmares. It was a head-on collision, and he discovered a haunting fatality with his flashlight.

“I was ready to quit driving. I was young in my driving career, and I’ve never forgot that.”

Woodiel is a vocal Christian. At a truck stop, he asks his waitress how he can pray for her when he says a blessing over his meal. When he fuels up, he shares the gospel with the guy at a nearby pump. Sometimes he’s not even aware of who’s listening.    

“A guy came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember this, but you were talking to this guy about the Lord, and I was listening. When I got home, I told my wife we’ve got to go to church. I want to get in church, I want to get saved, and I want this Jesus.’”

Woodiel teaches Sunday school and volunteers at a soup kitchen in downtown Memphis. But he says trucking is where God uses him most: “I haul a lot of freight in those trailers, but my main goal is for the seeds that I’m hauling to sprout. It’s up to God to harvest, but I’m spreading the seeds.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.