"Semi semi' is a little wonder

Published June 30, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

Quiet, residential Eaton Drive. A car drives by, skids to a halt. People inside wind down the windows, gape.

When they see Gary May standing in his garage, they usually point to the oversize vehicle beside him, as if he didn't know it was there.

"Sometimes they get out and come in for a look," says May. "Now and then, they just drive on, like they don't want to get too close."

What has caught the attention of so many people driving by is an 18-wheeler semi _ made of wood and one-quarter the size of the real thing.

Even at one-quarter size, the truck is 17 feet, 4 inches from the front bumper to the tail lights that really light up. It manages to fit into May's garage, but only if he angles it off slightly, where the cab is joined to the trailer.

"Why have you built this thing?" a visitor wants to know.

"That's what the people who get out of their cars to take a look always ask," May says.

He has two answers available, depending on his mood at the moment.

"I tell them I built it to help me quit smoking. Something . . . anything, so I wouldn't think about lighting up.

"Or I tell them I built it for Michael James Fender of Oldsmar. He is 8 months old and my first grandson."

He also hopes that someday it will be used as a centerpiece for charitable functions.

Meanwhile, the project is only 80 percent complete. May must finish wiring the 54 separate lights. He must finish the sides of the trailer _ it is a refrigeration truck _ with white marlite panels, the closest thing to fiberglass he could use.

And he intends to paint the cab bright red.

"Seems a shame to cover up all that nice wood grain," the visitor says.

"I can't leave it like that!" he answers, shocked. "That would take away all the realism."

May says he has put about $1,800 into the truck thus far. This includes $20 each for the 19 10-inch tires (including spare).

If it takes special background for a 50-year-old man to build a wooden model of a semi, May would seem to have it. His father and grandfather in Danville, Ill., were carpenters and taught him the trade. And from 1960 to 1966 he drove 18-wheelers through every major city and state in the continental United States, he says.

But he was married, with a family, by then and tired of traveling. Instead, he got into law enforcement in various small towns in Illinois, ending up as chief of police for the town of Potomac.

"I loved the job for a while. But it was too small a town, and eventually I got bored."

In 1974, he was offered a job in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. He was a deputy for 11 years and then went to work as a private investigator. Like Philip Marlowe, he doesn't do divorce work. Mostly he does investigations for defense attorneys in criminal cases.

He won't say what his next investigative job will be. But his next truck model will be a double trailer with the kind of behemoth cab that it takes to drag such a monster.

Meanwhile, despite the 500 hours he has already put into his present 18-wheeler, there is work to be done _ perhaps including a little dashboard and steering wheel in the cab?

"No," he says firmly. "I've got to stop somewhere."