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SHIFTING GEARS

Nancy Busby needs a stepladder to reach the cab of the 18-wheel truck and trailer so she can practice backing up the rig to a loading dock. The 57-year-old grandmother struggles to make smooth gear shifts. Her left leg throbs from stomping the clutch. Her head aches from the 100-degree heat baking the dusty parking lot.

After several failed attempts, Busby climbs out of the cab, retreats to a nearby classroom and starts to cry. "Lord, I just want to go home," she whispers in prayer as her 18 classmates continue their driving tests. "Everything I did seems to be wrong."

It's been a rough stretch for Busby. She lost her job sewing Vanity Fair bras in summer 1999 when VF Corp. closed its plant in the Panhandle and moved the jobs to Mexico. A seamstress' wages had provided a modest livelihood for this divorced mother of four. When she lost her job, Busby had credit card debts, a loan on her van and $100 in savings. Her native Panhandle lacks jobs for someone of her age and experience, so she enrolled in trucking class No. 265 at the Washington-Holmes Technical Center here.

Her ordeal is the American nightmare: Lose your job and start over just as most folks your age eye retirement. And her new life as a trucker is a jarring and lonely change for Busby. As a sewing machine operator, she never left her hometown, driving her Econoline van a few miles for each day's shift. Now she must trek thousands of miles in a Volvo truck, delivering 45,000 pounds of cargo, spending weeks away from home.

In the two years since she started her new career, Busby has crisscrossed America, hauling everything from pretzels to panty hose to 44 states. She has been taunted by men who question whether Grandma can drive a truck. And she has grown weary of eating stale truck stop food and taking sponge baths with Huggies baby wipes.

There's little talk of such pitfalls during the eight-week trucking class. The students, mostly male and half her age, talk about seeing America and boast about the numerous job offers they're receiving. A national shortage of drivers, fueled by greater demand for faster delivery of goods, means there are plenty of recruiters swarming the class. As her classmates crow about their career plans, Busby frequently mutters to herself: "What am I doing here?"

"A lot of crying and praying'

"Eight weeks to LEARN. A lifetime to EARN," is the pitch on fliers for classes in fall 1999 at the Washington-Holmes Technical Center. The school claims a placement rate of 95 percent and higher for graduates of its commercial driving course.

Quite a few students, like Busby, are starting over with the help of state retraining funds to pay the $1,084 tuition. "We see a tremendous number of people impacted" by layoffs, said Bill Gunter Jr., student services coordinator at the technical center. "If I weren't in the middle of it, I'd have no idea how bad it is."

Busby initially fears a return to books and tests. But she warms to the idea after studying brochures on truck-driving courses. The main reason: the promise of earning $35,000 a year, twice what she made at her plant job. Besides, she once helped her former husband make local deliveries in smaller trucks.

She doesn't hold the record for the school's oldest student; he was 73. But at 57, Busby stands out in a class that includes younger military men and ministers. Her classmates call her Nana and Aunt Bee. "I guess I have me a CB handle," Busby says.

The first few days of class focus on paperwork, such as recording driving times in a log book. The students learn to name the parts of a truck and how to navigate a route. "If you can't read a map," Busby says, "you're in trouble."

Class is dismissed about 3 p.m., so Busby retreats to her room at the Chipley Days Inn to study and rest. On her first night, she eats soup and a sandwich at the nearby coffee shop before wandering the aisles at Winn Dixie. On some evenings, she drives to Vernon so she can attend church. "My mind was tired from studying," she says. The summer heat sends her scouting for cooler clothes at the Kmart clearance rack, where she spots $7 culottes. She looks forward to the weekend so she can drive 100 miles to her home in Milton, where she can check on her elderly mother, Fae Brewer, who is in a nursing home after kidney failure.

The classroom work prepares the students for skills testing in the parking lot. Busby is plump and barely 5 feet 2, so getting into the cab takes practice. Eventually, she is strong enough to hoist herself without the stepladder. But it takes Busby numerous tries before she can finesse the trailer through the loading dock exercise. When she masters backing up the truck, her instructor jumps up and down and shouts: "Praise the Lord!"

One of her biggest advocates is instructor Kenny Foy, who has been coaching her on synchronizing her feet and hand movements. On this September day, Foy has dispatched the students at 7:30 a.m. to prep a row of trucks for a longer road trip. Busby and her partner head to truck No. 840 for a trip east toward Jacksonville with Foy riding along.

The pre-trip includes checking tires and oil, even the horn. The 48-foot trailer, painted with a yellow smiley face, is loaded with barrels of water and tires so the students can experience driving with a full load. One by one, the truckers pull their rigs out of the lot. Busby shifts, making the gears grind and the truck lurch forward. "You need to fast dance to fast music," Foy tells her. "Watch the tachometer and gear stick."

The convoy crosses Little River en route to Tallahassee. "Put your foot into it Nancy," Foy shouts. "You got a big hill coming up."

As she drives along, Busby thinks out loud. "Sometimes I think how enjoyable it is. Sometimes I'm scared."

"You've not shown me that you're scared," Foy says.

"Not about the truck. But life in general. It's scary because at my age, you don't know what's going to happen."

Her voice cracks.

"I've been doing a lot of crying and praying."

It's an emotional time because school ends the next day and, unlike some of her classmates, Busby doesn't have a job. Busby spends the evening packing her van for the trip home to Milton after the final class.

A congrats cake is sliced by 10 a.m. and everyone poses for a class picture. Classmate Teresa Nunnery is giddy about her new career. "I love the windshield time. I've been a beautician for 15 years. All I've ever known is hair and nails."

Everyone hugs Busby. "I worry about her going out by herself," confides 40-year-old Nunnery.

Instructor Foy hands out their certificates and a benediction: "Give it your best shot. Y'all be safe. Unless Class No. 265 has anything else, we'll call it a done deal."

At a lunch of fried okra and beef tips on rice, Busby pulls out her transcript. "I didn't miss an hour," she says. On a scale of one to four, she earns all threes and fours. She got 100 on attitude and attendance, 88 for her skills test and 82 for road driving.

"She's a good student," Foy says. "She'll become a truck driver."

"Sitting in Arkansas, wishing I was home'

About four months have passed since Busby sewed her last Vanity Fair bra. Now she's researching trucking companies, eager to find one close to home.

She fills out just five applications, confident that someone will call her. Trucking firms are constantly hiring to fill an estimated 80,000 openings each year. The explosion of goods shipped demands more trucks on the road. Employers get creative in pitching jobs. Some offer free Harley Davidsons to new recruits. Newer trucks are comfy and feature Internet access inside roomier cabs. Some drivers take their dogs and spouses along for the ride.

By mid-October 1999, Busby has an offer from Covenant Transport in Chattanooga, Tenn. She heads North via Greyhound's circuitous route. The trip takes 15 hours. "I changed buses four times and they lost my bags _ twice," she laments.

The first few days are focused on paperwork, orientation and drug tests. Busby cannot drive solo until she passes more driving tests, so she sits at a Quality Inn waiting for a team driver to be assigned to her. Her first assignment is delayed several days because some of her potential partners fail their drug tests.

Covenant eventually matches her with other women drivers, as she prefers. By early 2000, she's been to Spokane, Wash.; Boise, Idaho; and Nashville, Tenn. She gets snowed in along Interstate 80. The partners come and go every few months. At one point, Busby sits at home in Milton for six weeks, waiting for a new partner. Once again, her bills pile up because she doesn't have a paycheck.

Some women drivers complain that they have trouble finding work because it's still a male-dominated profession. Sharon Dagnell, a mother of four from Clearwater, graduated from Roadmasters truck-driving school in Tampa last year. But she didn't find work until this June. One job interviewer openly refused to hire her because she's a woman. "You don't look like a truck driver," he told Dagnell.

She hired a lawyer and is scheduled to begin mediation on her discrimination claims with the company, which she declined to identify.

"In this day and age, you don't think this happens anymore," says Dagnell, 35. "It's really shocking."

Busby recalls one stop in Alabama when a guy told her she looked like she should be "home baking cookies for grandbabies." Her reply: "If I had a choice, that's what I'd be doing."

The sexism and rude behavior extends to the chatter on the radio. She often shuts it off and avoids getting too chatty with men driving other trucks. One man invited her to dinner at a truck stop, Busby says, but "I just kept on driving."

By spring 2000, after six months on the road, Busby passes the tests required to drive solo. She logs fewer miles without someone else to share the trip. Still, she prefers driving alone. It means higher pay per mile: 29 cents a mile versus 21{ cents as a team driver. Another reason: One of her early teammates backed the truck into another vehicle, which meant Covenant fined each of them $300. And going solo means "I don't have to listen to someone fuss, gripe and complain," Busby says.

Her log book provides a snapshot of U.S. commerce: She hauls carpeting from Dalton, Ga., then goes to Waco, Texas, to pick up glass bottles and to Mississippi for metal doors. She makes two deliveries north of Fort Worth, Texas, then on to Reno, Nev. She parks the truck for four days, then she's dispatched to California to Sacramento and Oakland. Next stops: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and back to California. "I've been in every state in the continental U.S. except four _ Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and South Dakota," Busby says.

She has enjoyed seeing America, but she misses her church and family, especially during holidays. On Thanksgiving, she hung out at a truck stop off Interstates 40 and 55 in West Memphis, Ark. "It's pouring down rain and I'm sitting in Arkansas, wishing I was home," Busby says after her dinner of turkey and pumpkin pie.

She was on a trip back from Ontario, Calif., when her mother turned 78. "She's had a lot of strokes and hasn't walked in months," Busby says.

Busby has her own health issues. Now 59, she suffers from headaches and high blood pressure. Recently, her doctor told her to head home to get new medication to control her blood pressure.

She's driving a new truck on a recent trek from Melbourne to a warehouse on Nebraska Avenue in Lutz. The truck had about 300 miles on the odometer when she got it in January. By last month, she has logged 60,722 miles.

At 7 a.m., she's waiting in the truck's cab for the warehouse crew to load a shipment to Albertson's distribution centers and stores in Oklahoma and Texas. The cab is surprisingly roomy, with twin-size bunk beds behind the truck seats. She has added home touches: a pink flowered comforter and a stash of peanut butter and olives. Her worn leather Bible holds photos of her grandchildren beside Psalms 119. "Jessica is gonna have a baby," the soon-to-be great-grandmother crows as she shows off her picture.

After she signs the paperwork on the grocer's delivery, Busby heads north to hand off the loaded trailer to another driver, who will take it to Texas. She's taking a few days off and heading home to Milton. "I've been gone six weeks. I'm tired," she says.

She longs for a job that would keep her closer to home. Even if she has to take a pay cut, maybe she would have weekends off to see her grandchildren and tend to her mother, a fond memory of her days sewing bras for Vanity Fair. "I never grossed more than $15,000 in one year, but I was home."

_ Alecia Swasy, assistant managing editor/business, can be reached at swasysptimes.com or (727) 893-8160. Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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