By Jason Schock
Jim Jones has spent a considerable chunk of the past 35 years atop 18 wheels, zig zagging back and forth an astonishing four and a half million miles over the blacktop road that connects each of 48 United States.
No matter how you slice 41/2 million miles — it’s the equivalent of 820 round trips between New York to Los Angeles, 18 perfect circles around the world or nine quick getaways to the moon — it’s an extensive amount of windshield time! A lifetime’s worth, really.
So it’s time for this journey to end and, in a way. Though he’ll be 66 in September, he isn’t retiring. About the same time the dog days of summer morph into football season, Jones will kill the engine and climb down from his cab one last time. But only to jump with both feet into he and his wife Shirley’s successful tool-rental company, Pony Creek Rentals. The business hosted a 10th anniversary celebration this spring, but in a way it felt like a grand opening, as Jones talked about finally being on site throughout the week, as opposed to popping in and out every weekend.
The Falls City High and University of Nebraska graduate long ago, during one of those lengthy face-to-face confrontations with the windshield, entertained the idea of changing occupations.
“I was driving through all these small towns throughout the country and I said to myself that ‘they all have a rental place, Falls City should have something like that – maybe that’s something we could do. Maybe someday I could get out of this seat and do something else,” he said with a laugh.
That was 2003 and the fact of the matter was that Jim Jones was incredibly lucky to still be driving; still, in 2015, he’s incredibly lucky he got out of that seat alive, let alone of his own accord. Free will was nearly extracted from the equation in 1997 on a cold November night on a dark highway south of Chicago.
Jones was cutting through the brisk Lake Michigan wind with a 50,000-pound haul doing 60 miles per hour. In an instant, Jones realized the semi in front of him was at a complete stop in the highway, though no brake lights were illuminated to confirm for his eyes what his brain screamed in fear.
“I hit left real hard,” he said.
Of course mass times velocity equals momentum and Jones’ 18-wheeler loaded with 50,000 pounds of steel wasn’t going to turn on a dime regardless of how hard he hit it.
“I think he must have fallen asleep – he didn’t hit the brakes – but all I know is that when I got stopped, I could reach out the windshield and touch his semi.”
Jones had his seat belt on, but his foot was pinned inside the wreckage of twisted steel. It was close to midnight and he remained in that position, with every bone in his foot broken – “some two or three times “ – until after 3 a.m. Emergency responders were quickly on the scene, armed with pain relief and cutting-edge “jaws of life” type construction equipment. Unfortunately, the equipment was so “state of the art” nobody knew how to operate it.
Though a doctor on the scene was adamant the foot should be amputated, rescue workers eventually cut Jones free from his rig, with both his feet attached, and loaded him in the nearby helicopter for a flight to Loyola University Medical Center.
Thanks to modern medicine, patience and a blessing or several, the decades-long (and running) Sunday School teacher at the First Christian Church was back behind the wheel within nine months. Soon, the wheels were turning in Jim’s head, too, particularly when he’d drive past a tool rental place in some dinky rural town.
In the fall of 2002, another somewhat mystical “nudge” that helped Pony Creek Rentals exist came in the form of fire, when the Jones’ barn burned to the ground.
Obviously, it had to be replaced, so Jim essentially got a license to build what every meat-eating male deep down wants most — civilization’s biggest garage ever. Maybe not, but at 3,600 square feet, it’s large.
“I had to have it big enough for the truck,” Jim said.
With help from friends, as well as his son, Dan, Jim started building the garage that might eventually free him from life over the road.
“Jim never wrote down a single plan – he’s a mathematician or something,” Shirley said. “He can pull those figures and numbers from his head when the rest of us need to grab a calculator.”
It’s true. While returning to Falls City each Friday, Jim would figure out how much wood he’d need for the project, call Larry Shubert at Home Lumber and it would be waiting for him when he rolled into 703 Loop, one mile south of Falls City.
As soon as the barn became realty, so did Pony Creek Rentals.
“We really weren’t thinking about it when we built it, but we bought a skid loader and a jackhammer, an excavator and started taking appointments with people at noon and 5 p.m., because I was still working,” Shirley said.
“When we first started, we didn’t have much traffic, but we kept adding each year and it’s constant now,” Jim said.
The above-mentioned skid loader has 3,200 hours of operation on it, but it’s not the Jones’ only one anymore. They rent nearly every tool you can imagine, from tractors to trailers, to generators and hammers, tillers and staplers, to compressors and a wheelbarrow.
Jim also hauls about 150 tons of Colorado river rock to his place each year. Most of it is currently landscaping much of Falls City.
Soon, he’ll climb out of that rig – and get to work.
“We’ll see if we can’t make this thing go,” he said.
Trust me, Pony Creek Rentals will go just fine — because what’s an extra mile to a guy with 41/2 million on his odometer?