March 13, 2007
Tifton -- A young man goes to work every day with an entourage to protect him. No, he's not royalty, a big time politician, or a movie star, but a young man making an honest living helping people stay a little safer.
Drivers often expect the worse when they see flashing lights ahead of them, but they don't expect a highway crew of bodyguards protecting one of their own.
"I'm putting down reflectors. It helps drivers see better at night and helps drivers see better during a rain," says Willie Jackson as he sits inches from the pavement.
The job doesn't sound exciting, not worth big trucks and five body guards, until you ride a mile in his seat. On a good day Willie will glue three thousand reflectors to the highway.
They work so quickly that it doesn't appear as if they stop at all. "Two seconds a stop," says Willie.
With all the protection starting at least a mile before reaching Willie work trailer, it would seem drivers would have more than enough time to move over and give him plenty of room to work safely. They often don't.
"You could probably stick your arm out and touch them sometimes. That's how close they get," says Willie as he glues reflectors on I-75 North near Tifton.
Car and truck drivers frequently get too close, dangerously close. "The drivers don't know how close they are or don't care," says Willie as a truck passes him in the next lane.
Sitting literally inches from the pavement makes it difficult for drivers to see Willie. At first, the close calls bothered him, and then he developed nerves of steel and developed more confidence in those who protect him.
"You get used to it after a while," says Willie over the deafening noise of traffic whizzing by.
He'll never forget a close call when a drunk driver almost ran into them. Evasive action by Willie's driver may have saved their lives. Officials later charged the car's driver with driving under the influence.
"All safety control is in this vehicle. That's my job," says Desmond Telfer, a 14-year veteran of the department who drives the pick-up truck that pulls Willie's work trailer.
Desmond's job requires him to watch out for Willie, to spot danger that could come from almost any direction. Certainly not an easy job. "I drive out of the mirror," says Desmond as he eyes move from side-to-side looking for danger, while traveling in a straight line, stopping every two seconds.
Willie is at Desmond's mercy, since Willie has no protection whatsoever, vulnerable to serious injury or death, a danger Willie takes in stride. "It's very exciting. It's an adrenaline rush," says Willie who takes so much pride in his work that he drives friends to stretches of road where he put reflectors.
The crew has been lucky, so far. On average, the bumper truck, one of the two that protects Willie, gets hit twice during the year. Luckily, Willie escapes injury, but they've had numerous close calls.