Pulling away from the Shell gas station, where he had just filled up the company dump truck, was the last thing Chris Garrett remembered before the fateful wreck on Oct. 15, 1980.
“The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital,” Garrett said. “... I woke up in traction with my mouth wired shut and a bloody cast on my leg, wondering what hit me.”
The best anyone could figure was that Garrett had fallen asleep as he headed up Ga. 17 out of Elberton on his way to his native Habersham County, crossing the oncoming lane of traffic, traveling across an open field and striking a massive oak tree.
The wreck, taking place one day after he had turned 20, broke Garrett’s right leg in two places and the left side of his jaw, and crushed his right ankle. He faced two options — amputation or recover the best that he could.
He chose the latter.
Today, Garrett, now living on the Banks County side of Alto, is back to driving a truck — this time an 18-wheel tractor-trailer — and getting by fine, except for the occasional use of a cane he keeps in his truck or at home.
“I had to learn how to use that leg all over again because of the ankle being as messed up as it was,” he said during an interview last week, while sipping coffee at the Waffle House restaurant off U.S. 129 in Gainesville.
Life hasn’t always been easy for the divorced father of an 11-year-old boy, but he said he is rising to challenges, basically doing much of the things he did before the accident.
“Just at a slower pace and with more care,” said Garrett, now 49.
He also realizes the wreck could have been worse than it was.
“They said I’d be lucky to walk again,” Garrett said.
He also recalled his brother later taking him to the scene of his accident, about five miles from the Shell station.
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t hurt that tree too bad, as big as it was,” Garrett said, cracking a faint smile.
As it was, Garrett endured a lot on his way to healing.
He had to live with a steel plate in his leg for a year. He also “had a stainless steel nail in the top of my foot to hold some of the bones there together.”
Today, “my right foot is about an inch and a half shorter than my left foot because of the way the bones were broken in my ankle,” Garrett said.
“I was on crutches for three months and a cane three to four months after that,” he said. “After that, it was take it slow.”
After about a year after the accident, Garrett returned to working in a mill, weaving curtains and tablecloths.
“I did a fair amount of walking but no heavy lifting,” he said.
After the mill closed, Garrett went on to other jobs, returning to truck driving in 1996.
“I still have some pain, but I decided a long time ago not to get hooked on doctor-prescribed medications,” he said.
He does take anti-inflammatory medicine to keep down swelling.
“I have occasional bad days, especially in the wintertime, with arthritis flare-ups,” Garrett said. “But for the most part, after this many years of dealing with it, it’s tolerable.
“The hardest thing is I go through shoes so fast.”