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Profile: Hitting the road with the multi-million-mile man

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Dick Jernick, where he’s most comfortable, at the wheel of his tractor-trailer.
Dick Jernick, where he’s most comfortable, at the wheel of his tractor-trailer.

Dick Jernick sat in his favorite easy chair — the driver’s seat of a tractor trailer.

Although the motor wasn’t running, his hands rested on the huge steering wheel of the 2012 Freightliner Cascadia with a Detroit Diesel motor, hooked to a 2007 Kentucky trailer with an auto lift. Behind his Air Ride seat were bunk beds, a throw rug, a microwave, television and, in case of urgent need, a Porta-Potti.

The United States Department of Transportation estimates that Americans drove an average of 13,000 miles in 2013. Dick estimates he drives about 10 times that distance most years, and his life’s total could be over five million miles.

With numbers like that, the Porta-Potti starts to make sense.

Dick is the patriarch of Jernick Moving & Storage, one of the oldest family–owned businesses on the East End. Since his father, Thomas Jernick started the business in the early 1950s, they’ve hauled everything from antiques to zucchini to and from the East End and beyond.

“Driving has never bothered me,” Dick said. “I could start this thing up and go right to Florida without even thinking about it. When I sit in this I’m more comfortable than in my living room. It comes natural to me. It’s like a part of my body.”

Born in Southold in 1944, Dick and his family, which eventually included three brothers and two sisters, moved to Shelter Island when he was two years old. His father farmed the Shorewood property for the Garr family and delivered produce from Shorewood and other area farms to Washington Market in New York, until it was replaced by Hunts Point market in the 1960s. Thomas Jernick made the return trek east with his truck full of bicycles, furniture and trunks for New Yorkers summering in the Hamptons. “That’s how we first got into the moving business,” Dick said.

For over 60 years, the Jernick family hauled much of the freight that came to Shelter Island. That included everything from milk for the old Bohack grocery store, which predated the IGA, to the U. S. mail.

“We used to get the mail right off the train in Greenport,” Dick said. “My mom would haul it.”

To this day, all Shelter Island mail is delivered to the Island’s two post offices by Jernick Moving.

Dick would not say for the record when he first operated a motor vehicle, although he did admit, “I drove a farm tractor for the Garrs when I was seven or eight years old. I used to disc their asparagus.”

Often, Dick rode along with his dad on out-of-town trips. “By the time I was ten I could fall asleep in the truck, wake up anywhere on Long Island and tell you where I was,” he said.

A human GPS device from a tender age, Dick remembered a school assignment designed to build map-reading skills for Island fourth graders. “The homework was to look at a map and draw the route from Shelter Island to New York City,” Dick said.

“Instead, I drew two routes to Florida. One on the scenic route and the other on the fast route.”

Growing up here in the 1960s there were about 1,300 year-round residents. The intimate community was a blessing and a curse. “The whole Island was a family,” he said. “If someone’s kid was in trouble, everybody knew it, and everybody helped.”

On the other hand, “When I was 14 years old, having a cigarette in a movie theater, the next day my parents knew all about it.”
Dick went off to the State University of New York at Oswego, but it wasn’t for him. “I went to college one year but I couldn’t stand it because a freshman couldn’t have a car,” he said, “That was it.”

In 1964, Dick married Martha Simes, an Island girl. Dick and Martha have four children, Richard, Scott, Tara and Dana, and will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in August. They also raised three foster children and, over the course of several years, Martha fostered many babies from birth to about six months when they were adopted.

In 1968 Dick became half of the two-man Shelter Island police force, serving for over 23 years. “When I was a policeman, if we arrested someone who was a single parent, there was no place for the kids to go. I had to bring home the children,” he said, “so the state said if you are going to keep bringing kids home, you have to get certified.” Their foster children, who live and work in California, South Carolina and Shelter Island “have all done well for themselves,” Dick said.

Like many Islanders, Dick always had more than one job and most required driving. One gig involved trips to Maine to pick up seed potatoes for Long Island farms. Road conditions were often brutal. “I rolled a brand new tractor-trailer on Route 1 in Presque Isle,” he remembered. “A guy was turning left, I was passing on the right, and I dropped the right front wheel into the snow and flipped right over. I weighed 96,000 pounds — 16,000 over the legal limit. Four wreckers put cables on me and hauled me out. I didn’t even break the mirror. There was so much snow, it was like a cushion.”

In those days, Dick’s CB handle was “Rusty Stacks,” a name inspired by the condition of the exhaust stacks on his tractor-trailer.

In addition to policing and driving, Dick was chief of the Shelter Island Heights Fire Department in the 1970s. In 1993, after five decades of Island life, Dick and Martha retired to South Carolina.

Retirement did not go well. His oldest son Richard was living nearby at the time and came over to check in. “Richard said,

‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m waiting to die.’”

The retirement lasted three days.

Soon he had a new job driving doublewide mobile homes — 16 feet wide, and 106 feet long — from Florida and Georgia to the Carolinas. The legal speed limit for a doublewide was 45 miles an hour. “If you went much over 65 miles an hour, the shingles started flying off, but I used to hurricane-test them,” Dick said. “I carried a bucket of nails and a hammer with me.”

Dick’s five-year sojourn in the Carolinas came to an end when his sons, who had been running the family company, called him home. “They said, ‘Dad, we need you to drive the truck,’” Dick said. Actually not just drive the truck, but also load the truck.
Dick and Martha moved back to Laurel on the North Fork in 2000, closer to children, grandchildren and the family business.

“This company is in family hands and will stay that way,” he said. “My oldest son Richard, there is no way he’s letting his grandfather’s business go. He was very close to my father.”

According to Dick, moving is not the same business as trucking. “Most trucking is just getting it there on time. Moving is a little different. You’ve got their whole life with you, their family treasures. You’ve got to make sure everything arrives safe.”

One measure of hard work is the state of a man’s shoes, and Dick Jernick’s say it all. Two months of loading and unloading is about all he gets out of his heavy-soled boots.

Now in his 70s, “The heart doctor tried to get me to do cardio work,” Dick said. “I told him, ‘Carry some furniture upstairs and we’ll see about your cardio workout.’”

His current retirement plan? “Not till they pry my dead cold fingers from the steering wheel,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”