It has been three years since my friend Bette Garber passed away. I can’t believe how fast time flies. For those of you who knew Bette, you are lucky! For those of you that did not, she was a trucking photojournalist extraordinaire. And she not only talked the talked, but she also walked the walk, and did whatever it took (she even got her CDL) to get the story and pictures of the trucks (and truckers) that she loved so much. I am determined to keep her memory and her work alive.
Recently, I was able to acquire Bette’s entire photo collection of 30 years, and in that vast collection I found some unbelievable stuff, including pictures of Bette early in her photo career. The love of Bette’s life was not a man – her true love was her camera and her little notebooks. She loaded her cameras with slide film and shot every aspect of trucking life in America. In all those little notebooks, Bette would scribble, part shorthand and part words, the notes she would use for the colorful stories she would later write about the drivers, the trucks, and the important issues facing the industry at that time.
One story that Bette wrote, about sleep apnea, was very personal. When Bette’s sister Myra (Mikie Friedman) was diagnosed with sleep apnea, Bette said, “I don’t have that.” But later, down the road, she learned that indeed she did have it. She also learned that a lot of over-the-road truckers did, as well, which endangered their lives and the lives of the people with whom they shared the road. When she wrote that story about sleep apnea, it was the first story I had ever seen published about this medical condition. I remember her telling me, “This is going to be a really big deal one day.” How true that turned out to be – it is a very big deal now! This story, like so many others Bette wrote, was ahead of its time.
Bette’s friend Dierdre Atkinson Wogaman (goes by “D” or Chickadee on the CB) told me that Bette was “always one step ahead of the curve.” Back in 1979, Bette told her she was going to Georgia to cover one of the first American truck races ever held at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. D was anxious to see the beginnings of a great new thing and volunteered to go with her as her assistant. What an adventure this trip turned out to be!
After getting their Press passes, Bette and D went schlepping (as Bette used to say) onto the infield with all her equipment. They began interviewing drivers and shooting all the trucks. The other journalists poo-pooed the old man driving the old red GMC “Junkyard Dog” truck, but not Bette. To Bette, everyone had their story and no one was too small or insignificant to at least talk to – I loved that about her. As it turned out, that old man in the GMC was the winner of the race (not the cocky guy in the bright red-orange Kenworth that blew a steer tire and slammed into the wall). If that sounds familiar to you, yes, I’m talking about the opening scene for Smokey and the Bandit II. As it turned out, they were filming that race scene for the movie during this real race and much of the footage was real (including when that KW smacked the wall). It was hot as Hades for the race, so Bette put a bag of ice cubes under her straw cowboy hat to keep cool.
Being in the right place at the right time, they were on the infield when Jerry Reed rolled up in a big shiny new GMC General. While he sat there waiting for directions from director Hal Needham, people (fans) started climbing up on the running boards and Bette was clicking away. When the movie came out, Bette and D went to see it together and Bette was in a brief scene. The sequence that Bette was in was Jerry Reed “winning” the race (in reality, Jerry drove the start lap with all the rest of the race trucks behind him). No one else would have known that it was Bette in the movie because her face was covered with her camera as she shot pictures – but the two of them knew. Can you imagine what it would have been like to really be there? There was a lot of hoopla for that movie back then.
Bette’s nieces, Jenny and Stacy Friedman, told me that when they were with her at different events it felt like she was a “rock star” in the trucking community. Everyone either knew Bette or wanted to know her, and they all wanted her to shoot their truck. Jenny and Stacy were both with her at the last show she attended, in Kasson, MN, and they cherish the memories of the time they got to share with their beloved aunt, watching her do what she loved doing so much. Who knew these would be her last few pictures.
Bette’s assistant, Nikki Owens, began working for Bette in 1998. Nikki said, “Coming to work each day was a mystery. You really didn’t know what that day would bring or what to expect.” Nikki worked in Bette’s office at her home – an office that, to the untrained eye, looked in total disarray, but it was really a well-organized space. The only thing Bette always seemed to have a hard time finding was her car keys – this huge ring of keys often eluded her. I remember Bette telling me how much she loved her short “commute” to work every day – out of the kitchen, through the breezeway, and into the office!
Bette started shooting her pictures decades before Photoshop even existed. Today, people can improve their photos after the fact by cropping them and recomposing them on a computer, but not Bette. Bette shot on slide film, which meant she had to compose each shot in the camera as she took it. She had an eye for this, and part of her genius was being able to see how a truck would look best – as a small part of a greater scene, or filling the entire frame nose to tail. She also knew when to shoot just a single key detail – a blurred tail light, a glint of chrome or a driver’s intense expression – to evoke a certain feeling. That was her art.
I don’t think anyone could have summed it up better than Nikki. Bette truly loved what she did and she loved every trucker’s life and family she had the privilege to write about. The pleasure she received by writing these stories was incredible and captivating to watch. Bette always wrote with facts, confidence and conviction, and would never compromise her integrity or trust. Other than Bette’s passion for what she did, what always amazed me was how honored she was when these truckers would allow her to write about them. They thought the world of Bette, and loved her genuine interest in them, their trucks and their jobs. She made them feel famous and on top of the world, and for that, they were forever grateful to her.
But Bette, in her passionate but humble way, always saw each and every one of these truckers she shot as a hero. Bette was the one who was honored and blessed. And blessed she was – with a successful career that she truly loved, that enabled her to touch so many people so deeply. Bette is missed by many, and admired by many many more – myself included, for sure. On these pages is just a tiny sampling of some of the neat old photos I recently found in Bette’s collection. Enjoy.