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A new sense of direction found behind the wheel

Jim “Gunny” O’Brien spends hours on Whidbey Roads driving a taxi. He says driving a taxi is better than watching Jerry Springer. - Rick Levin
Jim “Gunny” O’Brien spends hours on Whidbey Roads driving a taxi. He says driving a taxi is better than watching Jerry Springer.
— image credit: Rick Levin

Call him Gunny.

That’s the nickname Oak Harbor taxi driver Jim O’Brien has gone by since his stint in the military, when he served as gunnery sergeant for the US Marine Corps. And you might considered it a testament to O’Brien’s unique character that Gunny isn’t the only term of endearment dogging him since his early days in uniform. Due to an incident involving an early morning hang-over and an officer who refused to let him bag out on running laps, O’Brien’s friends also know him fondly as Six-Pack.

As in: “Okay, Six-Pack, let’s go! Hup hup!”

These are the kinds of charming and mildly self-deprecating stories you might hear when you flag a ride in Gunny’s cab. As a driver for Whidbey Island Taxi Service, O’Brien values the personal experience of his work over any consideration of profit motive. He loves to talk, to joke around and to discover the interests and concerns of his customers. The wage, he claims, is a secondary consideration.

“You don’t make money on this job,” said O’Brien. “You have fun. It’s better than watching Jerry Springer.”

Such a carefree attitude may spring from the difficulties O’Brien has had to overcome. As a young man, he served as a bush Marine for 13 months during the Vietnam war, where he had “bad experiences” that are only now beginning to come back to him. There have also been ongoing health problems, which culminated in heart surgery during March of last year. For a long time, O’Brien was on disability, forced to use a walker and unable to work. To hear him speak of it, these were not good times. He was often depressed.

O’Brien’s troubles began to take a turn for the good when his friend, George “J.R” Bissitt, made him an offer he obviously couldn’t refuse. Bissitt, who owns and operates Whidbey Island Taxi, gave Gunny a job and a new sense of direction.

“J.R. told me to get off the walker, and he put me to work,” said O’Brien.

The positive effects were immediate. Suddenly, O’Brien was able to combine his passion for driving with his love of people. What’s more, his health improved. Now he’s walking on his own two feet.

“My doctor says I’ve never looked so good,” said the 61-year-old O’Brien. “I feel pretty good, all things considered. It’s gotta be the fresh air.”

O’Brien works five or six days a week, mostly during daylight hours. He doesn’t like to drive at night, even though business tends to pick up after the sun sets. On average, he said he gets between 15 and 20 fares a day, a lot of which are regulars. Though he usually only works an 8 hour day, every once in a while he’ll clock a 12 hour shift.

“That gets to be a little too long,” he said. “It cuts into my cocktail hour.”

When he’s not pulling a shift, or when business is slow, O’Brien prefers to hang out with his girlfriend of 11 years, Connie. He also enjoys kicking around pawn shops, browsing for movies on video. And a little while back, a friend helped O’Brien purchase a computer, on which he’s been surfing the Internet in his spare time. In fact, his new-found connection to the world-wide web recently had surprising results.

“I met my son again after six years over the Internet,” O’Brien said. All it took, he said, was his daughter sending him his estranged son’s e-mail address. Next thing he knew, O’Brien was receiving photo scans of his son’s family, grandkids included.

For the holiday season, O’Brien has taken to wearing a Santa hat while he motors his cab around Whidbey Island. He said the Christmasy outfit seems to cheer people up, to make them feel better if they happen to be down. In one instance, O’Brien’s fuzzy red cap even inspired a burst of spontaneous song.

“I had a couple girls in here singing Christmas carols about a week or two ago,” he said.

O’Brien said he’ll keep driving his taxi until he’s too old to do it anymore, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him. It’s not every day that you find a job with the power to turn your life around.

“I love this job,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think I could handle an office job.”

He certainly wouldn’t have the same opportunity to see new faces and hear new stories if he were stuck in a cubicle. And, for O’Brien, it’s the camaraderie that keeps him going.

“I like people, mainly,” he said. “What is it Will Rogers once said? ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’ That’s how I feel.”

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