Hardship divides a family

Byron Gamble is no longer in the driver's seat.

A 10-year employee of FedEx Corp., he lost his delivery route last year after a long absence to mend an injured back. Since then, the married father of four has watched his career and finances skid.

Gamble's wife, Angela, still has her FedEx job as a shuttle driver picking up freight from local airports. But her $25,000 annual salary isn't nearly enough to keep up with the bills.

The couple have spent most of the $30,000 they had saved for a down payment on a home. Gamble sold his 2005 Nissan Altima to raise cash; he now drives a 16-year-old Volkswagen Jetta whose driver's side door is held shut with bungee cords. No longer able to afford rent, the Gambles moved out of their roomy townhome in Westchester.

Relatives were willing to take them in, but none had room for a family of five. Gamble, 31, now lives with an aunt in Los Angeles. Angela and the children, the youngest of whom is 6 years old, are staying with her parents.

The homes are just eight minutes apart. But for a family man like Gamble the gulf is wide and painful. He misses the daily ebb and flow, all the little moments that add up to a life together. He said the separation left him feeling like a parent who has only visitation rights.

"We used to sit down and read together, as a family, every day. We would watch television together. I could walk over to my children's rooms and look in on them any time I wanted," Gamble said. "I miss my wife. I miss the pillow talk with my wife."

Desperate to draw a paycheck again, Gamble sought FedEx work in other states, including Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. But the overnight delivery industry was in the throes of a downturn from which it is still recovering. FedEx didn't need him. He tried UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. They told him they weren't hiring either.

When he called about an opening for a trash truck driver in Culver City he was told that 3,000 people had already applied.

"I've been willing to take big cuts in what I used to earn and it hasn't helped," Gamble said. "I was willing to move to any state where I had relatives."

Hustling packages through Southern California traffic isn't everyone's idea of a dream job. Gamble, a beefy former football player, loved the work, and not just for the middle-class paycheck.

"I had a lot of freedom. I could decide when to take my breaks. I didn't have managers hovering over me," Gamble said. "And I really liked my customers. They were all good people."

Gamble can barely remember a time when he wasn't working. When he was in high school he had part-time jobs as an usher at a movie theater and as a cashier at a Taco Bell drive-through. Those jobs taught him time management and discipline, but the late nights took a toll. He remembers a football teammate once slipping him an energy drink at halftime so that he wouldn't fall asleep during the game.

"My coach used to joke with me that I was already working like I was married and had kids," Gamble said.

That responsibility now weighs heavily on Gamble, who is trying to retool his career with training. He completed a one-week boot camp for hospitality workers but has been unable to land anything in the hotel business. He then completed a truck driving certification course that has qualified him to drive big rigs. But a record number of trucking companies went out of business in 2009. Those that are hiring want seasoned drivers.

"That training cost me $2,200 of our savings. I thought it would get me a job, but there's been nothing," he said. "How am I supposed to show what I can do?"

In the meantime, Gamble has dusted off his old football skills and is officiating Pop Warner youth football games for $45 a game. High school games pay a little better at $75 each. When he allows himself the luxury of a daydream, he imagines himself wearing those referee pinstripes as a professional, officiating at San Diego Chargers or Oakland Raiders games "and getting paid a whole lot more than $45."

One thing he won't do is allow himself to be discouraged. He has too many people depending on him.

Gamble recently learned that Robertson's Transport, a Rialto-based trucking company, was accepting applications.

Rather than fill out a form online and hit the send button, Gamble borrowed his wife's Honda Odyssey, piled his three youngest children inside and drove to Rialto to submit his application in person.

Round trip the journey was 144 miles.

"I think they were a little shocked I drove that far, with three kids, but this is serious," said Gamble, who's still waiting to hear if he got the job. "I'm not playing around here."