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When he earned high marks in truck drivers' school last summer, David Essek thought that his family was finally on the road to financial security.

Even after he lost his grip and fell one day while climbing into the cab of a tractor-trailer and subsequently was found to have myotonic dystrophy, a mild form of muscular dystrophy, he didn't see it as a serious obstacle in his new career path.

The symptoms included finger spasms that made it difficult to hold things. He also had an irregular heartbeat. But specialists told him that the problems would not worsen, and by taking medication to relieve the spasms, he proved capable of handling the biggest rigs on the highway.

He went on to register a perfect score in the school's driver rodeo, received his diploma and passed the state-required physical exam.

"I was overjoyed," says Essek, 33, who previously tried to support his wife, Jackie, and their six children by stocking shelves in a department store and supermarket. His take-home pay from the last of those jobs was a paltry $70 a week.

Armed with his trucker's certification and new confidence, he knocked on the door of an Illinois-based carrier. But when he listed his affliction on the job application, the company made him take a new physical that focused on his limitations. He wasn't able to pass.

The job search since then has led to one closed door after another.

"Nobody wants to take a chance. They don't think he can handle trucks," Jackie Essek says.

"It scares them off," her husband says.

Now,he faces having to start all over again in some other field.

Heading the list of debts piled up in the Essek household are the $4,000 student loan David took out to attend drivers' school. The family had to move recently after Jackie's father died and the house he had let them use was sold. Their new residence in the Bailey-Lovejoy section costs $425 a month, a steep price for a family of virtually no means.

Desperate, the Esseks reluctantly applied for public assistance.

"We don't want to live like that," Jackie Essek says with a frown.

The mother "does a better job of taking care of her kids, with no money, than lots of people who have an income," says a social worker familiar with the family's plight.

But even the welfare system hasn't responded. More than two months after filling out the requisite forms, the Esseks have yet to receive a check. They have had to eat mostly at food kitchens.

Yet Elizabeth, 12; Benjamin, 9; Rachel, 8; Miriam, 7; Charity, 4, and Sarah, 9 months, expect a normal Christmas full of warmth, laughter and presents to open.

"One of my daughters went to Santa's workshop at school, and he told her she could have a new bicycle for Christmas. Now, she's expecting one," David Essek says.

"The kids don't understand," his wife adds.

"Christmas probably will be a $19 tree. Then we'll have to figure out how to pay for lights," says David Essek.

The Esseks are hoping against hope that the first welfare check will land in the mailbox within the next few days, enabling them to buy much-needed winter boots for the children.

That would at least break the string of defeats for this hard-luck family.

David Essek, meanwhile, still hopes that some truck line will take a chance on him.

His myotonic dystrophy "isn't incapacitating," he says.

"I can't do much heavy handling because of my hands, but drivers often hire other people to do bull work for them, anyway. Why couldn't I do the same?"

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