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My Mentor: A Head Start

by Greg Swain

In a way, I could blame my entire career as a trucker on the Doyle family. Larry's daughter convinced me to change my destination from Vancouver to Prince George. His nephew offered me my first job on tractor-trailer. His brother eventually hired me to operate other off-highway equipment. Another nephew became my best trucking bud. His sister-in-law invited me for dinner my first Christmas away from home. But Larry Doyle was my first mentor.

On the face of it he could best be described as the proverbial redneck. Larry was a gnarled, brush-cut, 52-year-old son of a stubble jumper who had logged with horses in Saskatchewan when they still had trees there. He carried White Owl cigars by the carton in the glove box of his Kenworth, and he knew that truck better than most mechanics. But despite my ponytail, unkempt facial hair, and the habit I had of making what for him would have been a victory sign with my fingers, he took me under his wing without prejudice. Larry has a heart the size of Hudson's Bay and the patience of a glacier.

During the three months we spent sharing a motel room on the outskirts of Prince George he never once allowed me to pick up the tab for a meal or pay part of the rent. "You're just startin' out," he'd say. "You can't afford it." He was right, of course, but that didn't make me feel any less indebted. The one time I paid for dinner, by pretending to go to the can, he was genuinely hurt.

For the first month I spent weekdays running the logging roads with Larry. He answered all of my questions without laughing at my ignorance. He showed me the position of every grease nipple on truck and trailer, but more importantly he taught me how to look for where grease nipples should be. On weekends we did routine maintenance, oil changes, tire repairs, and welding. Never once did he lose his cool or take the Lord's name in vain.

At the beginning of the second month Richard, his nephew, offered me my own truck. I needed the clutch adjusted within a week. My only experience had been on a gas straight truck and I didn't fully comprehend the difference between gas and diesel yet.

"Probably better if you don't use the clutch," said Richard. "You'll be on the mountain when the snow flies in a few months anyway. Sometimes you have to make a shift so fast to keep from spinning out you don't have time to use it."

Luckily, Larry was there for me at the end of each day. I'd noticed he always double-clutched every shift and asked about it. "Well," he said thoughtfully, "If you make the right shift at the right time, ain't no reason to shift so fast as to not need a clutch." And when I was faced with the challenge of my first 5&4 he explained those transmissions in such a way that I learned how to shift it without breaking something.

It was an emotionally awkward moment when the fork in our road finally came, as all such moments are for most men. Larry had given me a three-month head start in life so a simple "Thanks, I'll see you later" wasn't going to cut it. I unbuckled my belt and removed the knife that hung beside the leather pouch for my Zippo.

That blade had opened packages, sliced food, cleaned my fingernails, whittled away hours on the road, carved my initials, pointed tent pegs, shaved kindling, removed slivers, and comforted me while I slept in dark ditches hitchhiking west. It had also become an indispensable tool in my new career as a truck driver. It was my most valued earthly possession. At first he adamantly refused, but then I reminded him of the one and only time I paid for dinner.

I logged for three years but almost two decades passed beneath my wheels before I saw Larry again. Trucking's like that. He was sitting with another young buck in a truckstop on the Yellowhead Highway in the foothills of Alberta. Although he didn't seem quite as large as I remembered I recognized him right away, even before I noticed the pack of White Owls in his pen pocket.

"It's all your fault," I said from 10 feet away, then flashed him the two-finger salute that had earned me my first handle: The Hippie.

He squinted, as if driving into the sun. "You finally got a hair cut," he said, sounding much like my father. "Maybe you could learn to shave too." His quick smile still tickled my heart and the years between us evaporated like spilled methyl hydrate on skin.

Eventually we stood in the parking lot amid the rumble of idling diesels and admired each other's rig. We said farewell with much less awkwardness this time. As I turned to leave he touched my arm.

"I still have that knife you gave me," he said. "The handle broke off a few years back but I like the shape of the blade. It's perfect for certain things, so it still has a place on my work bench at home. Used it just the other day..."

I tapped my right temple with the index finger of that hand and replied, "If I didn't still have what you gave me, my friend, I wouldn't be standing here shooting the breeze. And I use it every day."

Now, by a strange twist of fate, I train transport drivers in Toronto. I teach my students how to look for where the grease nipples should be. But I also try to pass something else along, an intangible quality I learned without words in the cab of Larry's Kenworth. There's a difference between style and substance. However, when you get good at a special skill, they become the same thing. That's Larry Doyle.

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