March 2019 – West Cole

It has become a ritual of sorts late on Friday night of Alberta Big Rig Weekend, after the lighted truck parade, to wander over to West Cole’s parking spot with a beverage in hand. It is a popular spot where you can join in the fun of watching him, with a bucket of black paint, attacking the deck and frame of his deck truck. There is always a crowd there as people come and go and they all have more than enough “helpful” comments on how he should do the job and what he may be doing wrong at that particular moment. But don’t feel sorry for West – he has a great sense of humour and definitely gives as good as he gets. This is his story:

My name is Westley Jamieson Cole (West) and I drive a tow deck truck. I was born December 3rd, 1967 on a chilly day in Winnipeg Manitoba. I guess that goes without saying because between October and March there aren’t many days in Winnipeg that aren’t chilly. After I was born I was sent to Surrey BC where I was raised in a loving foster home.  Growing up in the deHaan family was great. There were 11 of us siblings and I was the baby.  The deHaan’s had 4 boys and 3 girls of their own and they also took in 5 foster kids including me and my half-sister.

Mom was a stay at home mom and she worked hard keeping us all clean and fed. Dad was a very strong Dutchman with Christian views and twice every Sunday he would pack us all off to the Canadian Reform Church on 124th and 96th Avenue in Surrey.

He was a driving instructor who also taught others how to be instructors as well. Part of his job was to teach specialized driving for firemen, police and ambulance drivers. After Dad retired he went back as a driving instructor at Burnaby North High School. Interestingly enough, one day, one of his students came by for his driving lesson and it turned out to be the future Canadian rock star, Brian Adams.

Dad taught of us kids to drive in the normal structured way – except for me that is. I learned in the Fraser Canyon. Before I get into that I want to explain that Dad had a big old red four-door Grande Marque with a 500 engine that he used to pull a 28-foot bumper travel trailer. If that sounds to you like a lot of trailer for that car in most cases you would be right but Dad didn’t want a pick-up so he had Vic at the Chevron do a lot of work on the car Air shocks, heavier springs, sway bars, he did everything he could in order to make it safe.

Anyway, on one summer holiday, I was in the car with my Mom, Dad, three brothers and my sister. We were heading up the Fraser Canyon dragging that heavy old travel trailer behind us. When we got to the pull out at the bottom of Jackass Mountain Dad asked who wanted to drive. “I do, I do” I hollered over the back seat. So Dad told me to get up front beside him and he would let me drive as far as the pull out at the top of the hill. The old Marque had a bench seat and my mom was fast asleep on the passenger side. So I crawled over the seat while dad slid over close to mom. Of course I had been watching my dad drive for years and being given the opportunity to drive that car and trailer up the hill, even if it was for a very short distance, put me over the top. I was stoked and couldn’t wait to tell the kids at school what I had done. Well by the time we got to the top of the hill dad was fast asleep too and he didn’t wake up until we were in Cache Creek. Oops! I guess you could say that things were a lot different back then….

That trip was a turning point for me. Like any kid given that opportunity, I found that I loved driving and from that day on I always had my eyes glued to the car window, watching all the cars and trucks on the road. It got so that I could tell the make of any car or truck from what seemed like a mile away. Then one day while I was on the school bus I saw a big blue Kenworth LW and the name on the door said Tumbleweed Transport. That truck was huge and it really made an impression on me and I swore right then and there that I was gonna grow up to be like that driver. After that first sighting, I looked for that truck whenever I was out and I saw it many times after that.

Then one day when I was about 16 years old I was sitting in Smitty’s in Langley when I finally had the chance to meet Al McMartin, the owner of Tumbleweed Transport. Smitty’s was kind of a local hangout for truckers and working guys at the time and I can’t remember exactly how it happened but somehow I ended up sitting at the cool table where Al was sitting. Little did I know back then how much Al would impact my life.

When I got out of school I worked in a warehouse where I did all the regular warehouse work and a little welding but it wasn’t for me – I really wanted to be around trucks. In  1986 when I was 19 years old I went to Shawnee driving school to get my class one. Funny as it may seem the instructor at Shawnee, Ed Wiebe,  was a man that my father had taught to drive.

In 1988 my daughter Rachelle was born. Since then she has gone from a beautiful little girl to a very smart woman. She lives in Edmonton and has given me three beautiful little grandchildren.

One day I was up in north Langley talking to a guy we called Stubby. Stubby was a tow truck driver and while I was there he got a call out to do a tow. He asked me if I wanted to go with him and I jumped at the chance. So away we went in his Western Star tow truck to pick up a broken down insulation truck. On our way to get it we had to go through a new subdivision. This subdivision was up above another one that the truck was in and when we looked down an embankment we could see it on a street down below. Stubby could easily have just drove down the street to get the truck but no way, he just cranked the wheel and took a bumpy short cut down the embankment.

I thought, “Wow, this is great! I could do this job!” That week I applied at Clover Towing and got a job driving a 1-ton 350 Ford pull-truck with a Holmes 480 twin line twin boom. There wasn’t much training in those days, there were no wheel dollies, so you were told to either pick the car up from the front or from the back and were cut loose. I drove that ratty old thing for 6 months before they gave me another 350 this time with an electric wheel lift.

All the while that I worked at Clover I still had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to drive truck. So one day when I was about 21 years old I went and talked to Al McMartin. Well, he took me under his wing and wanted to teach me everything about trucking. How a truck worked from the engine to the suspension, the transmission and the rear ends. He explained all the different combinations and how they worked together. He also told me that if you looked and listened your truck would talk to you, telling you when something was going wrong. He taught me to investigate things like new rattles no matter how faint, vibrations that were new and small cracks in the frame or body. Those lessons still help me daily as I hear, see, and feel things that I think a lot of people would never notice or would ignore until they became big problems. He taught me about loads and tying them down and some of the trips he had taken. To be totally honest I was a little intimidated by it all and so I decided to stay towing for a while longer.

When I left Clover I went to work for Don Crabb at Bayview Towing and stayed there for 6 years. While there I trained the current owner of Bayview, Cory Rushinko, to be a tow truck driver. We got along great and I know I could go back there any time I like.

One day while at Bayview I got what I like to call my “Don’t lie to the tow truck Gods” tow job. I was called down to the Peach Arch Border crossing near Blaine Washington where I was to pick up a Porsche 911 that had broken down. It was a pretty routine job, I put it up on the dolly and delivered it to the Porsche dealership in Vancouver for repairs. The guy seemed like a nice enough guy but the next day the owner of Bayview, Don Crabb, got a call from the guys saying that I had damaged a wheel. The problem was that it is virtually impossible to damage a wheel because you pick up the wheel and strap the tires down, you don’t go near or have anything to do with the wheels.  But the boss bought him a new wheel anyway because he did not want to tarnish his name. The good part was that the next week I got another call to go get a Porsche 911 that had been totalled when it was rolled into a ditch on the 99. When I got there, sure enough, it was the same guy. I had a smile a mile long when I told him, “Next time don’t lie or Karma will get you again.”

I bounced around and finally went to work for Bill Gibbs at Coastline Towing where I drove a picker truck. It was an old GMC C-60 flat deck with a gravity tilt deck and an Atlas Crane in front of the deck. I also worked for Rick Moroz at D&R Towing. Rick was a tough man to work for but while he worked us hard it was a fair trade as we made lots of money working for him.

I left town after a while and worked for worked for Reny and Dean Johnson who owned Cariboo Towing at 150 Mile House just 10 miles south of Williams Lake. They were great to work for and it helped me by furthering my education in the trade.

I never did do a lot of highway driving although I did some work for Nor-Am Enterprises out of Williams Lake. It was strange how it happened as I originally was applying for a job as a dispatcher but when I walked in they were too busy to talk to me and a lease operator asked me if I could take the Kamloops run for the day. I said I would and, for my maiden voyage, he put me in a 2000 Western Star pulling a b-train with 63500 kg of lumber. He told me to go south and then take Highway 24 south of Hundred Mile House over to Little Fort on Hwy 5 and then head south to Kamloops from there. Before I left he told me that there was a brake check on the big hill just before little Fort and he warned me to make sure I pulled in and checked my brakes. As it happened when I got to the hill there was a blinding snowstorm and I missed the brake check. I did not realize it until I was over the hill and on the way down. It was too late to do anything by then and I lit all the brakes up on the way down. The only reason I survived was that I knew how to use the trailer spike brake. When I got to Kamloops I had to go in and have all the brakes on both the truck and the trailer replaced.

When I got back to Williams Lake I decided I didn’t want to be a dispatcher so I applied for the driving job. The guy asked me what I did yesterday and I told him I drove the truck down to Kamloops. He said, ‘You cost me all my brakes didn’t you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Next time that happens you can just keep on going but I think you have learned your lesson so until then, go ahead, you’ve got a job.”

While there I went through some real personal hard times and in 2009 I ended up in Edmonton with only a backpack of clothes and the will to start anew. I got a job right away with Cliff’s towing but it was an eye-opener as it turned out it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t Cliff’s towing that was the problem it was the fact that towing was so much different in Alberta than in BC. There was way too much paperwork and while I did okay I was spending too much time doing paperwork instead of towing so I wasn’t making the money that I was in BC.

I was asked by Rob Dunn to come to work for Volvo Rents I agreed to work for him and he bought me a brand new Granite Mack deck truck. The Mack was a little too plain for me so I turned it into a show truck and took it to Alberta Big Rig Weekend in Red Deer. On August 31st 2013 Michele and I got married at her uncle’s farm and since everyone knew my truck I parked it in the ditch as a marker so that the guests would know where to turn to get to the farm.  Ever since then Michelle’s daughters, my step-daughters, Jade, Amber and Robin have always helped me keep my trucks looking good. Jade is a red seal industrial painter and she does all my painting and pin-striping. Unfortunately a little later Volvo Rents was bought out by a larger corporation and closed its doors. I didn’t want to work for a big company so once again I looked for other work.

I dropped in at Omega Towing to see if they needed another driver and they said that they had heard of me and offered me a job right away. I told them that I would work for them but have 2 weekends a year that I want off. One is for the Alberta Big Rig Weekend and the other is for the Lesco show. They said, “But the truck you will be driving is not a show truck” and I said, “It may not be one now but just watch me.” It was my own personal, “Here hold my beer” moment.

Over the 3 or 4 months, I had it painted, put pin-striping on it and then went to work on the lights. I added extra strobe lights, put lights behind the grill, behind the cab and on the back to name a few. I followed that with light bars underneath, wheel nut covers and centre caps. The boss was really good about it and paid for everything but my labour. Which was just fine with me. Of course, it is still a truck so there is always some work to do on it.

They gave me the go ahead and I’ve been hitting the shows ever since. I’ve had a couple 2nd place finishes and a 1st in lights but I’m still chasing that elusive 1st place finish at Alberta Big Rig Weekend.

I’ve been here at Omega for nearly three years now and have never looked back. I’ve never worked for anyone that I have enjoyed working for as much as these guys – it is the family I’ve been looking for. I drive the “Tow-Ma-Tow,” a 2015 Freightliner with a 30-ton deck.

This industry has been good to me but it comes with some hardships even if they are only in my head. The things that we tow truck drivers see when attending wrecks are horrible and at times hard to get out of your mind. I’ve lifted cars out of ditches to recover bodies beneath them and have helped find body parts at some of the more severe wrecks. I was warned when I first started in the towing industry that I would see some horrific things and that you just have to try to bury some of them. That sounds good on paper but at times it can be very difficult to do.

As I mentioned earlier I didn’t know back when I was a punk kid, staring out the back window of the school bus at that big blue Kenworth LW, just how much Al McMartin and Tumbleweed Transport would have an effect on my life. I learned a lot from him and like to think that, with his guidance, I have become a lot like him. He taught me to listen to and feel my truck as well as to be a conscientious driver. I am always on time and I have built a bit of a reputation for being a good experienced flat deck driver. I get all sorts of calls from guys who have been told that if they run into problems to give me a call because I will help them get their load on, or off, the truck. I take a lot of pride having built that reputation. My dispatcher also gets a lot of requests for me to pick up customers stuff and this too makes me proud. It’s good to be appreciated and have a spot in this world.

In closing all I really have to say is that I love my job and have since day one – for that reason I can honestly say I have never worked a day in my life. Towing is not for everyone but, like any driving job, you have to like what you do and take pride in how you do it in order to be successful.