Chapter 6: Becoming a Silver Arrow
"Read this pamphlet over, Mr. Hansen. Before you even sign up for our course, we will want you to have a full medical with one of our approved doctors. That's a state requirement."
"Yes, I understand. If you give me the list of doctors, I'll make an appointment right away and then we can talk again."
I had been interviewed by Terry Jackson, son of the owner of Jackson Driving School and V.P. of Training. He was not much older than me and, while very pleasant to talk to, he was very thorough, going over my background and why I would want to acquire a Commercial Drivers License. He seemed to accept me, especially when I was frank about my medical situation and that I wouldn't want the responsibility of driving any kind of bus if I wasn't physically up to it.
"I'll look forward to seeing you back here when you get the all-clear, Mr. Hansen."
"Not as much as I'll look forward to starting on my new career," I grinned.
We parted with a handshake and I headed for the house to make an appointment with one of the doctors.
I was rightly nervous about the medical. They could disqualify me on medical grounds if they thought that either of my medical conditions would be a hazard as a driver. I wasn't sure how that would be the case, but I wasn't able to read their minds, so I was at their mercy.
"You're quite a remarkable case, Mr. Hansen," Doctor Ballantyne told me. "Your oxygen capacity is within normal range and I don't detect any other issues relating to your lungs. You are in very good physical condition. I don't see the stomach and intestine issues being a problem as long as you maintain your diet regimen. You have seven months of self-monitoring under your belt and both your surgeon in Minneapolis and I agree that you've done exactly what was required to make as full a recovery as possible. I don't see any reason why I can't recommend you to Mr. Jackson's firm for training."
"That's great, doctor. I really appreciate it. I'll probably need that report when I apply for a job."
"I'd like to give you a brief checkup then, but I don't expect I'll have any problem providing you with an okay."
"Thank you again," I said, shaking his hand and making my way out of his office.
I was excited that the biggest obstacle was out of the way. Now, it was back to school. This time, it would be a very special school.
I was sitting in front of Terry Jackson the next morning.
"Well, your medical looks fine, so when can you be available to start the course?"
"Right away," I answered immediately.
He laughed. "Well, we don't have one scheduled until next month, but I'll add you to the list of students. I'll need the first month's payment in advance, please."
I wrote him a check for the amount and he passed me a signed receipt and another pamphlet.
"That book outlines the course in detail for each section. You're going to find a couple of underlying themes throughout all our sessions. The first is safety. The other is preventive maintenance. We don't expect you to become a mechanic, but we do want you to be able to identify what's happening on your equipment at all times. That awareness could prevent an accident from happening."
"So it isn't all just about driving the bus, then," I said, stating the obvious.
"Not at all. Think of yourself as a pilot. The safety and comfort of your passengers is in your hands. It's all well and good to be a skillful driver, but it's just as important to be a safe one at the same time. That's what you'll hear us preach over the next three months."
I should have recorded Terry's words that morning. They were absolutely true in every respect. My driving instructor wouldn't even let me open the door to the bus until I had done a "walk around." It was an inspection of the outside of the vehicle that was focused on tires and lights, as well as anything that might need attention. Cargo doors that didn't latch properly or easily. License tags and plates had to be current. Inspection decals had to be current.
It wasn't until the third day that I even learned how to start the bus. I spent the entire second day with my instructor, going over the rules of the road and where they varied, state to state. I was expected to learn this and know it before I moved the bus. My instructor was Reilly Hitchcock, a veteran driver who claimed to have something close to a million miles on the road. He had driven for Greyhound before taking an early retirement and joining Jackson.
I'm not sure why, but I was surprised as just how easy it was for me to maneuver the bus. Power steering and an automatic transmission helped, of course. But I seemed to have the knack of knowing just how big the bus was in length and width. Even though I was sitting ahead of the front axle, I was able to make good judgments about turning sharp corners and backing into tight slots. Most of the work was within plastic cones to start with, but when we went out on a tour around the outskirts of the city, I found it didn't make much difference. I could read my mirrors and make a good decision without having to make a lot of back-and-forth corrections.
Reilly tried to stymie me a couple of times and succeeded once. But once was enough for me to learn not to get trapped again. Blind alleys with no turning spots in the dark of night were the most difficult. Luckily, the buses had good backup lighting and a rear TV camera to show the way. But it wasn't easy and I learned to take it very slowly. Reilly complimented me on my ability not to get frustrated, but work my way out of tight spots logically.
I completed the course in mid-July and while there was no merit badge for top student, Reilly quietly let me know he had ranked me first in class. It was something I could keep to myself and share only with Diane. Well, maybe I'd tell the children too.
I had a lot of confidence when I walked into the offices of Silver Arrow Tours. I had my medical certificate and my driving certificate. Surely they would hire me immediately. Well, not so fast.
"Naturally, we'll want to test you, Mr. Hansen," Warren Cloutier told me when I handed him my application. "We have eight or nine people applying for the three openings, so we want to make sure we get the cream of the crop."
"Yes, of course, I understand," I said, my heart sinking a little. I hadn't expected it to be a competition. "I was wondering, Mr. Cloutier, how many drivers work for Silver Arrow Tours?"
"Right now, we have forty-one, not including the three we intend to hire. We've lost one man to a medical condition, one has retired, and we're in the process of expanding our charter operations, so we're hiring to cover that."
"When will you be doing the testing?"
"We will call you next week and let you know when to come in. You will be evaluated on driving skill, safety procedures, mechanical aptitude, general appearance, and of course, attitude. We are a service organization, so our drivers must be 'customer friendly, '" he smiled.
I drove to the house feeling a little let down. I guess I thought that just completing the course would be enough for them to hire me, but it looked like I was going to have to go through another round of tests. I'd better be prepared. I wanted to be one of the chosen three.
"How was the interview?" Diane asked as I came in the door.
"Uhhm ... fine. I have to get tested by them sometime next week. It's a competition among ten of us for three jobs," I said quietly, dropping down into my usual kitchen chair. "I should have expected that."
Diane walked to me and wrapped her arms round me, giving me her usual welcome home hug.
"You'll do fine," she said, her hand under my jaw and tilting my face up to hers. "Just be the man I know you are and you will be one of the three. I know it."
If Diane believed in me, then who was I to be worried about the outcome? I needed to believe in myself and hope that attitude came across with all my other accomplishments during the course. I had aced the course, why wouldn't I ace the competition?
The competition covered both driving skill and technique as well as my ability to deal with customers. I had confidence in my driving, but worried about my personal interaction with the passengers who were added to the testing. It was obvious they had been coached to perform in a certain manner to assess my patience and ability to cope under pressure.
I never saw the other men who were being tested so I had no idea how I had performed in comparison. I did my best and then had to wait to see what management's evaluation would be.
They posted the names of the successful candidates on a bulletin board in the outer office. I was so nervous I was almost afraid to look. But when I did, there I was, number three on a list of three. I was requested to report to Mr. Cloutier at two o'clock that afternoon for my formal hiring at Silver Arrow Tours. That left me plenty of time to phone Diane.
"Yeah, I'm in. I won the prize. I have a job and a future. I'm higher than a kite right now and I haven't even had my second cup of coffee," I chuckled.
"I'm very proud of you, Doug. You wanted this and you went for it and you got it. That's wonderful. You'll get your proper reward later today," she promised.
"Isn't it strange? All this came about because of an accident. Something I had no control over. It must be fate or something. I had to go through hell to get to here. Losing you was the worst, but throw in the hospital stay and I think it might have been easy to give up."
"I think that's the big difference I see, Doug. You didn't give up. You knew what you wanted and you went for it. And now that you've got it, I'm betting you'll hold onto it with all your might."
"Well, I'm going to prove you right in every way, Diane. I'll be home this afternoon and we can talk about what their plans for me are."
"I'll be here, waiting," she said. I could hear the smile in her voice.
"Come in, Doug," Warren Cloutier said with a smile. "Congratulations on being selected to join Silver Arrow."
We shook hands and he indicated where I should sit.
"I'm really pleased I was selected," I said as I began to relax.
"We've always had high standards, Doug, and if you've been chosen, you've proven you meet those standards. I have some paperwork for you to fill out to formalize your employment, so let's get started."
And that was my introduction to my new job. I had achieved my goal and I took a great deal of pride in that. It wasn't easy, but as I quickly realized, winning that competition gave me a great sense of achievement.
I got my usual welcoming hug and kiss from Diane when I bounced into the house that afternoon.
"The shiny new driver for Silver Arrow has arrived," I announced as I swung Diane around in my arms. I might only be five-seven, but Diane was five-two and weighed about one-ten. She was easy to pick up and hold.
"Congratulations, Doug. I knew you could do it. I'm proud of you and the children will be too."
I was on a high and full of energy. I had a job and I had my first assignment. I would be riding with a proven professional and an experienced tour guide for my first trip. I would drive part of the time, but only after I got used to how the drivers and tour guides handled the passengers. They couldn't teach all the permutations and combinations of people that we would encounter, so this time experience would be my instructor.
"Our first trip is a 'blue rinse' tour to Charleston," I announced.
"What's a 'blue rinse' tour?" Diane asked.
I laughed. "That's what the drivers and tour guides call a tour with elderly women. We'll be gone five days. We overnight in Asheville, North Carolina, spend two nights in Charleston, then head back with an overnight in Knoxville and then a short run home. We leave Monday morning."
"You're all excited about this, aren't you," she smiled.
"You know it. I've got a lot to learn, but I'm really looking forward to it."
I would be home for another four nights before my first tour was scheduled. Plenty of time to get myself prepared. I would be in the Silver Arrow office on Friday for a briefing with the tour guide and the driver. I was to be fitted for my uniform, and I wanted to know what I should bring with me for the trip besides my bathroom kit.
Warren Cloutier took me around and introduced me to the people I would be working with. Seth Miller was head of maintenance and I was sure I would be seeing him often. Wendy Wallington supervised the tour guides, both men and women. I met a number of drivers and tour guides, but I probably wouldn't remember their names until I got more time on the job.
Warren arranged for direct deposit of my salary.
"When you get your own bus, you will find that the passengers will be given two envelopes with their guide book," he told me. "Those envelopes are for tips for the guide and the driver. They are almost always cash and we will give them suggestions on how much of a tip is appropriate. It's usually twenty dollars for the tour guide and ten dollars or more for the driver, depending on how long the trip is and how much work each of you has to do.
"You earn quite a bit more than the guides in salary, so don't be upset about the difference in tips. It's up to you to report this as income for tax purposes. We don't keep track of it, so make sure you log it and report it. You don't want the IRS on your back. We haven't had any problems with them in the past and we don't want any in the future. Understood?" he asked in a kindly fashion.
"Yes ... sure," I answered, not realizing that there would be tips. Perhaps I should have, but I didn't.
I was wound up tighter than a drum-head when Monday morning rolled around. I had my uniform hung in the bedroom closet, ready to go. It was a summer outfit, lightweight cotton short-sleeved shirt, no tie, light windbreaker jacket, pressed slacks and my best black shoes. We didn't wear a cap inside the bus, but outside, yes. It was a military style soft-top and we looked sharp in our pale blue outfits. A Silver Arrow badge was pinned to our jacket and embroidered on the left breast of the shirt. Yeah ... we looked sharp!
Diane took my picture with me in uniform on the front lawn, once with me alone, and once with the children. Billy thought my uniform was "cool." I kissed Diane goodbye at the door, promising to call each evening. I gave the children a hug and left for the office. It wasn't yet seven o'clock, but we had a bus to inspect, luggage to load, and passengers to greet. Our departure time was nominally eight o'clock, but I had been warned not to panic if we didn't get away on time.
Our experienced driver was Mel Enright, a veteran of fifteen years and considered one of the top five drivers on staff. Our tour guide was Amanda Wheeler, a five year veteran. That surprised me. She looked barely twenty-five, so I assumed she started this job very young. As I found out later, she was a graduate of Louisville University, majoring in hotel management and was twenty-seven. Mel and she had worked together several times and he was very pleased with her performance.
It was almost eight-thirty before we pulled out of the hotel where we picked up our guests. As Amanda explained, there were always a few stragglers and we took that into account when we planned these trips. The biggest concern were "no shows," people who had paid for the tour but failed to show up. There was nothing we could do but carry on without them.
It didn't come as any surprise that the passengers were a bit quiet at first. Amanda was up front and giving them a blow-by-blow of where we were and points of interest as we passed them. I'd already learned that many of the passengers weren't from Louisville, so we didn't take anything for granted and gave them the full tour guide rendition. I watched Amanda with some admiration. For someone so young, she was very self-assured and spoke clearly and enthusiastically about the sights we passed.