The Learning Curve

Could I drive a stick shift?

That was the question posed to me as I started my first job in the car business, working at Ed Butler’s Union Toyota dealership.

Could I drive a stick shift? Pffft!

Of course… I couldn’t.

And of course I couldn’t admit that I couldn’t. I was an eighteen year old guy. Ego was everything.

So I found myself behind the wheel of a truck I needed to deliver to a body company called Janel up in Woonsocket, where they were going to install a box on the back of this Chevrolet C65 cab and chassis. I started it up and looked at the shifter and just about had a heart attack.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

I took a deep breath. I had a general idea of how standard transmissions worked, so how hard could it be? I pressed the clutch, gave it way too much gas, and I was off.

The truck had no weight over the back end, so every time I would let out the clutch, the rear wheels would spin like crazy, and every time I touched the brakes, it would skid to a stop. It had a split rear axel I never did figure out. I ground the gears all the way from East Providence to Woonsocket.

On the plus side, by the time I got there, I knew how to drive a stick shift.

Back at the dealership, my first job was probably the worst in the business. I was assigned to wash cosmoline off new Toyotas. For the uninitiated, cosmoline is rust inhibitor they used to put on cars being shipped overseas. It’s a thick, waxy, yellow-gold material that eliminated the possibility of corrosion that might occur in the marine environment. If you think about its purpose, you have an idea of how difficult it is to remove.

Back in the ’70’s the solution for removing it was clean terrycloth towels—and kerosene. I would pump the kerosene out of 55-gallon drums into a metal container, then saturate the towels and pour the rest straight onto the body panels of the cars. Then it was just a matter of rubbing (and rubbing, and rubbing) until the stuff came off.

We did this all in a wash bay, so that mix of cosmoline and kerosene ran right out into the city sewer system. I’m no environmental scientist, but when I think back on how my hands looked at the end of the day, that could not possibly have been good. Alligators had better skin.

The cars, however, absolutely gleamed.

It was dirty work, but can I just tell you how thrilled I was to be doing it?


School was not my thing. It made me feel stupid, but I've come to understand it just wasn't built for the way I learn. Vocational school was a step better, and once I was given the freedom to clock out at 10:45 a.m. and head for my job at the Toyota dealership - that's when I discovered I had a skill set that really was useful and versatile.

Working in the automobile industry was such a dream come true for me, there was no job I ever considered below me, and nothing I didn’t aspire to achieve. I wanted to learn every last aspect of the business, and I was in the right place to do just that.

Before long, I would be working for Ed Butler 7 days a week...

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Yeah. That's the stuff.

Yeah. That's the stuff.