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Driver Profile: Lawrence Sokoloski

by Jim Park

For a guy who was told early on that he'd never amount to much of a truck driver, Lawrence 'Sok' Sokoloski doesn't have much left to prove. He's earned his bragging rights, but he's just not the type to wear them on his sleeve. He's competent, confident and very low key, the kind of guy you'd want on your side in a tough situation. Take him or leave him - it won't bother him either way.

Nowadays he's a rodeo-winning owner-operator working the northern Alberta oil patch, but he started life on a farm near his home town of Peace River. Like many other small family farms, the land wouldn't generate enough revenue to keep things going year round, so his father drove truck in the winter, as did several other family members. It was natural for Sok to follow that route.

In his teens, after a brief stint as an apprentice mechanic, he found himself working at an oil-rig moving outfit. He was swamping for a driver named Gary Carter, who told him in no uncertain terms that he'd better get used to it because he'd never make it as a truck driver. As a swamper, it was Sok's job to work in the mud slinging chains and doing all the grunt work. It's the only place a fellow can learn the trade, so he applied himself diligently. Carter probably saw the talent and ambition Sok brought to the job and figured he'd do well to keep him there. He'd lose him if he encouraged ambition.

But he lost him anyway. Sok had already got his licence, and at age 19 he earned himself a bed truck of his own. In the years that followed, he made it a point to treat his swampers well.

Self-Reliance

In this age of unlimited warranties and lubed-for-life components, the skill set that guys like Lawrence Sokoloski bring to the table seems almost quaint. He's a first class mechanic and darned resourceful too. But he has to be. Where he works, in the bush a few hundred miles north of nowhere, if it breaks, somebody has to fix it. And since what's broken is probably your ride back to town, you'd better be handy with a wrench.

Sok tells a good tale that illustrates the point, but it also tells you something about the man.

"We were doing a tear-out up near Wabasca a few years back," he recalls. "There were three of us out there, two of us working with the poles and another guy doing the bed work. The guy who was doing the bed work tore the rear end out of his truck, so the other guy, the bigger of the two pole trucks, dropped his poles and finished tearing-up the rig. As that guy was sucking the mud tank up onto the matting, he twisted his driveshaft right off. So there we were; three trucks out on the lease and I'm the only one still running. Now I've got to get these guys and the gear back to Slave Lake."

You have to picture it: winter in northern Alberta, the ground's no longer frozen because the grading work has disturbed the frost, and these three trucks are all axle-deep in mud.

"I dropped my poles, picked up a highboy and sucked the mud ramp onto that highboy with my winch," Sok goes on. "Then I dragged the truck with the twisted driveshaft over in front of that highboy. His winch still worked, so he picked that one up. I went back over to the truck with the bad rear end and sucked him up onto the other highboy. Then I tied a loading sling between the back of that highboy and the front bumper of the truck with the bad driveshaft, which was hooked to the highboy with the mud ramps on board."

Sok dragged this sorry outfit over 130 miles of mud and gravel road, in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, back to civilization where they could get everything repaired. You'd need a picture to really get the gist of his generosity. Sok, pulling a highboy that was carrying the bed truck with the bad rear end, was towing the truck with the broken driveshaft, which was pulling a highboy loaded with a set of mud ramps.

Translating the Lingo

All the terminology used in the oil patch is like another language to me. To understand a story the way Lawrence tells one, you almost need a dictionary. Here's a translation for the uninitiated:

Truck push - the lead-hand on a job. He issues all the
marching orders while on the lease working the rig installation.
The lease - the area where the drilling rig is working.
Tear-out - dismantling the rig and moving it away.
Swamper - the driver's assistant.
Bed truck - a straight truck chassis with a long bed used for moving large pieces of machinery, fitted with at least one winch.
Pole truck - similar to a bed truck, but fitted with two gin poles used to hoist material into position above another object.
Picker - a bed truck with a telescoping crane.
Suck on - means to winch something onto the deck of the bed truck or trailer.

That's the kind of determination and loyalty that has earned Sok the respect of the guys he's worked with over the years. And there are other stories, born of that same kind of self-reliance, that would literally curl the hair of someone who's never run too far off the Trans Canada.

"When it gets really cold, down to minus 50 or so, you can't use your brakes," he says nonchalantly. "The release valve will probably freeze open and you'll lose all your air. The buttons pop out and that's it." He learned that from experience too.

He's become quite proficient at using a can of ether as a torch to thaw frozen brake valves. "You can't use propane when it's that cold because it won't light," he says. "Besides, the rubber tubing on the hose might crack, then you'll have a real mess on your hands."

Sok started working 'the patch' in the late 1980s and has run most of the equipment commonly found on a rig move, from bed and pole trucks to the really heavy buggies called 'wheelers,' which are bed trucks with planetary gears in the differentials for really heavy pulling. He has his picker ticket as well, but he's currently an owner-operator leased to Swanberg Bros. Trucking in Edson, Alta.

Sok's 1986 Kenworth W900 is equipped with a winch and a ton of hardware. He pulls a Manac trombone lowboy trailer and specializes in moving pipe cribs, mud tanks and derricks. He's paid a very generous percentage of $140 per hour, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I've worked long and hard in this business to get where I am now, and let me tell you, it's been anything but straight to the top," he says. "It's tough work but I absolutely love it."

We met Sok at the Black Gold Truck Rodeo, held in late May in the town of Grimshaw, Alta. There we saw some of the best in the oilpatch hauling business gather for a weekend of skills demonstrations and just plain showing the families what daddy does when he goes off to work. As you can imagine, the bush is no place for the wife and kids, so offering these guys a chance to show off for a day brought a lot of smiles to a lot of little faces.

Sok's wife and kids were there, and they had a lot to cheer about. He placed first overall in the rodeo for total points, and first in four of the nine categories. Among other things, he also collected a little satisfaction.

"Now I want to go find Gary Carter and show him this trophy," Sok said. "If this doesn't prove I've got mud in my blood, I don't know what does."

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