Back Up: Or, how I learned to steer a college division by driving a tractor-trailer.
by Sarah Kahrl
"If I hadn't waited tables, I couldn't sell airplanes today." I've heard it from countless Kenyon alumni. They trace their success back to crazy post-collegiate jobs, when the menial, mundane, and wildly unexpected turned out to be the best management school ever.
I was once a stage manager. You know the type: the unflappable general who makes magic of light cues, soaring scenery, and smoke machines. It's great running the show. But my best lessons came from stomach-dropping surprises, the disasters that demanded-in an instant of adrenaline-grown-up, executive-type skills.
Like inventory control. Imagine a wayward herd of hungry cattle. A gorgeous garden set of a PBS movie, about to become lunch. "You!" the director screamed, "You're from Wisconsin! Move those cows!" (A hint from America's Dairyland: Lean on their shoulders. Bring hay.)
Like negotiation. An emergency room. Me, covered in the blood of an almost-famous film star, vs. the surgical resident, calmly explaining I was sure he was very, very good at his job, but if he didn't call a plastic surgeon to repair this actor's lacerated forehead, there wouldn't be a Terminator II. (He did. There was.)
And then there was the time I drove a truck. A really big one.
Midnight. The 30-foot loaded van was idling the crew en route to our Toronto appearance, and the phone rang. The driver had appendicitis. "Get the keys. Get the truck. Get there by eight a.m."
"Okay," I answered, shocked and scared. "As long as I don't have to back up."
Driving is not my strong suit. I also have a highly impaired sense of direction. The muffled laughter you hear is from those throughout Kenyon Nation, President S. Georgia Nugent included, who have been trapped in a car, hearing me mutter, "I'm sure it's right around here somewhere."
So I felt lucky to be forging ahead in a simple, straight line toward Toronto at 2:00 a.m., a death-grip on the wheel, followed by cargo the size of a Walmart. Finally at the Canadian border, I was almost calm. I glided into the toll booth, confident until the bored attendant announced, "You're in the wrong lane. Back up."
Many maneuvers later, the cab and truck cargo were sideways, jammed at ninety degrees, and I was wild with frustration. It was 4:00 am, the toll plaza deserted. One elegant, very illegal solution remained. I put the truck in drive. Rolling forward under my shaking hands, the gigantic vehicle executed a perfect pirouette, a full-circle waltz across five lanes of freeway to alight at the correct booth. Slack-jawed, the attendant waved me on. I was in Canada.
As the sun rose over my destination, I was exuberant. "Just follow the directions," I whispered, until I looked up, finding my massive truck rumbling through one of Toronto's more exclusive residential neighborhoods. Then I saw the flashing lights.
Pulling over, if you could call it that, I climbed down, trying to make my 22-year-old self look responsible. The Mountie assessed the waist-length hair, the Frye boots, the pink Manhattan Transfer t-shirt. He raised his eyebrows. "You're driving?"
"Yes, sir, I am." It was the best I could do.
I told him where I was headed, adding helpfully that I was sure it was right around here somewhere. With an exasperated, law-enforcement look, he said, "Just follow me."
Establishing authority with the Teamsters working your load-in is critical. Pulling up, I knew I was behind in the credibility department, being a) late and b) accompanied by a police escort, complete with siren. Two dozen stagehands waited, with Camels and coffee. The union steward nodded curtly, then made my blood run cold. "Bay Number Two. Back it up."
Feigning nonchalance, I surveyed the narrow concrete slot, wincing at the impending jackknifing of the Walmart Express. "I'll want a set of eyes on the street. Anybody?"
A rotund fatherly stagehand disengaged and walked alongside me to the truck. He gave me a sidelong look. "Done this before, sweetheart?"
"Get in. Crank the wheel to the right."
Five minutes later, a perfect parallel parking job. As the big crates lurched inside, I wandered backstage, found a heap of velvet stage curtains, and was out like a light.
An hour later. Someone kicked my boots. "Hey, Princess, wake up." It was the nice stagehand. His eyes twinkled. "Want me to park it for you?"
I tossed him the keys, realizing just then I had learned the best executive skill of all.
Sarah Kahrl's truck-driving days are behind her. These days, she is Kenyon's vice president for college relations, steering the work of the College's development, alumni, and public affairs offices.