Big heart guides mechanic down road to success
September 29, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- As a young boy growing up in rural Georgia Spc. Nicholas Duke would watch his father all night outside helping neighbors fix their cars and trucks, knowing that his father would have an early morning of work. If there was still work to be done on the vehicle Duke's father would be out there the next evening.
Duke said as a child he saw the selflessness of his father and decided to be the person who would always help those around him.
Growing up in Roopville, Ga., a town of 175 people, Duke drove four-wheelers to school, baled hay, picked up chickens, and knew everyone in town. Walking down the street in Roopville was a little like the theme song from the television show Cheers, it was a place where everybody knows your name.
At a young age, Duke learned the ins and outs of how vehicles work, how to repair them and what tools to use from his father.
"When I was five years old my dad had me outside helping him change breaks, doing wheels, breaking down tires, everything," said Duke. "If it dealt with a vehicle I was doing it and the only thing I remember from back then was that you don't put a dirty tool back in the toolbox and you always put the tool back where it goes. That stuck with me for a long time. I don't think I'll ever lose it."
As he grew older Todd, Duke's father, began to teach him more and more about cars. Duke's father had a small Toyota pickup truck and when Duke was 12 he told him if he was able to keep it running he could have it.
Duke kept it running and used it for farm work on his family's 87 acres of land.
"It wasn't a very big truck. We used it to haul hay, lawnmowers, move all of our tools; anything that could fit in the bed of a truck."
When he turned 15 he got his driver's license and started driving the truck to school. His father also told him he needed to find a job. Duke found a job at Subway.
"While working at Subway, making a little bit of money, I told everyone who came through there that I was a mechanic. They would pull their car up to the store and I would fix their car or work on it for them for a little bit of cash in my pocket."
Once he made enough money from fixing sandwiches at Subway and fixing vehicles in the parking lot, Duke ventured to the local junkyard where he found his next project.
"It was a '92 Toyota, when I pulled it out [of the junkyard] it had a bad engine, and five bullet holes, it had been in a bad drug deal, from what the junk yard guy said. I bought it for 500 bucks."
Duke used the skills his father had taught him to rebuild this truck from the bottom up.
He pulled an engine out of an old Toyota Celica and put it in his truck. He welded all the bullet holes shut, sanded the truck down, and painted it. For Christmas one year, his dad bought him a set of tires and rims for the little truck; it was the only thing his dad ever gave him for any of his vehicles.
By the time Duke was done, his truck was lowered, had a custom interior and a new sound system in the back.
"I was 15 or 16 years old, it wasn't the best of the best but I was 15, it was what it was."
That truck provided Duke with lots of memories; one in particular was when he worked at a haunted house during the Halloween season.
"I worked at this place called Camp Blood. The [haunted house] was in a big, big valley with lots of hills. Like I said my truck was a low rider, so it was really fun taking my truck out there, jumping the hills in my little two-wheel drive, 500 pound truck."
After a stint in Massachusetts working for a forklift company, he moved back to Georgia and made the decision to join the Army.
"I was young, and my family said the military will set you right, it will make you grow up really fast or make you really childish. I knew with the way my dad raised me that I was going to grow up really fast. When I joined the military I had a kid on the way. I knew it would be hard for me to take care of my family."
After spending some time at Fort Sill, Okla., Duke, his wife and kids moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord where he became part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, I Corps Motor Pool. He said that the motor pool here has felt the most like home.
"I have two kids and a wife, and I have about 28 other kids who work here," he said. "I feel like everybody down here could either be my son or my daughter and I need to take care of them, just the way I would take care of my son or daughter. It doesn't matter if it's two in the morning and somebody needs a ride or six in the afternoon and something needs to be done. We all team together and do it as one."
According to Duke, working as one and being there for each other are things that keep the motor pool's morale as high as it is. He also credits their willingness to help each other.
"He gives a lot of Soldiers and other people advice on vehicles, even myself," said Sgt. Ronald Occhiline, a mechanic in the I Corps Motor Pool. "We had a recent situation where a person went to inspect a vehicle and [Duke] fixed the horn and did a couple other things to the car."
Although Duke spends a lot of time at the motor pool working on I Corps' vehicles, he has started to teach his children how to fix cars at home. Duke's four-year-old son is almost the same age that Duke was when he began to work on cars with his father.
"I want to teach him the basic knowledge of everything," said Duke. "I want to teach him like my dad taught me. He's helped me put on windshield wipers, helped me fill and change the oil on cars. He's really good with tools, he knows a lot about which tool is which. If I need anything he'll bring it to me. He's always willing to help me when I'm working on the truck or car."
Duke is known to be a hard-working, well-respected mechanic in the motor pool, not only by those he works with but by the Soldiers who come in to work on their vehicles.
"Everybody who knows about the motor pool and knows where to go to get stuff done, they know Duke," said Occhiline.
Helping those he works with and those who come into the motor pool on a weekly basis is what makes Duke happy.
"Sometimes [my wife] says my heart's too big," said Duke. "She says I have too big of a heart because I'll help people out and I won't ask for anything. It's simple, I love this. This is what I do."