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Late-night Spicy Olympic Schlay Ride

December 1st, 2009


When the folks at General Motors called last spring and asked my wife, Lisa Calvi, and I to manage the high-tech vehicle component to their support of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games it didn’t take long to realize we were in for plenty of planning, logistics and a steep learning curve.

We would have to find a place to live in Vancouver for 5 months, set up an office at the Olympic headquarters and learn a lot about the product we would be managing; a small fleet of zero-emissions Fuel Cell Chevy Equinoxes that run on compressed hydrogen.

On the Halifax home front, we had to find a house sitter along with someone to do the fall yard work and keep up with that pesky snow clearing. We also needed to hire a right-hand technocrat, a do-anything person who could get caught up in Olympic-Fuel-Cell-mania. Although a few Vancouver based staff would need to be hired, the idea of having someone we knew and trusted on our team seemed like a good idea.

We tossed a few ideas around but when my friend Peter Schlay, a Halifax real estate agent, dropped by to talk cars one evening I laid it on him.

“Hey Pete. How would you like to take a leave of absence from your job for five months? Just kiss your loving wife Sandy and two boys, Tim and Steve, good-bye and come to Vancouver. Help us figure out how to showcase a fleet of Fuel Cell vehicles to a global audience.”

It seemed a long shot but as my mother always says, ‘Don’t ask, don’t get’.

Pete gave me a puzzled look but called for more details the next day. I told him he would head up the technical liaison between Vancouver and GM’s fuel cell development folks in Burbank, California and Honeoye Falls, New York. He’d also have to learn a lot about fuel cell technology and be able to talk intelligently about it to VIPs, media, government folks, celebrities (he is driving David ‘The Hoff’ Hasselhoff to dinner as I write this) and the general public.

Peter Schlay agreed to leave family, job, home and even his ’72 Z-28 Camaro and head for the west coast with Lisa and me.

“When will I ever get a chance like this? Navy people go to sea, leaving it all behind for months on end,” he rationalized.

We are now into Week 7 of our 20-week assignment. The fleet of Fuel Cell Chevy vehicles is deep into deployment now on a variety of assignments. We’ve driven Canadian speed skater, Catriona Le May Doan, two-time Olympic gold medalist, from the Victoria airport to begin the Olympic Torch Relay, we’ve delivered Santa and Mrs. Claus to a mall full of cheering children, the Chevy Fuel Cell Equinoxes have been on a few television shows and another 15 deployments.

Things are just warming up though and every time the phone rings or the email chimes, another assignment goes up on the scheduling boards. Jay Leno doing a gig in Vancouver? Let’s see if he needs a zero-emission lift from the airport.

Ashley MacIsaac, Nova Scotia fiddling sensation, is coming into Vancouver to open Atlantic Canada House, Atlantic Canadian Headquarters during the Games? Why wouldn’t he want to be seen around town in a gas-free set of wheels?

Through all of this Peter Schlay has soldiered on, with only a minor pothole along the way. But to understand the pothole, you need to know a little more about the man.

I’ve known Peter for 10 years. He was the real estate agent that found and negotiated the purchase of the Halifax home Lisa and I have grown to love so much. Pete’s ability to do seemingly anything has always impressed me. Fix a toilet, build a cupboard, rebuild an engine, tile a hallway, park a tractor-trailer truck or help someone in need of first aid. And anything he does, he does with accuracy and passion.

When we first moved into our rented house in Vancouver at the beginning of October, Lisa and I decided that, since we were working 15-hour days, eating out would be high on our priority list. Hey, Vancouver has hundreds of restaurants and our goal was to graze the field.

Of course, Peter tagged along to a string of Thai, Japanese, Greek, Indian and Hungarian restaurants where we spent hours discussing everything from how the membrane in the fuel cell turns hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water vapor to the quickest driving route from Olympic headquarters to the Vancouver airport. The meals were usually spicy, we ate late and plenty of times I suspected Peter had no idea what he was ordering.

Over the next couple of weeks, I noticed Peter Schlay was yawning an awful lot. There were times when his eyes pleaded for more of an explanation about something he knew inside out a couple of days earlier.

“This weekend we are working on trying to get Prince Charles out for a drive, we have a gig with a convention of scientists at National Research Council and need to get all the ‘stack’ data to the research centre in New York.” I would rapid-fire elements of our work out to blank stares. I couldn’t figure out what the heck was happening to Peter.

The more worldly restaurants slinging food with names we couldn’t pronounce we frequented, the more detached Peter became until one day he begged off dinner with an excuse that he had to detail the fleet in another rainstorm.

Over the next week he stopped eating with Lisa and me altogether, staying at the house at night, reading up on hydrogen sensors, error codes and the intricacies of fuel cell systems. I thought it might be a case of too much time together but noticed the yawns began to disappear. Data transmissions were once again accurate. Peter Schlay had crawled back on top of his game.

A few days ago I decided it was time to give Peter a mid-term evaluation.

“You’re doing a great job out here, Pete. You have the hydrogen fueling down, you’re super at the tri-weekly telephone tech reports back to the research facility and you know your way around Vancouver. I don’t know what we would do without you.”

“Well I was worried for a while,” Pete said with relief. “For the first three weeks, I hardly slept. Those late-night spicy meals kept me up all night.” He rubbed his stomach.

All those yawns, the vacant eyes, the loner nights on his own. Now, it all made sense.

So, if you’re heading to Vancouver in the next few months and want to know a thing or two about Chevy’s zero-emission fuel cell hydrogen-powered Equinox, send me a note and we can set you straight because Peter Schlay is getting his beauty rest again.

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