Paul Leslie Wentzell was born on Aug. 18, 1989, to Paulette, a homemaker, and Leslie, a mining superintendant. He grew up in Daniel’s Harbour, a remote, coastal fishing village on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. Paul, the baby, came nine years after his only sibling, Ryan, his idol. By the time he was in first grade at tiny Holy Cross All-Grade (there were no more than a few students in each year), Ryan was already working on getting his driver’s licence. Still, they were tight.
Paula Hancock, a neighbour, recalls seeing them walking home for lunch around that time. Ryan, who was holding his little brother’s hand, leaned down to say something as she drove past. Paul, who was gentle and fair-haired, looked up with “all the love in his little heart,” flashing him “the sweetest smile.”
From the start, Paul showed a keen interest in engines. He’d pick apart anything he could get his hands on—old motors, lawn mowers, snowmobiles—even running a power cord to the shed so he could work after dark. By 15, Paul, a tireless worker, was a fixture at Humber’s Garage, peppering town mechanic Ross Humber with questions between brake jobs. “Some guys are natural-born singers,” says Ross. “Paul was a natural-born mechanic.”
After high school graduation in 2007, Paul shipped out to Swan Hills, Alta., for the summer. TJM Oilfield Services had hired him as a shop brat, to wash rigs and change tires. “He came off the plane in June, went straight to work the next morning, and didn’t take a day off the entire summer,” sometimes pulling 15-hour shifts, recalls Desmond Humber, a family friend who put him up. Paul’s heart was set on a Ford F-150, Desmond explains. Every hour he logged at the shop brought him one step closer to the pickup, which he bought on his return to Newfoundland in August.
Come fall, Paul flew home to begin a heavy equipment mechanic training program at the College of the North Atlantic. By the time he finished in April 2008, however, the economy had ground to a halt. No one was hiring mechanical apprentices. “Well, no problem,” said Leslie, who worked for Procon Mining and Tunnelling on various mining projects across the country. “I’ll call the shop in Edmonton.” Soon enough, Paul was Alberta-bound—this time, for good. On May 5, 2008, he began his career with Procon at the Nisku site near Edmonton, fixing compressors, underground drills and scoop trams (dump trucks designed for mines); Paulette shipped out his toolbox and his pickup.
At five o’clock, he’d trade his hard hat for a ball cap, and he still favoured the navy-blue Dickies work pants he’d been buying from Wal-Mart since he was a teen. “If you want to find a girlfriend,” his friend Tammy warned, “you need some new clothes.” She took him shopping, suiting him up like a gent. He even started putting gel in his hair. But his big hands were permanently nicked and grease-stained, and he had an appetite like a horse (he could put away six pork chops for dinner). He hated TV and spent every Friday, karaoke night, at the Wagon, the local bar.
He remained tied to his family. Some guys decorate their toolboxes with pin-ups, but Paul had tacked a single photo to the upper-right-hand corner of his: his niece Alyssa, in a pink dress. He phoned Paulette every night, no matter where he was dispatched, Yukon or Yellowknife, and spent his two-week summer holiday in Newfoundland working with Ryan on his cottage. For the first time, says Ryan, a constable with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, they were equals, men.
Back at Procon, Paul’s 12-hour shifts began at 5:45 a.m. with a 10-minute safety meeting, everybody dressed to go underground in hard hats, coveralls and steel-toed boots. The last thing the foreman always said was, “Everybody have a safe shift!” But before anybody got up, moved, or turned around, they’d wait for Paul, who always added: “And live the dream!” The mechanic’s job, the pickup: it was all he’d ever wanted. After a year, Paul still huffed around with his chest up and a grin from ear to ear, the luckiest guy on site.
On Oct. 19, Paul was working at a zinc-silver mine northeast of Whitehorse. He loaded a Toyota Land Cruiser with a nozzle for a pressure hose, and drove down into the mine tunnel, parking on a 15 per cent grade. As he walked toward the underground crew, the brakes suddenly failed, and he was run over by the unoccupied truck. On the flight to hospital, Paul succumbed to internal injuries. He was 20. His foreman still wraps up every safety meeting by wishing the miners a safe shift. Before anybody gets up, one will add: And live the dream.