Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Caterpillar

Have you ever had a bad job?  I mean the type where absolutely nothing goes right?  I know I've had plenty of bad jobs due to incompetent bosses, too many bosses, responsibility without authority, understaffing, unpaid (but required) overtime, etc.  But what I'm referring to is this: everything that could go wrong does go wrong regardless of bosses, staffing, and so forth.

I once worked as a substitute paperboy.  When I was about 13 years old I lived in an area where there were about 15 different newspaper delivery routes within just a couple of miles of my home, and all of them had a permanent carrier assigned to it.  But I discovered there was no one to fill in for them if they were sick, or out of town, so I volunteered for the job, and I got it.

Each route had a skip list where any address on the list did not receive a paper.  Simple enough, but no one kept them up to date.  My first day as a substitute resulted in about a 40 percent error rate, yet I was completely accurate according to the list.  While my boss didn't blame me, I had to spend a couple of hours redelivering papers.  It turned out this was a problem on every route I filled in on.  After a while it just wasn't worth it.

My next job was at a golf driving range where I was assigned to pick up the golf balls by using a small tractor with a special device for scooping up the little round demons.  I discovered there were several golfers who were very accurate off the tee.  Still it took me about a month to decide I was tired of being the target for these sadistic idiots.  No wonder I never wanted to play golf.

A local dairy needed a bottle washer, and I thought I was up for the task.  The automated machinery worked wonders at cleaning almost all of the bottles, but a small amount had to be hand cleaned (it's amazing what can be found inside a milk bottle).  I had an arsenal of special scrubbers and solvents designed to remove everything from mice to tar.  I guess I didn't have the right touch since I ended up breaking about 1 in every 3 bottles.  My employer wasn't upset with me, but I didn't like breaking a bottle and covering myself with a combination of broken glass, solvent, and the contents (known or unknown) of the bottle.

After entering college, for one semester I had the job of driving a bus to shuttle students between the campus and a remote dormitory a few miles away.  The dorm was an unused housing facility for nursing students at a hospital and was located less than thirty yards from the quite zone entrance to the emergency room.  This would not have been a big deal except for the bus I was driving was completely uncooperative with any rule or regulation it had to follow.

The college had purchased the ancient machine from a national cross-country bus company, and the non-working odometer showed in excess of 300,000 miles on it.  How many miles it actually had was anyone's guess.  Rather than put money into repair for safety or reliability, the college decided to paint it in hopes that a good-looking bus would be a good running bus.  It was painted forest green with a big black splotch on the side that reminded everyone who looked at it of a giant grasshopper, but I had already named it the Caterpillar due to its slow lumbering movements.

I can't remember the order everything happened in, and some things were consistent without any logic behind them.  For instance the air brakes would engage at 35 mph unless it was in fourth gear.  The clutch may or may not return after being depressed.  More than once a window fell out onto the highway while driving, and once the entire exhaust system fell out just as I entered the Quiet Zone at the hospital.  An unmuffled diesel engine is rather loud.  Also every time I pulled up in front of the dorm I had to cross a speed bump.  No matter how softly I rolled over it the air horn would come on and stick so that I had to get out of the bus and run back to the engine compartment to unplug it.  But unplugging it also meant the loss of lights, and much of the driving was in the evening and night.  At least when I plugged it back in the lights usually came back on without the air horn sounding off.  Usually.

I wasn't alone with these problems as the other drivers all had similar experiences, but the head of the facilities department, who had oversight of the bus, never had a problem and refused to believe most of our complaints.  That all changed one day when he was filling in for one of the drivers and taking it to the hospital to pick up the students.  Along the way was a routine police traffic stop checking driver's licenses.  At the stop, the air horn came on, the engine backfired and the muffler fell off, and a window fell out.  He was ordered to pull the bus to the side of the road where it caught fire and burn to the ground along with one of the police cruisers.

I don't believe the students at the hospital dorm made it to classes that day, but the next morning a rental bus was available, and a few weeks later a brand new school bus in school colors arrived.  The old Caterpillar was never referenced again by orders of the school's chancellor.  I've occasionally wondered what that old bus cost the school in the long run.  I doubt they ever again purchased a used one.