The Seduction of the Innocent
So what can one say about Osmosis (not its real name)? For those that don't know, Osmosis is a company that makes wood preservatives. It was started by some crazy German doctor, and he called it Osmosis because the preservative enters the wood via osmosis. The F. W. Woolworth company (yep, the five-and-dime people) bought the process from the good doctor and brought it to America. Sometime later Osmosis became an entity unto itself. In addition to making wood preservatives, Osmosis specializes in applying the preservatives to wood that is already in use, such as utility poles, railroad timbers, pier pilings, etc. Basically, it involves digging out the dirt around the pole, then drilling holes into the pole starting from below ground level to various heights above ground level. Chemicals are put into the holes, the holes are plugged, then a paste preservative is applied to the exposed wood below ground level. That is covered with a special protective paper, then the excavation is back filled. Fun.
I happened upon Osmosis while trolling for jobs on Monster. My degree is in geography, and I was looking for positions related to that. Osmosis has a division that specializes in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and that's how they came to my attention. I applied on-line, and was soon contacted by one of their recruiters. He said they didn't need any GIS people at that time, but they needed foremen for Pole Inspection and Treatment crews. When he described the job duties, it didn't really sound all that appealing to me. But when he described the starting wage ($18.00 an hour) it suddenly sounded very appealing. Plus, he said there was great potential for making a lot of extra money from production bonuses. Ha!
The position would call for a lot of travel away from home. We had had bad experiences with that sort of thing before when I was trucking. I asked my wife if she thought that would be a problem. She said for 18 bucks an hour, she could deal with it handily.
So I went ahead and applied and was hired. About a week before Christmas, they flew me down to Southern California to start my training. I was met at Burbank Airport (better known to some as the Bob Hope Airport) by a couple of Osmosis guys who drove me up to Ventura, CA. The motel we stayed at wasn't luxurious by any means, but it was adequate, and it was a short walk to the beach.
Osmosis has two types of school. One is half classroom and half on-the-job, the other type is four days a week of on-the-job and one day a week of studying, at the end of which day you take a test on what you’ve just studies. The school in Ventura was of the first type. The schooling followed the work, so there were Osmosis crews working on a contract for Southern California Edison staying there in Ventura. The trainees went out with the crews for on-the-job training when we weren't studying and taking tests at the motel. Osmosis personnel took up most of the rooms at that motel. There were a lot of company Ford crew-cab pickups parked in that parking lot. They also had a couple of little Ford Ranger pickups for odd errands. They even let us trainees borrow the Rangers if we needed to go shopping or what not. All in all, I was thinking Osmosis was looking like a pretty decent company, even if the work was hard and dirty. Oh, how naive I was!
Ventura is nice, too. It's not too big, so it doesn't have that icky SoCal vibe you find further south. It has one of the historic California missions and a pretty downtown. And the weather couldn't be beat. It was nice to get a break from the cold, wet Northern California winter. But it seems kind of silly that they sent me off to training one week before Christmas, because the school took a break during the days from Christmas until after New Year's Day. By the time we would have reconvened, the contract in Ventura was going to be over, and the crews (and the school) would have moved on to somewhere deep in the thick of the nightmare known as Greater Los Angeles. I wasn't looking forward to that, particularly. I had heard tales from experienced crew-members about shootings in the parking lot of the motel down there and the constant threat of violence and theft while working the mean streets. So perhaps it was fortunate that while I was relaxing at home with my family during the holidays that the higher-ups at Osmosis decided to do something different with me when my schooling resumed. Perhaps, I say...
The Reign of Rick
So, to recap where we left off, the Osmosis schooling took a break for the "winter holidays" (formerly known as "Christmas" and "New Years"). At this point the company was still being sweethearts. They let me drive one of the little Ford Rangers home to O-Town all the way from Ventura, which I thought was mighty decent of them. I learned that the Ford Ranger, while a perfectly acceptable vehicle in many other respects, is a wee bit cramped for someone who is 6 feet 1 inch tall. Admittedly, I'm no giant, but I am taller than average, and apparently the Ranger is targeted for average sized folk. That's why I've always thought that the typical test drive is woefully inadequate for really finding out how you and a vehicle are going to get along. In order to get the true feel for a car or truck, you need to spend several hours straight behind that wheel. Of course, most dealerships will balk at such a proposal.
But I digress. So I drove the Ranger home to spend the holidays with my family. I think the original plan was that I would drive back to where ever the school would be located after the holidays. But those in charge decided that I would complete my schooling in Mr. Schwarzenegger's former digs, Sacramento, which is only about 70 miles from O-Town. It was a little too far to commute everyday, so the company would be putting me up in a motel in the area. They let me hang on to the Ranger so I could get around down there.
Osmosis has had a long-running contract with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD, and that's no joke) to inspect and treat their power poles. Sacramento isn't a huge city by any means, but SMUD covers all of Sacramento county and parts of neighboring counties. So it has a lot of poles. The fellow who was District Manager for Osmosis there was a guy named Rick who had just been promoted to the position after being a crackerjack foreman for a couple of years. I know he was a crackerjack foreman because he never missed an opportunity to tell me or anyone who was listening what a crackerjack foreman he had been. Rick liked nothing better than to talk about Rick. Looking at him, he was nothing to write home about. He was really short and had horrible Austin Powers teeth. He was nothing more than an ignorant hillbilly from far eastern Washington state. But boy was he a legend in his own mind. A regular Paul Bunyan of Pole Inspection and Treatment foremen. Osmosis had never seen anything like him before, by golly.
It didn't take me long to figure that this guy wasn't crackerjack, he was just crackers. Very little that came out of his ugly mouth made any real sense. And of course he would change what he said to you from one day to the next, even from one hour to the next. You never knew where you stood with that guy. He also had a disconcerting habit of laughing uproariously at seemingly nothing. You might be having an average conversation with Rick and one or more other people, and Rick would find something that was said quite hysterical. No one else was in on the joke. So now I'm thinking, "If someone like this can have a meteoric rise through the ranks of Osmosis, then what sort of chowder heads am I working for?"
I mentioned in the last installment that the schooling in Ventura was of the half on-the-job, half classroom variety. The type practiced with Rick as principal was of the 4 days on-the-job, one day studying and testing. My trainer while I was in Sacramento was a foreman named Peter, a real nice guy. Peter would later play a very significant part in helping me to escape the nightmare that was Osmosis. I know I complain a lot about my current job, but hey, I complain about every job I've had. I haven't yet landed that dream job of making mega-bucks to stay home and watch TV and drink beer, so every job seems at least a little sucky in contrast. But my current position as a bus driver, boring as it may be, is so much better than working for a company of maniacs like Osmosis.
Peter ran a crew of five, counting himself. The size of the crew depends on the specifications of the particular contract. For SMUD, you needed a foreman, of course, two diggers and a treater. You could have a fifth member, who was usually an assistant foreman. Most crew members were sufficiently trained that they could rotate between being diggers and treaters. The diggers would head out first and, like the name suggests, dig out around the poles. Then the foreman or assistant foreman would come along and drill and inspect the poles. Last would come the treater, who had the misfortune of having to wear a hot, disposable Tyvek protective suit. The treater was responsible for applying the chemical preservatives to the pole, plugging up the holes and back-filling the excavation. If the diggers were already done digging out the poles, they could drop back and assist the treater, mainly with the back-filling.
The treater had to lug a lot of junk with him or her, like hammers, staplers, paper rolls, and such, the heaviest being the bucket of green goop (which is what we called it) for slapping on the exposed below-ground wood. Usually the treater wheeled this stuff around on a hand truck. But if you had to go in and out of a lot of back yards, or the terrain was too soft or rugged, the hand truck became a liability, and then the treater had to carry all that crap by hand.
Despite the rigors of the position, and the hot Tyvek suit, most treaters preferred to remain treaters. I can't remember if they made more money than just diggers, but at any rate they felt like specialists and viewed digging as something beneath them.
I, being a trainee, was there to work and learn. So I had to take turns at doing everything from digging to treating to inspecting. Often it seemed like I did more digging than anything else. It was understandable though. Pete was the foreman of a real working crew, and he had to worry about "making his numbers" as the company liked to say, in addition to trying to teach me everything I would need to know to become a fully fledged foreman. Me having the Ranger at my disposal came in really handy for Pete, because then he could split us up into two teams, there being an assistant foreman at hand, and we could cover a lot more territory than just one crew in one truck.
I think I mentioned last time that Northern California winters can be pretty wet and cold. That winter was no exception. In fact, I think it was an exceptionally wet winter that year. And I don't think it was just because I was out in the weather more than usual. All in all, the conditions were pretty uncomfortable. Even when it wasn't raining, it takes days for the mud and puddles to dry up, so I was always up to my knees in muck. My boots weren't waterproof. I took to taping plastic garbage backs around my feet between my socks and my boots to try to keep my feet dry. It didn't work real well. Even when it did, my feet would sweat so much in their cocoons that it was almost as moist as not wearing the bags. I was sure missing the mild weather of Ventura.
And the Vagabond Inn in Ventura, where I had been staying, despite its no-frills style, seemed like the Ritz compared to where the company was lodging me in Sacramento. In fact, it wasn't even in Sacramento proper. It was in West Sacramento, which is on the wrong side of the Sacramento River in Yolo County. West Sacramento has always been a seedy little red-headed step-brother of Sacramento. I already knew this about West Sacramento. I was born there, and had spent much miserable time in my teen years there.
I was actually born in Sacramento, but my parents were living in Broderick, a kind of unincorporated suburb of West Sacramento. We moved out of there to San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast before I was old enough to form any memories of the place. But when I was a teen, and by then living in O-Town, my dad - a mechanic - got a job at a trucking company in West Sacramento. He commuted every day for awhile, but then he set up our travel trailer on the company yard and stayed down there during the week, coming home on weekends to make my and my mom's lives miserable.
I also had the pleasure of staying down there for what seemed like weeks on end during summer vacations with my mom and dad in the trailer on the dirt truck lot in the middle of the industrial wasteland that is West Sacramento. Yay.
But I digress. Again. Get used to that. I don't know much about the history of West Sacramento. I think its main reason for existing is that it is the home of the Port of Sacramento. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the area, Sacramento is quite a ways inland, but the Sacramento River is big enough and wide enough that large ships can navigate the San Fransisco Bay and the Delta and get all the way to Sacramento. The river wasn't always deep enough, though, so they dug a “Deep Water Channel” alongside the river so that deep-draft ships could carry goods in and out of the State Capitol. West Sacramento is also a major center of railroad and trucking transportation.
Perhaps because of all the transportation workers, and also I'm told, because of the large numbers of politicos who come to Sacramento to mind the state's business, West Sacramento has a lot (and I mean A LOT) of cheap motels lining its main drag. I have never seen so many divey dumps in one place. It's hard to imagine how they can all support themselves - the market is so saturated. And it wasn't because the politicians needed a cheap place to STAY. I'm sure they could have afforded better digs right in the big city. It was because they needed cheap, discreet places to meet and greet the hookers who were said to once heavily ply the streets of West Sacramento.
Apparently that particular problem has long since been cleaned up, or at the least it is better hidden. I certainly didn't see any overt signs of prostitution. West Sacramento is trying to clean up its image, but it's still a seedy-looking, crank and crack-dominated urban blight like so many places in this fine nation of ours.
My lodgings were called the Pink Bird Motel. It was indistinguishable from the dozens of other one-story little motor lodges it neighbored with, except that it had a bowling alley on one side of it, instead of another motel. Rick had found this place on his own. He thought it was a real feather in his cap for the company. Osmosis employees used to stay at the Red Roof Inn, a reputable chain. Certainly when big-wigs would come into town, that's where they got to stay. But Rick turned the company on to the awesome savings to be had at the Fabulous Pink Bird Motel and Casino, as I started calling it. None of the rooms looked like any of the other rooms because all the furnishings and fixtures must have been bought at auctions, estate sales, and from other dives that had folded. Even the towels in my bathroom had the name of some other motel stitched on them! I guess it was clean enough, but it sure was dingy and kind of depressing. I had a kitchenette, but only one burner on the range worked. I would go home on weekends, and though the owners knew I was coming back the next week, they would unplug the refrigerator while I was gone, apparently to save money on the electric bill. I found out they were doing this because they forgot to plug it back in before I got back one week. I had food in that fridge, and it was spoiled. If they had plugged it back in in time, the food would have been cold and I might not have known it had spent the weekend unrefrigerated. I could have gotten pretty sick if I had eaten it. I also had a wastebasket in the kitchenette and one in the bathroom. One week, for reasons unknown, the kitchenette wastebasket simply disappeared, and I had to make do with the bathroom can for all my garbage needs. Cheap bastards.
Well, gentle readers, this is getting a little long, and I don't want to hit you with too much all at once. See? I care about my audience! So I think we'll say goodbye to Rick for now. I'll finish up with him in the next installment. Or will I? Hmmmmmmmm?
More On (see what I did there?) Rick
And so, my training went on with Osmosis. Altogether, I think it was a total of six or eight weeks. The studying and testing part was no problem for me. I've always been pretty comfortable with that sort of thing. After all, I have a college degree (which does nothing to explain why I was training to become a pole inspection and treatment foreman). The only really tricky thing was having Rick as the grader of my tests. I don't think he was using any kind of key used by other trainers. I think he was just using his own warped interpretation of what he thought the question asked. I still scored well, but there were a few questions that I believe I would have gotten right if a sane person had been doing the grading.
The hardest part of the whole training process for me were some of the actual physical aspects of the job, especially handling the massive drill we used on the poles. These were big old two-stroke gasoline-powered post-hole-digger engines that had been modified so that a large auger bit could be attached to the shaft. It took quite a lot of practice to get competent at holding on to these monsters and getting a good bore into the pole. And the bits needed frequent sharpening with a file. For some reason, it took me a long time to get proficient at that skill. I was well into my real foremanhood before I did. Another irritant about the drills was the frequency with which they broke down. The Stihl motors were pretty reliable, but the cockamamie way in which the auger bit was held onto the shaft left a lot to be desired. The chuck was like any other drill chuck, but there was a kind of pin that held the chuck onto the shaft. The original pin never tended to last long before it wiggled lose and was lost forever or, more often, simply sheered off. Even experienced foremen lost a lot of time trying to pound nails or any other likely-looking piece of the ironmonger's trade into that hole every few minutes. You would be lucky if you got through one pole without having to replace your make-shift pin. The cleverer ones among us paid to have the damned thing welded onto the shaft, something the company was strangely opposed to.
But eventually I earned my stripes as a foreman, and was issued a truck and a crew and all the necessary accouterments of the position. Yee-haw! And now that I was no longer a trainee, I had an option regarding my lodgings. I could continue to let the company pick up the tab for my luxurious accommodations at the Fabulous Pink Bird Motel and Casino (not my first choice), or I could provide my own quarters and the company would reimburse me at the princely sum of 600 dollars a month; hardly enough to rent something decent in Sacramento. But there was a handy loophole: the company didn't require any proof that you were actually paying for your billeting. And I happened to have an older (hard to believe one as old as myself could be the baby of the family, I know) brother in Sacramento, who had done rather better than me in providing for himself. He had a nice house in a nice neighborhood (at least the first storey is nice, but oddly enough, I've never seen the upstairs. I here it’s nice), and even better, he actually had a spare house. I don't know if some would call it a true house. It didn't have its own kitchen, for instance. Maybe more like a mother-in-law cottage or a quest house. It was built at the back and above the garage. It used to be the office of the architect who had originally built and resided in what is now my brother's home. It had a bathroom with a shower downstairs, probably for the convenience of people using the swimming pool, as it had its own door to the outside. The well of the steep little staircase had little tubular holes built into it for the keeping of rolled-up blueprints. The upstairs was simply a loft/office space that my brother had mainly been using as an exercise/storage room.
My brother graciously let me stay there free of charge, so I was able to just pocket that 600 bucks the company paid for the lodging. I used the extra money to buy a little '85 Honda Accord off of one of my crew members. I figured I was going to be working on the SMUD contract for quite some time, and that I could start commuting to and from O-Town and Sacramento, at the same time continuing to pretend I was providing my own lodging and earning that sweet 600 extra bucks a month. Nyah ha ha! But fate, in the form of a moldy-toothed leprechaun, had other plans.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Inspecting poles in Sacramento was not a great gig. When you weren't mucking about in the hinterlands, you were knocking on doors in residential neighborhoods to ask people's permission to access the poles in their yards. If no one was home, we were allowed to enter the yard without permission, as long as the gate was not locked. Most of time, though, the gawd-damned gates were locked. And I don't know if Sacramento is like other similar-sized cities in this respect, but it seemed like every yard had at least one vicious and unchained dog guarding it. Of course, if the gate was locked, and/or there was the usual slathering, howling hell-hound, you couldn't just say, "Oh well, guess we'll try again when someone's home". You could, of course. In a perfect world, you could and should. We had little tags we could fill out and hang on the door knobs, saying what we wanted and when we were going to return and could they please unlock the gate/muzzle the beast, etc. This tactic seldom worked, and when it did, it often meant having to travel out of your way to pick up stray poles when you had already moved on to another neighborhood. But remember those production bonuses I mentioned in the first installment? Well, to get those, you had to exceed your quota of poles for the week, and that was already tough enough to accomplish, at least for me. Of course, Rick, the Super Former Foreman, he had made so much in bonuses that was how he paid for his giant diesel four-by-four. That could very well be true, so I guess I shouldn't be bitter. I'm a good worker, I've just never been into knocking myself out for the almighty buck. Some people have that drive. I don't. I chafe when those driven people get into a position of authority over me and start telling me what a lousy employee I am. And maybe with Osmosis I was. I never seemed to be able to make quota. And of course, Osmosis, despite my personal dislike for them, is like any other company that contracts with someone to get a job done. The more productive they are, the more profit they make. If they just paid crews to go out and put in their eight hours a day and didn't care how many poles they treated in that time, then there wouldn't be much incentive for the crews to push themselves. So they used a combination of rewards and threats to get us to be more productive. It didn't take me long to realize that this type of capitalism and I were a bad fit. But by then it was too late. I had invested too much time and other people's money (I had borrowed rather heavily from my siblings during my unemployed months before Osmosis) to back out now. I was locked into a preternatural relationship with this company with no visible means of escape.
Actually, I did once (barely) exceed quota and made a bonus. Know how much I made? A nickel. Yes, five freakin' cents! I thought about framing it and hanging it on my wall as some sort of sick statement of loathing. The only trouble was, I wasn't sure who I loathed more - Osmosis or myself. Since we were under the gun to make our quota, we had little choice but to do a lot of trespassing into locked yards. I was never a very coordinated kid, and fence climbing used to be the least of my skills. Suffice it to say that I had never tried it while wearing a heavy tool belt. And now I was an uncoordinated, out of shape middle-aged guy wearing a heavy tool belt. But actually, I got pretty good at it. Nonetheless, some days it just got to be a little too much. I lucked out and found a tall step-ladder that someone had left in a field. I broke off the little metal straps that hold the two halves together in the middle so it would fit over a standard fence, and used that to ease our misdemeanory incursions into strangers' yards.
Getting comfortable with breaking and entering was one thing, but there were still the dogs to deal with. I quickly learned that most dogs are really rather cowardly, and can be held at bay by one crew member brandishing a shovel, while the rest of us hurriedly completed our tasks. One house, though, a veritable fortress of locked gates and huge canines, almost proved our undoing. And that was before we met the owner.
No one was ever home at that house. We had left our little tags a few times, but never with any results. The gate was quite tall, but flimsy enough that climbing it would have torn it from its hinges. We couldn't use the ladder, because the gigantic Rottweiler and his slightly smaller German Shepherd partner would have torn us to ribbons before we hit the ground. There was no way to get in there fast and get the drop on them before they got us.
But somebody had to be feeding these brutes. Eventually we got a call from the owner's father, who had been coming around to tend to the dogs and had seen one of our tags. His son was out of town for awhile, but he agreed to meet us at the house at a particular time so we could get the pole treated. Unfortunately, we got hung up in a distant part of town and missed the appointment. All further efforts to contact the father proved fruitless.
So, the next day I determined that we would make one last desperate assault upon this thorn in my side and get the fucker done once and for all. We knocked on the door, again, just to be sure, but there was no answer - as we had expected. The locked latch of the gate was on the outside, so we unbolted it from the wall. The dogs were going nuts on the other side with rage and blood lust. I already had my drill running when my guys yanked open the gate. I ran in at the dogs with the drill going full throttle and my crew bringing up the rear, shovels held high and making a lot of noise. The hounds turned tail and ran. Fortune was with us, for there was an enclosed porch on the back of the house, and the door was opened. The dogs dashed in there, and we slammed the door shut. The door didn't have any way to be secured except with a nearby large chunk of concrete. I didn't really trust the block to hold the dogs once they had recovered from their initial shock and regrouped. I kept the drill idling and my eye on that door while my crew feverishly excavated the pole.
Sure enough, I saw the door start to move outward, then it pushed open. I was about to renew my attack, but stopped short when I saw that my opponent was not two dogs but a bleary-eyed guy blinking at me in stupefaction and rising anger.
It was a more than a little difficult trying to explain to the owner why a bunch of men had suddenly invaded his quiet home and chased his doggies with shovels and a huge roaring machine. It didn't help that he had just driven all night to get home and had only been in bed for about an hour before we showed up and broke loose all kinds of hell. And when he found out HOW we had gained access to his backyard, he became even more unreasonable. By then, all attempts to tell him about all our repeated efforts to contact him, the missed meeting with his dad, his not hearing our knock on the door, and so forth, were like throwing gasoline on a grass fire. He wasn't having any of it. For some reason he let us finish our pole treatment, but he complained the whole time about me, my company, SMUD and the whole sordid business of disturbing decent, hardworking people to inspect poles which didn't have any right being in the backyards of those decent, hardworking people in the first place. Apparently the benefits of electricity were of no value compared to the inconvenience of having poles anywhere near one’s residence. At one point the guy got worked up enough that I thought he was going to take a swing at me. But even in his rage, he must have realized he was outnumbered four to one. The dogs, thankfully, had not made a reappearance. They just continued to shout encouragement to their master from the safety of the house.
After we reattached the gate to the wall under his watchful and wrathful gaze, he demanded to know my supervisor's name and phone number, and also who to contact at SMUD. I reluctantly gave him Rick's number and the number of the guy from SMUD who oversaw our contract. But I called Rick and told him the situation before the angry homeowner could get a hold of him. I hoped thereby to avert some ire from Rick. It might have helped, but it was apparently a wasted effort. Seemingly the dude was all bluster, for I never heard any more about it. Oh, well.
This seems like a good place to end this installment. I didn't quite finish up with Rick like I intimated in the last chapter. He'll put in an obligatory appearance at the beginning of chapter four to usher in the next adventure in the Land of Osmosis.
The Terror of Turlock
Life as a pole inspection and treatment foreman in Sacramento fell into a rhythm of sorts. I dutifully went to work everyday, my production numbers continued to suck, and Rick was constantly riding my ass about my low numbers. It was a lousy rhythm, but still, it was a rhythm. Then sometime in the merry merry month of April, one of my crew members was preparing to go on vacation. I needed someone to fill in for him. Step-Rimpyette needed a job, so I hired her to come on down and work with me. She's a plenty tough girl, so no worries there. I almost hate to bring her into this narrative, because eventually it doesn't reflect so well on me, but out of fairness to her and the truth, I suppose I should.
She started on a Thursday, and Rick went head over heels over my step-daughter. She's a very pretty girl, but he was rather over the top in his enthusiasm. It was just too funny and pathetic to be disgusting. And suddenly I was his favorite foreman. I couldn't seem to do anything wrong, even though my numbers hadn't suddenly improved. If we thought we saw too much of him before, we just couldn't shake him now. He was always "just in the area" and thought he'd drop by to see how we were doing. At some point he even ended up calling my house and telling my wife what a great daughter she had!
That was all just on her first day. The second day, Friday, he stopped by where we were working, all smiles and excited about something and wanting to talk to me. The company needed some crews to go down and work on a contract for the Turlock Irrigation District. Turlock is a town of modest size in the San Joaquin Valley. For those not familiar with California geography, one of the state's most noteworthy features is the Great Central Valley. It's almost five hundred miles long and about 45 miles across at its widest. It contains some of the richest farm land in the world. The valley is split into two major subdivisions by the San Francisco Bay and Delta area. The northern part is the Sacramento Valley. Most of its production consists of rice and orchard crops. The southern half is the San Joaquin Valley, where a vast amount of the country's vegetable crops are grown. The terrain of both sub-valleys tends to be rather monotonous and all the little towns dotted along the two main arterials, U.S. Highway 99 and Interstate 5 look rather alike. Not meaning to offend the fine citizens of the San Joaquin Valley, but if I had to choose one over the other, I'd have to go with the Sacramento Valley. One of the major drawbacks to the SJV is that, in addition to vegetable farming, one of its major industries is beef and dairy cattle. Anyone who has been around a stockyard or dairy farm can easily imagine what an olfactory nightmare a trip through the SJV on a warm day can be.
Also, perhaps more than a little of my resistance to the SJV stems from some past personal experiences with it, especially centering around the town of Turlock. For a while when I was in the sixth grade, my dad was doing his usual thing of working on big rigs, this time on the site of the construction of a new stretch of highway in good old Turlock. He stayed in his trailer right on the makeshift truck yard and would come home on weekends. But when summer vacation rolled around, my dad thought it would be fitting and proper for my mom and I to come down and stay with him for weeks on end, in the trailer on the construction yard. Sound familiar? Yeah, it was a lot like those miserable summers later on in my teens in the trailer on the truck yard in West Sacramento. Man, some of my summers SUCKED!
And it was starting to kind of freak me out that Osmosis seemed hell-bent on making me revisit painful scenes from my past -- first West Sacramento, now Turlock! WTF?! But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rick was all excited because he seemed to think that this move to Turlock represented some sort of advancement in my fledgling career with Osmosis. He acted like I was being handpicked for some sort of elite cadre of top-notch foremen. I couldn't believe such a thing could be. To hear him tell it, prior to Step-Rimpyette coming on board, I was one of the worst foremen in the entire history of the company. I suspected some other motivation at work. I asked him straight up if this wasn't just a convenient way for him to get rid of his worst foreman. He said that if he wanted to get rid of me, he could just fire me, which seemed true enough. Looking back on it, I don't think there was any particular reason they picked me over any other foreman to go to Turlock. That was just the nature of the job. Foremen and crews had to follow the work. And since Rick wasn't coming with us to Turlock, I don't think he would have willingly let go of an opportunity to hang around the beauteous Step-Rimpyette. Maybe his wife had gotten wind that there was a pretty girl on one of his crews and told him to get rid of her. I don't know.
I was supposed to report to Turlock the next Monday. The contract there required only a two-person crew (now I couldn't say "two-man" because I had a female worker) - the foreman (or maybe I should say “foreperson”. Nah.) and one crew member. Rick asked me who among my crew I would want to take with me. Besides SR, there was only one other member of my crew I would have considered taking. The other two guys were alright, but they were kind of slow and lazy, and besides, one of them wouldn't be back from vacation before I needed to be in Turlock. I naturally chose SR.
Even though we were working in Turlock, the company was putting us up at a motel in Modesto, about 20 miles away. Why, I don't know. The District Manager down there, name of Dan, was staying at a motel in Turlock. I seriously doubt anything in Turlock would have been worse than the motel in Modesto. Not that there was anything terrible about it. It was just your run-of-the-mill cheapish motel. It just didn't make any sense to have to commute to work when you're already living away from home. Apparently I had not yet begun to realize that nothing Osmosis did made any sense.
Turlock had changed considerably in the intervening years since my pubescent nightmare summer there. It had grown, of course, but probably the biggest change was that a new campus of the California State University system had been built there. Suddenly Turlock was a college town. I did recognize some of the older parts of town that had remained untouched (at least untouched in any kind of positive way) by the passage of time. I described it earlier as a modest-sized town, which it is. When I was there as a kid, it was a small town.
Modesto was still the larger of the two major towns in the immediate area. Modesto's most famous son is probably George Lucas. His semi-autobiographical movie American Graffiti was set and filmed there. If you've seen that film, you know that cars play a huge part of the early '60's teen culture depicted in that movie. Of course, cars have always played a huge part of teen culture, practically since the day they were invented. But American Graffiti really celebrated that mind-set in a way that no other movie had before. And if you spend any significant time in Modesto, you begin to understand that it wasn't just coincidence that American Graffiti was set in Modesto. Young George Lucas wasn't just any teen growing up in any old town. The whole town seems as if it exists solely for the automobile. The streets are the widest I've ever seen anywhere. It's like it was built around cars, and not badly retrofitted in a belated effort to adapt to an ever-expanding population with a serious addiction to the internal combustion engine, as so many towns and cities are. In fact, it's almost like the cars themselves somehow had a hand in the planning and construction of this unusual town.
One funny side story comes to mind. One evening SR and I walked to a nearby grocery store to get something for dinner. We were walking rather than driving because we were a little--ahem--altered. It turned out that the store was not so nearby as we had thought. Modesto is on a different scale than the rest of the world. The buildings seem to be built to match the insanely wide streets they have. So distances are hard to reckon there, and it wasn't just a result of being--ahem--altered. At one point in our over-long journey, SR paused to tie her shoe. She put her foot up on an object on the side walk. I casually glanced at the object, then suggested she might not want to have her foot there. It was a white plastic barrel about the size of a pony keg. It had the exact same shape as barrels used to transport toxic waste. And stenciled on the side was the name "Peavey X-Ray". We found it unfathomable that a barrel of some toxic, possibly radioactive, substance would just be sitting on a city sidewalk, but anything seemed possible in Modesto. We gave that spot a wide berth on our way back.
While it was nice that the company was putting us up at the motel, it also meant that I no longer was receiving that cushy living allowance that I had been while staying for free at my brother's house. That was a blow to the pocket book. The work was rather more pleasant than in Sacramento. For one thing, the SJV is full of rich, moist, soft, loamy soil, which accounts for its famous vegetables. By contrast, the Sacramento Valley's soil is a red clay which is sticky as hell when wet and hard as concrete when dry. So digging around the poles in Turlock was almost as easy as digging in the moist sand at a beach, and almost as much fun when compared to the miserable conditions in Sacramento. That was why the contract only called for a two-person crew. One slight drawback was that the soil was so sandy, that when the new surfaces created by the excavation dried out a little from exposure to the air, the sand tended to collapse back into the hole, just like your holes at the beach do. Your digger could sprint on ahead of you, excavating holes like mad, but by the time you got to the third hole, it was almost filled in again. It took me awhile to tumble to the reason for this. Until then, I thought there must be some kind of weird subterranean tunneling creatures that were blundering into our holes and ruining them. I never said I was smart.
There were differences in the new contract that took a while to get used to. One of our first major stumbling blocks was that because the digging was so easy, we dug more poles than we could treat, and we ended up having to backfill several of them untreated, knowing that we would only have to re-dig them the next day. But you can't leave holes open overnight, for safety reasons. We were out until after dark our first night, working overtime without pay, trying to catch up with our mistakes.
One of the more unpleasant aspects of working in Turlock is directly related to the aforementioned diary industry so prevalent in the SJV. Dairies have made great strides in the last couple of centuries, and many now boast electricity AND telephone service. So that means dairies have utility poles! If you think dairies smell bad just streaking by them on the highway, try mucking about up to your ankles in the effluvium of all those wonderful milk-producing bovines. And what good would a bunch of dairy cows be without a resident bull to keep them barefoot and pregnant and producing that lactose? And apparently bulls think anyone wandering about their harem is bent upon trying to steal some of their sweet cow poon-tang. And the fact that this particular stranger was carrying some kind of huge, noisy cow-raping machine just sent this one bull into paroxysms of rage that had to be seen to be believed. He would not stop screaming and blowing copious amounts of white foam from his mouth and nostrils at us. And I didn't have much faith in the pen that held him. The fence was three strands of steel cable strung horizontally through rings on metal poles. The cable was strong, and poles were firmly set, but there was rather more play in the cables than seemed prudent. Mr. Bull was trying really hard to figure out a way to get through or under those cables and have at us. And it looked like he just might do it, too. I had SR watch the bull while I nervously drilled the poles. I figured he would not be deterred by the drill the way dogs are. I planned to toss it at his head and hightail it in the opposite direction if he got through that fence. I'm happy to report that we got away unmolested, but SR still teases me about my trepidation around the angry he-cow.
Our first week or two, our numbers were sucking. Dan, the DM, who seemed like a pretty mellow guy at first, started getting frustrated with me. I was feeling pretty bad about myself as a result. Now the story gets a little ugly, and you may not respect me as much after I tell you the next part. To put it bluntly, I fired my own step-daughter. There were a lot of complicated reasons, none of which seem good now, for what I did. And it didn't really have to do with the numbers, either. I don't really want to upset myself and bore you with my bizarre justifications and whatnot. I'll just say I was a jerk, and leave it at that. It's amazing that SR still loves me. I did a lot of groveling when I came to my senses, but she didn't want to work for me again.
So now I needed another crew member. I called Mike, my treater from Sacramento. He was reluctant to work away from home, but since he hadn't worked since I had left Sacramento, he finally agreed.
Now I'm not saying that Mike was better than SR. Maybe I had just gotten used to the new contract and was doing better. But suddenly our numbers soared. Now Dan was happy. Unfortunately, the contract was arranged in such a way that production bonuses were nearly impossible to achieve. That was when I made that five cent bonus I mentioned earlier.
So life in Turlock/Modesto wasn't too bad. But all good things must come to an end. In this case, a horrible, brutal end. My next adventure taught me what "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" really means. Stay tuned.
Fear and Loathing Near Las Vegas:
A Savage Journey to the Heart of Anti-Depressant Withdrawal
A Savage Journey to the Heart of Anti-Depressant Withdrawal
So the decision came down from on high that I was going to go to Las Vegas. I'd had some inkling that this was going to happen from a unusual fellow named Walter. Walter was an African-American crewmember who coincidentally was from Vegas, as he often reminded people in his gravelly voice. "I'm from Vegas, see...", "In Vegas, we...", "Well, the way we do it in Vegas...", etc, etc. Walter was a pretty nice guy, but he was mighty odd. I first met Walter in Sacramento. For some reason he and his usual crew had been split up for a short time, and he was sent to Sacramento to help out until he joined back up with Joey his foreman and his crew in Turlock. I had Walter on my crew a couple of times. He was a hard worker, but I got kind of tired of hearing how things were done "in Vegas". Walter also had some kind of uncanny knack for knowing what was going to happen within the company. I guess he had just been with them long enough to have learned their ways, but sometimes it seemed like he had some kind of insider information on the decisions made at the upper levels of management. Everything he said would happen, did. When he first heard of me being sent to Turlock, he immediately started predicting that I was going to go to Vegas. I didn't believe it, I didn't really want to believe it. I didn't want to be that far from home. I had been to Vegas before, so it held little curiosity for me, although the Bellagio, the setting of Ocean's Eleven, hadn't existed then, so I did want to see that. And since my last visit, I had become a Hunter S. Thompson fan, so I started having daydreams of tooling down the Strip, wearing sunglasses and clenching a cigarette holder between my teeth.
It has been long enough now that I don't really remember such details as which airport I left from. It must have been Sacramento. I think I parked my truck at Rick's trailer and he drove me to the airport, so I've probably blocked out that particular memory. I didn't get to drive my then-current truck to Vegas because I was supposed to switch to a four-wheel-drive truck in order to handle the terrain we would be facing in Nevada. This particular fact did not fill me with eager anticipation of what lay ahead. I flew to Phoenix, where I was met by another Osmosis district manager who drove me to where the trucks were parked. Of course, I had to leave behind my drill, which I had become rather fond of as it was a good machine. So I got a different truck, which was your average kind of truck --and in the usual Osmosis way, had no air-conditioning for the triple-digit Southwest weather -- and a different drill, which sucked. I then drove to Vegas. The shortest route took me across the famous Boulder Dam. I had not seen that since I was a little kid, so that was kind of neat. They were building a huge bridge across the top of the canyon that the dam dams, because the route across the top of the of dam is narrow and has been a bottle-neck to transportation for many years. Some longer tractor-trailers can't even get around the sharp bends at either end of the dam. I think they may also be building the bridge out of paranoia that terrorists might try to detonate a truck-bomb on the dam. I had to stop for an inspection a couple of miles before the dam to make sure I wasn't hauling anything explosive, corrosive or poisonous (which I was, actually, but I had the proper permits for them).
We were staying in the Nevada Phallus Motel and Casino (for real this time, but not fabulous), a dingy, dumpy, dirty little dive on the Boulder Highway in southern Las Vegas. Walter used to talk about the Nevada Phallus and the Boulder Highway with a significant tone in his voice, then he would look at Joey and they would both smile and nod their heads knowingly. I used to wonder what the deal was about these places, and it turns out, there isn't any, unless it's shittiness. I had a feeling that once I had seen all the places that Walter would always talk about so wondrously and mysteriously, then he would have nothing left to tell me. The Boulder Highway is rather infamous, I learned later. It was built so that workers, supplies and equipment could get to and from the construction of the Boulder Dam. And so, when the workers got paid, they'd rush down to Vegas along the Boulder Highway, which quickly sprouted numerous whorehouses and streetwalkers. Those are gone now, and contrary to what you may have seen on CSI, street-walking is illegal in Clark County, though prostitution is generally legal in Nevada.
I thought it odd that Walter, who claimed to live in Vegas, was also staying at the Nevada Phallus. Turns out that Walter doesn't bother maintaining a permanent address anywhere since he's on the road so much. And if the company's picking up the bill, why rent?
The Nevada Phallus motel was three stories tall and had two buildings of rooms just off the small casino, which had a diner-type restaurant and a slightly more formal buffet dinner restaurant. The balcony at my end of the floor of my building was actually being supported by some hastily assembled 2-by-4's where the concrete and stucco were crumbling. For some reason the bottom of my bathtub was slightly lower than the floor of the bath room. I didn't realize this until I stepped into it for my first shower and had that sickening sensation in the pit of my stomach that you get when you underestimate the number of steps to the bottom of the stairs and it feels like the ground has dropped out from under you. There was also free porno on the TV. There wasn't supposed to be free porno, it was supposed to be blocked until you requested and paid for it, but it was coming in on my TV. It was the first thing I saw when I switched on the set. That is all I'm going to say on that subject, other than to wondering what would have happened if a nice vacationing family had checked into that room, and the kids had snapped on the TV, as kids are wont to do, and been greeted by an in-depth examination of hydraulics.
I was sharing my room with one of my brand-new crewmembers, a young man named Corey. My good old digger/treater Mike had declined to come with me to Vegas. My district manager, Dan, had come out with us to Vegas, which was also his home, if anyone who had been with Osmosis for any length of time could be said to have a home. So he was also staying at the Nevada Phallus. Dan was divorced, as were many other district managers and even some foremen that I met. This did not bode well for the kind of effect that being gone for long periods of time can have on a marriage. Indeed, before my time with Osmosis and its after-effects were over, my own marriage endured quite a bit of strain. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Dan assured me that new crewmembers would be provided for me by the time I arrived in Nevada. This saved me the trouble of having to find them myself, but it was also like buying a pig in a poke. I was slightly acquainted with one of my new crewmen, the digger Art, who had been on another crew in Sacramento. What I had seen of him in passing had not impressed me, but he turned out to be a pretty good crewmember. Corey, my new treater, had also worked for Osmosis previously, but he did not turn out to be such a good crewmember. I had been warned by my trainer Pete not to share a room with a crewmember. In fact, my various district managers kept saying that it was the company's policy to try to room foremen together with other foremen, but I always seemed to end up bunking with a crewmember. This had worked out okay with Mike, who was easy enough to get along with, and SR, who was family. Corey had some annoying habits, which might be expected in any roommate situation. Unfortunately, one of his more distressing habits was occasionally not showing up for work in the morning, which is quite a feat considering we were in the same room together. This also meant that I had to issue some sort of company mandated discipline. Now, it's awkward enough being forced to share a living space with someone you didn't choose. It's even more uncomfortable when you're that person's boss and you have to get down on them, then at the end of the work day you can't get away from them and have to try to get along in a small space. Fun.
Our purpose in being in Vegas was to finish a contract on top of Mt. Charleston, a name which still causes me an involuntary shudder. Its official name is Charleston Peak, but most folks call it Mt. Charleston. The actual Mt. Charleston is a small town at the base of the mountain, which boasts a fancy lodge, a sheriff's substation and very little else. Mt. Charleston (which is how I shall refer to the mountain from now on) lies about forty miles northeast of Vegas. At 11,918 feet elevation, it is the tallest mountain in southern Nevada. It was named by famed explorer John Fremont for his wife's hometown. It is also the home to some unusual installations. On one of its lesser summits, known as Angel Peak, around 8,000 feet, was the Spring Mountain Youth Camp, an involuntary boarding school for bad boys. The school had its own gorgeous football field. Our de facto tour guide was a foreman named Art, who had been working the contract the previous October when they got snowed off the mountain. Now we were back in the spring to finish the job. Art was a giant of a man, so I shall call him Big Art, to distinguish him from Little Art, the digger. Little Art was of average height, but he was very skinny, and any average Art would be little next to Big Art.
Big Art told us about how the juvenile delinquents' football team, by virtue of training at 8,000 feet, always kicked the asses of any other teams they played when they descended like gods from the mountain to the plains below (in case you didn't know, Las Vegas means "The Plains"). Near the school was a large observatory and a huge collection of antennas of every kind imaginable. The observatory and radio station had originally been built by the Air Force, but now it is under civilian control. Some of the older buildings at the SMYC were unmistakably military in origin, and some old Air Force equipment was still to be seen just below the observatory.
It was also quite pleasant temperature-wise working on Mt. Charleston. While it was in the 110's in Vegas, it was a good 20 to 30 degrees cooler on the mountain. But that's about where anything interesting or nice ends on Mt. Charleston. Cooler doesn't equal moister. It was important to remember that we were still in the middle of a desert. And despite the high elevation, were we still a little shy of the true tree line, so shade was also quite rare. Our days consisted of clambering up and down 60 degree slopes. We had to carry everything in and out by hand because no truck could have handled those hills. We were also using a type of wood-preservative that comes packed inside little aluminum cylinders that look like CO2 cartridges. You drilled your usual hole, or more often you rebored an existing hole because the poles had been treated about 10 years before. So this meant that there was an old empty cylinder in the bore hole. If you were careful, you could poke the end of your drill bit (which had a little screw-like tip to help you get your purchase) into the butt end of the old cylinder and pull it out, then it was fairly easy to pull it off the end of the drill bit. But most of the time you ended up with the cylinder squashed around the end of the drill bit. Then you had to pry it off with pliers. Then you popped the cap off a new cylinder, dropped it opened-end first into the hole and plugged it up. This chemical was intensely smelly, and we were warned repeatedly not to get the shit in our eyes if we valued our sight, let alone the fact that it is a very short path from the eye to the brain. Also, the cylinders had to be kept on ice or the gas inside could expand enough to rupture the cylinders, and then you could have real problems on your hands. Have you ever tried taking ice into a desert? Even in an ice chest it doesn't last long. So we were lugging drills, gas cans, shovels, ice chests, buckets of goop, and (hopefully) enough water (which never turned out to be enough) to keep ourselves hydrated up and down the mountain.
In the state of Nevada, you have to have a license to apply pesticides in any kind of professional capacity. Before we left Turlock, Dan gave me a copy of the study booklet for the test. That was my bedtime reading for the next several days. The day after I arrived in Vegas, Dan led me over to a dumpy little state office building housing the Nevada Department of Agriculture. I took the test, no problem. The plan was that after the test I would join Big Art and his crew, who were already out working. When the test was over, Dan asked me if I had a spare tire. I said I did, and he said we needed to take my spare tire and his out to Big Art, who had gotten two flat tires on his way to the job site. This was but a taste of the terror that Mount Charleston was too unleash upon us.
Big Art was convinced that Mt. Charleston was cursed. He said that almost every one of his crew members quit on him after scaling that mountain. The mountain was harsh, but I think part of the problem may have been Big Art's logistics. For some reason he had his crew start at the top of the mountain, work their way down, and then walk back up the mountain, carrying their stuff after digging and treating all day. He said some of them barfed. No wonder they quit. Unfortunately, sometimes you have no choice but to do it the way he did. But there was an alternative. There was a substation on Angel Peak in between the Youth Camp and the Observatory. Power lines ran up the east side of the mountain from a substation near U.S. Route 95. I guess the power probably came from Boulder Dam. Then another line ran down the west side of the mountain from Angel Peak to serve the residents of the remote and rugged Lee's Canyon area. The road through Lee's Canyon was paved and access to Angel Peak was quite easy. There was also a dirt road that came off the highway next to the substation and wound its way up several very rough miles towards the base of the mountain. The road petered out where it became too steep for vehicles, but at that point it was only a mile or two up to Angel Peak along the path of the power lines. I tended to think of that area as the "backside" of the mountain. It was sort of like getting into Mordor via Cirith Ungol.
So with that nerdy reference, I will stop abruptly here. I've prattled on for several pages. I don't want to wear you out. I like to keep the servings modest, therefore keeping you hungering for more. When we return, we'll learn more about Mt. Charleston, and Las Vegas, the nation's playground.
More of Mt. Charleston
So, where were we? Ah yes, on the back side of Mt. Charleston. I think, in trying to keep to some kind of chronological order, I should reiterate that I had just taken my examination in order to qualify to apply pesticides in the great state of Nevada. The next step was going out to the work site and getting down to business. The other foreman, Big Art, had gone out to the mountain earlier, and had to be rescued by Dan and I because he had two, count 'em, TWO flat tires on the rocky dirt road. We brought him our spare tires and he and his crew put them on his truck. Then our little convoy set off again. Dan accompanied us, for no discernible reason that I could see. I think I mentioned in the last installment that we were trying to finish a section of line that had almost been completed the previous fall before Big Art got snowed off of Mount Caradhras...oops, I mean Mount Charleston (fifty points to any reader who gets that reference). I think the plan was that the two sets of crew members would either work their way up the line and be met at the top by a foreman with a truck, or the crews would be driven to the top and work their way down (a more sensible choice) and be met at the bottom. Whatever the original plan was, it didn't come off that way. When we arrived at the end of the road, Big Art was spotting me while I tried to jockey around to head back down the road when he observed that my truck was literally hemorrhaging transmission fluid. Apparently the transmission housing had clipped a rock and sustained some serious damage. I admit, I was inexperienced about operating four wheel drive trucks on back roads, but I wasn't being careless or anything. It was just dumb luck. Big Art's truck, identical to mine, managed to miss the killer rock. Dan's truck was his private vehicle (which all District Managers drove), and he had it jacked up much higher off the ground, so there was no chance of it getting hung up like that.
So that pretty much put the scotch on our whole day. We were basically forced to turn back home having earned no units for poles treated that day. My truck had pretty much lost all its vital fluid and there was no more with us. Getting back to the highway didn't really present much a problem, as the dirt road was all downhill in that direction, and little more than coasting was required, so there wouldn't be much strain on the transmission. Dan decided that he should drive my truck, because he had more experience with such vehicles and, so he said, such contingencies. I guess that made sense, but it still kind of hurt my pride. Big Art drove his own truck, of course, and some lucky crew member got to drive Dan's big fancy air conditioned truck. Not me, of course. Oh, no.
The ride down the hill was memorable. Dan always drove fast under normal circumstances, but now he had the extra excuse of needing to keep up momentum to carry us over any incidental upgrades or too-long flat spots. Basically, we were careening down that extremely bumpy, rocky road at break-neck speed - literally. I was riding next to the front passenger door. I had my seat belt off, partly because we were on a back road, and partly because the cab was so stuffed with personnel that getting my seatbelt on in all that crush didn't seem worth the effort. On one particularly violent bump, I flew straight up and slammed my head into the ceiling of the cab. It was a good thing I was still wearing my hard hat, or I probably would have been knocked out. After that, I took the trouble to put on my seat belt.
The ride on the highway back to town was fairly level so Dan magnanimously let me drive at that point. We stopped at the first place where we could buy some transmission fluid and put that in (pointlessly). Then we got my truck to a Ford dealership for repair. Then back to the fabulous Nevada Phallus and Casino to file our miserably empty pole reports, lick our wounds, drink beer and hope for a better tomorrow. Fat chance. More later.
Mount Charleston Continues In Its Murderous Ways
As the distance between now and then grows with each passing day, the seeming significance of those times diminishes. So too does my formerly overweening need to get those memories out of me and into you, gentle readers. Both the traumatic and humorous aspects of the events have lost some of their luster. But I don’t believe in leaving a job unfinished! So if the following narrative seems oddly compressed or lacking in chronological cohesiveness, then so be it. Without further ado, more of my madcap misadventures on the flanks of Mount Charleston.
It seems like we spent forever going out to that damned mountain, but really my personal involvement with it didn’t amount to more than about three days. Believe me, that was more than enough to last a lifetime (and almost end a few). On the first of those days when we had begun in earnest to tackle the line going from Angels Peak (AP) to Lee Canyon (LC), my digger Little Art was attached to foreman Big Art’s crew. He got lost and there was a tense hour or so when no one had eyes on him. He had a walkie talkie with him, so he was able to communicate with Big Art and me. What happened was he was by himself following what appeared to be a spur line. To his eyes it looked like the line came to an abrupt end, which didn’t make any sense to the rest of us. Live power lines don’t just stop unless there is some place for the energy to go, like a building or a substation. We didn’t have any maps of the lines. In fact, we were creating maps of the lines as we went along. Our little computers were outfitted with GPS attachments (which used more battery power, which meant we had to carry spare batteries, along with all the other tons of crap we had to lug up and down the mountain). When we serviced a pole, we would capture the GPS coordinates of the pole, which would later be used in creating maps of the lines. This appealed to my college-trained cartographer’s sensibilities. It was, however, of no real use in determining your location, except in relation to poles you had already done. The little red dots representing the poles were just little red dots on a featureless surface. If Little Art had been carrying one of these units, we might have been able to pinpoint his location, but diggers have no reason to carry a computer.
Eventually he was found, not much worse for the wear, but we were on the verge of calling for some sort of professional search and rescue people. It turned out that the line he had been following had indeed not just stopped, but the lines suddenly plunged over a cliff toward the next set of poles. From his vantage point he didn’t see the lines going downward behind the poles and thought it was a dead end. He then tried to cut across country back toward where he thought the main line was, and that was when he got lost. All those canyons and ridges look an awful lot alike. The near loss of a crewmember was the highlight of Day One of the Assault on Lee Canyon.
Day Two found us back in the same spot. The plan was for me and my crew to park at Angels Peak and work our way down toward Big Art and his crew working their way up from Lee Canyon. We had already covered quite a bit of that line the day before, so there was nothing for it but to recover a couple of miles of the same ground before we could even begin really working. Dan, our District Manager man, had purchased a four wheeled ATV thingy for those areas that were too steep for trucks. Big Art towed the ATV on a trailer behind his truck. It was moderately useful in saving some lucky crew some amount of trudgery drudgery. The lucky crew in question was Big Art’s, because for some reason Dan didn’t deem me worthy of operating the ATV. In addition, there was the notion that we had it easier because we were working down hill and Big Art was working uphill. In reality, this is bullshit. As I inferred earlier, there are a lot of smaller canyons and ridges (more properly called draws and spurs, for all you other unemployed professional geographers out there) between AP and LC. Our overall trajectory was downward, but we spent a great deal of time clambering up steep slopes, sometimes on all fours. Our water ran out before the day did. I’ve heard all kinds of warnings about how fast you can dehydrate in the desert. Now I really believe them. I don’t know if it was just the dryness, or if that was compounded with the high elevation, but my voice quickly became husky and weak. Talking was an effort. Yelling to be heard over a walkie-talkie was nearly impossible. Attempting to continue working without water was tantamount to suicide. We abandoned all efforts at constructive work and tried to get back to Big Art and the ATV, where more large jugs of sweet, life-giving water awaited our parched throats. Unfortunately all three of us were now in the same sort of predicament that Little Art had been the day before: we didn’t really know where Big Art was. The walkie-talkies weren’t much help. Big Art was telling me to head for a particular three-pole (“triple”) structure, but there were a lot of identical triple structures in all those identical draws. The best thing to do was keep heading downhill. I chose a particularly steep ravine to follow, figuring it offered the most direct route down. Corey stubbornly opted to follow the flank of a ridge. I tried to tell him we should stick together. I didn’t want another lost crewmember. Actually, I’m not even sure what had become of Little Art at this point. I think he had gotten on ahead of us as diggers tend to do and had found his own way to safety.
My ravine was starting to look like not such a wise choice. There was a fair amount of deciduous trees in this particularly vicinity. A lot of them were growing or had fallen across the ravine, obliging me to duck under them and force my way through their smaller branches. I got a lot of scratches on my arms and face. The accumulation of their leaves in the bottom of the ravine was about two feet deep. It was kind of like trying to walk through deep snow. I also tried not to think about what kind of creepy crawlies might be lurking in that duff. That brings up something very peculiar about Mount Charleston: there didn’t seem to be any wildlife there. I can’t recall seeing or hearing a single reptile, mammal or bird the whole time we were there. Not even any insects of significance. I don’t know if maybe this is common with desert mountains. Mount Charleston was my first experience with such an environment, and if I have any say in it, it will be my last. The recurring idea that that place was cursed was beginning to look more and more likely.
As I struggled down the ravine, another worrisome thought began to gnaw at my fevered mind. If there should happen to be a sudden thunderstorm, I was dead center in the middle of a major channel for any rainwater that would come down the mountain. The possibility of a flash flood was not exactly remote. Mountains frequently generate treacherous weather. Already a couple of times while we there it had suddenly clouded up and a cloudburst seemed eminent. So far, no rain had fallen, but perhaps it was just a matter of time.
My walkie-talkie quit working, which was just as well, since I had to choose between walking and talking. Doing both was more than I could handle just then. Big Art started honking the horn of the ATV. It was hard to tell its direction, but I was just thrilled that I could hear it. As I descended the sound got closer, and my optimism grew. Rescue seemed close at hand. Then I could hear Big Art and his crewman J.J. yelling. I didn’t bother trying to yell back. My wasted throat just wouldn’t allow it. I concentrated all my energy on getting to the source of the sounds as quickly as I could. Eventually I got to the mouth of the ravine where it joined a dry river bed, and there were Big Art, J.J. and the ATV full of water. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I almost cried with relief. I started guzzling water like a madman. That was when I remembered all those movies I’ve seen where some poor soul is found after wandering without water in the wilderness. The scenes are always the same: the victim starts gulping the proffered water, and some wise, grizzled old cowhand-type says something like, “Whoa, there pardner, take it easy”, while gently but firmly pulling the canteen from the parched man’s lips. Turns out Hollywood gets it right sometimes. Guzzling water after a prolonged period of dehydration makes you want to barf. I didn’t barf, but it wasn’t easy. Enduring the bumpy ride down the hill in the ATV wasn’t made any easier with a ton of water sloshing around in my screaming guts. Aaargh! The cure was worse than the disease! Corey had come blundering out of the bracken a few moments after me, so I guess his route wasn’t much worse than mine. Little Art had somehow gotten back to the trucks before the rest of us, but he was locked out without any water! So then it was his turn to play the lost and thirsty tenderfoot and me to play the wise old frontiersman. But I was still so miserable I refused to play my part. Let him find out on his own.
So Day Two was over. I was just thankful to be alive. At that time I was more religious than I am right now, but I’m still not embarrassed to say that I kept praying to God to get me safely down off that mountain. I guess you could say my prayers were answered. You would think that would learn me to stay off of mountains in deserts. Given the choice, I would gladly have taken that lesson. But Osmosis worships a different god – Mammon - and I was just their hapless pawn.
When we return, maybe we can actually wrap up the Mount Charleston chapter. Keep your fingers crossed.
Am I Ever Going To Get Off This Fucking Mountain?!
Day Three of the Assault on Lee Canyon found us, horribly but predictably, back up on that goddamned lifeless stinking mountain. On the previous day, we had managed to get fairly close to the bottom of Lee Canyon in terms of finished poles. This time, the two crews would work together. We started out walking from the trucks up to where we had left off the day before. Then we were going to work our way back down and hopefully get the damned line knocked out that day so we wouldn’t have to go back there ever again.
Things were going along well enough. Then storm clouds started blowing in. This time they looked like they were going to stick around awhile, maybe try to get up to some mischief. Remembering my thoughts in the ravine the day before, I tried to avoid being in any places that might channel runoff. I was working with Big Art’s digger, “South”. His real name was Analdrea. That’s right: ANAL-drea. That’s why he preferred to be called South, which is where he was from (Cajun country, Louisiana, to be exact). Some raindrops began to fall. South wanted to drop everything and hightail back to the trucks. I don’t claim to be some savvy outdoorsman or seasoned weather expert, but I feel like I have a pretty good sense about these sorts of weather phenomenon. Something was telling me that this was just a little shower and was going to blow over quickly. I managed to convince South of this and got him to stick around. Sure enough, the clouds did blow away after dropping an insignificant amount of moisture. We kept on working.
After a little while, though, the apparent big brother of the previous cloud bank showed up. This one was rumbling deep in its throat some sort of muttered threats. I don’t know what we had done to offend him; maybe not taking his little brother seriously enough? This time I could tell that these clouds were not going to just go away. They meant business. Now we were on a very exposed ridge. The clouds were actually darkest looking at a spot below our current elevation. Lightning started flashing. By counting the seconds between flash and thunder and dividing by 5 (the actual method), I determined that the lightning was striking barely a mile from where we were. Big fat cold drops started to fall on us. This time South and I were of the same mind. We stashed the equipment we were carrying under a tree and covered it with one of the bright yellow digging tarps to protect it and make it easier to spot later, and then we beat feet back toward the trucks. The rain was cutting across at an angle from our right. It was so cold that that side of my face began to ache furiously, as though I had a major toothache. I covered the right side of face with my gloved hand to protect it. Once more I started to pray to God to help me get down safely off the mountain. Then I remembered this old joke (stop me if you’ve heard it):
There is a terrible flood, and a man is trapped on the roof of his house as the waters slowly rise higher and a higher. A man in a row boat comes by and offers to take the man on board. The first man says, “No thanks, God will save me.” The man in the rowboat shakes his head and moves on. The waters climb higher. Then a man in a motorboat comes along and offers to rescue the man. Again the first man says that God will save him. With words to the effect of “have it your way” the motorboat pilot reluctantly goes on. The waters climb yet higher. Then a man in a helicopter comes along and offers to rescue the trapped man, who again states that God will save him. The helicopter pilot flies away. Finally the waters reach the top of the house, and the man is swept away and drowned. When he arrives in heaven and meets his maker, he asks God why He hadn’t saved him. God replies, “What are you talking about? I sent you a rowboat, a motor boat and a helicopter?!” Ba dum dum.
This story seemed to have relevance to my particular situation. The day before I had prayed to God to get me safely off that mountain and He had obliged. And how did I return the favor? I turned right around and threw myself back into harm’s way. I hoped I wasn’t straining God’s patience for asinine behavior. Apparently God is more forgiving of stupid people than I am, because I made it back to the trucks without being struck by lightning (which would have been oh so apropos) or croaking from hypothermia. By the time we made it down the hill, the rain had slackened to a gentle shower, but there were more ominous clouds pushing in toward the mountain. Everyone was soaked and freezing, so nobody wanted to try to get anymore work done that day. So there in the middle of the Nevada desert in late June we clambered into our trucks and blasted the heaters. When we got back to Las Vegas the temperature was in the usual triple digits under a clear blue sky. There was nothing that would indicate we had just come from a freezing rainstorm. When we told DM Dan what had happened and how we had stashed the equipment, he got all frustrated, saying that you NEVER leave equipment behind. I really appreciated it that he was more concerned about the company’s junk than our personal safety.
The next day, there were few enough poles left on the AP-LC line that only one crew was needed to tackle it. Big Art magnanimously volunteered to take it on. My crew started treating poles in greater Las Vegas. I didn’t even complain about working in 110+ degree temperatures, I was so grateful not to have to go back on that cursed massif. Big Art recovered our equipment without difficulty and with its having received no appreciable damage from having to spend the night outdoors, cozy under its tarp. So a big “Fuck You” to Dan. Big Art got the rest of the line done that day. Our crews spent the next couple of days working in town. Then the orders came through that it was time to pull up stakes and move on the Reno.
There are a few moments that stick out in my mind from my time on Mount Charleston, but I can’t remember where they fit in the chronology, so I’ve held them back until now. One day, high up on the mountainside, I was surprised when my cell phone rang. I didn’t think that it would out in a barren wilderness like that until I remembered that we were in the line of sight of the observatory on AP, which veritably bristled with every kind of antenna conceived by man. I was even more surprised when it turned out to be my former but still despised Sacramento DM Rick. He was calling to see if I had a phone number for one of my former crew members from Sacramento, which I gave him.
The next day my cell phone rang again. This time it was an automated recording from the Walgreens near the Nevada Phallus informing me that the roll of film I had dropped off previously was ready to be picked up. This is valuable information which one really needs to know when clinging to the side of an evil mountain. This also brings up a rather weird fact about Las Vegas vis a vis Walgreens pharmacies, which is that Las Vegas is ass-deep in Walgreens. I know a bigger city is going to have more locations of a chain store than smaller towns, but this was just nuts. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Walgreens. Little Art noticed this, too. He also pointed out that wherever there was a Walgreens on a corner, it was invariably accompanied by a 7-11 convenience store on the opposite corner. One never seemed to occur without the other. I don’t know what forces are behind such a bizarre phenomenon. Ask the Gods of Las Vegas.
Another time one of my crew found an old Osmosis shovel near one of the poles we treated. Osmosis shovels are distinguishable by the unusual blade, which I think I might have described previously. At the risk of repeating myself (and being too lazy to go back and re-read what I’ve written in the past), the blades are cut with a curve at the tip so they fit against the side of the pole so you can get in nice and close while digging and lift away the loose dirt with it falling off the end. The wooden handle of the one we found was pitted and cracked from exposure to the elements and the blade was rusted. The crew that had been there ten years before us had been none other than DM Dan’s, back when he was just a lowly foreman. I remembered this shovel while he was ranting and raving about not leaving equipment behind, and I probably should have mentioned it, but I let it slide. Coulda shoulda woulda.
So now we were on the verge of leaving Las Vegas (alive) and I hadn’t gotten to spend anytime taking in the local attractions. Our last night there was supposed to be Friday night and we were supposed to drive up to Reno on Saturday. Corey had a hot date with some barmaid from the Phallus and he wanted the room to himself, so he offered me twenty bucks to make myself scarce. Lacking in general pride and ready funds, I took his money and took a bus to the world-famous Las Vegas Strip (which is a street, real name Las Vegas Boulevard, not a club). I ended up getting there kind of late. I knew that the action never stops in Las Vegas. What I didn’t know was that “action” refers specifically to gambling. The other attractions of the casinos, like shops and rides and moving statues and whatnot close down at the same sort of hours that normal businesses do. I wasn’t interested in gambling. I never have been. It holds no appeal to me. I just don’t get what is supposed to be fun about feeding your hard-earned money into some machine with little chance of getting any of it back. But I guess it’s that “little chance” that keeps the real gamblers coming back. Whatever floats your boat.
So there I was, stuck on The Strip after hours, with very little money and nothing to do with it anyway. So I wandered from one end of the Strip to the other and back again, going into all the casinos for a look around. When I had been there some twenty years earlier, my friend Chuck and I had done very much the same thing. Back then you didn’t have the gigantic places like the Bellagio, the Venetian or the Stratosphere Tower. At the time, we were two young single fellas and we were looking for a famous strip joint (that was in the days before they were called “gentlemen’s clubs) we had heard about. We eventually found it at the north end of the Strip. In between the main part of the Strip and that locale there had been a long stretch with basically nothing in it. Maybe some one story shops and businesses. It was very deserted. Twenty years later, there were still some empty places along that stretch, but most of it was getting filled in with giant high-rise condominiums for the extremely wealthy. The old strip club had now become Ivanka Trump’s real estate office.
Friday nights on The Strip are little less than barely controlled riots. Revelers are allowed to take their drinks out of the casinos as they stagger from one watering hole to the next. This results in there being empty glasses sitting on top of every reasonably flat surface within sight, and even more broken tumblers lying on the sidewalks and in the gutters. You can also buy these giant plastic cups that look like some kind of bugle with a lid and straw that are full of some sort of adult beverage, so that your happening in Vegas that will stay in Vegas needn’t be inconvenienced by frequent stops for refills. The freely flowing booze and the whole mindset of “Sin City” engender a mob mentality of “anything goes”. Cops on high powered racing bikes are stationed at key points and frequently zoom off to deal with somebody who has stepped over some line of acceptable behavior. As the hour grew later, the vibe got uglier. I tried to steer clear of groups of drunken young white guys, who looked like the type of mindlessly inebriated frat boys who might swing at an innocent bystander without warning or reason.
The main problem with this whole night out was that I had not thought to ask Corey how long he thought he needed to give the barmaid an adequate hosing, so I didn’t know when I could safely return. I was getting tired and just wanted to lie down and sleep. I was painfully aware that in a few hours I was supposed to be driving some 400 miles to Reno. I found an empty auditorium-like room in one of the casinos that had a bunch of chairs facing a large score board. It looked like things I’ve seen in movies where people sit and bet on sporting events or such, or it might have been Keno. The chairs were comfy and I didn’t think anyone would mind if I sat there awhile. My tired eyes quickly closed of their own accord. I should have known better. I had already learned that sleeping is a proscribed activity in casinos. I had been doing my laundry one day at the casino/motel across the street from the Phallus. I sat down in front of a slot machine to wait out the drying cycle and dozed off. I was gently prodded awake by some erstwhile employee who said that if I was sitting in front of machine, I needed to be playing. I moved a few feet away to a chair in the lobby of the motel and continued my nap without further hassle. So sleeping doesn’t really seem to be the problem, but rather tying up a machine that could be sucking money out of somebody’s pocket. Since my new digs weren’t being used by anyone, I didn’t think I was stemming the flow of money into the casino’s coffers. Apparently the omnipresent eye of casino security felt differently on the matter. I don’t know how long I had been out, probably only a few seconds, but I was again discovered and interrupted and politely but undeniably asked to keep moving or play if I wanted to remain in the casino.
The sky was starting to lighten outside, which wasn’t immediately detectable because of all the light pollution from the casinos. The crowds of drunks had thinned out. Now most of the people out and about were the ones whose job it was to clean up after all the debauchery. I sat down at a bus stop with several homeward-bound casino employees (only the poor who work for the rich casinos ride the bus) and waited to be whisked back to my bed. I figured if Corey wasn’t done doing whatever it was he was doing to the barmaid, he had had long enough. I had earned my twenty bucks. I had already given up the idea of driving to Reno that day. It could wait till Sunday. Unfortunately I fell asleep on the bus and missed my stop near the Phallus and ended up having to walk over a mile back to the motel. So much for my night on the town.
I spent Saturday sleeping and packing for the trip to Reno. We took off early Sunday morning and bid a less-than-fond farewell to Las Vegas and an even less fond farewell to Mount Charleston as we passed it on U.S. 95. The drive to Reno wasn’t entirely uneventful, but I’ll save that for the next installment. Betcha can’t wait, eh? At least we’re down off the mountain, and that’s got to be worth something.
The End Of It All
Some chapters have been lost since the original telling, and that is sad. Memories fade, words do not. Some chapters should have been written, and were not. I was in a hurry to bring things to a close, and there were some things of which I was not proud and which may never be told.
We packed up our stuff and headed north. The long trip was not without event. One of the tires of the truck was low. We stopped in a little town - I think it was Tonopah - to fill it up. I didn’t have a gauge and neither did the air hose we were using. I made my best guess. Those dual tires are very high pressure, eighty pounds I think. It looked full. We got back under way, and had only gone a few hundred yards when the world suddenly ended. Or so it seemed. The tire had blown with a tremendous report. We pulled over and spent a lot of time replacing it with the spare. The problem was that the steel belt had come mostly unpeeled and was all tangled up around the axle. We tried cutting it off with a hack saw, but that was too much work. We eventually got it licked and took off.
Corey also lost his lovely straw hat he had acquired in Vegas. He was dozing in the front passenger seat with the hat on his lap. The windows were open. I noticed the hat was starting to lift off his lap. I was about to tell him to secure his hat when it suddenly shot up and out the window. I started to pull over so he could retrieve it, but he told me not to bother - I don’t know why.
When we arrived in Reno it was the weekend just before Independence Day, which was on a Tuesday that year. So we worked one day in Reno, then had a day off and then went back at it on Wednesday. I was feeling kind of depressed on Independence Day. Reno isn’t very far from my home, but I couldn’t get there just then. I just lay in my hotel room and watched a Monk marathon while other people watched fireworks.
We only did pole inspection and treatment in Reno for a couple of days, and then we switched to pole grubbing around South Lake Tahoe. Pole grubbing means clearing all the vegetation within 10 feet of the pole. Not all poles. Some poles have these things called cutouts on them, like big fuses that will blow if there’s a power surge in the line, to protect the rest of the network. Thing is, when those cutouts blow, they rain down sparks, so you have to clear the burnable stuff so a wild fire isn’t started. It was not fun work, but then neither was the other shit we did. It’s just that grubbing takes no particular skill or training. It was hard to imagine why they were paying us a handsome wage for something that a bunch of convicts or something could do for free or cheap. And Osmosis, represented by good old Dan, provided us with the shittiest bunch of equipment to get the job done. We had a weed eater, but it spent more time not working than working. We had an odd assortment of other landscaping tools like pollacks or whatever those things are called and rakes and hoes and shit. It sucked.
And speaking of that handsome wage, South Lake Tahoe is in California, where we should have been making a higher wage for the same work than we had been in Nevada. I asked about that our first day in South Lake Tahoe, and Dan said no. I said, ah crap, but what are you going to do, right? So we grubbed and we whined and we bitched and we moaned.
For a while we were remaining at the hotel in Reno and commuting all the way to South Lake Tahoe, which is a goodly commute. Then they moved us to a motel in Carson City, shortening the commute by quite a bit, but it was still a good 50 minute drive each way. I may have mentioned it before, but Osmosis has this rule that states, “your day starts when the first shovel hits the ground”, - meaning that you’re not being paid for all the time you spend having to drive to the work site, so that sucks. At least the countryside was beautiful. I kind of skimmed over Tahoe before because I didn’t feel like my word craft was sufficient to the task of trying to describe it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. I thinks it’s the most beautiful country I have ever seen. I will leave it at that.
One of the best days was when we had to drive up Angora Ridge. At the end of the road is a sort of resort where rich folks can rent cabins by beautiful glacial tarns - lakes left behind by glaciers. The very top tarn is backed by a sheer cliff and you can watch the water running off the melting snow at the top of the peak (keep in mind that this is July we’re talking about here) and falling prettily into the lake. The near side of the lake had a little white sand beach. There were little canoes guests could use, and beach chairs to sun on. There was a little camp store for use of the guests and visitors. Everyone there was very friendly and the store lady gave us lemonade. The walk back to the resort was incredible. You pass other tarns and the streams that feed them, and huge granite boulders are strewn majestically about.
There is a problem with Lake Tahoe: people have loved it so much that its formerly crystal clear waters have become murky with sediment that has run off due to increased erosion from such human activities as clearing land for buildings and roads. A sign I saw there said that if all excess erosion were to stop, it would take 400 years for Lake Tahoe to clean itself out. I think that is very sad.
In one important way, the grubbing we were doing was beneficial. A wildfire would increase erosion, plus the ash and other contaminants that would wash into the lake. The grubbing increased erosion to some extent, but it was a fair trade off for protection from the devastating effects of a wildfire that might be caused by the poles. Still, I felt bad about the bit we were contributing. And some citizens who watched what we were doing had some concerns about it too, but what are you going to do? I tried to explain the benefits of grubbing, and I think most people got it. A lot of people seemed to think that we were doing it to protect the poles from wildfires. Quite the opposite: we were doing it to protect the wild and its citizens and denizens from pole fires.
Since Tahoe residents are so conscious about their lake and its environment (although not enough to volunteer to move away and return the area to a more pristine condition), we were also forbidden from using herbicides to keep the vegetation from growing back, like in normal grubbing in less environmentally-conscious areas. And things grow very well in the cool alpine summers of Lake Tahoe. It was discouraging to spend a bunch of time laboriously grubbing a pole, and then drive by it a couple of days later and see new growth already poking up in the recently cleared dirt. I thought that we should have been covering the cleared area with something like concrete. It may not be pretty, but it would stem erosion from the cleared ground and it would keep new stuff from growing back. But no one listens to me.
Getting back to Reno for a minute (in the narrative, not in reality), while we were working there I had a bit of another incident with my truck. I think I told you how I had accidentally torn away a transmission fluid line or something on the back road to Mount Charleston. Well, Little Art and I (I don’t know where Corey was that day, probably “sick” again, as in didn’t-show-up-for-work-after-a-night-of-debauchery) were driving some back roads just off of Interstate 80 just east of Sparks. Actually, I didn’t realize it but I wasn’t actually on a road at all. It was hard to tell. Lots of makeshift roads and firebreaks had been gouged into the rocky surface over the years, and I thought I was following a legitimate track. I attempted to cross a little gully. When we got to the bottom, there was a terrible grinding noise from underneath the truck, which sort of lifted straight up a couple of inches and then shifted to the left a bit, and wouldn’t move anymore. I had struck a huge rock which had been mostly buried out of sight in the weeds. I managed to catch the tip of it - like the proverbial iceberg - and had dislodged it a bit and now the truck was hung up on it. Art and I tried to dig out the rock. We tried to pry truck and rock apart with rock bars. Nothing worked.
We had to hike back to the interstate and hitchhike back to town. Well, I guess it’s still called hitchhiking even if no one picks you up. We ended up walking back a quite a way until we came upon some road work and we asked a Nevada Transportation Department guy for a lift back to town. He would only take us as far as the first populated exit in Sparks.
Art finally managed to get a hold of his girlfriend, who was visiting him in Reno and she came and picked up us and took us back to the motel. Then I had to spend the rest of the day rounding up a tow truck, going back out there with the tow truck driver, getting the truck hauled into town and making arrangements for it to be repaired. Seems I had damaged something important to the shifting of the truck, so just getting it off the rock wasn’t the answer to the problem. So this was the second time I had severely damaged the truck, necessitating repairs.
Dan made me go back a third time to the scene of the incident with him and try to explain exactly how I had made such a mistake. I showed him the thing I thought was supposed to be a road, but he was being a big asshole about it. Essentially Dan decided that I was just being negligent and the ultimate decision was that I was going to have to pay for the towing and repair of the truck myself via payroll deductions. This of course is bullshit. I don’t think it’s even legal. I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t. I had nowhere else to go, like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, just not as handsome. Big Art told me about how there were these two foremen, brothers, who were monsters in terms of the number of poles they churned out, which is all Osmosis cares about. He said those guys destroyed a lot of trucks and equipment in their mad quest for high numbers, but nobody said boo to them. So here was I, the crappy foreman with low numbers, and I, through no fault of my own, caused some damage to a truck a couple of times, and I had to pay for it out of my pocket.
Things were falling apart in my marriage and back home in general. Being in this job where I always felt like I was never any good and always had people yelling at me about how bad I was pushing all kinds of daddy buttons, and I was becoming an asshole. I was mean to my wife when I talked to her on the phone, and I did a bad thing I don’t really want to talk about now. I think I was also being influenced by some evil spirit I had brought with me off of Mount Charleston.
Things weren’t going well for my wife, either. Her mom was dying of congestive heart failure, and she and my daughter were nursing her and watching her die. Finally sometime in July she did pass away. I requested a couple of days off and I caught a local transit bus from Carson City to Reno, and then took Greyhound to O-Town.
I was the one who performed her funeral. I had done the same thing when Mrs. R's grandmother had died a few years earlier. That hadn’t too hard. I liked her grandma, but I wasn’t so close to her that it was too difficult to conduct her funeral ceremony. I was a lot closer to my mother-in-law. Plus I was all messed up from work, and had gotten very little rest the night before. That was hard.
While I was at home after the funeral, my old Osmosis trainer Pete called me. Seems that in the intervening time since I had last seen him, he had quit Osmosis and had gone to work for a company called Crossroads. Crossroads provided in-store services for the electrical department of a major chanin of home improvement stores. He needed a part time person in the O-Town area, and he either knew or just figured that I hated Osmosis - after all, he had. It was risky taking a part time job from a full time job, but it was better than nothing and it was a golden opportunity to break free from Osmosis.
So the decision was made that I would give Osmosis my two weeks’ notice when I got back to Carson City. I hated to give them that much, but I kind of needed that two weeks’ worth of pay, and plus it’s the right thing to do, right?
The trip back to Reno was fucked up. The way the Greyhound buses run, if I had caught a bus from O-Town to Reno, I would have arrived in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t catch a bus to Carson City. I didn’t have enough money to stay in a motel in Reno. If I drove to Sacramento and caught a bus from there to Reno in the wee hours of the morning, I would arrive in Reno during the day and could catch my transit bus.
At the time my family had two cars: an old van that was on its last legs, and a little Toyota. The van had some problem like the windows couldn’t be rolled up. Mrs. R was going to drive me down to Sacramento in the Toyota. But my step-daughter was majorly freaking out at the time. She was going through some kind of post-traumatic stress thing from this incredibly fucked up short-lived marriage to a real fucker. Plus her grandma had just died. She was doing all kinds of shitty things to us like taking one of the cars and disappearing for a day or two at a time. She did just this on the night I was supposed to catch the bus and she took the Toyota.
Even though it was July, it was cold at night. I couldn’t make Mrs. R drive to and from Sacramento in the middle of the night in a drafty, windowless van. So I caught the bus in O-Town and arrived in Reno in the middle of the night. I figured I could kill time in an all-night café or something until morning. I did go to a café in one of the casinos. Then I ended up wandering a bit. I already knew how casinos felt about you sleeping in them, but I found a little curtained off room with some chairs in the middle of the El Dorado where I figured I wouldn’t be seen. Boy was I wrong. A guy found me and asked me to leave.
It was much colder in Reno than in the Sacramento Valley, and I was wearing a light jacket. I had stashed my luggage in a locker at the Greyhound depot. I went back there and sat down in front of the locked doors and sort of dropped into a freezing doze. A cop or security guard came along and told me I couldn’t sleep on the sidewalk. He was actually really nice about it when I explained my situation. He could see I wasn’t just a bum. He said I could sit there as long as I didn’t sleep. I tried that, and it wasn’t easy, but I was too tired to stand or walk. I kept almost dozing off, but the cop would come around and say something firm but encouraging like “just a little longer’, “hang in there”.
Finally the morning sun vanquished the horrible night. I got my stuff and caught my transit bus to Carson City. That was on a Sunday. The day before I had called Dan to give him my two weeks’ notice. I didn’t get him but I left it on his voice mail. When I got back to Carson City, I asked Dan if he had gotten my message. He grudgingly acknowledged he had. That fucker didn’t even say anything evenly minimally courteous to me like “sorry to hear about your mother-in-law” or anything.
I sent a fax to Osmosis’s headquarters in Buffalo, New York to confirm the date of the tendering of my resignation and what my last day would be. I had given Dan notice on a Saturday, so my last day would be a Saturday, which is sort of silly since we don’t work on Saturdays, but Osmosis’s work weeks start on Sunday and end on Saturday, so it was technically correct.
It was shitty hell for me to have to drag my ass out of bed and go do that job for those last two weeks, but I did it, albeit poorly. On my next to last day Corey had once again disappeared and I was forced to work alone. I had lost Little Art a couple of weeks earlier. He had been tapped to go work on a pole reinforcement crew, which was a nice promotion for him. I was happy for him; he was a hard worker and deserved it. But that left me alone working with Corey.
Anyway, this day I worked alone. I had one pole that was so densely surrounded with cord grass and small trees and shrubs and dead wood that it took me all day just to do that one pole. I supposed if I had been more motivated I could have gone faster than that, but I was a short-timer, so fuck it. Dan actually called me at home on my first Monday of freedom to ask me about that one pole. He couldn’t believe that I had only done one pole. I was so used to explaining my shitty performance to these assholes that I did just that. I had every right to tell him to fuck off - I didn’t work for them anymore. I didn’t have to explain anything to them. I wish I had.
On my last day Corey graciously deigned to show up to work. I was trying and trying to cut through the horrid alpine cord grass around a particular line of poles in a moist area with the weed eater. I was breaking strings right and left and just going through the string too fast and getting nowhere. I drove into South Lake Tahoe and bought a set of plastic blades to attach to the weed eater. That worked a lot better. The truck was parked at what I thought was a safe distance from the pole. Corey was sitting in the passenger seat with the door open and the window shut in the door. I was grinding away when suddenly I became aware of Corey shouting something to me and pointing back at the truck. A rock had been flung by the weed eater and had shattered the window in the door of truck. Fuck. And on my last day too. I was afraid Osmosis would make me pay for that too. As it was I had to buy some duct tape and some plastic sheeting and I spent my free time after my last day while waiting for Mrs. R to pick me up from the motel in Reno making a makeshift window so that the truck would be secure until the window could be replaced.
I had to drive Corey to Reno because he was going to transfer to one of the crews that were still working in the Reno area. The subject of my debt to Osmosis for the repair and towing of the truck was heavy on my mind during those last days. I was afraid they would take the entirety of my last check because I wouldn’t be making any more payments via payroll deductions. Jason came out and visited me on one of my last days at work. I expressed this concern to him, and he assured me that that wouldn’t happen. He was the only person in that company who had been consistently decent to me.
On my last day (but before the breaking of the window), Dan stopped by to pay me a visit as well. With him was none other than Rick from Sacramento. Seems that Rick was going to be taking over the supervising in the Tahoe-Reno area. I couldn’t believe my luck that I had dodged that bullet. So Mrs. R and my son, daughter and grandson came up in the tiny Toyota to Reno and picked me up. I squeezed in behind the steering wheel and we headed for Lake Tahoe. I took the route up Mount Rose, which I had inadvertently discovered one day when there was some kind of fire or accident or something that had blocked off our usual route back to Reno. Mount Rose has the distinction of being the highest year-round pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at over 8000 feet. It’s a beautiful drive.
When we got to the lake we turned north. We spent the night at a kind of weird motel in Kings Beach or North Shore (I am not sure which). It was at the California/Nevada state line. Our motel was in California but a short walk up the street was the CalNeva casino. The next day we stopped in Truckee for a bit of shopping and sight-seeing. I had kind of wanted to show the family the spectacular views from Angora Ridge in South Lake Tahoe, but that was just too far out of our way. It has been a dream of mine since Osmosis to take the family there, but it just didn’t work out (we came very close this in 2010, and I will tell you about that a little later).
So I went to work at Crossroads and before too long I became a full-time worker, but there were some lean times there during my part-time period. Remember earlier when I mentioned asking Dan if working in California meant we should make more wages under the terms of the contract? Well it turns out we should have been. I forget how I found this out, but my union representative from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was helping me with that. It appeared that Osmosis had been in error about that, and it looked like they owed me the difference in the wages for every day I worked in California after “returning” from Nevada, and maybe even for Reno too because it was under a different contract agreement. Anyway, by my calculations Osmosis owed me about 600 bucks for this. I really could have used that money just then because of the lack of hours I was getting at Crossroads.
Pete was my supervisor when I started at Crossroads, and he tried really hard to get me as many hours as possible. I had to do some extra commuting for those few hours sometimes. I spent a couple of days in Redding, staying in a motel at night, filling in for the regular employee for that area who was on vacation, and again I did that in Red Bluff, but that was close enough to Hometown to commute to. So I was really looking forward to that extra money from Osmosis, plus the satisfaction of getting back at them for their dirty ways. Then the union representative called me and told me there would be no money because under the rules of the contract I was supposed to have informed my union representative of the violation within ten days of starting the new contract. I hadn’t known about this rule, but the contract was available for review by employees, so technically it was my fault for not being informed. More bullshit.
I was desperate for some cash. There were the pieces of an old aluminum shed I had disassembled that my asshole former step-son-in-law had left in my yard. I went out and started getting them ready to take to the scrap metal yard to get the money for the metal. I had to fold some of them in half in order to fit them in the van. This produced a sharp noise which kind of hurt my ears. It was hot and I was stressed out because of the news about the money. My ears started ringing and didn’t stop for several weeks.
I went to a hearing specialist and he did a test on me and said I was fine, but the ringing and sensitivity to loud, high pitched noises persisted for many weeks. I was reporting for work at the Home Depot stores at five in the morning when the night crew was still running around on their fork lifts and motorized pallet jacks which all make a high pitched beeping noise when they move. This cacophony was just excruciating to my poor damaged ears. Eventually they got better, but to this day I still have to cover my ears when an emergency vehicle passes near me with sirens blaring or I will still experience discomfort. Thanks a lot Osmosis.
I worked for Crossroads for over three years until they downsized me. In July of 2010 I had to go to a job interview in Truckee. I thought that it was kind of funny that it was four years to the month since I had last been in Truckee on the day after my last day at Osmosis. After the interview and back at home I was going through my little attaché thing in which I had carried papers relevant to the interview. I found some old papers from the last days at Osmosis. One of them was the receipt from the hardware store in South Lake Tahoe where I had purchased the plastic blades for the weed eater. The date was four years less one day from the date I was now looking at the receipt. I had been mis-remembering that I had quit Osmosis closer to the middle of July. What this meant was that when I went to Truckee for the interview, I was there exactly four years to the day since that glorious trip of freedom home from the horror of Osmosis. This realization kind of freaked me out. What a weird coincidence.
We passed through South Lake Tahoe on our way home from a four-day vacation to the Reno area in 2010. The trip was falling apart at this point. My grandson had apparently gotten some bad clams and/or mussels at our fancy Italian dinner at the hotel the night before, and he was becoming very ill. It had been one of my planned destinations on this trip to finally show my family the glory of Angora Ridge. But Grandrimpy was so ill it was decided it would be better to just head home. I was thwarted only a few short miles from my goal. The real kicker was that not long after we left the area, Grandrimpy threw up copiously on the side of the road, and then felt all better. I wanted to kill him. But I didn’t kill my him - I let him live. I am not a monster. And we all lived happily ever after.