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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cold Memory

My shop has been in the thirties every day this week at opening time. Man, send some of that Global Warming my way, and get California back into at least the forties in the morning. Days like these in the winter, even us sissies out here on the West Coast have to get working in the morning to build up some BTU’s. When I need to remind myself of what it’s really like to work in the cold, I reminisce about my first job out of the service in 1972. I went to work in maintenance for Trumbull County, Ohio. About a month after I started, the two old guys in the Sheriff’s garage both took ill, and were gone on extended leaves. The County Supervisor started pressuring my boss to fill the slot; because the cold weather was moving in, and the Sheriff’s deputies cars had to be in good running shape. One of the deputies I knew by name couldn’t get his squad car started, and came into our maintenance shack for help. I went out and reset the ignition points. The squad car started right up, and when I closed the hood, my boss was looking at me with a big smile. I had just been volunteered to take over the County Sheriff’s garage in my hometown in Ohio.

When I walked into the Sheriff’s garage for the first time, I almost ran back out. You could barely walk around in the place. Automotive garbage and tools were strewn wall to wall, so much so, the three bays for working on cars had been cut down to one stall. My boss saw my face, and patted my shoulder with a laugh.

“Listen kid,” my boss Jim told me, “do what you can. Here’s the maintenance book on all the vehicles. It’s up to date, but the cars aren’t. They’re always behind on everything in here.”

“Jim, this place is a mess. Can I at least clean it up some so I can work?”

“You do anything you have to do, and when that jackass comes back who runs this pigsty, you send him to me if he has any complaints.”

“I promise I won’t throw any tools or anything important away. I’ll just clean and straighten stuff up and take care of the tools. I’d like to haul away those rusty engine blocks and junk laying under the benches though.”

“You know where the county truck is,” Jim nodded in agreement as he looked where I pointed. “Get the keys from Henry when he ain’t usin’ it, and get the kid we hired out of high school for the summer to help you. He’ll only be working a few hours a week anyhow now that schools started.”

My boss turned to walk out and leave me to it, but stopped at the door.

“Kid, if you can clean this place up so we can get our snowplow inside this winter, it’d make my life a hell of a lot easier.”

“Sure, Jim,” I agreed enthusiastically. “Henry told me I’d have to get up at five in the morning and come in after a night snowfall to shovel snow before the County building workers come in. Does this gig get me out of that?”

My boss busted up laughing for a few moments, pointing at me.

“Not a chance,” Jim said finally when he caught his breath. He left, shaking his head, still chuckling over my question.

I hated shoveling snow since I was old enough to be forced to do it. Taking a deep breath, I took a walk around the three bay garage, with the maintenance book under my arm. Planning my strategy while I cleaned and put away tools, I set out next to hunt down the Sheriff’s assistant, a real nice guy who walked around with an unlit cigar in his mouth. He and I worked out a schedule so I could do all the routine maintenance first, and then start in on the more heavy duty stuff after. Within a week, the garage was all cleaned up, and all the benches were cleared for action. I had all the routine maintenance on the Sheriff’s cars done. Next up was the tune-ups, cooling system services, and exhaust, brake, and light checks. Luckily for me at that time, I didn’t have to do any welding. The exhaust systems rust so badly back there, you just cut off all the pipes and muffler, replacing them with new. In the mean time, I practiced my welding, using the book I still had at home from shop class. They never cheaped out on anything, and when I did any service, I replaced everything having anything to do with the job. By the next month, when those first snow flurries hit, I only had to go out in the parking lot to help county workers whose cars and trucks wouldn’t start.

Then came the morning when Henry drove up in the old International maintenance truck at about seven. I’d been shoveling the walks for over an hour, and had sweated through my cotton stuff, even after throwing aside my coat after the first fifteen minutes. Did I mention I hate shoveling snow (and yes, this was prehistoric times before snow-blowers). The only good pieces of clothing I had was my Navy flight-deck coat, and my wool watch cap. The rest of the ensemble was all the cotton blends of the day, which were absolutely the pits. They made you sweat, summer or winter, and stayed damp, making you a candidate for frostbite in cold weather. I looked up from my shoveling and saluted. Henry laughed. He and I got along great. Although twice my age, Henry didn’t do the usual older guy assumptions. See, most guys when they get into their forties fall prey to selective memory, where they think they were knowledgeable about all things since birth, and us younger guys were idiots because we weren’t. Henry remembered young guys like me learned from experience and a wise word from an older guy like him.

“Hey, kid, havin’ fun?”

My name was kid, even though I’d done four years in the Navy, and was old enough to drink in a bar or vote. Compared to all of them, I was a kid. It was a term of endearment.

“As much fun as I can have with my clothes on,” I quipped, getting another laugh from Henry.

“Get in the truck, we’re going over to pick up the snowplow from where the County keeps it stored in the summer. Don’t worry, we’ll get back in plenty of time for you to finish your shoveling.”

“Oh good,” I said with some sarcasm seeping into my voice, “I wouldn’t want to miss out on any of this great weather outdoors.”

I slipped on my discarded coat and climbed into the International passenger seat, immediately noticing we had no heat.

“Henry, are you too hot or something? It’s freezing in this truck,” I complained, feeling the damp cotton clothing beginning to send me into hypothermia.

“It’s waiting on a heater core,” Henry replied, grinning over at me, while he used a towel to clear off moisture on the inside windshield.

“Waiting for what, next summer? Why didn’t you tell me? I’ll fix it for you.”

“The shop truck’s always on the back burner until the Sheriff’s stuff is done. Besides, I forgot.”

“Well, at least let me run alongside the truck so I can stay warm,” I mumbled discontentedly.

“I thought you Navy guys were used to foul weather,” Henry chuckled.

“We were in Southeast Asia, not the Arctic,” I retorted, pulling my watch cap down over my ears further. “First thing when we get back, I’m changing out your heater core. You must be nuts driving into work everyday in this icebox.”

“It’s amazing what you can get used to,” Henry sighed.
Next stop, some old barn with a huge parking lot out in the boondocks. A big, stocky guy wearing greasy coveralls meets us as Henry drives the International up into the parking lot entrance. He gestures us to follow him as he walks over to one side of the dirt parking lot with the wind and snow howling around us, and the sky just then casting some grayish light. We left the International to join the caretaker next to a beat up old orange snowplow with no cab. Mamma Mia, I was getting a bad feeling about this.

“Henry, there ain’t no cab on that thing,” I pointed out fearfully.

“Yea, ain’t she a beaut? Get up there in the seat, kid, and I’ll give you a few pointers on driving it back, and working the plow.”

“If I sit on that damn seat, we’ll have to have a crew meet us to detach my ass. C’mon, this is a joke, right? Screw with the kid, huh?”

“Quit foolin’ around, boy, and get up there while I choke her a little,” the caretaker ordered, grinning at my exchange with Henry. “I charged the battery, and the keys in the ignition. Just pump the gas, push in the clutch, and turn the key while I work the carb out here.”

I used my already wet glove to brush the fresh snow off the old upholstered seat, which had more cracks than a broken glass. A quick look, and I squirmed around on the seat while doing what he ordered. It started surprisingly easy after only ten minutes of coughing, hacking, and backfiring. Once it ran, I kept it running on high idle while Henry did a quick teaching job on the controls and the caretaker gave me a few quirks the shift had.

“Okay, I got it,” clenching my teeth together so as not to stutter like Porky Pig. “If we don’t get going soon, I won’t be able to move my arms enough to shift gears and steer.”

“I’ll follow you,” Henry said, jogging back to his enclosed cab, which would have been like heaven compared to my open air experience.

The caretaker gave me a little wave, and walked quickly toward the lighted and heated building he had journeyed from to meet us. I let out the clutch slowly, and the perky monster took right off. Only remembering the wind chill factor at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in January gave me any comfort at all, while I squinted into the wind, and increased the speed, steering the beast out onto the road. I blinked snowflakes and up-shifted to the plow’s top speed, about twenty miles per hour. Dredging up computations from my high school Algebra classes, I figured with X being the time factor, it should only take about six hours to get back to the County buildings. That may be a small exaggeration. It was probably only ten miles; but believe me when I tell you: it felt much longer.

Jim met us at the County building parking lot entrance. By then, every cell in my body was chattering. I slowed to a stop, looking by then like the Abominable Snowman.
“You got here just in time, kid,” Jim yelled up at me over the wind. “Did Henry show you how the plow works?”

I moved my lips, but not much came out, so I just nodded. I considered pretending I was passing out; but then I wouldn’t be ‘kid’ anymore, I’d be sissy-boy.

“Good, get this parking lot cleared before the workers get here. Do all the main drags first, and then work the spaces,” Jim directed, pointing out where to plow the snow to.

I finished about forty-five minutes later, the excitement of working the plow for the first time heating me up so I figured I wouldn’t lose more than a couple of toes and fingers to frostbite. Henry came out of the heated maintenance shack with a cup of coffee as I shut off the plow in front of the bay in the Sheriff’s garage.

“Coffee?” Henry asked, with a big smile, holding the cup up to me.

“Ju…just po…pour it on the seat,” I stuttered, gesturing down with my frozen left hand. “I…I think ma…my asshole has become one with the seat.”

Henry laughed so hard, he spilled half my coffee.

Yep, compared to that day long ago, today is like warm sunshine. :)

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