27 December, 2007

Service calls, uncertainty and ridiculous people.

Part of my job as a diesel mechanic is to handle emergency road service. During business hours, we (the mechanics) are rotated so no one particular person is handling all the service calls. There are exceptions to this unwritten rule which are unavoidable. Sometimes a service call demands a specific skill from one of us, so occasionally someone will run two service calls in a row. In the warm months nobody complains about being out on the road all day because it's nice to get out of the shop and away from the drama. After the shop closes, however, the phone gets transferred to whoever is on call that week. Each mechanic does a tour of seven days on call, starting Friday night and ending the following Friday morning, when the shop opens. I hate being on call. I don't mind the service calls themselves, it's not knowing when they'll come in that irritates me. I'm one of those people who thrives on routine and dislikes uncertainty. I find it impossible to completely relax when I'm on call because I'm always waiting for the phone to ring. As soon as I forget about the phone, the damn thing will ring and off I go, into the night. Thankfully, we don't get too many calls after hours. When I do get a call, sometimes the price scares the caller away. Service calls for big trucks are expensive. Any service call from 17:00 to 08:00 is charged $90 for the call out and a minimum labor charge of two hours at $90/hour. That's $270 just for me to show up! Time over two hours will add to the cost (we bill labor from the time we leave the shop until the time we get back) and parts, obviously, will raise the price. When someone calls us and asks us to do a service call, we are very clear when telling them what kind of money is involved. It's shocking how many people don't understand. If a driver calls wanting a jump start, I'll show up, get the truck started and then hand him a bill. If I can get back to the shop within two hours from the time I left, the bill will be for $270. That's when the drivers get angry. They'll see me for only 20 to 30 minutes and think that they'll only be billed for that time. I then ask them if they drive for free. That usually clears things up fast. If they try to wheel and deal with me, I simply tell them that there is NO dealing. The price I give them is what they pay. Period. I then remind them that arguing will only waste time and make the bill increase in price. If that doesn't light a fire under their ass, I remind them that the work order which they had been told to read before signing (they sign the work order first thing upon my arrival) states that if they refuse to pay, we take possession of the equipment until they they pay for services rendered. If I work on the tractor, the trailer gets dropped where it sits and the tractor is then towed back to the shop. The driver can find his own ride. If things progress to this point, the driver is usually pretty hostile and I've already punched in the phone number for the state police and have only to hit the send button on my phone. I've also had incidents where I've handed the driver a bill for, say, $300 and they come back with "Oh gee, I only have $150 on me." Since they were told right when they called what the charges would be, I don't take any shit. I walk right up to the tractor, start disconnecting the air lines and light cord and go to pull the fifth wheel release. By then they know I'm not fucking around, and all of a sudden money is falling out of the woodwork. Thankfully, assholes that don't want to pay are fairly uncommon, but I do run into them. I like our charge accounts. There's no worrying about getting paid so we can just show up, repair the rig and send the driver on his way. Oh, I can't forget about the auto clubs. Every now and again some auto club will call up and ask if we can go do a jump start or change a tire. I love hearing the reactions of the operators when I tell them the prices. Places like AAA will, for the most part, expect you to do anything for $30 or less. If you know a towing operator, ask him or her what they think of AAA. They'll probably roll their eyes and say something sarcastic. Then there's the guys with one ton pickup trucks and the people with campers and boat trailers. They'll see our ad at a truck stop or in the yellow pages and focus on the "Heavy duty truck and trailer repair" part. They are just as shocked as the auto club people when they hear dollar amounts. The pickup dudes apparently don't realize that the "heavy duty" sticker on the side of their truck is only a marketing ploy. Sticker or not, a pickup is a light duty truck. The same goes for the boat trailers. In the summer, I get calls for trailer tires all the time. When I ask them what they have, expecting to hear something like "24 inch bud" and they'll say "Oh, a 15 inch six bolt." "Sorry, sir. We don't work on small stuff like that." They'll usually start griping about our ad and the trailer repair part. They calm down when I tell them how much it will cost for me to do the job. If I can get a tire. We simply don't stock parts for light duty vehicles. That's not our business. But, sometimes people are persistent.

The shop's owner never says "no" to the state patrol when they call, but I do. Last summer I had a dispatcher call me and ask if I could help a motorist out. I was told that the person had a flat tire on a boat trailer and couldn't get the wheel nuts loose. I asked if they could put me in contact with the driver so I could tell him how much it would cost. The dispatcher said she would relay the information. The guy must've flipped out when he found out how much it would cost him. He was only five miles from the shop, so I could've been out and back in under an hour. I understand that the state patrol was simply wanting to get a citizen back on the road, out of harms way, but I think that this driver had a right to know what the charges would be. Not to mention how the boss would chew me out if I didn't get paid. Well, if I went out I'd either get paid or I'd be pulling a boat trailer back to the shop. It's a freakin' circus sometimes.

I also get calls for jobs that I have no way of completing. I can't fix a rig if I don't have parts to put on it. Saturday nights, Sundays and holidays are tough times. If a driver calls wanting something like an airbag, I have to tell him that I won't be able to get parts until Monday. They don't understand that we're a truck repair shop and not a parts house. It's totally insane to think that we stock one of every part for every truck ever made. That's financially impossible. They'll ask "So, what do I do know?" Wait, that's what you'll have to do. I'll ask if they'd like me to come out and look things over and see if I can do something, making sure they know they'll have to pay me to show up, and then remind them that they'd be wasting money if I can't do anything. Over the years I've been doing this job, I've become jaded and callous. I used to feel bad when I couldn't do anything for a driver and would dwell on it for days afterward. Now, I don't give a shit. Things are black and white. That's all. Either I can help or I can't. It's that simple.

22 November, 2007

Career Blues pt. III

Having accepted the mechanic's position, I wrote a resignation letter at work that night and dropped it onto the desk of the daycare center's director. The next day I was pulled into the director's office. Obviously, she was curious as to why I was leaving and I told her the truth. I told her that the job was taking its toll on me physically and mentally. She made an attempt to change my mind by offering me more pay, but nothing could keep me there. I'd found an escape hatch and there was no stopping me. I liked working there. The people, about 98% of them women (a lot of "lookers" if you know what I mean), were great but I didn't have the assistants that I needed. The last few days of my employment at the center were pretty easy. The director had hired a cleaning service to take over my job until they found a replacement for me. The owner of the cleaning service told me he couldn't believe that I was doing all that work by myself! I told him that having spent four years there, two and one half of those without any help, I'd learned a lot of shortcuts and that some non-essential tasks were simply not done. My daily routine had been pared down to the minimum. That minimal routine still took ten to eleven hours! My very last day some of the women got a bit misty-eyed. I found that to be odd, but years later I realized why some of them were sad. You see, I'd become a part of their "normal" day and they had become part of mine. People find comfort in routine and become anxious when faced with uncertainty. Now I was leaving and breaking that routine. I was leaving the good times, the good people... the familiar and trading them in for uncertainty and anxiety. This was in August of 1999 and the change had begun.

I took a few days off between jobs so I could rest my weary body. I also needed to gather all of the tools that, for the most part, remained untouched since my last job as a mechanic in 1992. I cleaned out my tool box and put everything in its proper place, locked it up and rolled it back into my Mom's garage. The night before I started my new job I loaded my tool box into my truck and went home to try and get some sleep. Sleep didn't come easy. I had a thousand things running through my mind, most of them concerning whether or not I could handle the new job. The drop in self esteem which occurred after being fired in 1992 came back to haunt me. The one job I had failed at left its mark on me and wouldn't go away. In fact, I'm still affected by it today, but not as bad as it was back then. Anyway, I woke up the next morning (I hadn't worked a morning in years) and drove up the interstate to my new place of employment. My best friend was there to meet me and he took me back to the shop and introduced me to the guys I'd be working with. The first mechanic I met was Rob. I didn't know it at the time, but Rob would play a major role in my rebirth as a mechanic. He was about seventeen years older than me and was as cool as a cucumber. Over the next six years we'd become good friends. Rob was very calm and helpful as I wobbled my way back into being a mechanic. One of those first days, as Rob was finding out what I could do, he told me to change a tire. I rolled the new tire over to the tire machine, put the wheel onto the machine and promptly stopped. I had forgotten how to operate a tire machine! It was then that I realized how much I had forgotten. I was, basically, starting from scratch and I panicked. Luckily, the corporate fleet supervisor, Tim, knew that I was rusty. Tim and Scott (Scott was the new shop supervisor that started a week after I did) gave me menial tasks to find out what I could do and eventually assigned me to more difficult tasks as I progressed. After holding that job for a whole year I felt as if I'd turned a corner in my life. Though I was still suffering from the effects of the '92 debacle, I started to believe that I was good at my job. I had succeeded in holding that job! Life was good and I was happy. More stories from what I lovingly refer to as "The happy time" will come in the next installment.

27 October, 2007

The nature of a mechanic

When I'm at work I only want my shift to be over with so I can go home. I spend my time at work thinking about things other than fixing trucks. I think about building stuff out of wood, spending time in my favorite flight sims, mowing the lawn etc. I don't want to fix anything because that's all I do at work. Fix things. You know what? That doesn't always happen. I think there's two kinds of people that work as mechanics, those who enjoy the challenge of fixing things and those who are there because it's a job. As much as I'd like to deny it, I fit into the first category. As mechanics we feel the need to fix things when they're broken. We can't avoid it even if we try.
For example, I'll tell you a little story. Last December I was traveling to my sister's house for Christmas and pulled into a truck stop to take a break. I topped off my fuel tank and went inside to take a leak and get a soda. On my way back out I noticed a trucker parked off to the side with his hood up. I wondered what was wrong, but continued walking to my car. As I was starting to leave I thought about his situation and felt a bit guilty. He was probably wanting only to finish his run so he could get back home to his family and now his truck's broken. I turned around, pulled up next to him and asked him what was wrong. From what he said I quickly determined that his fuel had gelled (it was very cold that day). He mentioned that he had new fuel filters and knew how to change them, but didn't really know how to deal with gelled fuel. He accepted my offer to help and went into the truck stop to get the fuel liquifier I told him to buy. In short, I got his truck running. He was grateful for the help and offered me some cash. I politely refused. I told him some BS about it being Christmas and he could repay me by doing a good deed for someone else who needed help. Part of my helping him was due to something my father had said to me, "If you can help someone, help them." The real reason I helped this guy is that I love the feeling I get when I fix something.
The other side of this is when it's my turn to be on call to handle the weekend and after hours emergency road service. I hate it. I enjoy helping people, but only at my convenience. Not in the middle of the night. Even though I gripe when someone calls for a service call, I'm fine once I'm on the job.

I miss my brother

I don't know why I do this to myself. I was browsing my mp3s to make a playlist for tonight and there it was, staring back at me. I know why it's there and I also know why I don't listen to it much. The song I'm writing about is Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." The reason I don't play it much is this. I cry every time I hear it. That song was a favorite of my brother, Mark. This coming February will be five years since he died. Every time I look through my music I see "Born to Run" sitting there, in the place assigned to it, the "B" section. I'll stare at it for a few minutes while I try and make up my mind whether or not to put myself through four minutes and thirty one seconds of guaranteed grief. The emotions that I experience while listening to that song are difficult to explain, but have been experienced by everyone at some time. I usually start out smiling, remembering the good times. Then the memory of his deteriorating health nudge their way in and I start to get misty eyed. Eventually, against my choice to not go there, I remember that he's gone. By this time I'm sobbing like a child. Mark was twelve years older than me which made him a prominent figure in my life. He'd been a diabetic since his early childhood. I didn't understand exactly what diabetes was until I was much older, but since I grew up around it, the things Mark went through were normal to me. The possibility that diabetes could kill him never really entered my mind. I knew that when he went into shock things were pretty scary, but he always came through. I can't remember when he moved out, but he was living in the next county for his last fifteen years or so. My mother would call him every night mainly to make sure he was awake and going to work. Sometimes he wouldn't answer and that caused quite a commotion. We wouldn't know whether he was in shock or just not answering because he was in the shower. Sometimes Mom would drive all the way there if he didn't answer the phone or call my sister because she lived in the same town. We all knew that Mark didn't like the "baby sitting" and we respected his desire for independence, but if we didn't do what we did, he could've been dead much earlier in life. Towards the end of his life there were a lot of drives to Mark's to pull him out of a reaction. It put a strain on everyone's lives but what could we do? We weren't going to let him die. After one particularly bad night I remember telling Mom that even though things can get scary at times, we'd miss them if Mark was gone. Unfortunately, I was right. One cold night at the end of February, 2003, Mark didn't answer his phone. My Mom drove up to Mark's place and found him in his bed. He'd slipped the bonds of this earth and was free of all the pain he'd been suffering. I was numb for the next few days. Nothing seemed to phase me much. I cried at his funeral but that was about it. That is, until we set about cleaning out his place and packing up his belongings. I was going through his desk, sorting through what was trash and what was going to be kept, when I found a letter from my late grandmother. I don't remember the specifics, but grandma was helping Mark through some tough times, offering encouragement etc. and I lost it. I couldn't stop crying and continued to do so for about half an hour. Going through the rest of his things was very difficult because each thing I saw only made me miss him even more. It's a terrible feeling when you miss someone so much and know that you'll never, ever see them again. I've only been to his grave twice. Even five years after his death it still hurts too much to go. When "Born to Run" comes through my headphones, everything I remember about Mark comes flooding back. Good and bad. I miss my brother.

14 October, 2007

Career blues pt. 2

In the waning months of my grocery store job, my sister had realized that I was not very happy there. She had been working at a very high class day care center and they needed a "maintenance man" (read "janitor"). The thought of cleaning toilets and mopping floors for a living didn't appeal to me. The place was in the next county and an hour long commute didn't appeal to me either, but I was desperate. I took a deep breath and called the director of the center to set up an interview. The interview went well and I was hired. I gave my boss at the grocery store the standard two week notice and hoped for the best. I wanted that job to go on, but it wasn't going to happen. The day came when I had to leave the store, and all my friends there, behind. I was scared and excited at the same time. I was going to work at a place far away from all that I had ever known and where I wouldn't know anyone except my sister.

I started my job at the center being trained by the teen-aged children of the accountant. Angela and Craig had been doing the cleaning while a permanent janitor was being found. I liked those kids. They, like their mother, were hard workers and very dependable. Craig quit soon after I started so he could pay more attention to football and school, but Angela stayed on for another year until she graduated from high school. In that first year I had gotten to know the rest of the staff and was very comfortable there. I was surprised to find that the rest of the staff, all college graduates mind you, treated me as one of their peers. I was at a job where I was given a large of amount of responsibility. I worked at night, mostly alone, and was responsible for the whole place. I had to do weekly tests of the sprinkler and smoke detector systems, which I didn't think much of until I realized that a couple hundred kids, from infants to six year olds, could be harmed if that system failed. Holy crap! I also got sick frequently. Whatever ailment was going around, I got. Pink eye, sinus infections, all sorts of cold and flu viruses... after four years of that job, my immune system was in top notch order. My third year at the center was a big change. I was supposed to have had a full time assistant and frequently did for the first two years, but the third year... I was it. I had a couple of part time assistants, but they came and went so fast that I never really got to know them. The work was also starting to take its toll on my body. Remember, this was a daycare center, all the sinks, toilets, drinking fountains etc., were down low. So, I was on my knees all the time and they began to hurt all the time. I was also doing the work of two people. At my two year review, I was put on salary instead of an hourly based pay. I didn't think much of it because at the time, I'd had an assistant. Then I was alone, working ten to eleven hours a night and only getting payed for eight. There was also the one hour commute to work and the one hour commute home to deal with. It got to the point where I was either sleeping or at work with no time for anything else. I'd also gotten involved with one of the staff. At this point and she was still married. That added some mental aches to the physical aches I'd already had. By year number four, I was looking for an escape. What had started as a good job had turned into hell. I had a short span of relief when the husband of another staff member came in to help me a few hours each day. He said he needed the extra money, but I'm sure that he and his wife saw how run down I was becoming. To this day, I have high regards for Haley and Chris. They were (and I believe still are) good people. I was scouring the classifieds desperately looking for another job. I was ready to take almost any position I could get. Working on cars was not an option. By this time I'd forgotten most of what I had known about fixing cars and didn't think there was a shop that would want to take a chance by hiring me. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was at a dead end. I was miserable. The only thing that made me happy was my girlfriend at the time. But, that was a double edged sword. I'll write about her in a future post. I hated my job and thought that there was no way out. Then Peter showed up at the center.

Peter has been my best friend since I was fifteen. We had lost contact for awhile when he was in college and had been living in other parts of the state. Peter had been living in the same city as the center I was working in and we saw each other every now and again. One day, he called while I was working. I asked him what he was doing and where he was at. He was right outside the center! He'd come to visit me a couple of times, but this time was different. He was working for a courier company and had just made a delivery to the business next door. He asked me if I'd ever thought about being a mechanic again. I told him that I thought I was washed up as a mechanic. He didn't think so. He told me that the company he worked for needed mechanics and that he thought I would fit the bill. I told Peter that I'd think about it and would get back to him. I thought about it for a few days and asked my family and friends for advice. Their advice pretty much said "Go for it." I called Peter and got the phone number of the corporate fleet supervisor, Tim. I nervously dialed the number and for the first time, I spoke with the man that would change my life. I met Tim for an informal interview at the shop. We talked about what the job entailed, how the company worked and about my experience. I was completely honest with him. I told him about getting fired and the shame I had having failed at my career. I also told him that I didn't think that I was going to be good enough to do the job. He thought otherwise. That same day, I was sent into the HR department for a formal interview. A few days later Tim called me and told me that the job was mine if I wanted it. I didn't hesitate and said "I'll take it!" I was again scared, excited and heading for the unknown. What was laying ahead of me was the best job I've had to date and I'll cover that in part three.

Career blues pt. 1

I remember the day during my senior year of high school when my counselor pulled me aside and asked me this question. "So, have you given any thought to what you want to do after high school?" It was as if someone had reached out and smacked me in the face. I had given no thought to what I might do after high school. I can't explain why, but back then I lived in the "here and now" with no consideration given to my future. I looked at my counselor and said "I want to be a mechanic." There's days when I regret saying those words. Maybe at the time I didn't think I was capable of anything else. My grades would certainly not be good enough to get me into a university. Besides, I wasn't good at anything except playing drums and percussion.

I went on to tech school and learned the ins and outs of being an auto tech. I was well trained and enjoyed the shop classes. The other mandatory courses bored me to tears because they were nothing but an extension, and in some cases a repeat, of what I'd already done in high school. I never did get a diploma because I simply stopped attending a math class. I don't regret it. I got decent grades in my classes, but wasn't an outstanding student by any means. These days I understand why certain classes were included in the curriculum, but generally speaking the whole automotive program was lacking. The program was designed, of course, to train people like me to go out into the workplace ready to go at it. It didn't work out that way. The classes were excellent and I was a whiz at diagnosing all sorts of problems on cars. I loved the challenge and was hungry for every problem that could be thrown my way. I would diagnose problems, kick their ass and get the car going again. What I found when I actually got out into the real world woke me up in a hurry.

Bam! I landed my first mechanic's job a few months before I got out of tech school. Full of piss and vinegar, this hot shot mechanic was ready to take on everything that was driven, pushed or towed into the shop. What I got was a rude awakening. I had the skills and knowledge, but I had zero experience. I found out that shops can't afford to let a newbie mechanic run wild. I changed oil and tires then worked my way up (?) to exhaust and brakes. I had to pay my dues so to speak. This was when I started to realize that I wasn't prepared well for the real world. With rare exceptions, new mechanics will start out with menial tasks. That sucks. I was doing work that any person off the street could do with a little training. I thought my skills were being wasted. Being a cocky nineteen year old, I left that job after a few months. I went to a shop where a few of my former classmates were working. It was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made, but didn't realize it at the time. Hindsight is 20/20 after all, isn't it? I was blinded by a brand new shop filled with new equipment and the promise of good money. That job was total chaos. I had to do things that I wasn't trained to do and had to learn on the fly. I made mistakes. The shop manager finally realized that I was good at what I had been trained to do and I found myself doing alignments and air conditioning work. For a short time I was happy. Then I got fired. One of the untrained "shade tree" mechanics that worked there started a water pump job, went to lunch and never came back. Guess who got picked to finish the job? Thats right, me. I had never replaced a water pump. That sounds crazy considering I had two years of training at tech school and a few semesters of training in high school, but apparently my instructors never thought it necessary to teach us how to repair things like that. They didn't teach us simple things such as the necessity of using thread locker on fan clutch bolts. The fan came off the water pump that I installed and destroyed the radiator. Because of that I lost my job. What worried me most was going home and telling my father that I had been fired. I felt like a total failure.

At my first auto job the shop manager, Wally, was purposely giving me simple tasks. He wanted to see what I could do, and prevent me from making stupid mistakes such as I'd made with that water pump job. I should have swallowed my pride and went back to Wally to see if I could have my job back. I didn't. I was still a proud (and cocky) nineteen year old. What's a guy to do in that situation? I went back to the grocery store I had worked in while I attended tech school and begged my old boss for a job. Luckily he had a spot for me.

That grocery store job wasn't exactly what I had in mind for a career, but I was good at my job. My coworkers were mostly people I had worked with before so I fell right back into things. We were a family there and I was very happy when they welcomed me back into the fold. As an example of the qualities of my coworkers, I'll tell this short story. During my employment at the store, my father had died from cancer. I took a week off for the funeral to be with my family. Some of my coworkers came to the funeral to support me. None of them had ever met my father. When I returned to work, they all gave their condolences and presented me with a sympathy card which every person had signed. I'd signed cards like that for some of my coworkers, but never knew how much that act of kindness meant until I had been in their shoes. I miss those people. During my first year back at the grocery store my boss from my first auto job, Wally, called me out of the blue and asked me if I'd be interested in working for him again. I was uncomfortable talking to him because I had bailed out on him. Wally convinced me to have lunch with him and talk things over. I told him the whole story and expected him to politely retract his job offer because I had failed at being a mechanic. That wasn't the case, he was very understanding and I think that he might have had similar experiences in his younger days. He needed a mechanic and wanted me because I already knew the system and could be dropped right back into place without having to be retrained. I almost accepted his offer but, in my mind, I saw myself as a failure and was also sick of changing jobs. I politely declined his offer and stayed at the grocery store. I held all sorts of positions at that store, mostly as second shift manager. Not bad for a twenty year old, eh? The money was okay, but they worked me hard. I'd been there a bit less than four years when I realized the ship was sinking. The place was going under and people were bailing out left and right. I became angry. My last six months there, I had been working in the meat department and had just become an apprentice meat cutter. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I found something I was good at and could make a career out of. I wanted to ride it out until the last, but realized that I was going to need a new job, and fast. My sister came to my rescue. I'll pick the next phase up in part 2.

13 October, 2007


Hi there, I'm Hopper1. I'm a mid-thirties diesel mechanic from the upper mid west. I'm new here at this place, but I've been a blogger before. I had a website with a friend that we ran for a long time, and this was where I started blogging. I found blogging, which wasn't called blogging back then (I called them my "articles"), to be very therapeutic. It was a way for me to get things off of my chest when life got to be a little too much to handle. I worked very hard on my portion of that website and tried to make things as easy as possible. A couple of years ago, I undertook a major revision, from the ground up, and it tanked. Everything looked great, from the background images and navigation bars that I made in Photoshop, to the HTML. When I uploaded it to the server... none of my articles appeared. I tried and tried to find the problem, going so far as to print out the html so I could check it over on my lunch breaks. I even had other people check things over. Nothing worked, so I left what was left to wither away on the vine. I've found myself to have become a loner due to having lived alone and worked the night shift for so many years. Some relationships have also scarred me to the point where I find it best to avoid serious connections with people other than my family and a handful of close friends. Thus, I can become quite lonely at times. This occasional loneliness is of my own making so I don't gripe about it. But, sometimes a person needs to vent. The internet is where I can do it. Under a veil of self imposed anonymity. My current job creates many blog-worthy stories that I intend to write about. If I remember them... You might find them interesting or you might find them boring. Honestly, I don't care. I blog for me first and if other people enjoy it, well, that's just icing on the cake.