21 October, 2014

I have become "The Closer"

You see that mess of metal and plastic in the photo?  Somewhere in there is a treadle valve.  For you car guys, it's like a pneumatic version of a master cylinder.  For those of you who don't know a thing about cars or trucks, it's a valve attached to the brake pedal that makes your vehicle stop before you put down your cell phone and attempt to not plow into a bus full of kids.  My regular readers (all five of you) are already expecting a rant from me.  You are correct.  The original complaint from our customer was "The brakes don't always release and seem to drag."  The first guy sent to address the issue came to the conclusion "Brake drums are glazed and rippled."  Not even close.  But, the guy came from a salvage yard.  Good at identifying components and taking them apart, but not so good at diagnosis.  He hasn't been with us long so I wouldn't expect an accurate diagnosis.  Nor would he have been my first choice to send out on this job.  Strike one.  Next guy that was dispatched to address this issue came to the conclusion that the treadle (sometimes referred to as "foot") valve was bad.  Then I jumped to conclusions.  This particular customer has a rather old fleet of Sterling tractors (God, how I hate those trucks) and treadle valves are usually mounted to the floor of the cab.  The common problem is a corroded brake pedal pivot pin and/or corroded plunger which connects the pedal to the valve.  I asked the second guy "Why did you not check the pedal and plunger for corrosion?"  His response was "I don't know."  Fair enough.  He's still green.  I explained the issues with that set up and then told him how to correct it.  He had instructed the customer to order a treadle valve.  Strike two.  Guy number two returned to the site a week later when the customer informed us that they had the part.  Number two returned to the shop that night saying that he couldn't change the valve because he didn't have the necessary tools in the service truck.  The shop's owner, though I didn't actually hear him say it (I've been there long enough to be able to predict his responses), probably said something like "All of the service trucks should have X amount of tools.

Why didn't Number two complete the job?"  Firstly, the "company" tool boxes are pathetic.  The animals I work with are very, very bad at putting things back into their proper place.  Secondly, the shop owner is hallucinating as far as service truck tool boxes are concerned.  He chewed my ass a few years ago about not being able to get into my assigned "road box".  He asked where the key was and I said "Right here on my key ring where it's supposed to be.  Where's the second key kept by the shop?"  You see, years ago we were assigned our own road box and were told that we were responsible for the contents.  Breakages of tools would be covered by the company, loss of tools would be our responsibility.  I followed that order to the letter.  So, when the owner told me that I had to leave the key for my assigned road box in the service truck, I responded with "I am no longer responsible for those tools."  You see, the shop owner isn't very good about putting things back where they belong.  He also is a messy guy.  Right after he used my assigned road box for the first time (totally neglecting the other, company owned and unassigned box right next to mine) I made up my mind that I was going to provide my own "road box."  He totally wrecked my company provided box.  Everything ended up in the bottom drawer, the handful of personal tools I had in there were covered in grease, oil and fuel....  I was on a mission.  I found a crappy Craftsman chest on one of the tool trucks (a trade-in), bought a bunch of second hand tools (as well as clearing my main box of "seconds") and mounted my very own road box into my service truck.  I was hell-bent on having the tools I expected to have, when I needed them.  It's been wonderful.  So many times have I heard people, who have driven my service truck, say something like "If I only would have had X tool, the job would have been easy."  I respond with "There is X tool on the truck.  But it's mine and I won't let  you have the key to my box."  Even the Owner has complained about certain tools not being on my service truck.  He'll start with "Every service truck should have..." As his gaze comes to me, he sees me smiling, smugly, passes me by and continues his rant.  It's a great feeling :)  Having my own, personal tool chest and locker on my service truck is the greatest thing in the world.  It's locked, it stays locked and there's not a damned thing anyone can do about it.  Therefore, I'm the only mechanic who can be certain of being able to complete tasks with the tools on  hand.  Probably time for another paragraph.

Ever since I installed my own road box into my service truck, I've championed the idea to everyone else.  At the very least I've insisted that the guys come up with a "Magic Road Call Satchel."  Wiring tools, a couple of screw drivers, pliers, vise grips etc. which they could pick up and take to the job.  Regardless of the truck they took.  I've even gone so far as to donate a second-hand chest to not one, but two, mechanics so they could start their own road box.  Neither of them did anything with it.  So I gave the chest to one of the new guys to put on top of his shop box.  Can't say I didn't try.  I led the horses to the pond but they didn't drink.  When I started at this shop we had two service trucks.  A guy would take whichever one was available.  Neither of them were stocked properly (required people restocking after every job, like that would happen.) nor were either of them organized, cleaned regularly or stocked with a dependable set of tools. That is when I started carrying my "Magic Satchel" on every service call.  I, at the very least, had that small amount of tools to count on.  That evolved into a "Mechanic's tool set" in a blow molded case that I took with me.  I had a set of sockets, wrenches and bits (screw driver, torx, allen etc.) that I could count on being available when I needed them.  Eventually I ended up with my own chest and locker in my service truck.  I rarely wont for certain tools.  Though I must say that I throw extra tools into the truck on an "as needed" basis.  Now, let's 'round third base and head for home.

After Number two came back from his second visit to the customer and explained "I didn't have the tools to change that treadle valve."  I said "Well, why not?  You knew what you were going there to do.  Why did you not load out properly?"  It was then that I found out the treadle valve was firewall mounted, not floor mounted.  I then explained to Number Two that he had diagnosed the treadle valve and he should have had some idea of what was going to be required to change it out.  He was silent.  He had seen the valve with his own eyes.  Strike three.

We end up with me being told that I had been picked to go and change this stupid treadle valve.  I rebelled instantly.  If I had been Number Two at the time I started at this shop, I would have been told that I had started the job, didn't complete it, and I would damned-well be the person to finish it.  It's how I learned that, even though a particular job may be really shitty, I would just have to do it.  Otherwise I'd be back another time for the same thing.  The lead tech (in my early days) had to clean up my mess a couple of times and it made me feel like shit.  I complete my work unless there's a damned good excuse not to.  Wrong part, vehicle not there etc.  The day I was told I would be changing that treadle valve, I gave Number Two a couple of options.  "Go to the customer and change that treadle valve or stay here, align that old Peterbilt and then deal with me being angry that I had to clean up your mess."  He did a three axle alignment on a Pete and I spent five hours in the cold changing a treadle valve.  Karma, however had its way with Number Two.  that Pete (an old P.O.S.) fought him every step of the way and then it spit a piece of junk into his eye which required some minor medical attention.  I learned long, long ago (from my Dad) that sometimes a person has to do things they don't want to do, because it's the right thing to do.

I hold no grudge against Number Two.  I was pissed off on that day, sure, but I turned it into a lesson.  He's feeling the same shame that I felt when I was in his position.  I can also say with certainty that he won't be caught under-tooled again.  I'm in the position now where the boss calls on me to be the closing pitcher.  When the other pitchers have failed, the boss calls on me to get the job done.  I've learned from my past experience and, believe me, I got the job done.

p.s.  I know there's people out there reading this rampant blog of mine.  One post has over 125 views despite me not putting any tags on it.  Not that I give a rat's ass about your input, but a comment from my readers would be nice every now and again.  So, sound off!  Who the hell are you?  What brought you here?  Why do you stay here?  Participate goddammit!

03 October, 2014


When it comes to my job, and my employer, I have responsibilities.  As the mechanics are concerned in our shop I'm #2 as far as seniority is concerned.  Probably #5 overall.  That doesn't mean I'm the second-most talented mechanic, it just means I've been around longer than every mechanic except one.  Number one in seniority is nothing to speak of.  He's one helluva guy in general but he's the most piss-poor mechanic I've ever seen.  Over twenty five years in the trade and he's still bumming common tools from other people.  And he's just not smart enough for this line of work.  And he's a slob.  And the company owner's brother.  Enough said.  The saying around the shop is that if the "Slob's" name wasn't the same as the owner, none of us would have ever met him because he would have been fired long, long ago.  On the flip side, he's the hardest working guy I've ever met.  He'll do anything for you.  "Hey, sorry to wake you at 3:00 a.m., but would you bring the wrecker out to me?"  He would be there.  Professionally, he needs to be gone.  Like 10 years ago.  Personally, I'm glad he's around.  Talk about conflict.  I digress.

Having become one of the "old guys" at our shop, and somehow finding myself saddled with the "night foreman" position (not for much longer, thankfully), I'm responsible for breaking in new mechanics.  Since I've acquired my current "foreskin" status, I've had to train six guys.  I've held the hands of many more, but I'm focusing on the mechanics that I've dealt with since I've been "promoted", temporarily, to foreman.  So far only one of them (thankfully he's still around) has been worth the effort.  I've had one complete dumbass (more muscle than brains), one who wouldn't admit lack of skill (a "know-it-all" who didn't), one raging alcoholic (he lasted three days), one former union guy who thinks he's still in a union (good luck with that mentality, dude!) and now I have yet another new guy.   This newest guy is new territory for me.  He's a veteran of the Iraq-istan war.  I don't know very much, but I know he's seen combat and has PTSD.  I've seen his eyes do that "thing".  It has me worried.  Not about him, but about me.  I've been educating myself about PTSD.  My experience with veterans at the courier company gave me some foundation, but I didn't know any particulars.  I'm not sure what to do.

I want to see the veteran succeed, I want to help him put one foot in front of the other.  But I don't want to be the "Civilian who doesn't know jack."  There is no possible way for me to ever understand what this guy has been through.  I can only comprehend him as he is now.  A combat veteran with PTSD who is trying to move forward in his life.  Do I act as things are just as they would be during a normal day at the shop?  That might be considered as ignoring reality.  Do I recognize his disorder?  That may come across as giving special treatment.  Do I ignore it completely because it's only a professional situation?  That would be heartless.  To any veteran reading this, I know this next statement will sound quite vain but I do have some understanding of what you've been through.  Yeah, I know.  I'm full of shit.  But please, let me explain my position.

My fourth (and fifth) grade teacher was a Vietnam veteran.  A Marine machine gunner.  When I was in fifth grade (roughly, my memory isn't that great these days) he went to visit the recently opened Vietnam War Memorial.  When I had him in fourth grade he hadn't quite come to terms with Vietnam.  A year later, after visiting the memorial, he was noticeably different.  I remember him sitting us down, as a class, after his return from the memorial, and having a brief Q&A session with us.  A bunch of fifth graders.  Only one question can I remember.  Stacy (she had a speech impediment, nice girl just the same) asked my teacher "S...s...sssooooo, did you shoot anybody?"  The first thing in my head was "NOOOOOOOO!!!!"  As a fifth grader, completely ignorant to the ways of the real world, I knew that the question Stacy asked was totally inappropriate.  My teacher, winning even more of my respect, politely declined to answer that question and moved on.  He told us about the trouble he had adjusting back to the "real world", couldn't sleep on a bed for months, loud noises made him duck etc.  Heck, he even showed me how to roll up the sleeves on my shirts in proper Marine fashion.  I will never forget him as a teacher, as a man, as a veteran and as a role model.  I'm extremely fortunate to have had him as a teacher for not just one year, but two!  My understanding of what war does to people started at those moments.  My Dad and his Brother were in the USN from '55 to '59, my Uncle Bob was a WWII Marine veteran, Uncle Mike served in the medical Corps during Vietnam (became a successful pathologist post-war), 'Ol Rob from the courier company was a vet of the USAF and USN, the courier company was full of Korean, Vietnam and Gulf war vets.  One of my close friends from my school days did a few tours in Iraq-istan.  The books I prefer to read are soldiers' memoirs.  The big picture doesn't interest me.  I want to know more of what the individual goes through.  I've know from an early age that war isn't a game.  My time in the fife and drum corps placed me at more Memorial Day services than most people (aside from the vets themselves) could imagine. It left a big impression on me.  I suppose the Fife and Drum Corps putting me in such close contact with so many veterans during my early years gave me a better appreciation of those people than most folks would get.

How would I convey this information to the newest of my coworkers?  How do I convey that I have some inkling as to what he's dealing with without coming across as some "armchair general" type of dick?  How do I express my gratitude for what he has done for me and my country without sounding like some "Tie a yellow ribbon 'round the 'ol oak tree" kind of chump?  How do I take everything I've already mentioned into consideration while still trying to seem "normal" and help him succeed with his career?  I'm faced with a challenge that I don't know how to address.  Frankly speaking, I'm scared.

With every new mechanic that has come into the shop after me, I've tried to do my best to help them succeed.  I feel that it's every "old timer's" duty to take the new guys under their wings and help them move forward.  But, this vet is unfamiliar territory to me.  I'll do my best to help him along.  I just hope I don't fail.