Sunday, December 30, 2012

Episode IV: Hay Buck

Let me start this post by giving you, the reader, a little background about where my family comes from. I grew up, for the most part, in Pocatello, Idaho. Naturally, one would assume that since I grew up in Idaho, I must listen to country music, my family was into agriculture, and I probably know a thing or two about bucking hay. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, bucking hay is what you call the process by which bales of hay are stacked on top of one another. The real story is that my dad was actually a TV news reporter who grew up in North Hollywood, California. His dad was an agnostic Jew, a print and radio newsman, and his mom was sort of a jack Mormon. My mom grew up in Salt Lake City. Her mom was also somewhat of a jack Mormon, and her dad was the son of a Jewish man and an Irish Catholic lady. Interestingly enough, my grandpa was also from North Hollywood, nowhere near a farm. He found himself in Utah after WWII and worked in the grocery business for thirty years. What I'm getting at is that to my knowledge, nobody in my family ever bucked hay. Maybe a few generations back, but none of my relatives, whom I ever met had any inclination to hoe a field, milk a cow, churn butter or do anything in the vicinity of horse manure. Well, perhaps my grandma Frank, but if she did, it would probably go a long way towards explaining why she married a Jewish news reporter and ran away to North Hollywood.

It is in this context that we arrive at me, fresh off of my mission and needing a job to pay for housing at Ricks College about six months later. A buddy of mine from high school was working at a certain store, which won't be named, but will nonetheless be familiar to anyone from Pocatello who happens to be reading this. This was a really special kind of store. Big cities have big box stores where you can find just about anything you want. Smaller towns have their own version of this. They have these little stores that will try to cram in every type of product or service they can under one roof, because that means they have what you want in stock instead having to special order it like everyone else. So, for example, a store that sells window treatments will also rent out U-Haul trucks, offer guitar lessons, and sell freshly-baked pies. This particular place sold pets, animal feed and garden supplies. As if this wasn't enough, they had a petting zoo out back with a camel, a zebra, emus, pot-bellied pigs, deer, llamas, donkeys, mules, chickens, and most of all, goats. Clearly this was the place for me, what with my extensive background in all things agricultural.

I went in and talked to the guy managing the store, the brother of the owner. We mostly just talked about my mission, and then I got right to work, for a little over five bucks an hour, watering plants, unloading semi-trucks full of chicken and horse feed, cleaning kennels, administering dog shots, feeding goats, pretending like I knew enough about plants to tell people all about them, extracting eels from aquariums, shoveling manure, bagging crickets, chasing mice out of giant piles of seed potatoes, capturing goats and putting them back in the pen over and over, and of course, bucking hay. Actually that just barely scratches the surface, but you get it. It was full of surprises.

There are so many stories to tell from those few months at the farm. There's the little girl who followed me around to see what I did with the dead baby chicks, getting yelled at for not carrying out a five-pound bag of dog food for a woman who clearly told me she would handle it, getting yelled at by an uppity assistant manager for daring to talk to a coworker near the goldfish tank for two minutes after just having finished unloading an entire semi-truck of merchandise by myself, getting charged by a mother pig, getting charged by a mother duck, delivering a baby goat, being berated by an old woman for not knowing exactly where the bone meal was, getting chased by a PMSing monkey, and on and on and on, but the one that still sticks in my craw is the hay bucking incident.

Now let me just tell you that despite my scrawny 145 lb frame, toothpick arms, severe allergies, and don't forget the flat feet and crooked hips (see Episode I), I held my own when it came to moving giant bales of hay out to the yard to feed the goats or into the back of a customer's pickup truck. But one particular day there was an older gentleman and his wife who pulled up in their old pickup and asked for a bale of hay. It just so happened that day that the guy who had the key to the lock for the gate to the fence, behind which we kept the hay was out. And so I found myself in the predicament of having to lift this bale of hay up and over a four-foot fence, while Farmer Brown and his wife, who had probably bucked as much hay as he had in her lifetime (I mean a lot) stood by watching. I grabbed a pair of work gloves, squatted down into position and pulled that bale up to about waist level. As I'm attempting to nudge this gigantic block of hay up to the level of the fence, throat swelling, eyes watering, violent sneeze building, the old man turns to his wife and says in the most condescending tone you can imagine, "I don't think that boy can lift that!" He's standing about three feet away, mind you. The two of them laugh amongst themselves while I continue to push the monolith of cow food over the fence and lift it once more into the truck.

I want to go back to that scene. I want to look the guy straight in the eye and say "I'M STANDING RIGHT HERE! I CAN HEAR YOU, YOU CRETINOUS HOMINID! The anger is welling up again. Can you tell? Oh well. Hick-Mart employee was just not my thing, I guess. Can't say I'm disappointed.

I finished my six months or so at the pet-feed-garden-zoo place, simultaneous with three weeks as a fry cook, and headed off to the frozen ice world, Hoth... er, I mean Rexburg for college, which resulted in another delightful little anecdote involving some chemicals, a handful of innocent victims, and a swimming pool (see previous episode). I was glad to put it behind me, but I'm afraid some steaming piles of animal poo never really leave you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Episode III: Pool Boy

I spent a year in Rexburg, Idaho at Ricks College the year before it became BYU-Idaho. I wanted to go to BYU in Provo after my mission, but due to my low transfer GPA from Boise State, I was relegated to the frozen and wind-swept paradise that is Rexburg. I'm telling you, the next frozen moon they find next to Jupiter should be called Rexburg.

Ricks was a Mormon junior college at the time. The student body was an interesting mix of returned missionaries around the ages of 21-24 and freshman and sophomore girls, ages 18-20. It turns out there's a big difference between 22 and 18, especially when the 22-year-old has just spent the last two years in a foreign country counseling adults about how to overcome alcoholism and marital problems, while the 18-year-old has spent the last year choosing the brand new SUV her daddy would buy her for when she goes away to college.

I studied political science at Ricks, and I was the drum line captain on the side, because they gave me a scholarship. The drum line instructor also worked in the college HVAC department, and after a conversation about how I would probably have to quit drum line, because a part-time job would probably fetch me more income than the scholarship, he got me a job, I agreed to stay on the drum line, and I kept my scholarship.

My principle duty was to maintain the pool in the physical education building. I had to turn on the pool vacuum every weekend and clean all the stainless steel railings, and every day I had to test the pH level. This process involved an antiquated machine that held water samples and glowed a light to dark orange color. You compare a sample from the pool with a control to see if the pH level is in the correct range. If it's not, you have to add chemicals. Don't ask me which chemicals. I never got the hang of it.

It turns out that I am terrible at deciphering the difference between two similar colors. The words darker and brighter can be very subjective. To this day I don't understand how to do it. All I know is that the hour or so of training I received was probably not adequate to say the least. I plugged along, taking my best guess at the pH level every day, knowing all the while that my boss would be in every couple of days to double check things and that if something went wrong, he would catch it and be able to fix it.

He caught it. I arrived at the pool one morning to find a team of technicians standing around talking. It seems that somehow the pool had become saturated with ammonia, and the swimmers had begun complaining about rashes on their skin and eye irritation. As much as I wanted to just start whistling a tune and walking out the door, I stuck around to find out what happened. The pool was shut down for a couple of days until they could get everything balanced again. Thankfully no one died. Remarkably I wasn't fired, but I did receive some more training, in which I discovered that I had been completely clueless about reading pH levels for almost the entire semester. There's nothing quite like finding out that all the pay you received for the proceeding four months had been for doing absolutely nothing, except for causing a near catastrophe.

After class that day, I came back to my apartment. My roommate said, "Hey, did you hear about the ammonia leak in the pool today? I guess it was really bad. They had to shut it down."

"Is that so?" I said. "Wow. Sounds terrible. I gotta go study."

Oh well. Pool boy was not my thing. Or maybe it was. In biology lab this year, I actually tested pH levels with a digital sensor. No interpretation of the differences between orange swatches required. Somebody should tell BYU-Idaho about those. Or they could just save some money, dip a child into the pool every morning, and see if he comes out with a rash. They could pay me to do it. That is, after I retire from my illustrious career as a political scientist.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Episode II: Pizza Hut

My first job was at Pizza Hut. Most of my time before and after school was taken up by band, so up until my senior year of high school, I really didn't even try to get a job. I got tired of never having any money, and my older brother had returned from his mission and kind of sat me down and gave me a talk about being responsible or something like that. I don't really remember.

I got an interview at Pizza Hut. The manager was some dude in his late twenties, with a New Kids On The Block haircut, who had achieved the dream of all Pocatellans. He made manager at Pizza hut, and he drove a red Mitsubishi Eclipse. I think he had an earring too. Nothing says "I have arrived" like an earring.

On the advice of my Dad, I think, I made some stuff up about how Pizza Hut was an awesome company and I just wanted to be part of it, and so they hired me. I too was on the way to achieving greatness in the form of a reasonably priced sports coupe and a Donnie Wahlbergesque look.

They threw me into making pizza after about 10 minutes of explanation. All of the ingredients were in the walk-in fridge in case I ran out of stuff. There was a guide, about the length of a small airplane hangar, above the cook area that had all the information about how to make everything.  I think I was supposed to get everything prepped and in the oven within a minute. It took me at least 3 minutes just to find the right spot on the board to look at. I don't know what took me so long. There was only about a billion or so variables to consider on each order. Pizza or bread sticks? Pan crust, thin crust, or hand tossed? Is it one of eight specialties or was it a custom order? Was it off the regular menu so that it gets the normal amount of ingredients, or was it a special so that you had to skimp on the meat and cheese as to not give the customer what they actually wanted? It took me another 5 minutes or so just to interpret the giant, almighty recipe card while Donnie stood there laughing at me.

I love the philosophy of fast food. Make everything exactly the way we tell you, being careful not to use any more ingredients than you absolutely have to, and do it right now or you're fired. Oh, and do it for $4.25 an hour. What could be easier than that?

I'm pretty sure I got every pizza wrong that first week. I could feel that red Mitsubishi Eclipse slipping away with every predictable screw up. And when you know you can't make it at Pizza Hut, your only other option is probably the military. The military, which had years earlier been eliminated as an option on account of my flat feet and disposition to crumble and die when yelled at.

I asked for Wednesday nights off for band practice. They didn't schedule me for three weeks and then scheduled me for a Wednesday night. I got the picture. Oh well. It just wasn't my thing. At least it only took a month to get the whole thing over with.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Episode I: Fighter Pilot

The first thing I can remember wanting to be was a fighter pilot. There was a series of movies back in the 80s, starring Louis Gosset Jr., called Iron Eagle. My parents wouldn't allow me to see Top Gun, but it didn't matter. I was too young to be bothered by inane dialogue, so I was completely enthralled by the apparent cinematic genius that was Iron Eagle I and II (I had picked up on the overt triteness of the films by the time III and IV came around. This was at about the same time I realized that Rocky IV was actually not very good). They were Cold War fighter-pilot movies from the 80s. You get the picture.

As I recall, what appealed to me about the movies, and about becoming a fighter pilot, were several things. Among them was an abundance of juvenile patriotism (which I'm not entirely over), being up in the air and going really, really fast, and most of all, firing off missiles and blowing things up (not entirely over that one either). That and Russians. I was determined to either outmaneuver them in a dog fight, or win them over with good old-fashioned American benevolence.

Yes siree, I was going to be a fighter pilot. I knew there was an Air Force Academy, because they played BYU in football every year, and I watched every game, in horrified suspense, hoping and praying that BYU would win, because if they didn't, my dad would be in a bad mood for at least a week (a topic for another post, or an entire book, really). And so I lay out in my little mind an ingenuous plan to attend the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot some time after serving an LDS mission. I believe there was some talk from someone I trusted that you couldn't attend the academy if you served a mission. It was one or the other. But what really abrogated the whole proposition was my dear older sister.

You see, I was born with flat feet. I don't remember her exact argument, but it went something like this: "They don't allow people with flat feet in the Air Force, because you have to march a lot, and you can't march a lot if you have flat feet. They wouldn't let you in."

So then and there I knew that I would never be a fighter pilot. From then on I would be the poor enfeebled child *with flat feet who, because of his fragile condition would probably have to spend adulthood, if he was lucky, confined to a chair and working a desk job (after a childhood of begging for scraps and selling matches, of course). Oh well. "I guess it just wasn't my thing," it went, and it's still going today.

And so begin the abounding tales of things that just weren't mine. Settle in and be amused.You'll laugh. I'll cry. I'll laugh too, but mostly I'll cry.

*I should mention that it wasn't really the pes planus that doomed me to my lowly state and made me the object of both ridicule and pity. It was more the hip dysplasia, which causes me to run like a girl.