Thursday, June 26, 2008

Thinking-Back Thursday - There's a Reason I Switched My Major to English . . .

I've often heard that smell is the most powerful trigger for memory, and there have been a few times in my life when a certain odor will transport my mind to an earlier time, like how the smell of damp hay and horses at the State Fair took me back to my childhood playing on my Papaw's farm. Well, today while I was on the main campus for a meeting I encountered a scent that took me back to my very first job, a far less pleasant mental journey.

I got my first job right after I graduated high school; up until then mom and dad had told me that doing well in school was my job. But since I was done with that, and already accepted at OSU, they encouraged me to take a job offered by a friend of the family working at his place of employment, a chemical plant. You see, at the time, young and foolish Cap'n Neurotic was actually considering going into Chemistry or Chemical Engineering as his major, and this chemical plant would hire aspiring scientists and put them to work doing grunt work.

My time there was split between the R&D department and the Quality Control department. I much preferred my time over in R&D, both in terms of job duties and co-workers. For in R&D there were just a couple of really nice, soft-spoken people, while Quality Control was run by a crass, gutter-mouthed individual, and his demeanor sort of led the way for the rest of the guys there. From the very beginning the head of QC didn't like me, for one glaringly obvious reason: I was not Rigo.

Rigo, you see, was my predecessor in the position, and in the eyes of Mr. QC, Rigo could Do No Wrong. So, every time I would make a mistake, I would be compared to Rigo, and chastised for not paying better attention to the training Rigo gave me before he left. Of course, what Mr. QC failed to realize was that the bulk of the "training" I got from Rigo came in the form of advice on the best places to go take a nap where you wouldn't get caught. But, Rigo was a guy's guy, willing and able to jump into conversations about sports, beer, and sex, and so he was The Golden Boy and anytime I tried to convince Mr. QC that my lack of knowledge was more Rigo's fault than my own, I was treated like a lying incompetent trying to cover his own butt. So, yeah, I preferred the company at R&D, who largely left me alone to do my job.

And what exactly was my job, you ask? Well, I had a few essential job duties which I performed at both labs, and one which was specific to QC. The QC specific task was what they called "Chemical Retains." In a nutshell, the process was this: I would be provided a container filled with lots of granular pieces of chemical by-product left over from whatever it was the company did* and would have to spoon out a specific amount from the large container and into smaller plastic bottles. I would then squirt in a burst of some preservative gas, slap on the lid, tape it shut, write an identification number on the side in marker, toss it in a big drum, and then repeat the process -- all of this accomplished in a tiny, poorly ventilated and stifling hot closet while wearing a gas mask to keep me from inhaling too much of the byproduct. Oh, and about, I dunno, three, four weeks in, I found out that Rigo had neglected to inform me that for every 5th bottle or so I was supposed to remove a small portion and place it into another bottle, which they referred to as a "black lot"; since I hadn't been doing this at all I had to go and open up the sealed drums with my completed work and dig through them to find the appropriately numbered batches to draw samples from.

Yeah, I hated doing retains.

I was also expected to do some basic cleaning and upkeep at both facilities. The bulk of this involved washing out the lab equipment like beakers, test tubes, cylinders, etc., sometimes with regular soap and water, and sometimes with acetone, which invariably gave me a headache. I also was supposed to clean the bathrooms, take out the trash, sweep the floors, and mow the lawns. It was this last task that gave me one of the more embarrassing moments in my life. One day I was mowing the lawn in front of the QC building, and was making a pass right by a rickety old table covered in old rusted parts near the entrance when I heard something clank to the ground. Looking down, I saw an old rusted piece of metal; figuring it had been vibrated off the table as I went by, I bent down to pick it up and place it back on the table so it wouldn't get in my way on my next pass by. I'm not sure how long after I picked it up that it took me to realize that the rusted piece of metal was actually searing my skin, but it couldn't have been too long before I dropped the scalding hot piece of machinery and headed inside to inform the QC guys that I had somehow injured myself. Turns out, it wasn't a rusted piece of machinery from off of the table, but was instead the rusted-up muffler from the lawn mower which had chosen the most inopportune time to fall off. The burn wasn't too bad, and I got to go back to washing lab equipment after a couple of days. Not one of my prouder moments, but hey, I got a free tetanus shot out of the deal!

Another of my least favorite jobs was connected to the washing of the equipment. You see, when I cleaned stuff with acetone, I had to do it over a special receptacle to contain the acetone and the waste it would remove. And, once the receptacle was filled with what resembled nothing so much as the Hollywood version of toxic waste, I would have to cart it out to some big metal drums outside, pry open a hole in the lid, and pour the waste in, all the while trying not to gag at the incredibly noxious fumes that would pour out.

And it was this very smell that triggered my memory yesterday as I entered the second floor bathroom of the main library; I have no idea what happened in that restroom, nor do I want to know -- think I'll have nightmares enough as it is.

All in all, while the chemical factory job was far from my favorite job, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say it was my most hated job either. Sure, I was stuck doing grunt work, surrounded by people who couldn't stand me and considered me a shiftless layabout, and I was constantly struggling not to lose my lunch from the noxious chemicals I was exposed to, but at least I never get yelled at by an irate widow because I was the umpteenth telemarketer to call and offer new long-distance service to her long-deceased husband. Now, that job nearly gave me an ulcer.


*Maybe the fact that I was never really curious enough to find out what the company's major products were should have been a clue that the exciting world of chemical science was not for me.

3 comments:

Flunky lover said...

I couldn't help but laugh at the mowing story. That could have happened to anyone.

Bubblegum Tate said...

Was the telemarketer gig during the Stillwater years? Was it an armpit of a place that looked like the files were always sitting in the trunk of a running car? Was it called VisionQuest?

Man, accidentally calling a dead guy to sell them credit cards/long distance/wildlife preserver license tags was the worst thing ever. Happened all the time, though. Sometimes I was lucky enough they'd died that very day!

Cap'n Neurotic said...

Heh, yes, it was in Stillwater, but no, it wasn't VisionQuest. I didn't mind the job at first since we were only supposed to be selling business long distance, and I had no problem calling a business during business hours -- this, of course, was before I worked at a business that had to field such calls. Still, it was when we got a batch of old leads that directed us to small businesses that were no longer businesses and just people's homes that it started to get to me.