Adventures in Sanitation

3 09 2009

As I toil away in my current employment, carrying pizzas to and fro, I often comfort myself with the thought that it is not the worst job I’ve ever had.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I had a shit job. Literally. My source of revenue for that season came from the Sanitation District of Decatur, who employed me as a lawn mower, grounds keeper and any-other-shit-that-needs-to-done-around-here doer for three long months.

The Sanitation District of Decatur can be seen to the left of your computer screen

The Sanitation District of Decatur can be seen to the left of your computer screen

Boredom formed the core experience of the tasks set before me, long monotonous hours astride a tractor or riding lawn mower, ruthlessly cutting down stalk after stalk of sprouting grass. Two experiences stand apart from the rest, one a brief lesson in abject terror that I will detail here and the other I will reserve for a later post.

Well, those two and the time the ex-marine on the crew chased down a rabbit with his mower and then rode around for the rest of the day with its severed head on the metal guard covering the blades. Not really a nice (or even normal) guy, that one.

As I said before, mowing the vast grounds of the sewage treatment plant formed my primary duty. To accomplish this purpose, we often used large tractors with a mower attached in addition to the standard riding mower. Urban dweller that I am, I had never had the opportunity to mount and operate such a steed.

A brief tutorial was given to me on its functions, but my mechanical aptitude has always been pretty low and the early morning hour of the lesson also subtracted from my attention span. My key misunderstanding had to do with the relationship between the brake and the clutch and how to properly make the metal behometh stop.

You see, tractors like that do not have an accelerator as a car does. Instead, there’s just a clutch and a brake and when the you let your foot fully off the clutch, the tractor goes. Its default mode is go, speed is controlled by gear.

Cruising on the pavement toward a patch of grass in need of reduction, my understand of the tractor was thus: If I push on the clutch, the tractor stops. A more proper understanding of the motor’s functions would have gone “If I push on the clutch, the wheels stop moving” or even more exactly “If I push on the clutch, the drive shaft stops turning the wheels but since the motor is engaged there is nothing to stop said wheels being moved by more natural forces like, say, gravity.”

Blissfully ignorant of the near-tragedy I was about to barely avoid, I reached the corner of the compound assigned to me. A tall metal fence perched on a small, steep mound of earth ringed the plant’s perimeter and ensured that at least some of my grass-cutting would incur on an incline. I worried nothing about this, confident I was in the tractor’s mechanics.

I lowered the mowing deck, engaged the blades and began to make the first of many concentric circles. I reached the edge of the compound, ascended the small upward thrust of land and traveled along the top, next to the fence.

Moving carefully along the ridge, I contemplated that soon I would have to maneuver the tractor back down the hill. An easy task, I would simply apply a little pressure to the clutch to slow the vehicles roll downward. The result of this ill-conceived plan is that when I set the tractor on the decline, the motor stopped turning the wheels but the wheels did not stop turning.

In fact, to my great surprise and growing alarm, they begun to turn very quickly.

In a matter of seconds I went from idling along like an old farmer, peaceful and relaxed, to gripping the steering wheel of a roaring metal death machine. The descent become completely uncontrolled, the tractor began to wobble and I began to consider praying for my soul’s eternal salvation.

Fate spared me, however, the ground leveled out and I slowed to a stop. Immediately, my surpervisor and others who had been in the area rushed over to me, obviously to express their concern for my safety and well-being.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

My supervisor immediately asked me this question and I quickly noted a sever shortage of sympathy in his voice. I stumbled through an explanation, muttered about the clutch and the brake and how no one told me that the tractor motor will automatically maintain its speed on a hill. All for naught, the expression on his face and my coworkers was resolute — I had been labeled, for the rest of the summer, an idiot.

My weak and ineffectual explanation for why I had not properly understood how to operate the machine become a kind of standard for the numerous other mistakes to come. For example, the time I incorrectly put together a weed whacker so that upon starting its various pieces burst apart, some of them ending up in a canal carrying sewage water.

The most surprising aspect of this story is that despite the clear evidence of my lack of manual skills and common sense, the very next summer I took another landscaping job with the University of Missouri.

I hope to post part two of my experiences with the Decatur Sanitation District soon. A teaser: A giant puddle of processed feces, urine and other toilet waste is involved. Interested now?

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2 responses

3 09 2009
Becky

loved it! I laughed out loud!

4 09 2009
David Chico Pham

I remember telling me about this job. My first thought that popped in my head, as with many thoughts with strange professions, how did you get that gig? Working there wouldn’t have occurred to me. I often wonder how people end up doing the job they do.

Another profession I wonder how people end up doing is flight attendants. Did you know you have to go to school to become one? Or movie projectionist. How did they ever land a sweet gig as watching movies all day?

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