Sunday, July 23, 2017

Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days: Part 1

There are a number of causes of Bad Days At Work, even for a seemingly glamorous job like a zookeeper.


Okay, please tell me why it's okay to refer to septic systems as honey pots (hint: "irony" is not an acceptable answer)

The general public probably thinks our bad days entail at least one of the following components:

  1. Poop
  2. Getting a light sunburn
  3. Animal deaths
  4. Not getting licked (or whatever behavioral sign of affection innate to the animal in your care) enough

But really, the only item on that list that really makes a horrendous day is #3, which is not what I am going to focus on in today’s blog.

No, I am going to focus on those really horrible, no good, bad days that pop up out of nowhere and rain chaos and sorrow DESPITE nobody being really sick or dying. 
*raises hand*

In fact, let’s revisit a list of potential Bad Day contributors.  I would like to amend it slighty.  Bad Days for me consist of:

  1. Getting poop directly in facial orifices (yes, I had to specify)
  2. Scuba diving in three feet of stagnant water that is filled with dolphin poop and algae and has not been filtered or otherwise moved in THREE DAYS OH GOD I AM ALREADY BARFING JUST THINKING ABOUT IT
  3. Lip sunburn.  It’s a thing.  And it’s a thing that haunts your every meal for months
  4. Animal deaths, obviously :(
  5. Getting bitten, fluked, charged, or taken on a lengthy Tour Of The Underwater Drains by a sea mammal larger and smarter than me
  6. Fire ants.
  7. Fire ants trapped in my bathing suit
  8. Being in relatively unsafe conditions, like getting wrapped in a net underwater that resulted in someone’s finger being pulled off
  9. Bringing a really dumb lunch

The list goes on.
Sad, sad little lunch

But one of the the worst non-animal-related days of my animal career was at the very beginning.  And I'm writing about it now, because I think you'll get a laugh, AND I am no longer in the field, AND I am pretty sure the statute of limitations will cover any unintentionally illegal component of this story.  

This day was the day I Almost Killed A Bunch Of People With Scuba Tanks. 

When I was at my first place of employment, I had the pleasure of wielding a “pickup truck” during fish delivery in the mornings.  I say wielding because to use the verb “drive” in this context is entirely misleading.  Also, this vehicle was, in a previous life (roughly 29 zillion years ago) a pickup truck.  By the time I encountered it, it was basically a pile of rusted metal on four-ish wheels that ran on Black Magic and an engine trying to die .
Oh! Here it is!

My department was responsible for removing frozen flats of fish from the thaw room and delivering it to every marine mammal department in the park.  This meant loading thousands of pounds of frozen fish into the bed of this Death Truck and somehow, through consistent religious practice, getting it to move from points A to B to C and D without losing too many parts and/or lives.

Because this event happened early in the morning before the park opened, and it was not operated on any actual roads, the task of handling the truck was done with light-hearted humor and a mixture of terror that you would get thrown into the steering wheel because the driver seat did not actually fix into one position.  It slid forwards and backwards with little outside force, but I was not a physicist and figured this was an old truck and/or a poltergeist was involved.

We oft joked about what it would be like to drive The Truck on the real road.  Yes, the driver seat slid like a rowing machine.  Yes, there were no side view mirrors.  The brakes didn't always work when you thought they would (such as when you hit the brake pedal).  The engine made a noise akin to a wolverine being skinned alive but generally did what you asked it too, like drive 5 mph.  I mean, I think it was 5mph, because the speedometer didn't work.  But the best part about this glorious vehicle was its tail gate fell off when it was met with force from three or more atoms moving against any part of it.
Yeah.  If you sold five of these fish house trucks, you still couldn't afford a footlong sub at Subway.

The tail gate issue was not a huge deal during fish truck delivery, because you drove really slowly with the fish boxes piled in the back.  But we all wondered, what would happen if you drove this truck at highway speed?  

And then, I found out.

My then-boss asked me to take empty scuba cylinders to a dive shop a few minutes away from the aquarium, and then return with several filled ones.  They asked me to do this with a coworker of mine (who shall herein be referred to as Famous Coworker, since he knew every celebrity and was on the Real World several years later) , who had been at the park roughly 8 months longer than me and had done this before.  

Long story short, when we asked 1) how many tanks we were to be transporting and 2) HOW we would get them there, we were met with these answers (in corresponding order):

  1. I don’t know, maybe 10?
  2. The fish house truck

Oh, but they were.

We both stood in stunned silence.  This was not the type of workplace where you could easily share your grievances, but we figured we heard wrong.  Surely, there must be another truck.  One that is fit for highway travel.  One that has a speedometer or mirrors or something.

Nope, nope, nope.  It was The Truck.  And they saw no reason not to take it, they just said to drive it slow (the highway we needed to take was…um, a highway). Plus, they reasoned, it wasn't very far.

Famous Coworker offered to drive his new truck, since it had enough room.  No, no, our boss insisted. The fish truck was fine, they used it last week for this purpose and everything was fine.  Just DO IT.

Now I know what you reasonable people are thinking.  WHY, oh WHY didn't you just assert yourselves?  Why would you voluntarily get into such a terrible Death Car knowing that it was a huge safety risk?  I can only say, I was 22, terrified of most management, and believed I wouldn't knowingly be asked to do something really unsafe.

So off Famous Coworker and I go, to pick up the tanks.  We chuckled while pooing our pants the first time the tail gate fell off at the security booth as we loaded up the tanks.  We had nothing to secure them with, but were instructed by senior staff to just stack them “real tight” in the bed of the truck.  We had just the right number to wedge them into a sort of pyramid (the tanks were on their sides, because you know, for safety), and we were given a few cinder blocks to keep them in place, just to be Extra Safe.
This is slightly more safe than what we had going for us

I had to drive (another long story), so I drove at about 7mm per hour (yes, millimeters) through the parking lot.  My heart was pounding in my chest as I turned out of the parking lot onto the busy highway that would take us to the dive shop.  I would’ve put the hazards on, because I was driving so slowly and was just convinced at any minute, the tail gate would fall off.  But you know, those hazard lights didn’t work!  What an adventure!

However, we made it to the dive shop a couple of miles away without any drama.  We unloaded the empties, and began grabbing the full tanks.  We realized quickly that there were a different number of tanks we would be bringing back…which meant they would not fit tightly together in the bed of the truck.  Famous Coworker and I worked hard to figure out how to secure the tanks, but at least three of them would roll around a little between cinder blocks.  Still, the dive shop worker told us we should just drive “kinda slow” but that we would be okay.
A visual mantra for marine mammal trainers everywhere

So we get into the truck.  I slowly make a wide loop in the dive shop parking lot, preparing for a left-hand turn onto a highway which has a 45mph speed limit but a common speed of roughly E=MC2.  I figured that if something bad was going to happen, it would happen in that turn.   I gripped the steering wheel tightly, bracing myself for the front seat to do its slidey thing and praying that the brakes would work if I needed.  I took a deep breath, eased my foot onto the accelerator, turned the steering wheel and….

….turned successfully (albeit very, very slowly) onto the highway.  I drove maddeningly slow about 3/4ths of the way back to the aquarium, all without incident.  Then, I saw the turn lane back into the aquarium parking lot up ahead.  I wanted to get into the left left earlier than I normally would, because I didn't want to make any sudden stops or accelerate too quickly if I waited too long to make the turn.  I especially didn't want to bust a U.  

I got into the left lane, silently apologizing to the cars that would quickly approach me and probably curse me and several generations of my family for operating a vehicle at speeds that are almost legally allowable for justifiable homicide.   

We were inching along, the turn lane now in sight, and

****Trigger warning for Dive Safety Officers: you will have a heart attack if you read any further*******







Swearing is necessary for this

The tanks are scattered and bouncing and rolling everywhere and I start to stop right where I am but before the car stops Famous Coworker lets out this banshee death scream and he is out the door running across a HIGHWAY towards these bouncing, FULL scuba tanks, and he is still screaming and I am also screaming and I am pretty sure someone is going to die.

I get out of the car and yell some swear words as I run towards some tanks, running on pure adrenaline and stupidity, and help Famous Coworker pick them up, help reattach the tail gate (we had had plenty of practice with that) and then we get back into the truck and stare at each other.

“We are going to get fired,” Famous Coworker said.

I don't even remember what I said, if anything.  I was pissed.  I was terrified.  We could’ve killed someone.

As I pull into the park, I see one of the park operations managers standing near the back entrance, waving us down, red in the face.  He yelled at us for spilling scuba tanks on the highway.  I yelled at him for not having a proper vehicle to pick up tanks, like actually YELLED, and then I drove away before he could speak.
Arnold gets it

We unloaded the tanks, several of them hissing now, trying to alert whoever (??) would be in charge of making sure they didn't explode.  I unloaded my anger and fear to everyone I could find, boss or not, unable to contain myself.  The only response I really remember was hearing from another senior person that they were surprised I was allowed to take the fish house truck on the highway, because the same thing happened to other trainers a few weeks ago, but it happened to them in a parking lot.

This was the first time in my life I totally understood the phrase “spitting mad”.  I was pissed at myself for not standing up for what I KNEW was a bad idea.  I was pissed at my bosses, and their bosses.  I literally could not do anything except breathe occasionally and wonder why, in this heightened state of ire, I was literally producing 39 times the amount of saliva I normally do.  Swallowing was the only task I could focus on, because otherwise I would’ve just drooled all over myself which made me think people might not take me seriously and/or would just have me euthanized.

The experience was definitely a lesson learned; safety takes priority, no matter how intimidated you are ( if the intimation is real, OR if it’s just in your head).  I am really relieved that nobody was hurt, and that I was lucky enough to just take away from it a crazy story and a life lesson.  And also I have somehow avoided prison.

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