My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 2)

Ashes_HeaderHere is the second installment in my series of failure stories.  I swear that every word is as it happened, although I may have changed a few names.

The Sanitation Pyre

For several years back in my college days, I took a summer job with the city.  The work varied, but generally alternated between some form of road repair and garbage collection.  Most of the time, though, I was assigned to a garbage crew.  In those days, citizens did not bring their trash down to the curb.  Instead, we walked into every yard pushing a large plastic barrel attached to a hand truck.  We would dump the cans into the barrels and then roll back out to the street.

Having no immediate job prospects the summer after I was graduated, I signed up one more time.  When the other temporaries left to go back to school, I stayed on until the following February. Hauling garbage in the hot humid Wisconsin summers was hard work.  Hauling it in the sub-zero winter weather was an order of magnitude more difficult.  Our story takes place on one such bitter cold day in January.

It is important to understand the dynamics of a garbage crew, this one especially.  There were five men to a crew:  the driver and his four underlings.  The driver’s powers were absolute and it paid to be on his good side.  He could make the difference between the job being a misery or not.  He had probably worked “on the city” for his entire life and had achieved the seniority to head a crew after a lot of hard work.  Bob, our driver, stayed in the cab, puffed his stogies, and listened to country music on the radio.  The only difference in the winter was that he kept the windows rolled up and the heat blasting.

As to the four of us on the outside, there was a distinct pecking order.  Rudy and Pete were permanent (meaning union) workers and had been with the city a long time.  Pete was a sweet, simple man who was totally dominated by Rudy.  Rudy was not sweet, nor was he one of the sharper tools in the shed.  Rudy and Pete kept pretty much to themselves most of the time. Tom came next in order.  He was also permanent and had been with the city awhile, but was new to that crew.  He and I got along pretty well.  As for me, I was temporary labor and very much at the bottom of the food chain. Neither Tom nor I took any guff off of Rudy, though.

As I said, it was a crisp, cold January afternoon.  We were clearing an alley so we didn’t need the buckets and hand trucks.  Rudy and Pete had gone ahead to set out the cans.  Tom and I were dumping them into the truck hopper and returning them to the yards.  At one house, there was a can of furnace ashes next to the trashcan.  As per protocol, I removed my gloves and checked the can to verify that the ashes were not still warm.  The can was utterly cold to the touch and exhibited no sign of warmth when I opened it.  I dumped the can.  Two houses later when we cycled the hopper, I thought I saw a spark.  I told Tom about it.  A few minutes later we cycled again.  There was a thin trail of smoke curling from the packer.  We called Bob.

Making Bob get out of the warm cab on a cold day was bad enough.  Telling him that his truck was on fire did not make that scene any better.  At the time, I did not know what half of the expletives meant.  I am older now and understand a few more things.  Bob barked at us to stay put, stuck the cigar back in his mouth, climbed into the cab, and took off.  Tom and I dashed up the alley and onto the street where Pete and Rudy were waiting, just in time to see Bob turn onto the highway at the other end of the block.  Flames were already shooting from the back of the truck.

The rest we learned later. Realizing that he would never make it to the dump, Bob pulled over in front of a firehouse and dumped the load of blazing refuse right in the highway.  It must have been a glorious sight; I wish I had been there to see it.  The firemen saw it as they hosed down the conflagration. The city workers who hauled off the now crystalline mass saw it too.  Augie, the foreman, probably did as well, but he was a study in taciturnity as he drove the four of us back to the yard.  In fact, it was Rudy who did all the talking.  He chattered all the way back, taking me to task and telling me that I would be fired for sure.  I could never really tell for sure about Augie – not even on a good day – but despite the stony face I think he was struggling hard not to laugh.  It would have cost him his reputation.

As for me, I received a standing ovation from the city workers on entering the lunchroom.  I did have to meet with the superintendent to explain what had happened, but after that I never heard another word about the matter again.  At least, I never heard another word about it from the bosses.

Analysis:  I may not have been born an idiot, but I certainly acted like one that day.  I knew at the time that I might be getting a false reading and that I did not have the tools to evaluate the situation effectively. I went ahead and threw the ashes in figuring that the odds were in my favor.  In fact, I feared more the “Miss Slip” that would certainly be called in if I just left the can there.  I figured pretty wrong. Key decisions need to be informed, and inaction is appropriate if the risks inherent in uninformed action are too great.  This comes down to effective risk assessment.  In this case, I did not balance the risk of the Miss Slip against the risk of losing the truck, or Bob, or worse.  And by the time we swung by the next day with the Miss Slip, the ashes would most certainly have been cold.

LessonAssess the risk of blind action…or… If you don’t have the ax, don’t do the gig.


Stay alert, everyone.  Coming Monday is the series finale, The Eight-Thumbed Piano Man.  I will also present the wrap-up to this discussion.

6 thoughts on “My Favorite Failures…and the Life Lessons They Taught Me (Part 2)

  1. ran6110 says:

    Great tale Steve!

    A lesson I learned at roughly the same time in my life, never rely on luck or that the odds are in your favor.

    • bimuse says:

      Thank you, Richard. Yes, luck can be a tricky thing, particularly when you have not checked the odds. If luck is good, one might prosper but have missed an opportunity to learn an important lesson. By the same token, the lesson may not have been as important as your enterprise taking flight. Like I say, a tricky thing.

  2. andytilley says:

    I’d love to see this same article written by Bob, along with his lessons learned. He made some pretty poor choices there, imho! Another great story though – looking forward to your pulling a rabbit out of the hat for the final installment. No pressure. 😉

    • bimuse says:

      To be honest, I have always admired Bob’s quick thinking. He saved the truck, nobody got hurt, and they had the mess cleaned up long before the media ever heard about it. He did a much better job of weighing the risks than I did. Can you share with us what choices to you think could have been better?

      • andytilley says:

        I just have this vision of a flaming truck being driven along city streets, ready to explode at any moment, taking out people at bus shelters, pedestrians and himself with it. Surely it would have been a better choice to get out of the truck, out of harm’s way and call the firefighters?
        Of course, a lot easier to say that from the comfort of my chair.

        • bimuse says:

          Perhaps that was my fault in the telling. He drove it out of the alley — which was dense with structures and people — out onto the highway away from everything. Fortunately, that was only a few blocks away. Given the circumstances, he couldn’t have dumped that load in a safer place. In retrospect, he probably got it to the firehouse faster than the fire department could have gotten to us. Remember, this was back before cell phones. 🙂 But your thoughts do make me wonder if the drivers received any kind of emergency training? Great thoughts. Thanks, Andy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s