Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vaseline Fastball

True shop story. This unfolded right in front of my workbench around the time of the Challenger Shuttle disaster. I remember it well because the owner came through the shop and told each person.

This story takes place in a small sheet metal shop in the San Francisco Bay area. When I served my sheet metal apprenticeship I ended up working with an old crotchety New Zealander named Doug. As it turns out this master craftsman taught me many things and we became longtime friends. Doug had a sailboat that he built in in his backyard that almost stayed trapped there forever. But that's another story.  He moored the forty eight foot cutter not far from where we worked. In fact, it was close enough that we would sometimes have lunch aboard if the weather was nice. We sailed the bay almost every Sunday for quite a few years. Eventually he retired from that shop and sailed his boat back to New Zealand where he lives now.

This shop we worked in together had several departments. We worked together in the sheet metal department that was divided into small individual work spaces. These were separated on two sides with welding screens. I worked in the space next door to Doug. On the opposite side of me was another character named Steve. The way the screens were set up there was a space near the wall that you could slip through between the screen and the work bench. From my workbench I could easily see Doug’s bench and his little shop built toolbox. Right next to his toolbox Doug kept a small plastic jar of Vaseline sitting out and handy. All that sun and wind during our sailing outings on San Francisco Bay takes a toll on the skin and lips. Or maybe it was all the beer that scoured his lips that did them in, Anyway Doug almost always had chapped lips. He was a bit of a cheapskate and used the Vaseline to sooth his cracked peeling wind burned beer abused lips as well as lubricating o-rings. I would see him in the morning and after lunch putting some on his lips. Never thought much about it. Its just one of those weird things you notice and file away.

One day Steve came over and asks Doug if he can borrow the jar of Vaseline. Doug grumbled “fine” and Steve grabs the jar and off he goes. Doug never bothered to ask what he needed it for and Steve never volunteered. You have to know that Doug could be pretty gruff at times so you really did your business and got out of his sight as quickly as possible. Doug was one of those guys that if you were on his good side everything was fine. Problem was sometimes it was hard to tell which side was which. Lets just leave it at he had a bit of a temper and an o-too-thin patience factor. If he got riled up you did not want to be the cause of it.

When I worked with him almost everything I learned from him I learned by spying and observation. You never wanted to ask what might be a dumb question for fear of getting a blast of that spectacular temper. Not that he wouldn’t answer any questions, only that he had a very low tolerance for trivial time wasting blather. He had been forged in a merciless sweat shop in New Zealand where it was sink or swim. You never wanted to get chewed out or have his laser beam attention on you when he was in a mood.

Steve was a real nice guy and was one of the first guys to be friendly with me when I first came to work in the shop. This quickly deteriorated into outright competition between us. I advanced quickly in the shop and this didn't sit well with Steve who had been there for years. Have you ever known someone that never seems to make the right decision no matter what? Well Steve was one of those guys. Overall he was a friendly guy with some very solid skills.

In a close knit competitive shop like this one every little mistake is broadcast like a news bulletin. You have a better chance of hiding the fact you like to wear makeup and women’s underwear than keeping even the smallest screw up secret. Well lets just say old Stevie boy was on the front page of the f-up tribune more than his fair share.

So a little while later Steve slinks back into Doug's area and brings back the jar of Vaseline. He quickly returns it and goes back to work. The next day the same thing happens. He borrows the jar of Vaseline and disappears for a while then returns it quietly.  This goes on for the better part of the week. Finally one day when Steve came by to borrow the little jar of Vaseline. Doug, his curiosity aroused now asked him what he was using it for so often.

“Steve, what the heck are you doing with my Vaseline?”  Steve, obviously a little embarrassed a with a sheepish look on his face replied “Uh, I've been having a little problem". Doug cocks his head waiting to hear the reason his jar of lip lube was half empty. Steve squirms, obviously uncomfortable and blurts out, "My hemorrhoids have been killing me.” Now I don’t know about you but the image of Steve with his pants down around his ankles in one of the stalls with this jar of Vaseline doesn't bring anything good to my imagination.

At this point Doug’s jaw kind of goes slack at the realization why Steve has been dipping his finger in his personal chapped lip balm. Steve had worked long enough with Doug to know when the volcano was going to blow. He started backing out when Doug screamed at him. “You Bastard. Keep the f-ing thing”  Doug picks up the plastic jar with a look of pure disgust and hurls it at Steve as he scampers to get the hell out of range. The high velocity jar bounces off Steve’s back as his shoulder blades fold back in anticipation of the impact and hits the floor.

In about two minutes the whole shop has heard the story via the bad luck tribune.  Nobody  wanted to pick up the radioactive jar after hearing the story. I think the janitor scooped it up with his shovel finally.I would have thought that Steve might have grabbed it. Seems like he had a genuine need for soothing relief.

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