22 March, 1999
22 March, 1999
Like many people, I had a few unconventional summer jobs as a college student. Perhaps the most unusual was working for the sewage treatment plant in my home town.
It was the summer of 1979, and I was 18. Along with a few other young, college-bound men, I was hired as "summer help." A friend of mine was already working there as a summer employee, and he recommended the job to me. At $4.75/hour, it paid much better than the typical $2.65/hour minimum-wage summer jobs available elsewhere. That alone made the job attractive. I never realized, though, how many good stories it would produce.
We were hired primarily as cheap maintenance personnel. We spent most of the summer cutting grass, trimming weeds, and painting outbuildings. However, we were also trained to help run the plant. After all, a $4.75-per-hour summer employee was a cheap replacement for a sick or vacationing full-timer.
The treatment plant used a 4-stage process to treat the sewage. Corresponding to each treatment stage was a large, outdoor tank resembling a swimming pool with inset concrete dividers. The figure at the right is a crude, birds-eye view of one of these tanks. The tanks were about 12 feet deep, and were generally set halfway in and halfway out of the ground.
Waste water entered the plant and was pumped into the Stage 1 tank. From there, solid waste was siphoned off into a holding tank, where it eventually made its way to the Burn Building, to be incinerated. Meanwhile, the waste water was routed through pumps, machines, three other staging tanks, and various chemical cleansing processes, before finally being pumped back into the creek behind the plant.
Running the plant meant keeping tabs on its operation, recording various data in log books, and checking up on equipment. It also meant performing routine maintenance tasks, such as using high-pressure hoses to power-wash the exposed sides of the tanks. (Each worker was issued his own brass high-pressure nozzle for exactly that purpose.) Occasionally, running the plant meant dealing with other hazards, as well.
The plant had rats. We didn't see them much during the day, but they often came out at night. The rat problem was so persistent that the plant had its own rat dog, a yellow mongrel named "Jaws." Jaws was pleasant enough to his human buddies, but he was an unholy terror to the rat population. Unfortunately, Jaws wasn't much help to us that summer: He'd injured one of his legs, which was taped, splinted, and unusable. He still hated rats, but he only had three working legs, and the rats had no trouble evading him.
One afternoon, the boss came looking for a cheap, summer-help body to fill in for a vacationing regular on night shift. I was elected. For the next 10 days, I helped run the plant from 11 PM to 7 AM. I worked with a guy I'll call "Frank" (mainly because I can't remember his real name). One night, around midnight, Frank and I headed out to siphon the solid waste from the Stage 1 tank into the holding tank. As we began adjusting the valves, Frank caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. A rat had walked out onto the concrete apron and into the light.
"Shit," Frank swore. "Where's that damned dog?"
Before I could say anything, he remembered Jaws' leg.
"Shit," he said again.
The Stage 1 tank was near the Burn Building, and one of the Burn Building operators was outside taking a break. Frank called him over, and we began looking for the rat. We finally got close enough to its hiding place that it took off running and disappeared beneath a piece of equipment.
After a couple of seconds of collective swearing, Frank reached into his back pocket and pulled out his brass nozzle. He screwed the nozzle onto the nearest hose, then signaled me to turn the water on. In the meantime, the other guy grabbed a shovel and positioned himself on the opposite side of the equipment. I turned on the spigot, and a high-pressure jet of water shot out of the hose. Frank squatted down and aimed the water jet underneath the machinery, moving it back and forth a little. He managed to catch the rat broadside, flushing it out the other side where the guy with the shovel stood waiting. As the stunned rat struggled to get to its feet, the guy with the shovel swung.
Several swings later, when everyone was satisfied the rat was dead, Frank picked up the carcass by the tail and flung it into the weeds. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but I'd have sworn he swaggered a little as he strode back to his siphon.
Early in the summer, during my operator training, one of the full-timers walked me around the plant, explaining its various operations, machines, and processes. Joe (and that is his real name) eventually walked me over to something he called the "grit machine." As I recall, this machine was housed in its own building, between the second and third stage tanks. It separated various non-organic solids from the organic waste; that is, it removed from the sewage all those other things we flush down our toilets.
The grit machine's intake area was exposed to the air; standing on the concrete deck outside the building, I watched the flow of sewage into the machine. The chunky liquid flowed into the intake area as a flat, fast-moving stream; it was kind of like watching a dirty waterfall. Not surprisingly, the liquid was pretty uniformly brown; however, now and then, I could see flashes of other things. At one point, I thought I saw a child's tiny, wooden toy, but I couldn't be sure.
While we were standing there, Joe pointed to the stream and said, "Check that out."
"Check what out?" I asked
"All those white things."
"What are they?" I asked.
Joe grinned. "Rubbers," he responded.
I laughed. Of course, I thought. Then came the moment Joe had clearly been waiting for.
"So," he started, "what two nights do you think we see the most rubbers in there?"
I thought for a moment, then responded, "Saturday."
"Yep, that's one. What's the other one?"
"Hmmm. ... Friday?"
"Nope!" he responded, smiling.
"Nope! Wednesday!" he said, triumphantly.
"Wednesday?" I responded, frowning.
"Yeah," he said, grinning again. "Hump day."
Every two hours, someone was required to obtain and record pH samples from each of the four staging tanks. This task was simple enough. You put on a pair of thick rubber gloves, grabbed the four metal sample cans (conveniently stored in a RubberMaid carrying tray), and trekked to each of the four tanks. Attached to each tank was a long-handled ladle. Using the ladle, you dipped out a sample of the tank's contents and poured it into the appropriate sample can. After obtaining all four samples, you went back to the lab and used a small pH meter to read the pH value of each sample, recording the values in a log book.
The pH meter was a small machine with a probe and an L.E.D. readout. To take a reading, you placed the sample underneath the probe, cleared the display, dipped the probe into the sample, and pressed a button. The L.E.D. then displayed the pH value to the first decimal point. The log book only contained room to write the integer portion of the readout, so the operators generally just ignored the number after the decimal point and wrote down just the integer portion. That practice rubbed me the wrong way, so when I took samples, I would round the value, rather than truncate it. Since nobody objected to my approach, I assumed it was okay.
One day, when it was my turn to take samples, I came back into the lab to find "Pugsley" there, chatting with the usual lab cohorts. Pugsley was one of the daytime plant operators. His real name was Dave, but the other operators called him "Pugsley" because he was short and stocky. He didn't much care for the nickname.
Pugsley was a piece of work. He had a hair-trigger temper and constantly seemed to be looking for a fight. I was told he'd spent some time at Pennsylvania's Graterford prison, having been convicted for aggravated assault or some similarly violent felony. I was also told he carried a .22 pistol in the glove compartment of his car. Most of the rest of the crew enjoyed provoking him. I wasn't much of a fist-fighter, and though I was probably half-a-foot taller than Pugsley, he outweighed me by 20 or 30 pounds. I generally just left him alone.
When I walked into the lab that one afternoon, carrying the samples, Pugsley was standing near the pH meter; when I started to take the readings, he leaned over to watch what I was doing. One of the samples came up with a pH reading of 2.7, so I wrote "3" in the log book.
"Hey, college boy, what're you doin'?" Pugsley demanded. "It says '2', not '3'."
"Yeah, but it's closer to '3'," I responded.
"Look, smart ass," he said, "you write down '3' when that number says '3'. When it says '2', you write down '2'."
"Let me ask you something," I said. "Is 27 closer to 20 or 30?"
Pugsley didn't care for that response at all. His face flushed a bit, his eyes narrowed, and he leaned closer to me.
"It. Says. '2'," he said, looking me right in the eyes.
I paused, thought for just a moment, and shrugged my shoulders.
"Okay," I said, and I changed my "3" to a "2." What did I care? I wasn't going to be working there in three months anyway.
Score one for Pugsley.
Every job has its "shit work," but when you work at a waste-water treatment plant, that term takes on new meaning. Whenever possible, the full-timers made certain that the summer employees got the really distasteful jobs.
One morning, at the start of the shift, one of the full-timers told us, with a sly smile, "Get yer hip boots and rubber gloves on, boys. We have a job for you."
The "job" turned out to be cleaning the Stage 4 tank.
The Stage 4 tank was the cleanest of the tanks. It was the last stage of treatment; from that tank, the treated water was flushed back into the creek behind the plant. Periodically, it was necessary to drain the tank and clean it of any sewage residue. This job was usually reserved for a nice, sunny, summer day.
On this particular day, we five summer employees were the lucky tank cleaners. We weren't the only ones, however. The shift supervisor also told "Curtis" to suit up. Curtis (not his real name) was the low man on the full-timers' totem pole. He was an older guy who was clearly just biding his time. He went home for a liquid lunch every day, and he generally did his best to avoid any real work. As soon as he found out he was climbing down into the tank with the summer guys, he started complaining, and didn't stop until the job was finished.
Once we were ready, we all headed over to the tank. It had been drained of water, and one look down showed me why it needed to be cleaned. Here and there, in the small corridors of the tank, were piles of freshly laundered sewage. Our job was to descend into the tank and flush the sewage down the newly-opened drain. The full-timers had already run a water hose down to the tank floor; one of them was going to feed us the hose as we moved farther back into the tank.
As we moved toward the rung ladder that led down into the tank, I noticed, for the first time, a number of gigantic squeegees. Most were single-man squeegees about 3-feet wide, with 5-foot metal handles. There was one 2-man squeegee, though: a double-handled monster with a rubber blade that was almost as wide as one of the tank corridors. Two of the more senior summer employees were told to man this tandem squeegee. One of us (Glen) was elected to man the hose that would flush the sludge toward the drain. The rest of us (including me) got one-man squeegees.
One by one, we descended the 12 feet into the tank, Curtis muttering the whole time. Once we were all on the floor, the guys above carefully handed us the squeegees. Glen attached his brass nozzle to the hose and moved to the far end of the tank. Someone up above started the water, and the fun began.
The job was pretty simple, really: As Glen used the high-pressure water stream to flush the sludge our way, we used the squeegees to drag it over to the open drain. The volume of water helped move the sludge, and once Glen had worked his way to the drain (a process that took about 45 minutes), he was able to wash the remaining refuse down the drain with the hose.
All in all, the task wasn't nearly as distasteful as I expected. We were cleaning the Stage 4 tank, the cleanest one. The sludge looked kind of disgusting close-up, but it had no noticeable odor. The tank walls were pretty clean, thanks to the high levels of chlorine present in the tank when it was full. Only one aspect of the job was a little disturbing: As we used the squeegees to drag the sludge to the drain, I couldn't help but notice that it was full of bright, blood-red worms.
Every year, the summer crew painted a few of the outbuildings with industrial grey, oil-based, outdoor-quality paint. By scraping and sanding the old paint, then applying a shiny new coat, we kept the buildings weather-resistant and new-looking.
Or so the theory went.
My friend and I got painting detail that summer. After painting the walls in one building, we went back to the main garage for more paint. Unfortunately, there wasn't much left, and we still had the entire floor to paint. John, the surly, cigar-chomping, chief mechanic, was in the garage. When he saw my friend and I standing in there for more than 30 seconds, he came over.
"What're you guys doin' just standin' around?" he growled. "Don't you have work to do?"
So we described our paint dilemma to him.
"Shit," he swore, clearly annoyed. "Damned idiot college kids. Come over here!" He grabbed one of our empty paint cans and walked out of the garage.
Between the maintenance trucks and lawn mowers, the sewer plant consumed a lot of gasoline. Consequently, the plant managers had long ago installed a gasoline pump on the premises, and an oil company truck routinely lumbered in to refill the tank. John headed straight for the gas pump. When he got there, he yanked the top off the empty can and filled the can with gas. Then he stomped back into the garage.
He opened the remaining fresh cans of paint and began pouring paint into some of the other empty cans. When all the cans were about half full of paint, he reached for the gasoline thinner. Before long, we miraculously found we had enough paint to finish the job.
"And make damned sure you clean them brushes!" John hollered, storming away.
My friend and I spent the rest of the afternoon applying industrial grey, oil-based, outdoor-quality, gasoline-thinned paint to the floor of the building we were assigned to paint, praying the whole time that one of the guys wouldn't walk in with a lit cigarette.