Chapter 29: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Job #83: Intern, Geographical Information Center
When I started the Geospatial Workforce Training Program (GWTP), I was nervous that I would again experience the sort of difficulties with the computer software which had plagued me during my time in college. To my delight, I thrived in it. I knew I just needed a second chance in order to master it. The only part that gave me trouble was our final project, in which we needed to show that we knew how to use the software in order to solve real-world problems. The project was approximately equivalent to a senior thesis for a bachelor’s degree, but geared toward vocational students who perhaps hadn’t had any previous college education. The idea was that we were to partner with a local business or organization which could use some GIS-based solutions to specific issues (even if they weren’t aware they had a problem).
I’ve always hit a wall when it comes to projects of this sort. I don’t mind doing research, and I’m okay at writing papers, but when it comes to thinking up some new and original idea to try to convince someone that I actually know what I’m doing, I blank out. The other students in the GWTP were coming up with some really interesting-sounding and practical ideas for projects, but I was floundering about, trying to think of something, anything.
My instructor, Chris, suggested a possible project. The GWTP shared a building with an electrical lineman college, and they needed some help with something. The facility was located next to the O-Town airport, and so they had to report the height of their practice poles to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has a handy webpage which allows users to enter data about the structures they’re reporting, then the FAA’s software generates a map showing the location of the structure in relation to the airport. The problem the lineman college was having was that their FAA-generated maps were showing their poles as being almost a mile from the airport, rather than a few yards.
The answer to their problem was actually quite simple. It’s been long enough ago that I can’t remember the exact details, and they would probably bore you anyway. Basically, there are various methods in which to record one’s position on the earth’s surface, such as Digital Degrees and Degrees Minutes Seconds. The FAA’s web page only allowed the data to be submitted in one of the methods, but the GPS (Global Positioning System) device the lineman college was using was set to a different method.
The campus director for the lineman college was actually a former classmate of mine from my college geography courses, named Jennifer. Her job at the lineman college didn’t really have anything to do with geography, and it was really just a funny coincidence that it was her responsibility as director to submit the GPS data to the FAA. She didn’t know about the difference in the versions of the GPS data, and the FAA’s website was not particularly informative that the data could only be in the one format. When my former classmate entered her numbers, the FAA’s webpage was truncating the last few characters, resulting in the grossly inaccurate maps it was generating. It was an easy matter to set the lineman college’s GPS unit to the FAA’s required method, and the data that was already recorded was automatically converted.
Jennifer was pleased to have that issue resolved, but that didn’t constitute enough of a “real world” solution for my final project. I decided to provide them with a GIS map of all their poles, with the heights of each one recorded along with their GPS coordinates. Of course, they already knew where their poles were, and how tall they were. But every time they replaced a pole, even if it was in the same place and the same height as its predecessor, they had to submit a new report to the FAA. I figured my map would facilitate this process.
I painstakingly gathered the GPS coordinates for each pole. I often had to work around the student linemen as they were practicing their new trade. Working near all those utility poles and the rough men who serviced them sometimes gave me flashbacks to the bad old Osmosis days, but it pleased me to reflect upon how two past experiences – one good but under-utilized (geography major) and one bad (utility pole inspector) – were coming together at that particular point in time. I felt like I was on the right path to something better.
Unfortunately, a map of some utility poles – while useful to my “client” – still did not satisfy the criteria of the project, which had to involve some actual analysis. I had already spent the majority of my time creating the map, and had to scramble to come up with some way to use the data in a meaningful manner. With Chris’s help I was able to come up with a hypothetical utility company and demonstrate how GIS could be used to calculate maintenance costs based upon the location of different parcels of land.
My project passed the requirements to graduate from the GWTP, but I was not very proud of it. All the other students had come up with actual problem-solving projects for actual businesses and groups. I felt like mine was weak by comparison. Even at that, it did attract the attention of a real business owner with a real problem that needed fixing, which actually lead to a real job…sort of.
We presented our final projects to our clients and pretty much anyone else who was interested. Among the attendees was the owner of the businesses which rented a space in the converted factory where the GWTP was held. This nice lady, whom I shall call Susan, in partnership with her father and brother, was trying to develop a radical new form of clean energy production called flying electric generators (FEGs). They are sort of like little helicopters which are tethered to the ground. They fly to a certain height under battery power. Then high-altitude winds keep them aloft while at the same time generating power by turning their turbines. The electricity is then transmitted to the ground via a cable attached to the tether.
Of course, these high-flying, stationery wind turbines and their tethers present a hazard to aircraft, so they can’t be flown just anywhere. Susan had settled upon Minnesota as the being the best place in the United States for a steady source of high-altitude winds. Now she needed to know just where all the airports were in Minnesota, and other airspace restrictions. She was interested to note that my project had made me familiar with the FAA. There was another student by the name of Dave. I forget what his project was about, but it also attracted Susan’s attention as being relevant to her needs. It probably also didn’t hurt that Dave was from Minnesota.
Susan approached our instructor Chris about the possibility of recruiting my and Dave’s help with her project. Part of the GWTP included a paid internship at College Town University’s Geographical Information Center. The GIC was an off-shoot of the university, but it sold its services to clients in the real world. Our internship was carefully crafted to provide us with actual paid work experience while not violating our unemployment insurance benefits. We had to submit the hours worked each week to the California Employment Development Department, who then adjusted our benefits accordingly.
Generally, the internships ended when students graduated from the GWTP. Special dispensation was made for Dave and me so that we could work with Susan. Susan became a client of the GIC, and my and Dave’s internships were extended so that we could work for our client. We divided up the work. I gathered data and put it into a usable GIS format. Dave was responsible for creating the actual maps. This arrangement suited me just fine. I love finding and collecting data, but my cartographic skills have never been particularly strong. Dave was less keen on data, but he had a real talent for creating attractive looking maps.
In a short amount of time I had to become something of an expert on our nation’s airspace, which is rather complicated. I also had to find data on every airport in Minnesota, and I mean EVERY airport, no matter how small. I actually found one small airport which, when displayed in our GIS, didn’t match the description of its coordinates. In fact, this Minnesota airport was displaying as being in a completely different state when plugged into our GIS software. I discovered that its coordinates had been erroneously entered, much like Jennifer’s poles. I informed the good people responsible for such things back in Minnesota of the discrepancy, and they were very grateful.
I also found two more anomalous airports which at first I thought were mistakes. The first one appeared to be in the middle of a lake, but it turned out to be a sea plane base. The runway of another one appeared to cross the border with Canada, which didn’t seem right. Upon investigation, this tiny airport really does span both countries. You start your take-off or landing in one nation, and end it in the other one. I don’t know how this came about, but it’s the only one of its kind.
All in all, Susan was very pleased with our results. She wrote me a very nice letter of recommendation, which I still have. So now I had a brand-new certificate in GIS to update the one I had received from College Town University and a new-found confidence in my ability to parley my training into a lucrative career, which is something I had not gleaned from my earlier education. We were in a fortunate position at the time wherein we would have been able to relocate if needed, so I began to apply every place I could think of.
Some organizations often offered different positions for which I was felt I was qualified. It started to become difficult to remember just which ones I had already applied for, so in order to avoid repeating myself, I started keeping a very thorough log of the exact details of each position I applied to with the date and other relevant information. Chris had said that on average a person had to apply one hundred times before finally landing a job. By the time I reached about 80 applications in my log book, I figured I must be getting close. Out of those 80, I only got three interviews (all by phone because of distance), but they did not result in an offer of employment. I used to think that I was pretty good at getting jobs. After all, I’d had over 80 of them by that point. Of course, there had been more jobs that I tried to get, but hadn’t, and apparently I’m not so good at getting a very specific job. It seems rather ironic that the guy who’d had over 80 jobs couldn’t get one job out of over 80 applied for.
Under Obama’s various programs to stimulate the economy, I kept getting extensions on my unemployment insurance benefits, but that was about to end, and I was getting desperate to find a job. This desperation led me to make a very tragic mistake. One of the few jobs which I came close to landing was with Davey Tree, which has a GIS division which gathers data on former trees, A.K.A: utility poles. I was very careful that the job wouldn’t be like Osmosis, and by all appearances it only involved tramping about the quiet countryside with a GPS device. I ended speaking by phone with a (seemingly) nice man who was fairly high up in the management structure of Davey. He advised me that all their data collection positions were on the east coast, and the pay wasn’t high enough to justify me relocating. Despite our previously mentioned fortunate situation, I had to admit the wisdom of his advice. He said he was willing to help me, and he knew someone in my area who might be interested.
Job #84: Utility Pole Inspection and Treatment (again!)
That someone was a woman (whom we shall call Molly) who had been a manager at Davey, and had started her own pole inspection and treatment business. Davey also inspects and treats utility poles, and Molly sub-contracted with her former employers to provide this service for utility companies.
This woman, whom we shall call Molly, upon the suggestion of the (seemingly) nice man from Davey, had one of her foremen contact me. When he told me the nature of the job, I was very apprehensive after my traumatic experience with Osmosis. I asked a lot of questions to make sure this would be different. Molly’s company wasn’t big enough to have recruiters, so I felt confident that I wasn’t being lied to. I eventually agreed to sign on with this small company. I knew the work would be hard, but I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I just didn’t want to kill myself while constantly being told I wasn’t meeting some unrealistic production quota. I was also giving in to my old habit of trying to correct a mistake from the past. I thought if I could do well at Osmosis-type work in a non-Osmosis-type environment, I would redeem myself for the mistakes I had made at Osmosis.
Well, it turns out I had been lied to. Molly’s was just like Osmosis. If anything, Molly’s was worse because they were less well-funded than Osmosis. I reported for my first day of foreman training in Orland. I had been told that if I was working out of town, my accommodations would be paid for. This was in September, and it was still brutally hot in the Sacramento Valley. After that first 10-hour day, I showed up at the local motel where the rest of the crews were staying. When I gave my name at the front desk, I was told there was no reservation for me. I called the foreman (whose name I can’t recall, but he was such a carbon copy of Osmosis’s Rick that I shall call him Rick 2) to find out what was up. Rick 2 informed me that in actuality they only paid for a room if the work was more than an hour from my hometown, and Orland was “only” 45 minutes away. The other crew members were from further away than me, so they got a room. This was bullshit. Now I was faced with a 90 minute round-trip commute in addition to 10 hour days. I should have quit right then, but I had already made an investment in boots and other gear, and I needed work badly, so I grimly determined to stick it out in the hopes that things would be better when I became a foreman again and got my own truck and crew.
I had one near-death experience with Molly’s which topped anything Osmosis had thrown at me. I was drilling into a ridiculously small-diameter pole which supported the cable and fuse-box going to a massive pump on a farm. At Osmosis we had never drilled into poles that small, and also never on privately-owned poles like this one. I had accidentally drilled all the way through larger poles with Osmosis, and now I was a few years’ out of practice, and working on a much smaller pole than previously encountered. I went right through that sucker in no time flat. Oh, well, I figured – it happens sometimes. Then the foreman I was training with pointed at something on the back side of the pole. The 400 volt cable ran down the back of the pole, and my drill bit had come within less than an 8th of an inch of nicking the insulation of the cable. If I had nicked it, the rubber soles of my boots probably wouldn’t have been thick enough to prevent all 400 volts from going to ground right through me. At least I probably would have been dead before the gas in the drill’s tank could have exploded.
Also the intervening years as a vendor and a GIS intern had done nothing to prepare my body for jumping back into the rigors of pole inspection and treatment. Every joint and muscle in my body was screaming. And apparently I had not invested enough in those boots, for they soon started to wear away at the backs of my heels. I tried applying moleskin and an extra layer of socks, but it kept getting worse. One day I couldn’t walk anymore because the pain was so intense. I had go sit in the truck with my boots and socks off until the crew could take a break and drive me to my Blazer (which was parked at the motel I couldn’t use). When the other guys on the crew saw the hideous half-dollar sized holes on the backs of my heels, they knew I wasn’t just being a wimp. They couldn’t believe I had lasted as long as I did. I then drove home barefooted while trying to keep my raw wounds off the dirt on the floor of the Blazer.
So I had some time off. I had to apply for Worker’s Compensation and Disability. The thing with Worker’s Compensation is that it is paid for by your employer’s insurance company, so trying to get money out of them is no easy task. The investigators I spoke to on the phone were incredibly sympathetic when they saw the photos of my heels, but that didn’t stop them from ruling that Molly’s was not responsible for my injuries. I wasn’t surprised. Disability insurance, on the other hand, is a state- run program paid for by you, the employee. They are usually much more relaxed about paying you if you are injured and can’t work, even if it’s your fault. So at least I got some disability payments for the few weeks that it took my heels to…heal.
I put my time off to good use. I kept searching for GIS jobs to apply for. I approached Jesse, the head of the GIS department of O-Town city government, and volunteered my time just so I could keep up on my skills and to gain more work experience that I could put on a resume. Actually the GIS department at O-Town city hall was so small that Jesse was not only the head, he was pretty much the entire department. I met him when he came to the GWTP along with some other local GIS employers to tell us about employment opportunities in the area. He was a fairly recent graduate of the geography College Town University, and he had lucked into this real government GIS job because he had gone to school with the person who was leaving the position.
Anyone loves free help, so Jesse took me on. I feel like I did some good work for him during the short time I was there, and I increased my understanding of GIS in the process. Unfortunately, my feet had healed sufficiently to allow me to return to Molly’s. I desperately needed to extricate myself from that awful situation. I had even sent an email to the (seemingly) nice man at Davey, explaining my unfortunate injury at Molly’s, but reiterating my interest in data collection, despite the distance of the jobs from my home. I told him that as long as I was careful and had good boots, I felt I could handle a bunch of hiking. I followed up a couple of days later with a phone call. The (seemingly) nice man must have talked to Molly, because he suddenly wasn’t so nice anymore. In as many words, he said he wasn’t interested and hung up with a bang.
When it came time for me to make my reluctant return to Molly’s, I bought a different pair of boots – ones which seemed like they wouldn’t hurt my heels. When I tried them on, my wounds were still too recent, and the pain was too much. I had to call Molly’s and beg for more time off. I was hoping they would fire me, because I was no longer technically on disability, but employers are reluctant to fire an injured employee under any circumstances for fear of lawsuits.
I was once again in the awful situation of needing to get out of a job, but unable to quit with nothing to fall back on. When I could no longer claim that my feet were preventing me from working, I pretended to have car trouble. I ended up talking to Molly herself for the first time. She asked why I couldn’t take Greyhound to work, which was now located in Redding, more than an hour’s drive from O-Town, so at least my accommodations would be paid for. I tried to be as difficult as possible without actually being defiant in the hopes that she would decide I was too much trouble and fire me, but to no avail. Eventually I had to say I’d figure something out about my car (which was fine except for an unfortunately quart-a-day oil habit), and a couple of days later I drove myself to Redding the night as if driving to my own execution. I stayed in the motel, but I didn't sleep well because I had tremendous anxiety about what lay ahead of me.
Those first few days back were awful. The crew I had been working with in Orland were there, and they were genuinely concerned about the welfare of my feet. I was going to be working with a different crew, however for which I was glad. I was definitely not planning on being a good employee, and I didn’t want to subject them to that, because they had been decent to me. I had worked with the other foreman a couple of times in Orland, and he had been nice then, but by now I had gained a (well-earned) reputation as a difficult trainee. He was none too pleased to be stuck with me, so that made for a pleasant couple of days.
My new boots protected my feet just fine, but the rest of me was a wreck, emotionally and physically. October in the North Valley is usually still hot, and Redding is notorious for being one of the absolutely hottest places in California. And the soil there is nothing but hard-packed red clay and rocks. One day I had to make a full excavation around a large-circumference pole. The dirt was so hard it was like hacking through concrete. The foreman I was working with kept coming around to check on my progress and couldn’t believe how little of it there was. I didn’t care – I was trying to get fired, after all. In reality, I don’t think I could have done much better if I had cared to. That Redding soil is ridiculous.
An eight-hour day under such conditions would be bad enough, but 10 hours is like a never-ending trip through hell. After 9 hours I couldn’t take any more. I went to the poor foreman who was saddled with me and said I had to go back to the motel because I was sick. He didn’t want to take the time to drive me, so hecalled me a cab, which took a big chunk out of my expenses budget for the week, because we were working some distance from beautiful downtown Redding. I got back to the motel and took a shower. IRick 2 called me and said I was suspended for three days for leaving work early. I thought, “Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not fired, but it’s a start".
I began packing up my stuff for the drive back to O-Town. I took my time because it was past check-out time on the room. I was even wondering if I could sleep there and leave in the morning. That question was soon answered when Rick 2 called me back and said that I’d better not be thinking about trying to sleep at the motel because they weren’t going to pay for it if I was suspended. I didn't bother to remind him that the room was already paid for.
So I got another nice little reprieve from that awful job, albeit unpaid. Sadly, the three days came to an end and once again I was forced with having to go back to Redding - and on my 51st birthday, too – but I had hatched a new plan. I didn’t tell Mrs. Rimpington my plan, because she was convinced that nothing I could do would get me fired free and clear, and she wouldn’t have approved of this plan, but I was confident it would work.
I would have preferred to drive up the night before work and stayed in the motel so I could be fresh for work the next morning. Molly’s, however, was not going to pay for a room for me on the last night of my three-day suspension, so I had no choice but to get up extra early (much too early for our family tradition of birthday breakfast in bed) and drive for 90 minutes to report for my 10-hour day. If my plan didn’t work, I’d be in for one fuck of a miserable day.
I left an hour earlier than I needed to, which was actually all part of my plot. About 10 miles north of College Town, I pulled over and took a nap. I figured I could explain later that I had left so early because I wasn’t sure how long the drive would take, but when I realized I was ahead of schedule, I decided to take a nap. You know, out of concern for safety and being a productive employee.
I actually did sleep a bit, but instead of setting the alarm on my cell phone to allow me enough time to finish my drive in time for work, I set it so that I would be late. When I awoke, I made a “panicked” call to Rick 2 explaining that I had over-slept – I dunno, I guess my alarm didn’t work, or I hadn’t heard it. I told him I was on my way and gave him an estimated time of arrival. He told me to forget it, I was done. I wanted to make absolutely certain I understood him, so I asked him to clarify. He said I was fired –terminated -discharged. Such magical words to my ears! But I had to play along. I said, “Are you sure?” I didn’t want to protest or beg too much in case I accidentally stimulated some long-dead sympathy nerve in him and he changed his mind. He confirmed that they had given me all the chances they could and “sayonara”. I muttered, “Oh, okay” and hung up and then did a happy jig alongside the Golden State Highway.
I drove back to O-Town with a lighter heart. When I walked into the house, Mrs. R couldn’t believe it when I said I had actually gotten fired. I then explained my brilliant scheme, and she had to admit the sagacity of it. I then sat on the bed and asked Grandrimpy to bring me two slices of left-over pizza on a plate. Those in attendance sang “Happy Birthday” and I had my breakfast in bed, after all. It was one of the best birthdays ever.
So, okay, I committed fraud. I admit. But it wasn’t for long. Barely two months later I got hired at Job #85 (bus driver). I didn’t even put Molly’s down as a previous employer on my application. I knew I wouldn’t get a good reference, and my total time with them hadn’t been long enough to constitute a significant gap in employment.
I’ve been at my bus job for over five years now. However, I don’t plan on being with them until I retire. Plans are underway for a major relocation and a similar job for a different employer, but that won’t be for a couple more years. I will be very careful to never get myself into a situation where I need to get fired from a job, for any reason. I’m too now old for such shenanigans.
In the next (and hopefully final) chapter I’ll talk about my current job, and we’ll see if I’ve learned anything. I think I have. Ta!