JAIMIE VERNON – HELL AND COME BACK ALIVE

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One of my favourite bands of all time, Klaatu, had a song entitled ‘Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III’ about an old sea Captain who recalls his adventures on the edge of the world and boasts that he’d been to hell and come back alive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Izt6-Bb1ZXY

I now know how he felt.

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I was recently fired from my full-time gig after destroying not one, but two, $50,000 automobiles. It was the second of such accidents that made me poster boy for bad driving and liability #1 for my employer. To defend myself, and make you understand that I’m actually a really GOOD driver you need to know that driving in Hell takes a special talent – one that requires the ability to move stealthily on black ice, mud, and through two feet of water while driving backwards with no mirrors. You also need to know what led to this most unfortunate of accidents, a head injury and my walking papers.

While life continued to spiral out of control on the back of my ongoing unemployment – and a barely released and unprofitable set of books I’d written – I took temp jobs to try and keep the roof over my family’s heads. I was running out of options. A dear old friend came to the rescue with an offer to work for and with her boyfriend. It required working on trains and moving automobiles. My first day was February 24th, 2013. A Sunday. 7AM. It was -21C with an arctic wind chill of Saturn’s moons. The guy training me was very patient – a student who was trying to keep cash flowing to pay for his schooling. Casey would be a steady rock in what would become a tragic employment sitcom.

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The first thing we did was open the rail car doors. I wasn’t dressed for the weather. I had a short jacket on…and no hat or gloves. It also took both of us to open a single, 21 ft., 300lb door. There are four of them on each rail car. There were 12 rail cars. It took all morning. Some of the doors wouldn’t open because of the cold. We needed four of us to finally budge them. By first break (at 9AM) we started to drive Chryslers onto the rail cars. Some pretty impressive Challengers, Chargers and 300s. My love for these vehicles would soon become a burden and a curse.

I was too slow and too fat to get out of the passenger seat where I was observing the procedures. I had to climb over the dash console each time we went onto the train just to exit from the driver’s side. It then required tying the car to the train with a series of clamps. I’d been outside 2 hours at this point. My fingers no longer worked. I stood back and let the pro’s take over. I was hindering their progress.

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By the end of that first day I quit in defeat. I had sat behind a desk for the better part of 30 years pushing a pencil and inputting data. I could not imagine climbing up and down the side of a train day-in, day-out in extreme cold weather in Canada for 8 or 9 months of the year. I was crawling toward 50 years old and had the knees of a 90 year-old. I was in pain by the time I headed home. And I’d done absolutely nothing resembling a hard day’s work.

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The boss called me that night and convinced me to stay on with the lure of a different type of work. He wanted me to process and inspect the cars as they came off the trucks from the Chrysler factory. The rail guys would take them from there. I returned Monday morning – 2.5 hours on transit from the farthest point in east end of Toronto to the farthest point in the west (Kipling and Dundas in Etobicoke).

This was an easy job made extremely difficult with inadequate, malfunctioning equipment. It required using a scanning device that CP Rail had commissioned in 1893 and was only slightly faster to transmit to the mothership than Apollo 13’s S.O.S. messages. More than occasionally I’d have to walk the entire facility to find a spot where the microwave tower could find my device and grab a signal (“Can you hear me now?). That was the easy part. When it didn’t work, we had to gather all the Vendor Sales sheets out of each car and drive to the head office back in Scarborough which was 55 kms away just to make sure they made it into CP Rail’s dilapidated vehicle tracking system.

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I also had to inspect every car coming off the trucks using a mirror to check for bumper and running board damage. Thing was, the mirror was one of those ones that you see in parking lots for peeking around the corner so as to not get hit by oncoming traffic. It was 2 feet wide. The people running this company had stolen it from an underground garage and mounted it on the handle of a garden hoe – with electrical tape. It weighed 13 lbs. The scanning device weighed 4 lbs. I had to carry both these items from car to car. The job was to okay the vehicle for shipping, scan it into inventory, and then assign it a parking spot for loading onto the train – based on its ultimate destination. After inspecting I put a colour coded sticker on the car to indicate it had been cleared for take off and then give it a row number indicating where it was going. We had 38 rows to choose from. I had to ensure the cars didn’t go to the wrong place and kept track of where I was putting the cars using a single sheet of paper the size of a golf course score card. Using a pencil. In the snow. In the rain. In the Wizard of Oz tornadoes plaguing the facility. No one thought for a single minute that a clipboard might be a good investment. Sometimes the only flat surface to write on was the windshield or the hood of a car. I’m sure I left imprints on both.

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The job was mindless, it was slow and it paid shit. Even the big boss said it out loud – “All you require is two legs and a driver’s license. Training is optional”. But you gotta do what you gotta do to survive. Things eventually got easier as the weather changed. We didn’t work much past 2 PM most days. Which made for some underwhelming paycheques. There was the occasional issue with some cars being sent to Japan that clearly had factory installed crap tires on them but for the most part there wasn’t much stress or panic. One time in the spring of 2013 we even got five vehicles that were destined to be used in the “Fast & Furious 7” movie that has since been delayed due to actor Paul Walker’s death. I got to sit in each car before being loaded onto the trains.

Sundays were the best as I was only one in the facility prepping cars for the Monday load-out in advance. With 25 rows across and 9 vehicles deep awaiting processing, I’d roll all the vehicle windows down in the first and last car in each row…and crank the radio up to full on Q107 for their Psychedelic Psunday retro broadcasts. The parking lot rocked. I was at peace with the sun shining and the tunes pumping.

But, I yearned to be transferred to the Scarborough office – which was only 12 minutes from my house as the crow flies. I’d get my chance, totally by accident, when CP Rail decided that shipping vehicles out of that Etobicoke facility was no longer profitable. The staff was informed the final week of May that the place would be shut down on May 31st. We were given 5 days notice. The 2nd to last day was a clusterfuck as my boss was on a First Aid training course and we were left in the hands of an office jockey from the Scarborough head office (he was the I.T. guy and barely spoke English).

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One of the rail cars, unbeknownst to anyone, was 6 inches shorter than the rest and when the rail crew attempted to load the cars, ripped the roofs off three police cruisers destined for Texas – wedging the cars deep into the belly of an ill-fitting rail car. No one got hurt, luckily though the driver in the first car had a sunroof rain down on him. But the vehicles and the rail cars were unshippable. As the facility desk jockey attempted to find us something else to do we experienced a torrential downpour. One that makes for some anxiety as no one wants to get in and out of cars over and over again in the rain. So they do everything in a hurry. And two guys T-boned each other. Now the desk jockey had two accident reports and five damaged vehicles to contend with. Our last day was on the Friday and I was transferred to the Scarborough facility the following Monday.

I would continue processing cars at the bigger yard (from 300 vehicles to 725) literally overnight. But I wouldn’t have to carry a mirror anymore or inspect the cars. They had a subcontractor to do that. My job was to inventory and clear 200 or 300 cars a day and park them – with the help of my old boss and the guy already managing that Chrysler lot on his own. It was pretty harmonious for the most part. Mind you, the guy that already worked in that yard had a tendency to take naps. In the Chryslers. By that Fall he’d been caught sleeping on the job several times. He was suspended by Christmas.

When he returned we were under new management. He was not amused and disappeared for nearly 8 weeks. When they caught up with him they gave him his job back after a referendum whereby the entire Scarborough facility staff voted on his fate. It didn’t last long. He ended up getting fired once and for all after one of the new managers gave him a hard time. He’d had enough. We would all eventually have enough.

The game was to process as many cars from Chrysler a day as humanly possible. By this time I was alone – the facility guy having been fired and my original Etobicoke boss re-assigned to more pressing matters in the yard (like driving stretch limos onto ill-fating rail cars). On an incredibly busy day so many trucks came in from Chrysler’s factory that they couldn’t get in or out of the parking lot. I attempted to move cars out of their way as fast as I could. It took about 2 minutes to re-park a car and there were 500 already in the yard. You do the math.

Accident

I drove a Dodge Charger into the side of another Dodge Charger attempting to back around it. Strike one for me. I wasn’t disciplined but I was reprimanded. The new bosses had a large meeting, apologized to me for allowing the work load to overwhelm the yard I was in and immediately put an end to the obscene over-dumping of cars by Chrysler. They implemented a daily cap on the number of vehicles we would accept. When the parking lot was full, dammit, it was FULL! No more beyond that. No one told the truck drivers this…the cars kept coming.

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Still, it was too little too late. The new managers had a game plan. It involved changing ever single aspect of every person’s  job. Overnight. Things that had worked to machine efficiently over the previous 25 years were now abandoned in an effort to do the same thing with less people. Bodies started disappearing. They began shaving the workforce down and extending the hours of everyone that was left. What took 32 guys to do everyday in a timely manner was reduced to 25 and we were left clocking 12 to 14 hour days. One ill-fated five day period resulted in a 14 hour, 15 hour, and 19.5 hour day for yours truly. I ended up having a block of ice from the top of a train knock me off my feet after getting blindsided in the dark. I also fell asleep in a car waiting for my turn to park it. They didn’t stop to think for a minute what would happen to the existing work load if anyone called in sick or booked off for vacation. We were tested constantly on this premise as people succumbed to the ravages of exhaustion and the weather (this was the Year of the Ice Storm, remember?). In the months that followed we ended up with seven guys injured – they fired two of them for safety violations – the others returned to “light duty” which effectively meant they were expected to still do everything they’d always done but they could go home earlier – leaving the rest of us to do double duty to cover their absence.

Things would get worse before they got better. Management was trimming the budget so they could renovate and repaint the 1970s condemned and rotting double wide work TRAILER we occupied for our kitchen and lockers while they refused to repair the yard vehicles we relied on to get around the 55 acre facility – or buy battery packs or flat tire air compressors for the myriad of vehicles that had been sitting idle in the yard through the winter and now couldn’t be moved.

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Everyone was trained to do everyone else’s jobs for the same pay rate. I’d lost 35lbs in the year I’d been there – walking more than 12,000 steps per day parking cars. But I refused to go on the trains again. They pushed me to open and close train doors. I called them on it. My job description still said “Auto Inspector” so why on God’s green earth would I be doing train work? Another division jumped in and saved me by having a component of damage prevention added to my job description where I could work in the office and file damage reports on behalf of CP Rail. I got a raise and never went near the trains again. It was a small consequence in the grand scheme of things.

But summertime came around again and it’s traditionally when all the major car manufacturers shut down to retool for the upcoming sales year. And so it was three weeks ago when Chrysler stopped shipping to us and the railway began to slow down with less work for the rail crew. But the yard never goes quiet. There are always vehicles that need to be sent to be shipped out by truck and so I was sent down to help the shipping division stage cars for trucks to haul around to the car dealerships throughout Ontario.

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You’re given a document that identifies the car they need, you go find it somewhere in the five other parking lots in the facility (the capacity of the yards was 6,000 vehicles…which we usually filled to capacity) and you bring it down to the truck driver for loading. It was during one of these search and rescue missions that I found myself carelessly drifting in thought. I got into the Honda Odyssey van, fired it up and headed up the myriad rows of a thousand cars with the sole purpose of putting it in a designated area for the trucker to find it. I looked left at the top of the row. When I went to look right it was too late. Another employee doing the same thing with a GMC Sierra was inches from my face. We met head-on in the middle of the yard. I had no time to react. Despite going less than 5Kmh (the yard limit is 25 so I was not speeding), the airbag went off. But because we don’t put seat belts on, or adjust the seating due to the short time we’re actually in each vehicle, I got hit in the chest by the airbag which didn’t slow my momentum. I hit the top of the windshield with my head.

Jennifer Aniston's limo in a fender benderThe horn in my van engaged and wouldn’t shut off. Three guys came to my aid and it took 10 minutes to disengage the horn. When the yard supervisor arrived we argued about whether I was going to the hospital or not. I told him that a hospital visit would become a major battle with WSIB and our HR department because the guy running the department was a notorious douchenozzle. I would survive and filled out the forms required just in case. They sent me home until further notice. I slept it off and called in the next morning. Understandably, they told me to stay home because they hadn’t decided what to do with me yet. Later that night I got a call to come see the supervisor the next day – mid morning. Which seemed very unusual given that the work day started at 7 AM.

Thirteen people had wracked up accidents from January to July this year. I was number 3 and number 14. It didn’t look good despite management’s promise that no one would ever get fired if they had a fender bender. But this was four vehicles in 6 months. I was a huge liability despite my impeccable work record in all other areas. As expected when I arrived, I was handed my walking papers. Part of me was mad that I’d lost my meal ticket. The rest of me, including the part with the bruise on top, was relieved. It had been a physically exhausting and mentally abusive 18 months. I was being judged on the four cars I’d damaged. Not the 13,500 I’d successfully processed and parked. No one should work at a place that only evaluates your worth based on your mistakes.

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I could write an entire book on the stupid I witnessed during this experience – people clearing ice off cars with metal bars, vehicles catching fire, drag racing, gasoline spills, yard vehicles careening into trains, you name it. There were also a few sweet moments too as I got to drive some of the great classic automobiles being shipped privately. But that was few and far between. Right now, I’ve been released from Hell and I’m looking forward to starting life again contributing to a work place that cares whether I live or die. Bring it on. I’m accepting requests to come work for you right now! Operators are standing by!!!

PS – one of the new managers was fired earlier this week. So there is some karma in the world.

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL OLDIE

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL FIND

THIS WEEK’S VIRAL FIND Part 2

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 17 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com orhttp://www.bullseyecanada.com

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