Oh my God! The man appeared to be a white ghost, but I knew for certain his spirit was still within his body. Although only moments had passed, it seemed like an eternity. Of all the possible outcomes, this one was far from the worst. I might lose my job, but at least the man isn’t dead.
I never had much money growing up, but I had a strong aptitude for all things mechanical and used this advantage in my undergraduate studies of mechanical engineering to help pay for school with scholarships. But still, there were additional expenses and that meant summer and weekend jobs. I spent the summer after high school in my hometown of Moorestown, NJ learning the ins-and-outs of house electrical wiring and stocking boxes at the big-box Hechinger’s hardware store.
And since it was summer, I found myself in constant motion shuffling air conditioning units and ceiling fans throughout the electrical department. It seemed that we never sold very many of these cooling devices, but Bob Moore, the electrical manager, always had more of them on order and they always needed to be somewhere other than their current location. I suppose that’s why he hired a tall, young guy like me. Each day, Bob would give me a handwritten list of the stock that needed to be moved and I would spend hours climbing a 30 foot ladder to the top of the blue steel shelving units with boxes of dusty ceiling fans in my arms. One by one, I would stock the shelves, and then the next day I would reverse the process by pulling different models down to put on the floor. And this is precisely how my days were spent at Hechinger’s the summer before I went off to college.
That first year at Rutgers was one of constant learning and constant work. Work in the classroom, the lab, and of course, at Hechinger’s. I began to take on additional responsibilities at the hardware store that included providing sound electrical advice to homeowners. My confidence from the classroom transferred to the store floor and adults twice my age were actually listening to what I was telling them to do. I was truly growing up.
And with that growth came additional responsibility. One day, Bob Moore let me know that I didn’t have to use the staircase ladder anymore. After a few hours of training, I was able to drive a massive forklift to move entire pallets of ceiling fans and air conditioners to and from the highest reaches of the stores. I jumped at the opportunity and excelled at learning the subtle transfer of movements from my hands to the steel tines 30 feet above. Almost instantly, I went from slugging a single box to moving dozens of boxes. I was young, cocky, and felt like I could do anything.
My head was in the clouds and it needed to be brought back to earth. And so it was on one particular summer day that I had one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Per my usual routine, ceiling fans needed to be stacked at the top of a 30 foot shelf. Fortunately, they were already palletized and there was a perfect opening for them high above. I slowly, carefully maneuvered the forklift over to the pallet, aligned the tines with the openings in the wooden pallet, and effortlessly raised a dozen fans into the air. I swung the suicide ball on the steering handle and the entire vehicle spun in place like a figure skater. I eased on the accelerator pedal and the pallet crept over the top of 30 foot shelving. The pallet was out of sight, but I knew there was room for it, so I continued creeping forward. Just a little more, I thought. I don’t want the pallet hanging off the edge of the shelf.
My heart stopped and with the absolute certainty of a child who just knocked their glass of milk onto the floor, I knew I had done something wrong. The crashing boom came from the next aisle over and was immediately followed by yelling, screaming, and crazed commotion. I switched the forklift off and bound to the other side of the shelving. That’s when I saw the man. He was covered in white paint from head to toe and there was a 6 inch-deep magmic flow of paint easing its way down the aisle in either direction from a jumbled heap of paint cans. He jumped around infuriated, but at least he was alive. Somehow, by a matter of a few feet, he had escaped half a ton of paint that crashed to earth from 30 feet above. His life was spared and mine was humbled. The good people at Hechinger’s didn’t fire me, but I was no longer permitted to drive the forklift and have never forgotten how that young version of me narrowly escaped committing the very worst of mistakes.
This personal essay was written in response to a homework assignment #2, “Work’s Nuts!” for the Life Writing class in which we were asked to write about a job we held at one point in our life that was, well—nuts!