Shop pitfalls

Updated Feb 18, 2013
The author, during his career as a petroleum injection specialist.The author, during his career as a petroleum injection specialist.

A email crossed my screen the other day. It seems someone did a study and concluded that shop rags pose health risk hazard.

Gee. Ya think?

Yes. Shop rags are nasty. But they’re not the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in shop — although it was more of an event, instead of a thing.

When I was in high school and college, I worked for Sam McGee and his wife Johnnie, at their Snappy Gulf service station on the main drag running through Northport, Ala.

Saturday was when you made your real money: We opened at 7:00 am and closed at 5:00. You worked all day – which sucked. But that long day really padded your paycheck each week. I was making minimum wage: $3.25 an hour if I remember correctly.

But Saturday’s were hard to figure: Some Saturdays you’d be slammed all day long. Others, it would be as slow as molasses in January there was so little going on.

Sam, a seemingly gruff (he wasn’t, really) old World War II paratrooper, generally slept in a bit on Saturdays. So it was left to me and two other guys to get things going in the morning: Mike was a little older than me and an intense, A-type who’d recently gotten out of the Marines. Ken was a bit younger than me; a good-natured kid who was a bit of a klutz. Ken idolized Sam and was constantly trying to impress him. He was a bit too eager to please, sometimes, and as a result of all this, poor Ken tended to be amazingly accident-prone.

One crisp spring morning, Mike, Ken and I opened the station up at sunrise, finished our Hardee’s biscuits, drained the last of our Cokes, and got ready to start the day. The immediate problem we faced was that there was nothing going on. Nothing at all. I don’t think we’d had so much as a single car pull into the full-service island.

And we needed to find something to do before Sam showed up. Because if we weren’t busy when he did, you could bet everything in your bank account that he would find something for us to do – and whatever he dreamed up to keep us busy would be far, far worse than whatever we came up with.

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Sam was Old School: He just wasn’t going to pay you to stand around and drink Cokes all day. (There were many slow Saturdays where I was sent to his house to cut the grass.)

Faced with all this, Mike and I decided that we’d clean out the drain pit in the service bay.

The drain pit was a large, rectangular pit beneath one of the hydraulic auto lifts into which all the accumulated crap, fluid, oil and crud the shop created flowed. Mostly it was used motor oil and engine coolant, industrial strength floor cleaner and wastewater. But, this being the south, an awful lot of Skoal and Copenhagen got spit into it as well. And, from time to time, we were known to take a leak in it when we got stuck minding the station alone and couldn’t slip away to the restrooms. So it was pretty nasty stuff.

Most of the time, the pit wasn’t a problem. But every so often, it would get clogged up with Oil Dry – the high-dollar kitty litter we used to soak up oil and other fluids that spilled on the shop floor.

This Saturday morning, the drain was clogged. And that was perfect: Because cleaning it out had to be done, it didn’t take a whole lot of physical labor on our part and – most importantly – it would look good when Sam pulled up.

Mike and I got ready to go to work. Ken, as usual, was handed a bottle of Pine Sol and a shop rag and told to clean out the restrooms – something else Sam took very seriously.

Mike and I went into the bay, pulled the heavy iron grates off the pit and squatted down in our dark blue pants and light blue shirts with the big, orange Gulf logo over the right pocket to get our plan together.

We already knew what we were going to do: Get a broom stick, jab at the clogged outlet pipe until the pit started draining and then scoop out as much of the black, clotted Oil Dry as we could into an old, 50-gallon oil drum. But talking about it was a good way to kill off another 10 or 15 minutes without really doing anything.

At this point, curiosity got the better of Ken. He fluttered into the garage heading for the pit and asking questions about what was down there and what we were going to do to get the pit to drain.

Mike leveled an ominous finger at the boy. “Ken,” he said, “Get out of here. I don’t want you falling into this pit! I don’t feel like having to explain that to Mrs. McGee!”

“I’m not going to fall into the pit!” Ken grumbled. “You guys always treat me like I’m a kid!”

“Seriously,” Ken,” I said. “Just stay out of here until we get done. That’s best all the way around.”

At that point, Ken’s fate was sealed. I mean, we all know he’s going to fall into that pit, right? Looking back on it all these years later, Mike and I might just as well have picked him up by his arms and legs right then and there and thrown his ass in and been done with it.

But we didn’t. Ken went back to cleaning the bathrooms. Meanwhile, a couple of cars pulled into full service; Mike and I took care of them and went back to the drain pit a few minutes later.

I drug the big, black, high-pressure water hose around from the side of the bay and got ready to blast a stream of water at the drainage pipe while Mike poked at the clog with a long stick.

At this moment, Ken appeared again. “Hey guys,” he said. “This Pine Sol bottle is broken! This stuff is leaking everywhere!”

It was true: The Pine Sol bottle was, in fact, broken, and the fragrant, brown, pine-scented cleaning solution was dribbling down all over the slick shop floor and Ken’s boots. Ken was even holding the bottle up so that we could see for ourselves how badly it was leaking.

But the fact that Ken had brought the Pine Sol into the shop instead of pouring it down the toilet and throwing the empty bottle away awakened the slumbering Marines Corps drill sergeant inside Mike with sudden and startling fury.


Ken jumped. So did I. Mike was livid. Faced with his rage, Ken started to pivot toward out of the bay in hurry. But, as he did so, he slipped in the puddle of Pine Sol pooled at his feet.

I can close my eyes to this day and see what happened next in exquisite slow-motion: Ken’s right leg shot straight out just like he was kicking a football. Off-balance and panicked, he flung his arms outward and began wildly flailing away to try and stay upright. The Pine Sol bottle went flipping away with syrupy jets of cleaner spiraling through the air like a pine-scented Milky Way galaxy. Now, his other leg shot out from under him – but not before poor Ken had spun one last time in a desperate bid to stay on his feet. But it was no use: He keeled over backwards and went down into the drain pit in a perfect Nestea plunge. Mike and I dove for cover as a huge plume of thick, black, oily water shot up around him and cascaded down onto the floor of the bay with a massive, sickly SPLAT.

But Ken wasn’t done. The drain pit was only knee deep or so. But he didn’t know that. I guess he thought he was going to go under or get sucked into the drainage pipe. Or maybe it was the fact that he was completely covered from head to toe by a disgusting mixture of some of the vilest substances known to man. But either way, he freaked: He started screaming and yelling and thrashing around: “AHHH!! GET ME OUT OF HERE! GET ME OUT OF HERE! GET ME OUT OF HERE!” All of which sent even more oily water flying up out of the pit and spattering down onto the shop floor.

All of this was almost too much for Mike to comprehend: He’d told Ken to stay out of the shop. Hell, he’d specifically told Ken NOT to fall in the drain pit! And now, instead of a simple little Saturday morning job, we had a HUGE mess in the bay to clean up. Poor Mike turned bright red. I thought his head was going to explode. He was speechless and quivering with pure, incandescent rage.

And I was no help. Because at this point, I literally collapsed in laughter onto the shop floor, incapable of doing anything more than rolling around on my back, holding my sides and gasping for breath.

And Ken only made things worse. Because about the time I could finally catch my breath, he popped up peering at us from down in the pit, completely covered in black goo with only the whites of his eyes showing. “You’re not going to tell Mrs. McGee about this are you?” he wailed. “She already thinks I’m an idiot!”

At that point, even Mike lost it: Both of us were down on the floor rolling with laughter. Thank God a customer – or Sam – didn’t pull into the station right then. I don’t know how we could have possibly explained what was going on.

By the time Sam actually did show up a few minutes later, Mike was in the bay, grumbling under his breath trying to sweep waves of oily goo back into the still-clogged drainage pit.

I’d hauled Ken out of the pit and taken him around to the side of the station where I was gleefully spraying him down with the hose – which included aiming occasional, high-pressure jets of water at his crotch to make him dance around in the chill morning air.

Sam was a good Southern Man. He hardly ever used curse words. But this morning, he jumped out of his little red truck rubbing his eyes in stunned disbelief at the carnage that confronted him. “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON AROUND HERE!” he demanded. Which made me collapse onto the ground in laughter all over again while Sam stood over me sputtering with rage and Ken jabbered away like a crazy person trying to explain everything.

Sam, of course, thought at first that we’d thrown Ken in the pit. But once he had the story straight, he was laughing as hard as I was. And for the next week or so, Mrs. McGee would call me into the office to tell her the story a couple times a day or so.

In the meantime, Sam sent Ken home to get a shower and change clothes. And then all four of us spent the rest of that Saturday cleaning that mess up.