Road sign that says oops

Several months ago I flew the Cirrus to Montgomery Executive Airport at Virginia Tech to visit my wife on a Saturday night. She spent the weekend training the college’s group fitness instructors in the Les Mills’ BodyPump program. After my arrival, I waited inside the FBO while a lineman fueled my plane. Two photos in the lobby drew my attention. The first showed a super-expensive twin-engine that had once been parked on the ramp outside the FBO. Two jacks supported the plane where the nose gear should have been. The second photo, shot from an alternate angle, showed the missing nose gear wedged into the crumpled hood of a white Mustang. (Click here to see the photos.)

When the lineman entered, I inquired about the photos. He shook his head. “That Mustang belonged to one of our linemen, a young guy. It was brand new, had less than 50 miles on it. The kid was showing off, turning donuts on the tarmac when he lost control and shot underneath the plane.”

I looked back to the photos. “I don’t suppose the kid works here anymore,” I said.

“You think?”

My first thought was, I’d hate to be that guy. But an old memory flashed and I realized I had been that guy almost 27 years ago. While on a job, I’d been party to a boneheaded mistake. There were subtle differences: I’d had accomplices who shared the blame, and instead of showing off, we’d simply been ignorant. Still, I knew how the guy felt. I also wondered if he’d learned a valuable lesson like me.

It happened near the end of my freshman year in high school. My best friend, Randy, wanted me to join him in working odd jobs for a local businessman at the mobile home park he owned. Several other friends were starting there as well so I agreed. On a cool Saturday morning before dawn, Mr. Bowden, our new bossman, picked us up in front of our respective houses. None of us had ever worked for the man before so we had no idea what to expect. We soon learned he had big plans to double the area of the mobile home park that already held over 30 units. Arriving at the site, the boss parked near the existing units, then guided us over a small rise to a cleared area thick with downed trees. An older worker wielding a monster chainsaw cut through a large tree as we watched, then he moved onto the next one. Our jobs were to heave the sectioned tree trunks and limbs into a trailer behind the boss’s tractor, then drag the smaller stuff to a fire in the center that would gobble up the tangled branches we offered. After a safety briefing, we started. The day heated up fast and soon we were drenched with sweat. Every time we filled the trailer, the boss would switch it to his truck and take a couple of us to unload it at his house.

After five hours of intense effort, we were halfway through the day. Our stomachs rumbled for lunch and our bodies ached for a break. The boss sent an older teen on a sandwich run in his own car. Then the boss left for the hardware store with Mr. Chainsaw to get a replacement part. We let the fire die down as we continued to load the trailer. When the sandwich runner hadn’t returned for a while, we took a breather and trudged to the top of the hill to watch for him. He finally pulled in and we staggered down the hill’s opposite side to eat on the grassy lawn near the existing mobile homes. While eating the best sandwiches I’d ever had—hard labor makes everything taste superb—my fellow workers and I talked about whatever teenage boys talk about. The teen who’d made the sandwich run sat facing the hill we’d descended. The rest of us had our backs to it. Peering above us, the teen asked, “What was the fire doing when you left it?”

“It was blazing!” replied another teen. He was a good guy, but had a wacky sense of humor.

“No it wasn’t,” I said. “The fire was dying down.”

“Then why do I see so much smoke coming over the hill?”

I whipped my head around as the blood drained from my body. A mushroom cloud of smoke billowed into the sky. We took off, charging up the hill until we crested the rise, then stopped in our tracks. The fire, no longer satisfied within its confined space, had spread in a wide crescent with a little help from the wind as it burned everything in its path and headed toward the line of existing mobile homes. I yelled at one of my friends to call the fire department and as he took off, my friend Randy and I ran to the back of one of the trailers and grab the water hose. I pulled it out as far as it would go and pointed the nozzle toward the fire. “Turn it on!” I shouted.

“It is on,” Randy shouted back. Right then water sputtered out the nozzle in a rivulet no bigger than the diameter of a pencil. I could have used my God-given equipment to produce a better stream. I threw down the hose, grabbed a yard rake from behind the trailer, and started beating at the line of flames. A round, heavy-duty water cooler sat twenty feet away on a stump, its handle tilted toward the sky. As flames neared the cooler, Randy dashed up to it, grabbed the handle, and ran from the advancing fire. He made it several steps before he stopped and held the water cooler’s handle in front of his face. The rest of the cooler still sat on the stump. I watched as he ran back. The flames had begun to lick the edge of the stump as heat pressed against us in waves.

Sirens approached in the distance as Randy tried to kick the cooler off the stump to save it. When he did, his boot split the hardened cylinder like a rotten melon. The heat had turned the plastic into putty, and his foot went right through it. At least water shot out and doused a few flames. As we stood looking at each other in disbelief, he said, “Wasn’t there a gas jug near here before we left?” Our eyes flew wide, then we scrambled to put distance between us and the line of flames. At that moment, firetrucks pulled in, a red calvary that took over as the rest of our friends gathered around Randy and me. We couldn’t pull our eyes from the scorched earth.

“I’m a dead man,” said the jokester who’d make the crack about the blazing fire.

“Why?” I asked.

“I took my dad’s brand new Izod coat this morning. The last thing he said to me was, ‘Don’t let anything happen to it.’ It was hanging from a nub on that tree trunk over there.”

We followed his pointing finger to a tree well-beyond the stump where the water cooler had been. A ten foot stretch of black soot covered the trunk with no sign of the yellow ribbon that had once graced the tree to mark it as a keeper. Neither was there any sign of the Izod coat on the blackened nub that remained on the trunk. Past the scorched tree lay the decapitated heads of numerous shovels, rakes, and axes, their wooden handles incinerated. The gooey mess that had been the water cooler molded itself to the ground in two places.

“I guess this means we don’t get paid,” I said. “And our first day of work is also our last.” Everyone turned toward me and nodded. Only then did I noticed Randy’s brown bangs and eyebrows had been singed into a tangled mess. I put my fingertips to my own eyebrows, wondering if they looked the same as his. They felt okay. Everyone’s eyes drifted back to the smoldering earth, and we stared in silence as the firemen knocked out the last of the flames. After several minutes, a voice spoke.

“Looks like we had a fire.”

We turned to discover Mr. Bowden standing behind us. He studied us, perhaps looking for injuries. There were none other than singed hair and wounded pride. He then moved past us to assess the damage. It was only dumb luck the tractor and trailer had been upwind of the fire. Otherwise, we’d have been paying for a John Deere as well.

“You boys gather any salvageable tools and load them in the trailer,” he said. “Then meet me up by my truck.”

We plodded over the grounds, a sorry band of cretins rumaging for the few tools they hadn’t burned. We discovered the nozzle of the gas jug that had melted before we’d arrived on the scene earlier, and the jokester found only the metal zipper of his dad’s coat, remnants he dropped into a plastic pepsi bottle to transport back as proof of what happened.

Afterward, we shuffled up to the truck like condemned prisoners marching to their execution. Our eyes grew wide as the bossman handed each of us checks for the full amount. “Can you all work again next Saturday?” he asked.

“You don’t have to pay us, Mr. Bowden,” I said. “Keep the money and put it toward the burnt tools. Are you sure you want us to come back?”

“Nonsense,” he said. “You earned this money. And I know I never have to worry about you guys letting a fire get away from you again. That’s worth more money than I have.”

Mr. Bowden was spot on. Since that day, I’ve never left an open fire unattended, a valuable lesson I had to learn the hard way. In both events—the damaged plane and the fire—no one was hurt. Maybe those incidents were necessary events in the lives of several young and foolish boys that prevented future occurrences, ones where everyone involved, including innocent bystanders, wouldn’t have been so lucky. I don’t know. All I know is I will never make a mistake like that again.


on 2010-05-12 18:35 by Christopher Laney

Somehow I neglected to mention a very important item: Randy and I worked for Mr. Bowden for the next three years before we both left for college.

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