Friday, September 14, 2007

My Cary Grant moment

I've been thinking about how far I've come job-wise. Apparently my hatred for my current freelance got me pondering this. So, what was my first job?

Working at a crop-dusting company as a flagger. What's a flagger? you may be asking yourself.

A flagger is a low-paid dipsh!t who gets sent out to the fields that need to be sprayed with pesticides wearing coveralls, respirator(that would hardly ever get used), hat, and plenty of sunblock. The flagger is given a crude measuring device called a "widget" that was 3-feet across at the base. The flagger turns the widget a certain number of times from the edge of the field to be sprayed and then waves the flag they have in their other paw for the cropduster plane to aim for. The plane aims for the flagger (one flagger at each end of the field, forming a straight line for the pilot to follow), sprays the field, then turns around to come for another pass. The flagger moves their little widget, waves their flag, and moves on as soon as the plane goes by. This whole process ensures that the field getting sprayed got something resembling even coverage.

There are many reasons why this job is an incredible anomaly in my life. It was outdoors, and the peak season was summertime. SO prime for a vampiric pale pasty person such as myself! I would have to get up at around 3 in the morning so that I could ride my bicycle for six miles in the dark to the cropdusting headquarters and get my assignment for the day. I had to work with men who tended to be rather crude. I rarely got access to indoor plumbing when it came to having to use the bathroom.

I was 18 when I got the job. Actually, my mom got me the job. Anyway, I was paired with an old guy named Harold for most of my tenure the first summer I was working there. Harold looked like a more bulbous version of Michael Moore. He lived in a small trailer on the premises of the cropdusting company. He was also a dirty old man. He talked constantly. About the weather. About politics. Work gossip. Backstories about the company owner. Anything about the local flora and fauna that came across his line of sight.

The "dirty old man" aspect really revealed itself on very hot days. Harold would talk about Stupid Pilot Tricks(a favorite trick of the pilots would be to take the planes down on the Sacramento River and buzz low enough to get the landing wheels wet. A highly illegal move, apparently) and other flaggers. He'd then casually mention how previous girl flaggers would do their jobs topless on really hot days. WTF?!?!?!?!? I would just roll my eyes at this. He'd try to convince me that this was standard practice with girl flaggers at other cropdusting companies, too. I'd just stare back at him. I was never afraid of him, ironically enough, because a)I was quicker than he was and could definitely outrun him if I had to, and b) I looked like his daughter, and as a result I think he actually kept a reasonable physical distance from me most of the time out of some form of respect. Working with him was actually a good base for learning to deal with rollergirls, who never cease to amaze me when it comes to being crude!

I learned something important working at this place: pilots are crazy. They may not look crazy when you meet them. In fact, the pilots I worked with tended to be very mild-mannered. Get them in a plane and all of the sudden you have the Red Baron coming down on you...literally!

There was Joe, who flew in Vietnam and was incredibly cranky most of the time. He didn't give a damn about how much pesticides the flaggers got sprayed with, and the few times I was on his crew I used the flag as a cover as much as it was used as a marker. I think he was the only one who crashed his plane while I worked there. He came out OK, but the plane was toast.

Rich was a little better, but he'd get impatient with the flaggers sometimes.

Wayne was practically blind, but he still flew. He'd usually get put on actual crop-dusting detail as opposed to spraying pesticides. Literal crop-dusting in our area was dusting tomato field with sulphur. Flaggers weren't needed for this, as the sulphur dust held in the air long enough for the pilot to see where he's been, and can dust evenly accordingly.

Harry was a former sheriff and was the most quiet of the bunch. He was also the most daring pilot. I heard more stories about him than anyone. I didn't see too much in the way of aerial acrobatics from him while working, though.

TAD was the youngest(he was around 40 at the time), smoked a lot of pot, and was the best to work with when it came to getting crap sprayed on me. The most amount of workplace gossip was about him, as apparently he was quite the Lothario. All I know is that he almost killed me with the plane one time(Wayne was responsible for almost killing me another time), and gave me a ride in the plane another time. Both were fun!

So here's the Cary Grant part...the times I almost got killed while flagging. One time the field foreman thought it'd be a great idea to stick a flagger(me) on top of a levee that was under some huge powerlines that the plane(piloted by TAD) had to fly under to spray a field. So, TAD had to fly the plane over a levee and under huge powerlines while avoiding me waving a damn flag. No biggie, right? Right??

WRONG. Things started out OK, and I thought I was moving my little widget fast enough to get out of the plane's way as it headed right for me. Technically I was, but I felt the wind of the tip of the wings push me even further out of the way. TAD made one pass, turned the plane around, landed, and screamed at the foreman to get me the hell outta there because he almost hit me. Oopsie. I thought the whole thing was kinda fun, but I'm an idiot that way.

The other Cary Grant moment came when I was placed between two very small fields to be sprayed. I got set up, Wayne was flying, and I waved my flag accordingly. He came right at me, and I started to move out of the way. I wasn't fast enough. He didn't raise the damn plane up at all when he came at me, and so I literally had to hit the ground when he went over my head. The fields were tiny enough so that Wayne got himself turned around and came back for pass numero two-o before I could get up and run, so I got sprayed again while on the ground, laughing my ass off. The rest of the crew had a great time telling the rest of the company how I almost got splattered across a field in Dixon!

I worked on and off at the cropdusters for a couple of years. I perfected my ability to drive a standard-transmission vehicle on that job. I saw a lot more of the local topography than I ever would have otherwise. I worked with people I NEVER would've dealt with otherwise.

I still love seeing cropdusters out and about. There's something poetic about watching them swoop around.

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