Gator Jonson is the best worker we’ve ever had. Unlike the younger guys,
he doesn’t whine about physical labor. Sometimes he works inside
underground pipes. Sometimes he hangs from ladders or operates
backhoes. Other times, he’s on the side of the road, shoveling diesel fuel
Environmental cleanup is nasty work. Our office has a high turnover rate.
The field workers are on call 24-hours a day. They handle chemicals, mud,
sludge, oil, meth labs, shit, and sometimes blood. College students often
come to work for the summer. Many of them don’t last three weeks. Gator
is here for the long haul.
The boss refuses to promote Gator to supervisor. “That frigging hillbilly is
older than dirt,” he says. “I need boys who can hustle.”
But I love it when Gator works a job, because I’m the office grunt, the
schmuck who pretties up this place on paper and sends it all to the E.P.A.
Gator turns in his field notes on time. His paperwork is neat, and his
numbers are always correct.
Every day, Gator takes off his hat, peeks around the door, and I wave him
into my office. The pants of his uniforms are ironed with a crease. He is
soaked with sweat, but his shirt is buttoned to the collar. Those are
Gator has bright green eyes. He has a long, gray ponytail, but his pork chop
sideburns are solid white. When he hands in his paperwork, he always
tells me a joke. Even when Gator’s jokes are corny, I throw back my head
“Have a good day, ma’am,” he grins. Then he heads out the door. His left
arm hangs a little crooked. He is short and has a bow-legged limp from all
the pins and rods in his legs.
Gator was a poor boy from the Appalachian mountains. When Uncle Sam
called his number, Gator went to Vietnam. He became a Tunnel Rat. He
crawled through tight, dark holes with a pistol and a knife. Gator came
home from the war with a purple heart, crushed bones, and a lot of bad
In those days, Gator drank too much. Then he met a sweet, chubby woman
from Arkansas who set him straight. They had five children. Gator got a job
with a large cleanup company. He bought a brand new trailer for his family.
For the next thirty years, Gator crawled through pipes and sewers, cleaning
up underground leaks.
Gator is the only one at this branch who is licensed to drive the vacuum
truck. It is a large truck with a tank on back that holds thousands of gallons
of liquid and sludge. Companies call for the vac truck when there is an oil
spill in a waterway or if waste in a factory tank needs to be disposed.
Earlier today, the boss sent Gator to a factory to pump waste from a tank.
The tank wasn’t leaking, but the liquid must be disposed. As usual, I was
mad when I heard about about the job, because the boss didn’t bother to get
a Material Safety Data Sheet. I had no idea what we’re dealing with.
So I made a few phone calls and found out that the tank holds some type of
acid. I looked it up on the internet. There was a large skull and crossbones
next to the information: Hazardous material. Extremely toxic. Fumes will
cause severe burns to skin. Corrosive to stainless steel. Overexposure will
cause lung malfunction and death.
I printed off the safety information and ran into the boss’ office. “You’ve got
to stop Gator,” I said.
The boss looked up from his computer. “What?” The screen was turned
sideways, and I could see that he was playing online poker.
I shoved the paper under his nose. “Look at what it says! Corrosive to
stainless steel!” I was almost yelling. The boss didn’t look at the paper. He
gave me a long, quiet stare.
I sighed and tried to calm down. “You know…the liquid you’re sending
Gator to suck out of that tank? It could burn through the valves of the vac
truck. Aren’t the valves made out of stainless steel? Do you know? The
fumes are hazardous. It could kill Gator. It could kill somebody in the
When he still didn’t respond, I added “We could get sued.”
The boss looked at me without blinking. His face turned red. I could hear
the ticking of his clock above the door. “You don’t need to worry about
what goes on with my men in the field. It’s taken care of,” he said.
But I knew it wasn’t.
I went back to my office and spent the next two hours leaving messages for
Gator. I paged him. I called the factory. A bored, female voice told me the
plant supervisor had gone to lunch. “Look, can’t you page him?” I asked.
“This is an emergency, damnit! It’s a matter of life and death. People in
your plant could get hurt badly or even die.”
“I’ll be sure to pass along the message,” she said, and hung up. I called back
several more times and received a voicemail. The message inbox was full.
An hour later, my phone was ringing off the hook. A lot of impatient voices
wanted to talk to the boss. Then Gator walked through the door. He wasn’t
wearing a shirt. His pants were hanging in strips. Red marks across his
cheeks were turning into welts. His right eyelid was swollen. Blisters
bubbled up around one of his nipples. The skin on his shoulders was a swirl
of red, black and purple. Bits of blood dotted his chest and looked like a
thousand tiny stars.
The acid had leaked from the hose as soon as Gator started pumping. He
stopped the flow and capped the tank. That was all he could do. It ate
through his clothes before he could get to the emergency shower. The plant
had to be evacuated. His cell phone and pager stopped working. Two
people fainted from the fumes. He left just as the ambulance was arriving.
The boss leveled his gaze at Gator. “An ambulance? They sound like a
bunch of paper pushing pussies to me,” he said. Then he chuckled and
handed Gator a little envelope. “Here’s your paycheck. That ought to make
everything good. You’re not hurt, are you?”
Gator glanced down at the envelope in his hands. “Nah. I’m okay.”
Gator hobbled off to the shop out back. The boss went into his office and
shut the door. He talked for a long time in hushed tones.
The phone in my office rang several more times for the boss. Then the
phone rang for Gator and me. Another plant on the east side of the county
needed a vac truck immediately.
I knew Gator would go to the new job instead of the hospital. The boss has
given several lectures about how our accident numbers are too high. It
costs the company a lot of money. Still, I wanted to urge him to go get his
burns checked out.
I found Gator in the back of the shop, sitting on an old bench, rubbing
petroleum jelly on his chest. There was a fresh uniform hanging next to
him. It was neatly pressed and ready for work.