Monday, February 28, 2011

I Swear......

Just a few weeks ago while - for whatever reason - we were discussing my blog. He asked me, in a somewhat resigned yet curious tone if he were to read it, would he find himself a frequent target? Heh. Seemed ol' Mike knew about blogs that bitch about work and coworkers. He was somewhat rueful because of his noted ability to fly off the handle.

Well, y'all know I don't speak ill of my job, and told him so. I did, however, remind him that there was plenty of blog fodder available, should I choose to plumb that subject. We both chuckled about that. He did take some time a few weekends ago and check the joint out - and he found it interesting. But, blogging or even regularly reading blogs wasn't something he was interested in doing frequently.

Which was no surprise. Mike was a hard worker who didn't spend much time pondering the state of things. He was quick to make decisions. He was quick to lose his temper, but he was also equally as quick to blast out a laugh at something he found funny - like a stupid joke about sharks. The past several years found him backing out of the seven day weeks to spend more time with his family and relax a bit more - relax meaning doing odd jobs at home all weekend or similar. He just couldn't sit still.

And as far as that famous temper went - he actually only barked at me a couple of times in seven years. The first time was on a job site, and frankly I didn't pay him much heed. What made it memorable was that Mike apologized to me that night at supper on our way home. He had a golden opportunity to jump me on my very first day - he told me to have my truck hooked up and ready to go at sunrise. I strongly suspect I suffered from a case of selective hearing because I swore he said to show up at daylight. I had been unemployed for some time. Me - a morning person? Not hardly. But, he kept his thoughts to himself. Mostly, his battles were with those who argued with him - usually a couple of Type A's knocking heads. Mikey would get pretty frustrated with employees who just wouldn't listen. And, most of his opponents were just being stubborn over using common sense.

After that inauspicious beginning, we discovered the interests we shared. Once he found he could discuss guns and that I knew what he was talking about - well, we had a lot of conversations. While I am more of a collector, he was more of a hunter and competitive shooter. Our politics were closely aligned, and we had a lot of fun recalling our various trucking stories from the past. He also went to grade school and junior high at my hometown - but he was four years ahead of me. Of course, we knew a ton of people, and Mikey enjoyed hearing updates from me about events in the little burg that bears my mailing address.

Mike worked for the company for thirty years. He was the number one truck driver, plus the mechanic on weekends - for most of the tractor and trailer repairs that were needed. There weren't as many trucks or trailers as we have now, but he still had a plate full of work. He installed all our cranes on our trucks, and used to buy "glider kits" for new trucks. A kit truck is one that has a factory new cab and frame rails, plus generally the radiator and under hood accessories set up for a particular motor - but no motor, transmission, or rear axles. One can save a lot of bucks by finding a totaled low mileage truck and moving all the goodies (undamaged - not just every crashed truck can be a donor) over to a glider. It avoids the excise tax, too. Guess who put all those things together? Yep. Plus, it was a point of pride that he could generally get things done in half the time anyone else would.

Saving money might have been a motivating factor in the mentioned areas, but a lot of things are done differently here that "normal" trucking companies don't do. Preventive maintenance is next to Godliness - and when something might need to be replaced - we replace it. As an example - trucks usually have three or four twelve volt batteries. I was used to replacing each battery as it went bad. This company doesn't do it that way - we replace all of them. The idea is - the company wants  us available to take loads out on Monday and also to be able to get back as soon as possible to get more loads out, not sitting on the side of the road waiting for someone to haul out a battery or two. We aren't in the trucking business to make money. We're in the tank manufacturing and delivery business. This philosophy bears Mike's imprint in a big way. Another thing that is different - our shop has no tire irons. We've got more important uses of our time than breaking down and changing tires - so that work gets farmed out to a local truck tire dealer. Another big change for me.

Often, I'd go home on a Friday, and when I got back on Monday, I'd find that Mikey had installed or fixed something that was awaiting parts that just came in, or that he just felt like repairing. I'd catch hell for it on Monday if I didn't notice it - he'd call me up and ask if I had noticed. Of course, as a rule I had no clue, and he'd really lather on a guilt trip. Which made it all a ton of fun.

Mike was also a family man. In years past, he wasn't around much - but since I hired on, he really shifted his focus away from the job towards his wife and kids. Two daughters, a son, and six grandkids worth. Plus, he and Dana, his wife, really had a strong marriage. Often, on a day where we would be working in the shop, several of us would get together to eat at a restaurant. We'd invite Mike, but it was to no avail, because he and his sweetheart Dana had a lunch date. She'd drive into the yard, pick up Mike, and off they'd go. It might just have been to the Sonic - but it was time together for them. Mike looked forward to these meetings - you'd never, ever hear him joke about having to go eat with the 'ol ball and chain, or anything remotely similar. They respected each other and enjoyed their respective company. I complemented them about this one afternoon - and of course, they both downplayed it all - "It's been a lot of work, and it still is" sort of remarks. I reminded them that was true enough, but they made it look easy. Looking back now, I'm sure glad I broached the subject to them.

Mike's expertise wasn't just driving a truck and working on them - he was a master of the knuckle boom crane. He could handle tanks with some difficult techniques that find less skilled operators damaging them. Some said it was the thirty years experience, but most of us knew better. Just because you've done a job for that long doesn't make that person an artiste at it. Mike was legendary in the oil patch and with most of our long time customers. Plenty of businesses requested that Mike should deliver their latest order.

So, Mike had friends all over - primarily in the oil and ag industries. It was the oil patch pals who took him hunting for deer and elk in the mountains every year. Since our company had been buying quite a few Kenworths in the past several years, he got a guided tour of their factory in Seattle - which really helped him make some decisions regarding purchasing more new trucks - since his beloved Caterpillar motors weren't going to be produced anymore.

In case you didn't know he was a CAT fan - just look at his cap above. We've had some Detroits and Cummins around, but his overwhelming favorite was the ol' Clatterpillers. Plus, the ball cap covered his bald spot. The only time that cap came off was to turn it backwards under a welding helmet, to wipe his head, or to throw it on the floor in disgust over something. A rare sight indeed, but highly memorable.

On Saturday the 19th, Mike started seizing and a coworker caught him before he hit the concrete. After a trip to the emergency room in Garden, it was determined that he should go to Galichia Heart Hospital in Wichita (it's where I've gotten all my "work" done). He'd had an ablative procedure done to control atrial fibrillation, and they thought he might be having related problems. He had several more seizures, so he was kept under to gain time and figure out what course of action to take. At one point, we all heard he only had a slight chance of survival, and if he did - he'd more than likely spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state.

Early Thursday on the 24th, Mike Armstrong , age 55, was disconnected from all the machines keeping him going, and he slipped away.

Of course, he'd have gone nuts if he'd survived. Living trapped in his body would have been the worst possible nightmare of an existence for Mike. No matter - we're all going to miss him. Our company has been in a funk - a sort of state of mourning - for more than a week now. As one of the people who leaned on Mike, I can say things will definitely change without him around, and not just for me. The whole company - top to bottom - leaned on him. And, as per the title of this post - I swear I'm getting tired of writing these things about important people in my life passing.

But, I can also tell you this - he wouldn't countenance all of us sitting around bawling that he was gone. Nope, that wasn't the way he lived - he'd want us to get along with our lives. He might have even tossed that cap on the ground to make his point. And, we'll see proof of his existence for a long time to come as well. I was just thinking about that today, driving home from a delivery. I mentioned how he mounted the cranes on the tractors - and he's put my crane on three different trucks.

Our cranes run on hydraulic oil powered by a pump run off a power take off - or PTO. In the past, the switches were a lever style switch that has a safety pull - one pulls up on the lower knob, and moves the lever from one end of it's slot to the other to engage the PTO. These things are generally mounted under the dash or on the floor - where there might be a clear spot for it. But, Mikey had seen a dash mounted rocker switch that he just thought was ultra cool, and he got it for my truck.

That's it next to the "spare" switch - with it's own little red light to let me know it's engaged.  See how well it matches the rest of the switchgear? That was the sort of attention to detail Mike bestowed on his projects. For a gearhead - that is neat, period. Every time I fire up the ol' crane, I'm gonna remember who put that switch in there. And I'll think it was pretty stinking cool of him to do it that way.


HEATHER said...

I am so sorry for the loss of your friend! God Bless!

drjim said...

Shit....The Guy Upstairs called another good one home.
Sorry to hear about your buddy, Jeff. Sounds like he was an A-1 guy.

Cedar View Paint Horses said...

Sorry for your loss, Jeffro.

LeeAnn said...

I'm sorry your friend is gone.

Anonymous said...

Great post about a great guy. sorry he had to go so soon.

CGHill said...

Every time we lose a gearhead, the world gets a little dumber.

Seriously. We can't - or we won't, which is worse - replace these guys.

I mourn.