Tuesday, February 22

My First Job. (Part III - "Explosion")



Working at an establishment that specialized in highly flammable liquids and gasses, you can tell that I've experienced my fair share of things getting blown the hell up. Here's a trilogy of Co-Op explosion stories, told in increasing order of destruction.

Explosion #1 - "Butane"

Chad worked in the automotive department as a mechanic. He was a gentle giant with ice blue eyes; a hulking young man that could lift a pool table while simultaneously telling Ford jokes. He invited me and my wife to his wedding, which was incredibly thoughtful of him. Anyways, Chad came over to the hardware store like he did every morning, to purchase a Mountain Dew and a handful of candy bars.

In between me and him was a large rack of about 100 Bic lighters, all color coordinated and facing the same direction (you're welcome, Larsen). Not one to turn down a chance to try something fun, Chad dropped his purchase on the counter and began to play with the lighters like a small child.

Each row contained 15 lighters, and stretched to about an arm's length. Just then, I could see that Chad had some sort of bad idea brewing. Already tired of playing with just 1 lighter, Chad decided he wanted to ignite the entire row all at the same time.

Before I could explain to him the physics behind fire and oxygen (I did see Backdraft, after all), he laid his arm down across the row, pressing down on all 15 red buttons, releasing gas as one. He then lit the first lighter in the row with his free hand, and waited for the fire to spread to the remaining gaseous lighters.

It worked. Sort of.

Instead of the flame gracefully sliding across the row, it formed a small fireball and shot straight up him arm.

For a split second, Chad's entire arm was on fire, oil-soaked uniform and all. I stood there, slack-jawed and bewildered, as he windmilled his arm around and batted at the flame. A second later, it was out and the ordeal was over. Chad stared at me, and I stared back at him, both of us feeling pretty embarrassed. As he quietly reached for his Mountain Dew and candy bars, he mumbled, "I singed my arm hair." He brushed the burned hair onto the floor and slunk away. It was never discussed again.

Explosion #2 - "Oxygen?"

It was a calm spring day. The parking lot was empty, no customers to be seen. I sat on the counter of the store, reading Sports Illustrated and drinking a can of Mello Yello. I was still addicted to caffeine at the time, but I can't for the life of me figure out why I was drinking such an inferior citrus soda that day. Nevertheless, the 2 other employees (Jon and Dave), were busying themselves in different isles, facing and sorting inventory, just keeping themselves occupied on an otherwise boring afternoon. A customer eventually came in and needed a propane tank filled, so Jon walked across the street to the massive tank we use to refill empty cylinders.

Looking back, I can't believe that I never had a problem working in the vicinity of this tank. It was essentially a bomb the size of a semi trailer, and I parked my Buick next to it every morning, whistling a happy tune and never thinking for a moment that if it decided to malfunction, they wouldn't so much as find a fingernail with which to identify me with.

I spotted Jon from my perch across the street, and turned back to my magazine. I looked over to the computer for a second to see what time it was, when...

BOOM!

The explosion was so loud I fell off the counter. It was deafening, and I'd never heard anything like it. I was ducked behind the counter because I had no idea what the hell had just happened. Furthermore, I was in no shape to peek over and see pieces of Jon splattered all over the front window. Damn, what about my car? It took a few seconds, but I worked up the nerve to look out the window to see...

Nothing. The giant tank was fine, Jon was fine, my car was fine. So what happened?

Meanwhile, Todd was in the back of the store when this mysterious explosion happened, and I'm sure he thought that the tank had gone off as well. I say I'm sure because no sooner did I peek over the counter, when Todd burst through the saloon-style doors of the back room and run full speed down the isle and out the front door. Had I not been so confused at the moment, it was probably the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

With my ears ringing and Co-Op employees starting to peer out the windows, we all tried to figure out what had happened. What blew up? Then, staggering out of the shadows, emerged our culprit.

A customer was taking advantage of our "free air" hose, and over-inflated a truck tire to the point of explosion. When he saw what was about to happen, he turned away just in time to not be seriously injured by flying rubber and shrapnel. His ears, however, weren't so lucky.

"What happened?" I asked him.

He didn't respond. Party because he was still stunned to the point of a solid pants-crapping, but mainly because he was now deaf. After looking at me sideways for a few seconds, he said;

"I think I need to go to the Doctor. I can't hear anything."

True to his word, he got in his truck and drove off, fragments of his spare tire still littered in our parking lot. I never saw him again.

Explosion #3 - "Gasoline"

Our main parking lot was getting more and more torn up with each passing winter day. Snow chains and plows were removing hearty chunks of concrete every hour on the hour. Something had to be done. The first nice day of April, we had the lot re-sealed.

It was another slow day (every day was, really), and I was passing the time by watching these driveway professionals smoke by the gas tanks and accomplish nothing in 5 hours. It was brilliant to see these people in action, and I model my work ethic after them to this day.

After completing a very small task, they placed their tools on the ground and had yet another smoke break. What follows is a Rube Goldberg-ian string of events and dumb luck that almost turned Larsen into an instant ghost town. Let me break it down step-by-step:

Dumbass mistake #1 - The driveway crew left a lit blowtorch running in the parking lot. I swear to God.

Dumbass mistake #2 - This lit blowtorch was unattended, and less than 10 feet away from our gas tanks. Luckily for us, we had the gas tanks roped off with signs that said "Out of Order".

Dumbass mistake #3 - Most of our customers cannot read. No less than 30 seconds after this torch was set down, someone drove their car right through the yellow tape, chose the pump right next to the open flame, and began to fill up. Luckily for us, gas pumps are equipped with an automatic shut-off switch to prevent overfilling and spillage.

Dumbass mistake #4 - This genius only put an inch of the gas nozzle into his tank. Due to his rubbernecking at the progress of the driveway sealing, he left the pump unattended, the tank overfilled, and gasoline started to pool under his car.

I looked out the window and quickly figured out what was going on. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief as I saw the puddle of gas inch closer and closer to the open flame. I was the only one who could see what was happening, and instead of doing anything about it, I quietly got into the fetal position behind the counter. I was wondering how much of the town would be left when the Co-Op disintegrated. I was also wondering how my family would feel about my death being honored in the Darwin Awards. I really didn't think I was going to die, but I didn't think I'd want to live once the wave of fire washed the skin from my bones.

So I waited.

And waited.

I peeked over the counter (which was something I was getting used to doing), and saw the driveway repair guy holding the lit torch over his head, screaming at the inattentive customer who was in turn screaming back at him. Hey, they both deserved it! I think they both knew that, too.

Laughing quietly, I walked to the back room to grab a bag of that pink sawdust that cleans up after vomit and gasoline spills. "Nobody's going to believe this", I thought to myself.

Sometimes, I still can't.

(Edit: You may be saying to yourself, "That last explosion story wasn't really an explosion at all! You're a liar!" Well, that may be true, but sometimes anticipating the explosion is better than the explosion itself. Let that be a metaphor for life, kids. If you're still curious as to what might have happened when the gas came in contact with the torch, feel free to try this for yourself at any participating Kwik Trip store.)


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