It’s a dirty job, but they do it anyway

This article contains details about enormous, blood-filled ticks, oil pits and microorganism-filled sludge piles. If you can't handle the dirty, drippy, oozing yuck-factor…stop reading now!

The stuff that nobody wants to see. The jobs that nobody wants to do. You've seen the television show, now read about the dirtiest jobs in your very own community.

"It's one of those dirty jobs, but somebody's gotta do it. There's just not a clean car in the world out there, unfortunately," said Gary Leaf, veteran mechanic. "Every night when I go home and wash my hair, it takes about three times before the black oil and grease quits coming out."

With all of the snow and ice to deal with, winter is certainly the messiest season at Hamlet's Quick Lube on Munson, next to KFC.

"When the heat is cranked up in the shop, the snow starts melting and water is just dripping and running down everywhere. By the end of the day, the floor of the pit is totally full of water," said Leaf.

You can guess what "the pit" is-something like an underworld chasm where your car's most valuable fluid goes while you're parked over the hole.

"This one's gonna be a nightmare, Rich!" yelled Leaf, with arms stretched overhead, standing in the pit under a VW Jetta. These mechanics have to be prepared for whatever might pull into the garage, and with the astonishing number of new car designs and models every year, it's a tough challenge.

"You've got to constantly take refresher courses. It's a changing world and we have to keep up and do it accurately. There are online courses available all of the time," said Leaf.

Rusty, old clunkers pose plenty of tough and dirty problem-solving, too. "If it gets them from point A to point B then it's like gold to them," Leaf said. "We do our best on everything that comes through the door."

Dirtiest day ever? "Oh, we get them all of the time. I had one last week with a radiator. There was pressure built up behind it, and I took the hose off and it sprayed me from here down with radiator fluid," said Leaf, drawing a line from his chest to his boots. "It was a Saturday, middle of winter, so all I can do is wipe it off and keep going."

When asked what they like about their job, Leaf and Rich Hastaltine said simultaneously: "the people."

"People come in here and they're stranded on the weekend. You get 'em going back home…it's a good feeling. So they're not stuck here losing out on pay," said Hastaltine.

Oil is a sloppy substance for sure. Kurt Mueller, a nine-year employee at AlcoTec Wire Corp. in Traverse City, can relate. BN caught up with Mueller on a "clean" day as he threaded aluminum welding wire through the monster wire drawing machine. The machine starts with the wire about 3/8" thick and strips it down. Wire is fed through a series of diamond cut dies and made smaller and smaller. The end product is then shipped off to be used for welding things like boats, lawn furniture and baby buggies.

"It's like a spaghetti factory," said Jennifer Ewing, director of Human Resources. "…and so what you need is oil because you have metal on metal. You need A LOT of oil or it will freeze up just like your car engine might freeze up."

"When I first started I was always soaked through (with oil). You get to a point where you're like 'I'm gonna get dirty, just do it.'"

Mueller said he is surprised that the "Dirty Jobs Guy" (on the Discovery Channel) hasn't been to see him yet. "Oh yes, this is definitely classified as a dirty job. When you're in the oil, you're in the oil. It gets pretty bad."

So what does he actually like about his job? "Well, I am a social person, but I like it over here because nobody's over here. I just get left alone. I know what my job is and no one bothers me." Is it meditative? "Sometimes it is! You'd be amazed what you think about while you're doing this."

"We have a catch-pan here and we recycle the oil. It's very environmentally friendly, despite what it looks like," added Ewing. "We're extremely safety-conscious too. We want everybody to go home with the same amount of fingers that they came to work with!"

Fingers are also subject to abuse for the meat cutters at Gabe's Country Market processing plant. The plant is located on the corner of M-72 and County Road 667 and the store is in Maple City. Gabe's knife-wielding employees claim to process an entire deer in 15-20 minutes. The plant deals mostly with deer, but also processes pig, cow, bear, beaver, elk, moose, boar and even a mountain lion once.

This job is a different kind of dirty, bringing colorful surprises straight out of a sci-fi horror flick.

"About three years ago we got one in just infested with ticks. I ripped the hide off and it looked like freckles and they were huge!" said Mike Gabourie, recalling one of the dirtiest days in his 20 years on the job. "They were alive and crawling all around and falling on the floor."

Steven Watson chimed in with an interesting story of his own: "I went to skin a deer, started pulling down, and most of the meat came off with the hide. It was a rainbow of colors. Just rotten. We put Vicks VapoRub up in our nostrils and put duct tape over our noses so we couldn't smell it. I've got a pretty strong stomach – I've been a medic for 12 years now and I've smelled some pretty bad stuff – but that ranks right up there! If you're gonna shoot a deer, get it in and get it skinned right away!"

"You get all kinds of surprises," Gabourie adds. "Some have arrows still stuck in the front shoulder and they're all nasty and infected. Others come in with chew marks all over them from coyotes. Road kill deer are also common. They're not in the best shape."

"Found" or illegal deer are often brought in by the DNR. The quality meat is salvaged, processed and donated to church food banks or soup kitchens.

What's the best part of their jobs? "The money!" they said at once, laughing. "And it's fun to hang out with the guys. You get to hear all of the stories from the hunters – how they shot the big one and then they bring in a Bambi," said Mike Wood with a chuckle.

The guys at Gabe's might just be able to hang tight with the biologists at the OMI, Inc. Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Traverse City. Or maybe not. Getting over the "yuck-factor" as Scott Blair, project manager said, "Is something that you do early on in your career."

"Most of our work is done above ground, collecting and analyzing data and operating things electronically. However, when things break it can get dirtier because we have to retrieve things that ordinarily operate emerged in sewage or sludge. I've been in there," said Blair while standing over a removable grate, under which flows about four million gallons of wastewater per day. "In this particular stage of treatment, large items are filtered out – like rags, plastic bags, toothbrushes, toys, bottle caps and bone chips.

"We wear waders, Tyvec suits, plastic shields so we don't get splattered in our face, and gloves…in my 20 years here I have definitely been involved in the dirtiest conceivable jobs here. I've been in lift stations and primary tanks."

Blair said that when things have to be repaired, the job is not only dirty, but extremely dangerous.

"Anytime we enter a vault or confined space there is a strict procedure to follow. There's slippery, rusty, dangerous equipment. It's serious. There are three roles involved: a supervisor, an entrant and an attendant. The entrant has a harness and a tether with a cable and a tripod so they can be extracted quickly if they have to be," said Blair.

"Just last week we had an entry into one of the sewage lift stations. Some of the float controls that turn pumps on and off had to be repaired so we had to go in. Lift station wet wells are very ugly. There's fat and grease that forms a scum layer. There's debris, plastic bags and it's fresh, closer to the source. We're responsible for eight lift stations within the city."

Wastewater is channeled through an intricate and fascinating series of filters and membranes, and, finally, ultraviolet light that kills any remaining pathogens. The end result is pure and clean water that goes directly back to nature. The larger trash objects and finely screened debris are taken to a landfill. Aerobic and facultative microorganisms (bugs) consume the dissolved pollutants from remaining wastewater, slowly creating a living and growing concentrated material called "sludge." That's the stuff that gets hauled away in trucks and sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer.

Progressive membrane technology was installed several years ago to insure the very best treatment for the region's four million gallons of wastewater that runs through the plant per day. Fiberglass ducts were also installed recently to replace the older metal ones, ensuring quality odor control.

"From time to time we have to empty the bioreactors to accommodate construction and modifications, for example. There will be a mucky layer, six or seven inches deep and we need to squeegee, shovel, fire hose…and that's mucky, gooky stuff. You have to psych yourself up for those events."

Needless to say, Blair's team is an integral part of this community, providing a vital service for our comfortable lifestyles. So, this summer when you strap your kayak on top of your vehicle and drive down to the crystal clear bay, remember the efforts of people like Scott Blair and Gary Leaf.

Then, when you drive over to the neighbor's house for venison burgers on the aluminum-welded grill while relaxing in aluminum-welded lawn furniture, think about guys like Kurt Mueller and the crew at Gabe's. Their roll-up-your-sleeves, dirty work makes the smooth function of our crazy lives possible. Thanks guys!

Look for another article this summer when we find out just who is responsible for that sea lamprey cage down by the Boardman dam. Yuck! BN