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My tale as a temp worker with UPS

I loaded and unloaded cargo in Des Moines for the holidays, learning the importance of a hard day’s work – and ball bearings as a moving aid.

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Most of my co-workers were farmers or outdoorsmen, so they had appropriate clothes. I, Mr. Cubicle Occupant, was light in that department. So I blew about two weeks’ pay on my new “uniform”:

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• Bottom: briefs, long johns, jeans, and a pair of rain pants that double as windbreakers.

• Top: T-shirt, moisture-wicking undershirt, button-down shirt, pullover fleece with hood, Arctic-grade winter coat.

• Accompaniments: ear band, pullover face mask, heavy-duty mittens, airtight head covering, leather hiking boots, wool socks.

We looked like a squad of Michelin men. To help us push around 3,000 pound cans, even in our moon suits, UPS uses some ingenious aids – notably ball bearings. Engineers would blanket the floors of the aircraft with tiny steel balls so we could move the lumbering containers along to outside lifts.

The good news: With just a push of the hand, the heavy bins could be spun around and sent down the cargo hold as easily as a curling rock. The bad news: It could be treacherous to walk. I’m proud to say I don’t recall falling once. It was more like three times. At certain moments, I felt as if I was in a Steve Martin movie.

Thankfully, machinery did most of the work. We helped it out, lifting or removing metal locks (when they weren’t frozen) that secured cans into the plane, or onto dollies that hauled them to the sorting facility. Our crew of eight to 10 people could unload a 757 in about 30 minutes.

Loading planes took far longer. We often had to wait for cans coming in from other flights or on trucks. This made for a lot of idle time, to talk about football, or “My Name Is Earl,” or sometimes kids. Everybody knew that seasonals would soon to be gone, and even the permanents were there only 15 to 20 hours a week. So we conversed with a sort of unwritten code: friendly, but not in a way of becoming close.

Some of the seasonals were recent retirees. A few, like me, had been laid off from other jobs. We didn’t talk much about where we came from, except for one guy, who was a retiree. He had been a jailer. He also was a gun buff. So I learned about weaponry and ammunition, and I picked up some pointers on pressure points to use when subduing surly drunks.

One younger guy clearly saw this temporary job as a path to becoming a UPS delivery man. The people who cruise around town in the boxy brown trucks make good wages, I was told. But they all started at lowly tasks such as loading.
Our job settled into a meteorological version of the movie Groundhog Day.

My first task each morning was to turn on the TV and watch the weather. Proper knowledge made for proper dressing, though I kept a suitcase filled with backup clothes in my car, just in case the temperature turned particularly churlish.

Certainly this job was far less complicated than the reporting-editing job I had come from. It was also far less pay.

But my wife said I came home much happier every night, not carrying a knapsack of complaints about the decline of the newspaper industry or the rise of copyediting errors.

And so it went, day in, day out, until, finally, Dec. 24. By 3 p.m., I finished work on my plane and headed into the maintenance building. My job was done.
I said goodbye to a couple of guys, both permanent and temporary workers. Some had already landed other jobs. One guy was delivering pizza. Another was cleaning airplanes parked overnight elsewhere at the airport.

Other seasonals just drifted away, to begin the job hunt anew. That included me. As I reflected on the experience on the way home, I couldn’t quite be sure what I had learned beyond how to load cargo planes. Maybe I was just making a clean break with the past. Or maybe, as Mr. Challenger says, I was just trying to avoid
going buggy while I looked for something else.

At the least, I figured out that I wasn’t too proud to get my hands dirty. For that I felt good.

Cold, but good.