I used to work for an archiving company. An archiving company stores all of the non-essential paperwork that piles up at other companies. We would take their 1.5 cubic foot cardboard boxes of paper and put them on shelves, and retrieve them if they ever required retrieving.
Once, my company got a big contract to go out-of-state and spend three days clearing out the storage building of a government subcontractor that built nuclear submarines. The building was slated for demolition, and the government dudes needed their paperwork moved off-base. As I was an expert in the art of box stacking, I was asked to help supervise. This was to become my tour of duty with THE FIGHTIN’ SEABEES! …Well, okay, I didn’t really get to meet any real Seabees, never mind fightin’ ones. I just like to say THE FIGHTIN’ SEABEES!
Only three archive employees were sent down to coordinate the job. There was me, a big guy who always wore a sleeveless “Funkin’ Gonuts” t-shirt, and another guy who always seemed to be wearing something with our company’s logo on it. At the submarine base, we were put in charge of local temp workers. And every single temp, it turned out, was a former civilian worker who had been laid off from the base. Carpenters, welders, manly men—eager to regale us with tales of waste and bureaucratic stupidity as we spent our afternoons stacking boxes. Here are four of those slanderous stories, which, for legal reasons, we will call ‘fictional’:
1. THE BLASTING SHED
A carpenter was once instructed to build a blasting shed between two buildings on the base. A blasting shed is for the grinding of large metal parts, to contain the dangerous metal particles. So he built the blast shed. He estimates it took a couple of weeks and somewhere around ten thousand dollars’ worth of lumber, plus an air filtration system. When the shed was completed, a base commander decided it had been built in the wrong place and had it bulldozed. THE END.
2. THE VALVE
There would be constant arguments between the day crews and the night crews who built the submarines, because apparently no one knew how to read the plans correctly. The day shift would refer to the blueprints and install a valve on the left side of the submarine hull. Then the night shift would come in and say, “Those idiots read the blueprints wrong!” They would then cut the valve off, patch the hole, and weld the valve onto the right side of the sub. The next day, the day shift would move it back to the left side again. THE END.
Over the years, the little-used building we were pulling boxes out of had become a dumping ground for base workers who—for whatever reason—wanted to dump stuff out of sight. We came across gigantic spools of cable that had gone missing from a project a few years before. We found huge containers of steel bolts under layers of dust, strange pipe fittings, and unopened shipping crates filled with other mysterious submarine parts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of hardware: intentionally misplaced or plain-old lost. Most of it had probably been declared missing and re-ordered, and somebody somewhere along the line had footed the bill. We left the stuff where it was. It probably got demolished along with the building. THE END.
4. THE PAINTED WINDOWS
I asked one of the temp guys why the ugly 1960’s era building next door had painted-over windows—I was hoping for a cool ‘Top Secret Project’ story. Instead, he explained that one evening a few years before, base command got word that there would be a surprise military inspection in the morning. In order to spruce up the ugliest buildings on the base, spotlights and crane trucks were deployed overnight, and workmen spray painted entire buildings—windows, doors, and all—glossy white. Years later, I had to admit: They still looked quite sprucey. THE END.
As for me and my archiving crew, our days on-base weren’t all that exciting. The building we were working in—the one slated for demolition—was an old crumbling brick structure that reminded me of a public school. We breathed in lots of asbestos dust, lead paint chips covered everything, and on the first morning, I accidentally drank from a water fountain that dispensed mercury-tainted water. See, instead of simply turning off the water, which seems to me to be a pretty sensible solution, someone had spent the time and money to make signs that warned “DO NOT DRINK – MERCURY CONTAMINATION.” Which, of course, I didn’t see til later.
I was pretty young at the time—in my twenties—and this little three-day adventure was my first real exposure to bureaucratic stupidity. It confirmed everything I’d been told in the Dead Kennedy songs of my youth: The guys in charge are dumb. I have to admit, I derived a strange sort of satisfaction from that conclusion. And though I can’t attest to the truthfulness of these stories, they entertain me nonetheless. And that makes the toxic poisoning totally worth it.