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Letter From America: Hole In One!

Ronnie Bray tells an absorbing tale involving incompetence - alleged and actual.

To read many more of Ronnie's delicious columns click on Letter From America in the menu on this page. Read also chapters of his autobiography A Shout From The Attic.

Hole in one! No, it’s nothing to do with golf. It has to do with my incompetence, and that reminds me of the time I was employed by a once famous but now long-gone garage, from which an attempt was made to fire me for incompetence because I was too competent. How it came about was on this wise.

I was engaged as the storeman. The man who founded the company had long since retired and the reins of the business were in the kind and capable hands of his son, Phillip. My job entailed booking out parts to the mechanics, making out stock orders to keep correct levels of parts and accessories, entering incoming stock on individual record cards, and maintaining the stores in clean and tidy condition, all of which I did with relative ease. It was the 'ease' that caused the problem.

When my work was up to date, instead of trying to look busy, I sat at the desk and read a book. Although ther founder had retired some years back he made almost daily visits to the place and, such was his nature, invariably discovered something to moan about. When he saw me sitting inactive and reading, he detonated, his face changing to a colour associated with royal houses, and not unassociated with apoplexy.

Pointing to a rack of motor car accessories, he ordered me to move them to a different location than the one they occupied. Deferentially, I moved them. When Phillip saw them, he had me move them back to their primary location. Less than an hour later the superannuated gentleman returned and roundly censured me for not changing the residence of the bits as he had decreed. I told him that I had done so and then replaced them in their original situation after his scion had ordered me to do so. He then re-reordered me to transit them anew. Dutifully, yet sensing a gathering storm, I shifted them yet again.

When Phillip saw them he stepped towards me with his finger out and his mouth about to open in castigatory eloquence. I forestalled him, saying, "Phillip, I am just a worker here, and I do what I am told. But when you tell me to do one thing and your father tells me to do something different, what am I supposed to do? Could you please discuss it with your father and decide between yourselves what you want where and then let me know and I will execute your instruction?" Phillip, a good man at heart, got the message. However, he left the accessories where his dad wanted them. Perhaps that was the price of peace. If so, it was worth paying so long as I was not the pig in the middle getting kicked by both factions at once.

He ‘whose-name-was-over-the-door’ was an unforgiving mean-spirited crabby old man and made it his purpose in life to get the better of me. I could not understand his attitude. I did my work well, was timely, courteous, and well liked by the other workers including the managing director, who was his son. On finding me again with my nose in a book, his visage indicated that a convulsion was impending, but instead of throwing a paroxysm he clicked his heels and began his interrogation. Through narrowed eyes, he demanded,

"Have you made out the stock order?"


"Have you put away all the new stock?"


"Are all the stock cards up to date?"


"Are the stock levels what they should be?"


"Are the stores clean and tidy?"


"Floor swept?"


"Grrrr!" He did an angry about-turn and exited the stores. He was gone, but he was not finished.

Twenty minutes later he returned with jutting chin to insist, "I want a complete stock inventory of everything we have on the premises by Monday!" This was Thursday.

"Aha," I thought, "The old 'impossible task trick' based on the labours of Heracles." I had been a victim of that one as a young soldier. I had survived it then, and I would do so now. I made up a set of stock sheets and began to write down every item in the stores by description, stock number, and quantity.

That done, I detailed every item in the workshop, the office, and even out the back by the scrap heap whether it was working or not. It was indicated to me by the garage foreman, a gentleman and fair-dealer, that there was "a ton of stuff on the flat roof over the offices and stores." Shinning up the ladder, I counted covert and forgotten items with years of antediluvian grime on them, coughing occasionally as I scribed their descriptions and quantities.

"One propeller from the Hindenberg,

Two anchors from Noah’s Ark,

A spare wheel from Stephenson’s ‘Rocket,’

A rung from Jacob’s ladder, etc." And they say time travel is impossible!

The pile of stock sheets was getting thicker by the hours and it seemed as if the fateful Monday would come and find me having not finished clearing out the Augean Stables.

Eurystheus ordered Heracles to clean up King Augeas' stables, and that meant his getting dirty and smelly, but even a hero has to plunge in with might and main when duty calls. The choker was that he had to clean up after the cattle of Augeas in a single day. At least the founder gave me the thick end of two days. Why was he spoiling me this way? Was he getting to like me?

When he who had given the order walked in late on Friday afternoon I assume he hoped to find me flummoxed and dismembered. With no hint of mischief in my voice I called from my towering dignity to inquire if he would give me a key to the garage. "What do you need a key for?" he asked in a tone as pleasant as a hangman’s.

"I don’t have time to finish this today." I intoned, waving the wad of stock lists, "So I will have to come in Saturday and Sunday to finish the job."

With a dismissive wave of his hand he declared the match drawn. "That’ll do. Leave the rest." He absolved himself by scurrying back out and driving off after the shortest visit he had made in fifty years. I scored the match differently and awarded myself all fifteen rounds.

That he secretly did the same became evident the following week when he made several surprise visits to the stores to see if he could find anything wrong. It is sad when a man’s aim in life is to find someone out in a fault - unless, of course, he is a detective. I kept up with my work as usual and then sat down to continue my adventure in Robert Grave’s gripping book "The Greek Myths." The founder raged when he saw me reading but he knew that I had to be on top of the job and so enjoyed his discomfort close-mouthed.

The following Wednesday, an event transpired that gave him the ammunition he was looking for by which he sought excuse to discharge me peremptorily. One of the mechanics had come to the stores’ window and asked for a pair of shock absorbers. I gave him what he asked for. When he returned to the workshop the founder was there and discovered that the shock absorbers were the wrong ones for the car. The founder, bristling with triumph, marched into the stores, flourished the offending articles under my nose and roared in a voice altogether too large for his slight frame, "You gave him the wrong parts!"

Mildly I returned, "I gave him the parts he asked for."

"They are the WRONG parts!" he blundered.

"Perhaps, but that is what he asked for." I was, at this point, still mild.

"You should know these parts don’t fit that car!" he frenzied.

My calm was not inexhaustible. I loosed both barrels at him. "It’s my responsibility to give mechanics what they ask for, besides which, I cannot see around corners and through walls, so I have no idea what car they are for."

"You’re fired! You’re on a week’s notice!" He left the stores. At lunchtime I went and secured employment at David Brown’s as storeman for the Aston-Martin chassis-manufacturing project that had commenced at Huddersfield. I was to commission a new stores and storage system.

When I returned to the garage, I told my antagonist that I was leaving on Friday and he should have my cards and money ready. "You have to give a weeks notice!" the enraged man bellowed. "Not in the circumstances," I said. "What circumstances?" he puzzled. "Wrongful dismissal," I said, my calm restored. "You are not being wrongfully dismissed. You are being dismissed for incompetence!" "I am not incompetent," I parried, my calm thinning a little. "Come with me!" he ordered. I followed him into the workshop where he called the foreman mechanic and the works manager.

The four of us stood together in a tight little group. To the foreman, Bernard, the Great Man asked, "Is he incompetent?" "No," said Bernard without hesitation, earning even greater respect for his honesty under fire and in the face of the enemy. The works manager, an ex-military gentleman who had been with the company a little more than six months could be a different kettle of old tyres. He had a good job and was being groomed for stardom to free up some pre-retirement leisure time for Phillip. I bated my breath and waited.

I had not long to wait. The founder turned to the brown smocked gentleman and asked the same question, "Is he incompetent?" "NO!" rejoined the ex-warrant officer, with a conviction that did my heart good. The founder turned on his heels and did not return to the garage during the rest of the week. My farewell was pleasant but muted, and Phillip, while he hesitated to apologise for his kinsman, was genial as we shook hands and parted ways.

That was almost forty years ago, but whenever I consider competence or incompetence I get an instant replay of injustice contrasted with fairness in the face of inequity that does my heart good and confirms that some brave souls have the moral strength to act on the courage of their convictions even when it could work against them.

But, that apart, the 'hole in one' was the direct result of my incompetence, salted with ignorance. Who would have thought that the plastic water pipe that fed the lawn sprinklers would be a mere six inches below the surface? Eighteen inches would have been proper but six is asking for trouble. I might never have known they were so shallowly placed had I not had the stirring idea to transplant a plug of grass growing in the gravel to a decent sized hole that is kept cleared of soil and grass by my faithful companion and contra-gardener, Belle the Belgian Sheepdog.

Yesterday, said I to myself, said I, "I’ll dig up that plug of grass in the gravel by the edge of the lawn and stick it in that big Belgian hole!" To facilitate this I watered the area copiously and while still congratulating myself on my acumen I pitched in my Spork – which is a combination of garden spade and fork – and hoisted a good-sized lump of immortal grass that had survived three vicious attacks with deadly weed killers, and dumped it into the canine's crater. It was a satisfying task, and it looked very well.

That done, I set the sprinklers to go off and went to see how well they were wetting the grass and flower beds. Imagine my surprise to find everything bone dry except the spot from where I had lifted the sod! That place was not only under water, but up from the ground came a-bubbling gold – H2O that is – Desert Gold, water! "By gum, I’ve sprung a leak." I thought, turning the water off at the isolation valve. I dug around the spring and discovered a tine-sized hole in the plastic pipe. I had done it. I had been incompetent! There were two pipes running side by side and I had made a hole in one!

Today I tried to fix it, but I made a botch of it and will attack it again tomorrow. Working in a small pit filled with water by the side of an ant nest raises its own philosophical questions, such as, how long can I watch an ant struggle in the water before I have to help it reach the bank and safety?

I don’t like to see any creature drown, probably due to my own aquaphobia, although I have no aversion whatever to laying down poison that will stop the little clockwork motors that make ants run. It is a matter of suffering and hopelessness. As goes the old dictum, "I’d rather be shot than poisoned." It gets it over with without introducing terrifying anticipation into the equation.

All of which is interesting, I suppose, but none of which helps me fix the pipe and get my watering back on schedule as the temperature heads for a hundred and ten plus. The pipe now has one connector fixed on good, fast, and leak-proof, but the other end will have to be re-cut, re-extended, re-cemented, re-set, and re-inserted in before the instant PVC cement sets. This is not a job for an incompetent, but, sad to say, I am the best I’ve got, and, however incompetently I perform, I know I won’t get the sack.

Copyright © Ronnie Bray 2006
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