Russ Ringsak

A Zero Tolerance Business

January 24, 2004

A reader was kind enough to point out to me that last month I referred to Cal Poly as Cal Tech. Our recent show was at the California Polytechnic State University, Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, whereas Cal Tech is the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena. I have no reasonable excuse for my error, since we did a show in Pasadena not that long ago. To alumni of either school this is probably not a simple case of splitting hairs but is at least a breach of etiquette, if not a full-blown case of clodhopping bumpkinism. (I feel the same way when folks confuse North with South Dakota, something people out east do as a matter of course.) I was tempted to respond that I had written that on purpose as a test of our clientele, but of course once you start lying in public it makes you look bad when you complain about other, even more public, liars.

Driving truck brings you to notice how most occupations, and writing in particular, allow a person to make one mistake after another and never pay much of a price for it. You admit to your carelessness and move on, and the public appreciates the immensity of your humility and the clarity of your honesty. But you mess up even once driving truck and there will be holy hell to pay. A heavy equipment hauler I know got busted at a scale in Pennsylvania recently for the crime of not having the permit for his overweight load stapled directly to the bill of lading. That was the way the documents were handed to him and he didn't have a stapler on him and didn't even know he needed one. Nine hundred and fifty bucks was his fine and he was put out of service, causing him to miss a scheduled return load. He left the trailer at the scale and bobtailed all the way back to Minnesota, just to be able to have Christmas with his family. This for a staple.

They had a stapler at the scale house but they didn't lean over and staple the two papers together, oh no, nor did they let him go somewhere to buy a stapler. They saw before them not an earnest and honest hard working young trucker from the middle of the country and no threat whatever to decency or order; they saw before them $950 to put in the state treasury, along with a chance to look good to their bosses. So they handed him a 950-dollar citation and put him out of service.

This is what we learn to live with. Trucking is pretty much a zero tolerance business, as are quite a few others. If you forget about your trailer back there and cut a corner too tight, say, and drag it across some parked car, scrunching it into a wad of tinfoil, you can't climb down and go back to the owner and say, "Hey, dude, sorry about that—guess I made a little miscalculation back there—didn't mean anything by it, my friend, heh-heh. Hope you didn't take it personal. See you around, niceta meetcha, heh-heh." No, indeed. You are likely to meet instead steely-eyed policemen and flesh-eating lawyers; possibly deputies, a clerk of court and a judge. Maybe even a journalist, if it's a slow day. It will be hard to maintain a sense of humor as the system corrects your little mistake.

That kind of harsh discipline seems natural to those of us raised in a zero tolerance childhood, where nobody told you ahead of time, "If you steal vegetables from my garden you will get stung with a butt full of rock salt." It was somehow understood that if you sneaked in at night and took tomatoes from Old Man Skogstad's garden or apples from his tree a silhouette of him with a double-barrel would suddenly appear in the light of his back door and you would receive a hearty load of rock salt in the ass. And you'd never do that again. You might try to talk younger kids into doing it. But you'd never do it again yourself.

But operating under the maximum tolerance policy we currently afford writers, a person can, right out there in print or in pixels and in full view of everybody, mix up two great institutions of higher learning, well known around the nation—a screwup easily avoided by a simple check—and nobody even writes you a harsh word. The man mentioned it almost as an afterthought, at the end of a cordial letter. The Hussein brothers might happily have had me hung upside down in the desert and flogged to a fare-thee-well for a blunder like that one, if they had been able. But here, nothing.

It wouldn't surprise me, though, if now that I've stirred this pot someone did write and say they had gotten into huge trouble for some careless but innocent act of writing. And a famous example from Minnesota comes immediately to mind. It was published in a weekly paper in the northwest quadrant of the state, and I can't say what kind of repercussions it may have brought to the author but there must have been some. The town of Fertile, population 853, sits about 19 miles southeast of Crookston on state highway 32; Climax, with 273 listed residents, sits to the west of there on US 75, some thirty miles away. An elderly lady from the former small town expired in the latter, leading to an obituary caption in the paper that read, in bold letters: "Fertile Woman Dies in Climax." Probably the longest-lived journalistic gaffe in the entire state, and one that must have brought at least mortification to its author. You'd hope so anyway.

Now someone else might write and say, "Ringsak, you fell for the oldest rural legend in the state. That never happened. Two guys made that joke up. Cully Henderson and Olaf Stengrud, drinking boilermakers in the Bullhead Club in Brainerd in 1915. You could have looked it up and checked it out. First you screw up Cal Poly and now this. You really should be more careful about the way you sling the horse manure around. And it's unbecoming for a person of your age to tell silly old jokes like that anyway. Stick to driving truck. In your case it's probably less dangerous."

And what I'm asking now, preemptively, is get off my case about that, because I'm trying to address the larger issue here. I'm trying to offer my ancient wisdom to younger people, and what's more important than that? Even knowing they will ignore it, I feel an obligation to at least make the attempt. I'm saying some occupations are more unforgiving than others, and if you are prone to thoughtless error you might consider that factor when you choose a line of work. That was my whole point.

Another way to say the same thing: If you don't like the idea of being a critical part of the machine, in a position requiring absolute focus and error-free concentration, and at the same time being the butt of all the jokes, then don't become a drummer. It's a lot like being a trucker, a zero tolerance job, only with the other guys in the band acting as the cops, the judge, and the Department of Transportation agents.

On a tangential topic, some sharp-eyed observers may have noticed that shortly after we left San Luis Obispo it was struck by an earthquake, and that the day after we left Buffalo two years ago it was hit with the heaviest snowfall in its history (something like seven feet in one day), and that the day after we arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, in '93 it was buried under the most massive blizzard it had ever met. And that Albuquerque suffered a downtown brownout while we were on the air there, and that there have been other close brushes with calamity and through it all we have never missed a show. These sharp-eyed people may have noticed all this and they may be starting to wonder if this isn't becoming part of our mystique or if there could be sinister forces at work here.

My observation, for whatever it's worth, is that if you sit still in most of this country for 25 years you will generally get hit with about the same gross amount of rude natural phenomena as you would if you moved around for 25 years, like the show has. I don't know if a statistician could substantiate that opinion or not, but until I hear different I'm sticking to it.

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