My Biggest Mistake: The British Columbia Chainsaw Massacre
Welcome to The Daily Muse’s first-ever essay contest, “My Biggest Mistake at My First Job—And What I Learned From It.” We were blown away by your stories, and we’ve narrowed them down to six amazing finalists. Read all of the entries here, then vote for your favorite!
17 years old. Working on the grounds crew at a private golf course. Which is the ideal job for a mouthy know-it-all adolescent, as it combines the drudgery of hard physical labor with the ignominy of being yelled at by the idle rich all day.
But even the gold-plated retirees and their wives were no match for my supervisor, a crusty old Portuguese émigré whose English vocabulary never did progress beyond grunts and profanity. On Day 1, the older employees explained to me that João operated like a drill instructor in the sense that he, and only he, was the one to ask questions.
The workday began at 4 AM, giving the crew three hours to mow, rake, and prune before the morning’s opening foursome entered the first tee box. João didn’t bother with fancy technology like “pencils” and “bulletin boards,” which meant that each employee had to personally report to him to find out what that day’s assigned task was.
Without a word, he drove me out to the equipment shed behind the 13th fairway, stopped, and pointed to a thicket of maybe 30 trees.
“You. Get rid of that tree.”
(Death stare, followed by U-turn.)
Every employer loves a self-starter, right? None of the trees appeared to be dead, dying, or blocking anyone’s view of the green, so I made my best guess as to where he’d pointed. Fired up the tractor, found some guide ropes, broke out the chainsaw and started to slice. I opened with an undercut, and followed it with a backcut, all the while flattered that someone trusted me with so dangerous a task without even asking if I was qualified to do it. The tree finally gave way just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, and I started cutting off its limbs.
The tree was too big to drag behind the tractor without tearing up the fairway, so I improvised. I cut the felled tree into sections, dropped a few of those at a time into the wagon that coupled to the tractor, and spent the next few hours shuttling tree pieces to the dumpster on the other side of the course.
On my return trip to collect the final cargo of felled tree, I noticed that a crowd of about a dozen had gathered, doubtless to marvel at the new hire’s prowess with a saw. As I got closer I could make out their faces. The club pro. The assistant pro. Some members. A few of my co-workers. João, his face even more purple than usual. Finally, the club president, and to this day I don’t know what he was doing there that early in the morning.
With the combination of a right-to-work Canadian province, a kid who’d be going back to school in a few weeks anyway, and a homicidal grounds crew supervisor, the job ended then and there. One look at a seething João and I was tempted to hold onto the chainsaw for self-defense, but instead walked calmly to the parking lot, never to return. Decades later, the smell of freshly cut grass still nauseates me.
The moral to the story? If you’re anything less than 100% sure what you’re supposed to do, ask your boss. The greater the downside of misinterpreting an order, the more forcefully you should ask. If the boss gets offended, smile and ask again.
(And one more thing. If you’re 17, getting fired from a minimum-wage job doesn’t mean you’ll be sentenced to a life of poverty. Honestly, it doesn’t.)