I have had my share of dirty jobs over the years. Working on a farm, you get dirty and stinky, but at least you can wash it off at the end of the day. When I had just gone through a tough time in my life at around 22 years of age, recently divorced and out of work, I decided to try something different. I spotted an ad in the newspaper for a fossil fuel analyst. It looked like a rather lofty position and it didn’t really require any experience which I thought was odd. I called the phone number and scheduled an interview. The location was a small white building in Norfolk VA, off of Monticello Ave. I entered the building and was met by a gentleman in a dark blue lab coat. His name was Pat, a mild mannered guy that asked me a series of questions about how detailed I was and the generic type of questions. I really didn’t get a chance to look at the lab. He thanked me and I left not thinking that I would hear from him. In a few days, the phone rang and it was Pat. “We interviewed several people and decided that we would like to hire you.” he said. “Great, when would you like for me to start?” I asked. “Next Monday at 8AM” he replied. It was that simple. I reported to work the following Monday and was assigned a navy blue lab coat. This is pretty cool I thought, no experience and now working in a lab. Pat showed me around the lab and introduced me to his assistant Kevin. The lab equipment was rather industrial I thought. There were several triple beam balances under glass covers and other strange pieces of equipment under a sort of large range hood. The whole lab had this whole smell like an old freight train yard. “What do you test here.” I inquired. “We test coal.” Pat said. “Coal? Why do you need to test coal?” I asked rather naive. “Well, coal comes in all kinds of different grades; steam coal, coal for making steel and a host of other uses. Coal has a certain amount of sulfur in it. If it has too much, then it isn’t good for certain customers who may need coal with a low sulfur content. Customers overseas buy coal by the rail car and each car has to be tested to be sure that it is of the type that they agreed to pay for. It’s sort of like making sure that the diamond you buy is of the highest quality and not one with occlusions and discolorations. One train car load of coal can cost easily $100,000, so the buyers are willing to pay us to test each car load that they buy.” Pat explained. “Boy, I never thought of coal like a diamond. I thought all coal was the same, just black chunks.” I admitted rather shyly. After the nickel tour, I was taken into the back room where there were small glass containers of coal grains, about the size of ground coffee. All of the containers had labels with numbers on them. I was taken to a coffee mill and told that I would be hand grinding the coal into an even smaller powder. Pat had handed me over to Kevin to show me how to do my first task. “You take this bottle that has a sample of coal and pour it into this old coffee grinder.” It was a square wooden coffee grinder that I had seen in antique stores. “You grind this by hand until you have ground the entire bottle, you then pour it back into the bottle and place it over here for the lab.” Kevin instructed. I began my work, grinding and grinding and grinding until my arm was about to fall off. Boy was this antiquated or what! This was my job for the first few days. After Kevin and Pat felt as though I had payed my first dues, I was taken into the lab. The odor I had smelled when I first arrived was explained to me. It was coal being heated up and turning into coke. “This is the Geisler Plastometer. This device slowly heats up the coal in a small metal crucible which is inserted into a container of molten lead. A stir rod which turns, as the coke starts to form, stops the stir rod and the point at which this happens is recorded hear on this graph that is attached to the plastometer.” Kevin explained. Your job is to clean the old coal that has turned into coke from these small metal crucibles.” Kevin said. The container that had the coked coal in it was hard to remove. They gave me a knife and then I was to polish it with a round wire brush. Well, this was my second chance to pay my dues. Now I was beginning to see why this job did not require any experience. After a few weeks of grinding coal and cleaning out metal coked crucibles, I finally met the manager, Mr. Shepard. Mr. Shepard was an old school kind of guy who felt that unless you paid your dues and did so with a great attitude, you were not worth talking to. I didn’t see much of Mr. Shepard. I wanted to pass all of these duties so that I could do some of the other tests and not just grind and clean. I actually enjoyed working in the lab, even if it was as a lowly lab rat. One day after arriving at work, Kevin told me not to put on my lab jacket. “They are short a man to pulverize coal in the collection building and they are looking for a “volunteer”. A “volunteer” I thought. That’s a strange way of assigning you to another building. “You see, Mr. Shepard believes that you should jump at the chance to volunteer to cover in the pulverizing room. It’s rather strange, but he doesn’t assign people, he offers the “opportunity”.” Kevin explained. “What does the job entail?” I asked rather curious about why “volunteering” was such a big deal. “Well, you are in this small room, you wear a respirator, three layers of clothes and coat your hands and face with Vaseline.” Kevin said, looking at me for a reaction. “Vaseline? What the heck? Three layers of clothes. What kind of job is this that someone would want to “volunteer”?” I asked with a shocked and rather incredulous look on my face. “Well, it’s Mr. Shepard’s way. Do you want to “volunteer”?” he asked. I looked at him, still shocked, but didn’t reply. He waited for my answer long enough to where I was starting to feel uncomfortable. “Sure, why not.” I finally said. “Well, go in the locker room and make sure to put on three layers of clothing and grab a respirator. I’ll meet you outside.” Kevin said with a grin. After putting on three layers of clothing and grabbing the respirator, I met Kevin outside. It was June and already 90 degrees with about 80% humidity. Three layers of clothing wasn’t feeling good right now. “Let’s go to the collection building and I’ll show you what to do.” Kevin said as we walked down the street headed for a big metal building. In the building were a bunch of guys standing around these larger containers of coal. I think that Rufus was black, but I wasn’t sure because of all of the coal dust all over his face and hands. “Rufus, this is Gill, he will be your backup to pulverize.” Kevin said. I waved a hello to Rufus as Kevin escorted me into this tiny dark room. The room was about 8′ x 8′ and was lit by this small fluorescent fixture on the ceiling. There was coal dust all over the walls, ceiling and the floor. The ceiling was only about 7′ tall and there was NO air conditioning. On a small workbench was a machine that looked like a sausage grinder to me. “Well, it’s time to grease you up like a pig at a county fair.” Kevin said with a smile. “Take a big handful of this Vaseline and smear it over all of your hands and face. If you don’t put it on thick enough, the coal dust will actually soak into your pores and it will be next to impossible to get it out until it finally decides to come out with your perspiration.” he continued. “Now, take this cotton face mask and cover your face as well as put on these rubber gloves. Next, put on the respirator.” he concluded. I could barely breathe. I felt like my face and hands were coated like a baby’s bottom and with three layers of clothing, in a metal shed with the sun baking the roof, the sweat started pouring off of me, soaking my clothes one layer at a time and I hadn’t even started to work. “The first thing that you do is to take one of the sample bottles here and place it next to the pulverizer. Then, take this air hose and blow out all of the remaining coal dust from the previous sample that is in the pulverizer.” Kevin instructed me as he took the air hose and blew out the pulverizer with high powered air. The blast of air blew the coal dust all throughout the small metal shed. Where just a few seconds before, I was able to see everything in the room, the blast of coal dust created a thick black fog that made it so dark that I could not even see my hand in front of my face. The fluorescent light was no help whatsoever. It took a good 30 seconds for the air to clear before I could make out the glow of the fluorescent light. “Now that you have the pulverizer clean, pour the new sample into the grinder and flip this switch. It will grind the coal into the size of granules that we need in order to test it. After you grind it, pour the newly ground coal back into the sample bottle and place it in the completed bin here. That’s about it. Shampoo, rinse and repeat. Have fun!” Kevin said as he walked out the door and closed it securely. What had I gotten myself into? Look at all of those sample bottles. Oh well, I better get started. I can’t imagine what that fine coal dust would have done to my lungs if I had not worn the respirator. The sweat was running down my back as I pulverized the next sample. It must have been over 100 degrees in that small room. After 3 hours, I was finally finished with all of the samples. I opened the door and the first thing that I did was to rip off the respirator and the cotton face mask. Next, I pulled the latex gloves off of my hands. The perspiration that my hands had produced filled the fingertips of the latex gloves. “Hey brother, looks like you have joined the hood!” Rufus yelled across the building. I had no idea what he was talking about. The walk back to the lab seemed like a long one. I was drenched in sweat and still wearing my 3 layers of clothing. I walked in the back door to the changing room and slowly took off the first two layers. When I went into the bathroom to wash my hands, I looked in the mirror. I looked like a raccoon. Except where the respirator was on my mouth and nose, my entire face was black as coal, no pun intended. No wonder Rufus said what he did. I took the hand soap and tried to clean my face and hands. I looked in the mirror, not a bit had been removed. What the heck I thought! How will I ever get this stuff off. I walked into the lab and Kevin looked up from what he was doing and just smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Welcome to the club!” he exclaimed. “How in the heck do I get this stuff off?” I asked. “Well, the only thing we have found that works is to go home and scrub yourself with Lava soap.” Kevin shared. Kevin told me that I was done for the day and to go home to clean up. Now, I knew why the guys from the collection department looked the way that they did when they would come into the lab. Did these guys get all of this stuff off of them each day I wondered. After I got home, the first thing I did was to take off my coal colored clothing and shoes. I was surprised to see that the coal dust had actually gone through my socks into my feet. I turned on the water to the tub and took the rough bar of Lava soap and started to scrub with a wash cloth. After about 30 minutes, I figured that I had gotten most of it off, but when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I had only touched the surface. I scrubbed and scrubbed with that rough soap until my skin was red. It took almost 3 days for all of the coal to work it’s way out of my pores. Kevin explained that I should have put the Vaseline around my eyelids as well, the more the better. Eventually, I was able to actually perform some real experiments in the lab. I actually created several automatic procedures and tools to eliminate the archaic way that they cleaned crucibles and ground the coal. I configured a motor on a stand that connected to the coffee grinder so that this process was not performed by hand any longer. If there was a way to automate or simplify processes, I would invent something that would help. Mr. Shepard liked to do things the old fashioned way, but Pat and Kevin love my inventions. From time to time, they still needed “volunteers” to pulverize coal and found out that if I did not “volunteer” first, then I would be seen as a loafer and would be sent back to cleaning equipment. It was a hard and dirty job, but I did enjoy working in the lab and coming up with ways to improve our daily tasks. I also realized that a job title, fossil fuel analyst, means more to people than what they actually do. Eventually I had to leave because they barely paid more than minimum wage at the time and I got tired of going home to eat potted meat sandwiches, which was all that I could afford at the time. Titles are nothing I realized, it’s what you do that matters and if what you are doing makes a difference in others lives.