What the hell is a biome? When I took the Ecology Center job, I had absolutely no clue. I’m not sure I even had much of a clue when I left the job. As best as I was ever able to determine, researching one involves taking a section of wilderness somewhere, marking it off into square foot grids, then sifting through everything and documenting it. This kept several graduate students busy for a couple years while they wrote their theses and dissertations. The government gave them money to do this, so it must be important work. I’m sure there are entire sections of the Utah desert that have been thoroughly cataloged. I have to admit my resistance to learning much about biomes was based on a complete lack of interest.
Fred’s office managed the property required for all the research projects, which included camping equipment, lab equipment, and a motor pool. He also acquired equipment from various sources, and frequently went to government auctions to buy more things.
Anybody remember computer punched cards? I remember people making Christmas wreaths out of them. Fred would send me to the Computer Center with a box (or two) of punch cards and give me directions on how to run them. For some reason, I never related this process with the huge bound computer-generated reports that Fred would later pick up. Another blast from the past – thick stacks of computer printouts with holes in the side for the printer feeds, bound in cardboard binders. I’m not sure what all the reports were – either I never knew or didn’t care enough to remember – but I know one of them was a database of all the property maintained by Fred’s office. Does this sound like a snore? It was, especially in this particular out-of-the-way office building. This was the closest I got to any kind of technology at this job.
Our office was in an older building that looked like it had been thrown together shortly after the end of WW II. It was one of a couple set in a cluster around a newer four-story building that housed the rest of Natural Resources, along with Wildlife, Biology and a couple of other departments. Our building was pretty small; in it, the Ecology Center had three rooms. Additionally, there was a bathroom and a couple of other rooms occupied by graduate students, who seemed to be in the field or in class most of the time, so it was pretty quiet. My office was in the largest room and had file cabinets and whatever else was generally needed. Fred had a small office and there was another small room with a typewriter that was used occasionally.
If you couldn’t tell from the introduction to Fred in my last post (Part 2 of this series), working for Fred turned out to be quite the experience. He was one of the most challenging people I’ve ever worked with. He was short and very round and had a Napoleon complex as large as… well, Napoleon. This was unfortunate in and of itself, but I’m sure having a secretary who is 6′-0″ and a department head who is 6′-4″ didn’t help any. Fred was determined that if he had to be a small dog, he was going to have the loudest bark and the biggest bite – at least with any dog he felt was below him in the pecking order. With Fred, whatever I did, I did it wrong; if I didn’t do it, I should’ve done it (but probably would’ve done it wrong). I was tearing out my hair. After a couple months of Fred, I went back to the HR department and begged my friend to find me something else. There wasn’t anything else, and she cautioned me about leaving another job so soon and getting a reputation as a job hopper. She advised that I figure out a way to make it work with Fred.
Fred was a master of making mountains out of molehills. One of the first things he drilled into me was how he wanted phone calls handled. When I answered the phone, I wasn’t to ask who was calling; he expected me to recognize voices after the first couple of calls, or after speaking in person with someone. He worked with his office door open and if he heard me ask for the name of a caller, he would wait until I put the call on hold and then chew me out, especially if it was someone whose voice he thought I should recognize. I often wondered why he had someone answering the phones for him because I swear he dropped everything he was doing every time the phone rang, so he could eavesdrop. If he was on the phone, he would sometimes place the call on hold, not so he could answer the other phone line, but to eavesdrop. Finding out a caller was someone whose voice I hadn’t previously heard didn’t back him down any, either, and he never apologized. To this day, I have a very good memory for voices because Fred drilled it into me. I’m not sure it’s an entirely useful skill, and probably not one that’s worth the amount of grief Fred gave me over it.
One of Fred’s other “rules” was that the campus interdepartmental mail system was never to be used. Thankfully, we dealt with a limited number of offices and this didn’t require hiking out to the far-flung departments on the edge of campus. Still, in the dead of winter, walking around campus to deliver mail was no fun. This introduced me to another game Fred played – and let me tell you, it took quite awhile before I caught on to him. On occasion, he would return from running errands or going to meetings and tell me he’d stopped in at the campus mail department “just to check” to see if there was any mail there for the Ecology Center. The interdepartmental envelopes supplied by the University had holes punched in them. According to Fred, this was so they could run a long wire through them and make sure the envelopes were empty before they recycled them. (I’m still not certain if that’s the true purpose of the holes – but whatever!) He claimed he’d run the wire through a bunch of envelopes and found some that had been sent to the Ecology Center (i.e., me) that still had mail, accusing me of being careless about opening all the mail we received, and then sending the envelopes back to the mail center with mail still in them. He would hand me this “found” mail as proof, mail I had never seen. Once I caught onto this game, I was pretty sure it was mail he’d just picked up at the mail center that day. He also claimed on more than one occasion to have found mail from our department being sent out through the interdepartmental mail, having found the envelopes in the recycling pile without the receiving department opening and reading them. Which, of course, he discovered by running the wire through the “empties” pile of envelopes. This was held up as proof that the campus delivery system was unreliable and supported his edict that all mail be hand delivered, as well as providing him with an opportunity to accuse me of not following his direction to hand deliver the mail. This had me baffled for months, because just as surely as he knew I had messed up, I knew I never put anything in the interdepartmental mail and that I opened and emptied all the mail received. How could this happen? As I suppose Fred intended, this made me a little bit crazy and I became hypervigilant. Which didn’t help because Fred continued making these claims.
The other game he liked to play that drove me crazy was claiming he’d tried to call the office numerous times when he was out of town, and nobody answered. Remember – still no voice mail. The phone would have rung until the caller hung up. He’d rake me over the coals on where I’d been that day, or question whether I’d even come to work at all. He would even claim that other people in the department had told him they’d come into the office to look for me, and I wasn’t there. Again, I was completely baffled. Where would I go? To the bathroom? Certainly, but that doesn’t take long and I could hear the phone ring. And there was no occasion when I’d gone to the bathroom and the phone had rung. Maybe I’d been delivering mail? He found this acceptable to a point, but claimed he’d called at 15-minute intervals for a couple of hours, more than enough time for me to deliver the mail, and the phone wasn’t ever answered. More crazy-making bafflement for me. This went on for a couple months and at this point, I was certain I was losing my mind. The occasion arose when he was again going out of town for the day, and my sister asked if she could come use the extra typewriter in the office. Fred said it was okay and she came and spent the entire day there, typing a paper. She got to the office shortly after I did, we ate lunch together in the office, and we left together. On the rare occasions I had to leave the office, I told her not to answer the phone if it rang, but she told me the phone never rang when I was gone. Nobody came into the office all day. In short, it was a typical day for the office. The next day, Fred started in on me again with the usual “where were you, I tried calling all day and you never answered the phone.” He listed all the people who had complained to him that they’d been in the office and couldn’t find me. He must have forgotten my sister had been there, or he didn’t realize she was going to be there the entire day. I asked him how many times he thought he’d called and he said at least a dozen times. I told him that not only had I been there to answer the phone all day – which, by the way, had rung only a couple of times, and was answered when it did – but my sister had been there all day and could back me up on that, and the fact that the phone didn’t ring at all when I was out of the office. For the first time, I realized Fred had been lying to me about the phone calls, about the mail, and about a lot of other things I’ve probably forgotten over the years. I finally had the ammunition I needed to call him on it. I told him I knew he was lying about it, I didn’t know why and didn’t want to know, but it had to stop. He never tried the phone game with me again.
Shortly after our come-to-Jesus talk, Fred was gone to another government auction and was away for the day. I usually walked to work, and this day was no different, but I was running a little behind and didn’t want to be late for work, even though Fred wasn’t going to be there to say anything about it. There were a lot of other people hurrying to work and to classes. As I was walking past the Natural Resources building, a movement on one of the upper floors caught my eye. I looked up – and there was a naked man dangling from a window on the third floor! He was facing the building and had his fingers hooked onto the window sill. I stopped and took a good look, just to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing, and confirmed that yes indeed – there was a naked man hanging by his fingertips from a window on the third floor. I looked around to see if anyone else had seen this, but it seemed I was the only one who noticed. Nobody else was reacting, they were busy hustling to jobs and classes. I watched him for a minute, looked at my watch, and realized I was going to be late for work if I didn’t get moving. What was I thinking?? It certainly would have been more entertaining, not to mention instructional, to stay and see what the guy was going to do. Duty called louder than curiosity, however, and I skinned through the office door right at 8 a.m. This didn’t stop me from wondering about this odd event, however, and when Fred returned the next day, I told him about it. Once I stopped letting Fred make me think I was going insane, I discovered he was quite the campus busybody and gossip. He looked at me like I was actually insane and said “you didn’t stay to see what happened, or tell anyone?” Well, no, I didn’t want to be late for work. Fred went into busybody high gear and asked me to show him the window in question, then set about to discover the details. It turned out the window was to one of the women’s bathrooms, and there had been an illicit party late into the night. So much for campus security. Fred’s theory was the guy woke up late and maybe one of his party friends had taken his clothes as a joke. Rather than walk through the building naked, he escaped out the window, then didn’t know what to do. Fred even scouted the bushes beneath the window and determined some looked crushed, so he figured the guy finally dropped to the ground, apparently didn’t hurt himself, then took off across campus (naked). This was all conjecture and theory, and we’ll never know what actually happened. Why nobody else saw this, I’ll never know – it remains one of those unsolved mysteries.
Fred and I got along much better after that, but I basically changed my personality in order to get along with him. He was better, but that’s only a matter of degrees; he was who he was, and I wasn’t going to change him. As painful as it was, I’m glad my HR friend told me to stick it out, because it was a great lesson in learning how to work with difficult people. I never trusted him again, but instead of fighting his chronic game playing and lies, I’d just let it roll past me without giving it any significance, but I never ever defended myself or apologized to him again. Basically, I gave him the sort of responses you give people when you aren’t really listening but you can’t tell them to shut up and go away.
Other than the challenge of dealing with Fred, this was one of the least challenging jobs I’ve ever had, with the exception of some of the temporary jobs I’ve done. I remember more about Fred and his head games than I remember about what I actually did there. When I say this office was quiet, I mean it was like a tomb most of the time. If an actual person showed up at my office door, it was such a rare occurrence, I’d sometimes be startled. Fred would have told anyone how busy he was, but mostly he was busy with head games and being a busybody.
I never got to the point where I really liked Fred, but I could work with him. To my surprise, I found he really liked me. He seemed to make absolutely no connection between the way he treated me and how that might affect how I felt about him. I had been there a little over a year when, for reasons I don’t remember (probably loss of funding somewhere), my position was eliminated, and I was laid off. I was overjoyed. Fred cried. Yes, really.