The cafeteria at my work used to sell Greenberry coffee which is a local Charlottesville institution that has seen great growth outside of the local mom and pop store that started it all.  Their coffee is really good. But then our cafeteria changed hands and now they feature Starbucks java.  Not to be insulting to Starbucks lovers, but I’ve always found their coffee to be on the bitter side.

Nevertheless I frequent our local haunt.  Perhaps it’s more for the social experience than the coffee.  It’s certainly not the caffeine.  Caffeine is an enemy in my older existence.  I corkscrew on a Diet Coke nowadays, so I keep a safe distance.  I end up getting a 16-ounce decaf blend each morning.  So maybe I really do like bitter, because that’s about all I end up with.  It’s like ex-smokers that miss the habit of lighting up more than they do the actual smoke.

The cafeteria recently handed out promotional bonus cards – buy 10 cups of coffee and get one free.  Each morning I diligently remembered to carry my little card with me so the cashier could check off my purchases.  This morning would have been my 10th cup, meaning tomorrow I’d actually get a $2.12 cup of coffee for free.  Except somewhere between my walk from the parking lot to my building, I lost my card.

It’s the little things that make you crazy.  At least me anyway.  Many would classify today as a bad day at work.  Especially when I got to my desk and discovered our systems were hosed.  Great.  Stuff is broken and I lost my coffee card.

There have been worse days.  I just have to don my perspective hat.

When I turned 16, I got a job working for McDonald’s.  In 1971, most McDonald’s were still company stores vs. being privately owned franchises.  They had rules.  Appearance was key and so was training.  The first station I learned was Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and hot apple pies.

After I’d been on the job for a while, I manifested that cocky swagger you get when you’re not only qualified to deep-fry apple pies, you’re pretty good at everything else, too.

Each year, McDonald’s sponsored the “All-American” competition where workers were allowed to compete against each other for what amounted to bragging rights.  As I recall, there was no cash incentive for winning, just a certificate with your name on it.  There were 6 categories:  Filet-O-Fish and apple pies, dress, buns, grill, shakes and fries, and working the window, also known as the counter, since drive-thru windows weren’t normal fare then.

I competed in all 6 categories.  I won 2 of them – fish and pies, and dress which involved applying condiments – everything from mustard, ketchup and pickles to lettuce and cheese.  I came in 2nd on 2 of the other 4 categories – buns and window.  We were judged on speed, accuracy, service, and teamwork.  At 16, I was good at all that stuff.

Perhaps my swagger was understandable given my obviously God-given McDonald’s talents.

Swagger, sometimes confused with confidence, can be bad when you get a little too much movement going.  Over-confidence will kill you every time.

It was an evening shift on a Saturday.  All-American winner Doug Bari had to throw some apple pies in.  When I lowered the metal rack of frozen pies into the 360-degree shortening, one slid out of the rack.

Don’t ask me why I thought I could catch it before it hit the boiling oil.  Hey, I was an All-American which included the speed and accuracy accolades.  I made the grab, mis-judged, and followed the pie into the bubbling grease.

It was my right hand.  I submerged it completely up to my wrist.  Not for long.  Indeed.  When the electric ripple raced up my arm firing on all cylinders, I was quick to remove my hand.  The immediate effect was cartoonish.  In mere seconds, my hand reddened and swelled up like an over-inflated latex glove.  My skinny little wrist was sporting a large Mickey Mouse hand.

I didn’t scream.  I didn’t cry out.  I think I was in shock that I’d done it.  My nerve endings went to a multi-alarm fire within about 5 seconds.

The manager on duty came over when I signaled him.  I remember he got close to pissed.

“Dammit, Doug!  How did you even do that?”

Yeah.  Stupid.  Me and my cartoon hand nodded in I-have-no-idea agreement.

We still had a few hours to go before the store closed at 1 AM.  McDonald’s traffic was heavy as it always was on Saturday nights.

The manager walked me back to our large ice-making machine that constantly cranked out little ice-cubes into a large cooled bin.  Window people scooped ice directly from the bin to use for soft drinks up at the counter.

“Stick your hand in the ice,” the manager instructed.

I did as I was told.  For about 20 minutes.  Window people came back and scooped around my bloated hand, laughing at me for being so stupid.

When I couldn’t take icing anymore, I pulled my severely red hand out and announced, “I think I need to go to the hospital.”

The manager was still upset.  Now he was going to have to fill out paperwork.  “We’ll go after your shift is over,” he groused.

For the next couple of hours, I cooked in the back, in between sticking my hand in the ice machine.

At 1 AM, after locking the doors, the manager drove me to the hospital emergency room where salve was applied with a heavy wrap of bandages.

My hand never scarred from that.  Even then.  It was red and swollen for days, but then it healed.

Older people sometimes muse that they’d love to return to their youth with the knowledge they have now.  In this particular case, that would be great, wouldn’t it?  Then instead of jamming my hand in the ice machine, I could have used my good hand to dial a lawyer and my personal finances could have been enhanced greatly.

In the 90s, I worked with an older Italian man named Joe who was affectionately known as Papa Joe.  He was always a fountain of wisdom.

When it came to jobs, he used to laugh and tell me, “Hey, if you got a job and no one’s shootin’ bullets at ya, you got a good job!”

I have had live weapons aimed at me more than once in my life.

Each time, it was not the experience I thought it would be.  I thought I might feel fear.  Be frozen.  Nope.  It’s always been more surreal.  A kind of “Oh, you gotta be kidding me” moment.  It’s only when I reflect on it later that I go, “Oh, I’m glad that went as smoothly as it did.”

Case in point.

I was a young sergeant in the Air Force.  Schierstein, Germany.  Early 1980s.  It was my first time closing a vault by myself.  The procedure was:  Close the vault, spin the dial, call the military police to activate alarms.

The vault I was closing was on an upper floor.  In the hallway outside the vault was a window that provided a bird’s-eye view of the front gate of the compound.

I closed the vault.  Spun the dial.  Called the military police from the phone mounted on the wall next to the vault door.

The final part of securing things was authenticating on the phone with the cops.  The guard gave you a prompt and I was supposed to provide a response that proves I am authorized to lock up and walk away.

After being prompted, I replied with the wrong answer.

They didn’t tell you if you mis-authenticated.

There was a slight pause on the other end of the line when I didn’t give the expected response.  Had I been savvy enough, I would have picked up on the hiccup right away.  I might have had a chance to correct myself.  The guard hesitated.  Waited for me to be savvy.

“Are we good?” I asked.

“Yeah, we’re good,” the guard said before he hung up.

As I turned to go down the stairs to the front door of the building, I looked out the window and saw the gates closing at the guard shack.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself. “Wonder why they’re closing the gate.”

It was a few flights down to the front door of the building.  I stepped outside to greet my SWAT team.  It was like something out of the movies.  Squad cars with open doors facing me.  Military cops crouched behind the doors with guns trained.  Lots of MF shouting which basically boiled down to they wanted me to lay on my back on the ground.

After I complied, a young cop sprinted out from behind a car with his M-16.  This kid was nervous and he was green.  Showing off for his superiors.  Waving the muzzle within an inch of my temple.  Yelling lots of MF stuff at me.  Shaking crazy with his finger resting on the trigger.  As he screamed for me to not move, he instructed me to slowly remove my military ID from my pocket.

My mind was quite rational during the moment.  The muzzle touched and rested against my head as I inched my hand in my uniform and produced the requested ID.

The kid cop never dropped his intensity level.  There I was staring up at him hovering over me with this look on his face.  He was itching for me to provoke him.  My thought was, “Man, all it’s going to take is a single twitch from me or his finger on that trigger and this shaky red-faced kid is going to shoot me in the head.”

When they figured out I was street legal and had just screwed up, the shouted commands stopped and the guns were lowered.

More than one guy shook his head in disappointment.  It would have been much more fun to shoot me.  But then there’d be paperwork.  So on that day, I almost had a Papa Joe kind of job, just shy of rounds actually going off.

In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as my run-in with a paper cutter.

In 1987, I worked at a government contracts facility in Germany.

I was working a rush job.  Or maybe I was making it into a rush job.  Don’t recall.  What I do recall was me using an ancient rusty paper cutter with no finger guard – it had been broken off.  There’s a reason they put finger guards on paper cutters.

I was cutting standard sheets of paper into smaller sizes.  Shove the paper to the right and chop.  Shove, chop, shove, chop, shove, chop.  As I stared the office clock down, I tried to work faster.  And that all worked until I shoved one sheet just a little too far to the right and did a chop when I shouldn’t have.

Important safety tip:  Never use your thumb as a buffer between a sheet of paper and a large cutting block.  What happens when you ignore the safety tip:  The thumb does not win.

I brought the blade down fast, realized I had overshot with my left hand positioning, and tried to take it back.  Which was good, because if I’d completed the cut, I would have lost most of my left thumb.  As it was, I did a pretty good job of cutting vertically through the end of my digit, slicing the nail right down the middle.  When I held up my hand in shocked “I don’t believe I just did that” mode, the end of my thumb was literally butterflied, exposing the white tip of the bone.

It didn’t bleed immediately.  Even my thumb was like “What the hell was that?”

Then two things came home to roost.  The registering of pain and the blood.  Lots of both.

It was clear I needed medical attention.  I was in a room all by myself.  I found a paper towel dispenser and ripped out a handful of cheap brown towels which I promptly wrapped tightly around my wounded thumb.  I squeezed and applied pressure with my good hand.

I walked to a nearby office and announced to a small group of co-workers that I needed a ride to the emergency room.  A guy got up from his desk not believing I was really hurt.  I unwrapped my hand and peeled back the paper towels so he could see for himself.  He came close to fainting before telling me he didn’t want to take me because he was afraid I would bleed in his car.

Someone else jumped up and volunteered to chauffeur me, but the whole way to the hospital, he kept eyeing me like he was worried about his upholstery, too.

We got there without incident.  The driver kept asking me, “Are you okay?”

In the emergency room, I was escorted off to a small room by a beefy military guy.  He walked me over to a large industrial sink and started running water.

My thumb was thumping to beat the band and I must confess I felt nauseous.

After gingerly unwrapping the wad of paper towels, the military nurse told me to hold my hand under the water.

My thumb spewed ribbons of blood under the water.

“Now keep your hand under the water,” said the burly nurse.

He reached behind him and opened a drawer in a stainless steel utility table and turned back to me cupping something wrapped in plastic.  It was a scouring pad.  The kind you use to scour stubborn pots and pans.  Sponge on one side, a stiff abrasive mesh on the other.

He peeled the plastic wrapper off and gripped the pad in his right hand.  He then firmly took hold of my left wrist and held my thumb in an iron grip under the water.

He grinned a little when he quipped, “Okay, we have to clean this and you’re not going to like this part.”

Using the hard mesh side, he scrubbed my butterflied thumb with vigor and believe me when I tell you that having that done against lacerated flesh and exposed bone smarts a little.

As he scrubbed with a vice grip on me, he said, “You know why they call them paper cutters, right?”

I was about to pass out when he added, “They call them paper cutters because they’re meant for paper.  They’re not made for thumbs.”

If ever there was a guy I wanted to punch in the head, it was this jackass.

I like being older when it comes to rifling through my mental Rolodex of memories.  Being able to reference life’s lessons keeps me in humble perspective.

For the longest time, my paper cutter thumb was sensitive to pressure – it even thumped a little from time to time.  That part’s over.  If I have a need to use a paper cutter nowadays, I make my approach with newfound respect.

I am happy to say I currently do not have a job where people are shooting bullets at me.  So anytime I start getting into a tude about minor scratches like losing my breakfast coffee rewards card, I try to put myself in check.

Papa Joe had another saying.

“If that’s the worst thing that happens to me today, I’m having a great day.”

And when I get my perspective hat on snug, I think about how many great days I’ve had.

There was the day I stuck my hand in boiling oil. No scar.

There was the day I mis-authenticated and I could have been shot. But I wasn’t.

There was the day when I almost lost my thumb. It doesn’t thump anymore.

Yeah, I’ve had a lot of great days when I think about it.

So to hell with that free cup of coffee.

It’s bad for me anyway…