The great Highland conspiracy happened 40 years ago this month- it took many weeks of planning and diligent effort. On May 20, 1977 the fruits of all that labor came to pass; I got fired by the Highland Appliance Company. As a result I suffered through having the entire summer off before leaving for college and getting paid for it. Here’s how it all happened…
It actually began on the day that I got hired at Highland Appliance. The local district manager, fellow by the name of Stan, had interviewed me specifically as their TV and stereo "road technician." I was to replace a guy named Arnold who, I suspect, the character of Les Nessman from the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati had been patterned after by the show's writers. The job was essentially little more than that of a TV repair man- I drove around in a Highland van, went into people's homes and fixed their brand-new TVs while little kids in catsup-stained T-shirts tried to steal my tools. It was a crummy job but the pay was great and as a 19-year-old bachelor looking toward college I thought I had it pretty good. The service manager, however, disagreed with Stan's choice and hated me from the very beginning. Just for the record I won't use his real name, we'll just call him "Doink.”
From the very beginning Doink was on my case. You see the company headquarters in Taylor, Michigan had set up what they called “a required completion rate.” In other words, there was a specific number of calls where I was supposed to arrive, completely fix what was wrong and move on to the next call. When it was not possible to fix whatever device it was that Highland had sold the customer that was defective right out-of-the-box, I had to bring it into the shop; such things were called "shop pulls" and did not count as a "complete." According to the home office figures I was required to get 8.6 completes per day. The problem was that the home office had based their figures on service calls being performed in the densely populated suburban Detroit area. Not only were sales greater in those areas but calls were closer together. In my area of operation, which was Saginaw, Michigan, my calls were often in rural areas that required a good deal of driving to and from the call. Additionally sales were far lower than they were in the Detroit area. To make matters worse, I vary rarely had more than 8 calls, so getting an 8.6 average was almost impossible. To Doink it made no difference, my daily completes had to come up to the home office's average; no excuses.
As the months went on through the winter my job became more and more of a pain in the ass. Then came that magical day when I got my letter of acceptance to the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach Florida. My final letter of enrollment arrived on April 25, 1977 for a class that was supposed to begin on the first day of September. When Doink found out that I would be leaving in four months he decided to try and get rid of me more quickly by really turning the screws to see if I would quit. However, the other technicians that worked in the shop, who hated Doink perhaps more than I did, had a different idea. Ken, who is the shop lead, did little bit of homework. He discovered that under the Michigan Employment Security Commission’s (MESC)schedule, my wage level was the lowest that would provide maximum benefit. Meaning that if I made any higher wage, I would still get the same benefit, but if I made any less I would be in a lower benefit category. Also under that same commission, if I were to be fired without having provided any damage to the company, such as theft, damage to facilities, or punching my boss in the mouth, I was entitled to collect unemployment benefits immediately. But, if I were to quit, it would be six weeks before my benefits would kick in. Together with his friend Gary, who was our "white goods technician" or the guy who fixed the stoves, dryers and dishwashers, they hatched a plan that would allow me to depart Highland Appliance and get the summer off with pay. All I had to do was be so crappy at my job that Doink would just have to fire me. It was a diabolical scheme that I bought into immediately.
Suddenly while out on the road I acted as if I just couldn't figure out how to fix the most simple problems. At nearly every call I would have to phone back into the office and ask Doink what I should do about this broken piece of equipment. I took extra long lunch hours, in fact, I even took a few occasions to throw my hockey bag into the back of my van and go to the ice arena at noon and spend a couple hours playing pickup hockey. One of the girls in the office told me that Doink was positive that I was hanging out in a bar somewhere. She giggled at the fact that Doink didn't know me well enough to know that I'm a non-drinker. My average of completes soon dropped to about one per day and Doink was slowly going out of his mind as the home office pestered him to do something about me other than firing me.
I have to admit here that I was not the stereotypical TV repair guy that some of you reading this may remember from the days when people actually got their TVs repaired in their homes. I didn't walk around wearing a jacket with a white oval patch that had my name on it. I didn't lug around a big giant tube caddy and I didn't spend a lot of time counseling customers on what was wrong with their television. Instead of the horn-rimmed glasses wearing repair nerd that they were expecting to come into their home carrying a giant case filled with assorted electronic tubes, which we didn't use anymore, what they got was a 19-year-old kid in blue jeans with a nut driver in his back pocket, a clipboard in one hand and a module to fix the TV in the other hand. For example, we had a rash of Admiral TVs that always seem to blow their sound cards. I'd look on the dispatch, see it was an admiral, see it was a sound issue, grab the module, enter the house, pull back of the TV, swap out the module, replace the back of the TV and have the entire repair done before the customer was finished bitching about the problem. I made it in and out of one call in just 11 minutes- and then scooted over to the ice rink to spend an hour or so playing shinny. That was all it really took to get the job done. At one point they had one of the technicians from in the shop ride with me to ensure that I carried my tube caddy around, "because that's what the customers expected to see." Needless to say nothing worked- they were going to have to fire me for "inability to perform job function" which was exactly what Ken and Gary had planned.
The final straw came when on May 18th when Doink handed out a series of blue-and-white patches made in the form of the Highland logo. They were intended for us to sew on a jacket or a shirt. That night I sewed mine onto the ass of my blue jeans, and wore them to work the next day. As I was bending over filling out my trip sheet for the day Doink walked by, stopped and asked, "is that all you think of the company you work for?" Glancing over my shoulder I simply said, "Yep." Doink stormed off to his office and slammed the door. I walked back into the shop, glanced at Ken, who had watched the entire thing, and said, "I think I'm all done here." We both snickered- our plan had apparently worked. He asked if I was gonna enjoy having the summer off with pay?
The following morning I showed up at work and only had four calls on my list with a note saying, "return to shop after last call." Again I walked back into the shop, showed the guys the message and we all quietly celebrated. Gleefully I ran my last four calls telling every single customer that this was my last day and I was going away to college in Florida to learn to become a professional pilot. Every one of them congratulated me and a couple of them said that they wished they could go with me.
Returning to the shop I walked in with the same feeling I had when they open the penalty box door and let you in after you've just won a fight. Doink beckoned me into his office and sat me down as morose as an undertaker. He gave me a long-winded explanation about how I was unable to come up to the company standards and they were going to have to "let me go." I tried to act a bit stunned and somewhat sad when in fact I felt like I’d just scored a goal. It was all I could do to not raise my hands in the air and shout "Wahoooo!” Then, being the completely inept manager that Doink was, he made a critical mistake. He asked me if I wanted to wait while he inventoried my truck or if I just wanted one of the guys to take my truck and drive me home? It was similar to him having asked, "do you want to stay here and talk me out of hanging myself, or do you just want to leave and let me do it." For a moment I thought of that scene in the movie "Silver Streak" where the state trooper asks Richard Pryor if he'd like to chase the bad guys, or just go home and he hangs his head pretending to weep and says, "this is been a terrible ordeal I just want to go home." Although I didn't pretend to weep I acted glum and said, “I just wanna go home.”
The reason why I was so eager to not hang around while he "inventoried" my van was the fact that I knew full well that once I left the van in his charge without having it inventoried in front of me I was no longer responsible for anything that may be missing from the van. But, Doink thought that this was his big opportunity to really hang me. When I showed up at the unemployment office to file my claim they told me that Highland was withholding my paperwork as well as my final check which, by the way, under Michigan law he was required to give to me at the moment that he fired me. Now I had to go back to Highland and face-off with Doink to get my check and my paperwork. When I got there he accused me of major theft of items from the van. Of course I hadn't stolen a thing. My whole goal was to get cleanly fired so I could collect my unemployment right away.
One thing that I've always learned in life is that when you're going up against a company and an idiot such as Doink the best thing that you can do to ensure that you win is to go up as high as you possibly can and dump a large load of shit down toward them. Because shit travels downhill and increases in velocity as it does so. In this case it was actually my dad who came up with a very unique idea. He advised me to call my local state congressional representative and complain about Highland’s antics with my unemployment. Believe it or not the congressman was actually in his office and took my call. He listened intently and then simply said, "We'll take care of this immediately." Within an hour I got a call from Stan my former district manager. He said, "I have just one question for you. Were you present when Doink inventoried the van?" Of course I said "no" and then he went on to read to me the list of items that Doink had submitted to the company of things missing from the van. About 90% of those items were things that I did not carry in the van at all, nor did any of the other drivers in the company. I brought up that point with Stan and he simply said, "I know." Stan then told me to wait about 45 minutes, go to Highland, pick up my final paycheck and then proceed to the unemployment office where my paperwork will be waiting.
To let you know just how popular Doink was at that Highland store, there was a day when one of the salesmen approached me in the parking lot and seriously told me that he would give me the biggest TV set of my choice if I would kill Doink. I thought it was a joke but he went on to tell me that he thought I was one of the few people he knew of who had the temperament to do such a thing and was savvy enough to dispose of the body! The attitude of almost everybody else that I met at that company was the same when it came to Doink. When I showed up to get my final paycheck Doink was in and out of the office several times while I waited on the sales floor. Ken came out, took me aside and said that Stan was on his way up from the home office and Ken had been told to be ready to take over Doink’s job. The salesman were all giddy with delight. One told me he's never seen Doink this nervous and they’re loving every second of it. Before long Doink showed up and reached through the service window with an envelope. I took it and then pointing it right back at him said, "You had no right to hold this from me." Standing just behind me, my dad placed his hand firmly on my shoulder; perhaps sensing that I wanted to ask Doink if he remembered birth and then pull him through that window. As we left the store and got into the parking lot I threw my hands in the air shouted out aloud "Wahoo! He shoots- he scores!” Dad laughed and just shook his head.
Indeed I got the entire summer of 1977 off with pay. I spent my time between camping up north and going down south to Plymouth and hanging out with my girlfriend. Highland Appliance was the only job from which I was fired in my entire life. Although I have been furloughed from three flying jobs, in aviation we don't consider that as being fired. I had a lot of managers who were idiots, but none who were as inept as Doink. So, I needed a summer vacation- with pay.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: All of my typos belong to Dragon.