Beyond the Blue Lights

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Ever since my discovery of LiveJournal at the ripe young age of 14, I’ve been writing online for most of my adolescence and adult life. Thankfully, most of the past evidence of my awkward younger writing years has disappeared from the Internet. And while I’m elated to see embarrassing photographs of me as a pants-less child or experiencing a brutally bad hair day scrubbed from history, an unfortunate side effect is that some of the more important elements of my history seem to have disappeared as well. Well-written articles and essays, fun stories from my youth, friends that I made and connected with online, and even accounts from some of the best classes that I’ve taken or jobs that I’ve worked are all gone.

It’s a disappointment in a lot of ways. But the cool thing is that now that I’ve built something of a more permanent little corner of the web for myself here on Almost Epic, it gives me an extraordinary opportunity to re-address some of those stories from the past. To kick things off, I’m starting by writing a little bit of a love story to one of my favorite jobs. It is the longest-lasting job I’ve held (so far!) and definitely one of the most fun.

Flashback: 2006

At this point, I was working in an industry nobody should ever be forced to work in: Fast food. Needless to say, I hated my life at this point. Though I worked with a handful of fun people at good ol’ Burger King, the reality was that I was only making $7 an hour at a dead-end job and had literally nothing else. I couldn’t afford to go to college and my dad wasn’t able to contribute to tuition, so that was out of the question. And with the small amount of work experience that I had, there was no way I was going to get something better. Sadly, flipping burgers and frying up onion rings seemed like my future. Thankfully my saving grace from this world of perpetually smelling like french fries came from the unlikeliest of places: My older brother.

FedEx Express logo.
FedEx Express logo.

He had been working for FedEx Express out at their regional “Indy Hub” out at the Indianapolis International Airport for a few good years. He tipped me off that they were always hiring people and that they paid pretty well: Upwards of about $11 or $12 an hour starting out! While that might not seem like a lot of money to most people who have real jobs, it was a couple bucks shy of doubling what I was making at the BK Lounge, so it seemed pretty great to me! In addition to the pay increase, it also took place overnight (when I was usually the most awake anyway), was only part-time, I wouldn’t have to work on the weekends, and they offered the type of benefits generally only reserved for people with full-time jobs. We’re talking health, dental, and vision insurance, 401(k) retirement accounts, sick days and PTO, tuition reimbursement if I decided to go back to school, and a whole suite of other cool perks like heavy discounts on computer software, cell phone plans, and airfare. And best of all, I wouldn’t have to make anymore goddamn hamburgers! Where do I sign up?!

Nearly two and a half months passed between when I filled out an application and “tested” for the job. I had actually started forgetting all about having applied at FedEx. I continued my depressing existence slinging burgers. This was my life. This is who I was. I distinctly even remember thinking about how when I died, people would write something like, “Loyal burger cook” in my obituary. And that would be that. The end.

Then FedEx finally called.

Yes, I’m still interested!

I realize that they ask because some people really do move on to bigger and better opportunities, but it has always been comical to me when I’ve heard the words, “Are you still interested in a job?” come from a potential employer to me over the phone. Of course I’m still interested! I’m normally thinking. Anything to get out of the hell-hole I’m in right now! The recruiter explained that they had been waiting for the background check to come back before they could hire me. Since I would be working at an airport in a post-9/11 world, there were a lot of FAA security hoops they have jump through before they’re able to hire people. Whatever the case may be, I went up to Burger King that day — when I wasn’t even scheduled to work — to pick up my paycheck and to turn in my two-week notice.

Something that always impressed me about FedEx was its entire culture and the kind of people that it attracts. Since the job is part-time, usually takes place outside of traditional “business hours,” and offers exceptional benefits, it’s a company that primarily attracts two different kinds of people: College students there for the extra income and tuition reimbursement and working adults who don’t receive enough insurance coverage from their day job. I was in a unique position sandwiched in between those two groups. I was around the same age as the college students but was technically a working adult who was in search of something better. This really helped me connect and fit in with almost everyone I met there.

The Golden Years

My first year and a half of employment with FedEx was fine. I met some great people, but not too many that would inevitably stick with me for long. I also did pretty grueling work in one of the many warehouse-type buildings at the Indy Hub where I swear temperatures easily soared over 100º F in the summer. After too long however, it really started to seem like the repetitive nature of that position, which involved sending packages down a “matrix” of conveyor belts (the area is even internally referred to as “The Matrix”), was making people a little crazy. Ultimately I decided that it was time to go.

Photo with a FedEx Boeing 757!
This is me with a FedEx Boeing 757. It’s a mid-range jet that I used to launch to Norfolk, VA, every night!

That was when I transferred to a position within the hub that paid a little more money and mostly took place outside on the ramp. More money and the opportunity to be significantly cooler during the summer months sounded like a win-win, so I became a “material handler” in the “offload” world. I joined a team that unloads and loads cargo from different types of aircraft every night. It was a ton more responsibility — we would get extensive training on driving and operating different kinds of ground equipment near multi-million dollar jumbo jets that we couldn’t so much as even gently bump into because they fly over our heads every day, after all! — but it was also a load of fun.

This position was also where I met a majority of my “FedEx crew” that I still see and connect with to this day. It was hard not to eventually grow to love these people. Most of them were super fun and cool people that I would have hung out with anyway, but add to the fact that I had to see them every night, that we got to go outside and “play” with enormous machines together, and were tasked with looking out for one another when things got dangerous (especially during severe weather since we were outside!)… I eventually grew to consider most of these people extensions of my own family. Away from FedEx, we’ve drank together, cried together, spent time together. I’ve been to several of their weddings, their parties and gatherings, even spent holidays with a few of them!

Photo of FedEx offload operations. (Photo credit: IndyStar.)
I used to be one of the guys in this photo! (Photo credit: IndyStar.)

At night at most major airports, you can see runways outlined in blue LED lights. As we would drive between gates to our next aircraft, we would sing songs, share snacks, tell stories and jokes. I used to look out over the blue lights though and tell them that one day, after I become a famous author, I would write my memoirs. And in those memoirs, there would be a title devoted specifically to each of them titled Beyond the Blue Lights.

I don’t know that I’ll ever truly be a famous author or that I’ll ever write a book. But I guess you can say that a blog is kind of like a person’s digital memoirs. So at least I’m making good on that promise, huh?

Moving Up & Moving On

I think it was towards the middle of 2012, a friendly co-worker pointed out to me that there were several positions opening up for a “ramp agent” spot. Ramp agents, at the time, were leadership and low-level supervisors over the work groups at the Indy Hub who launch different flights out at the end of a shift. They were paid quite a bit more than material handlers and even team leaders and were responsible for planning and organizing a flight’s cargo load, supervising package sort and aircraft loading operations, and ensuring that everything was finished up, verified, and that their flight departs on time. My friend suggested that I would be a great fit for this kind of job. So without thinking too much about it, I put in a bid for the job. And I think both me, my manager, and everyone I knew were surprised when I actually got it.

Photo of my dad and nephew boarding a FedEx Airbus A300!
My dad and nephew boarding a FedEx Airbus A300!

I spent a little more than a year in the role of ramp agent learning quite a bit. It was a steep learning curve too because the “outbound” work organization was a lot different than what I was used to previously. There was also a good amount of vicious competition from ramp agents who felt they were better at their job, that I was just getting in their way, and that it was a joke that someone like me had stepped into their world. To their credit, they weren’t wrong. I don’t exactly feel that I was properly prepared for the role and I struggled a lot in it. I wasn’t comfortable making executive decisions that affected both the company and my employees. I didn’t enjoy receiving blame for circumstances that were entirely out of my control. And I definitely didn’t like feeling like I had aged ten years in less than one.

I was so stressed out that I think it was even impacting my health. After returning from a brief medical leave, I finally had an extensive meeting with my boss and made the decision to step down from the position and let someone else take over. I spent my final months at FedEx helping the other two ramp agents where needed and otherwise just going through the motions of sorting packages and loading aircraft. During this period, the work group even twice awarded me with “Employee of the Month” for both April and June 2014. Those certificates wound up being exceptionally nice parting gifts.

In October 2014, a longtime friend of mine let me know that the drug testing company she worked for was looking for some full-time people to join the team. It was a full-time job, paid reasonably well, had benefits, and best of all? It would be my first job in an office environment. Not out in the elements, not doing manual labor, and not feeling completely physically exhausted at the end of every day. It would also allow me the opportunity, after eight long years, to rejoin civilization during normal daytime hours. And let’s be honest — using my brain to work every day is more my speed than flipping burgers or running boxes everywhere. They also seemed excited to have me.

Thus putting an end to my FedEx era. Which, as cliché as it sounds, truly was the best and worst of times. There were nights when I seriously considered whether or not being poor and homeless would be better than working for FedEx. But there were also nights when I was genuinely excited to go to work because it didn’t feel like a “job” to get to hang out with my friends all night. In that regards, I think that element has ultimately inspired me to keep trying to find something similar to this day. I’m constantly trying to make my current co-workers feel more like family (whether they like it or not!) and to build communities everywhere else that I frequent.

It’ll never quite be the same as those nights among the blue lights. But the world feels empty when we aren’t at least making the effort.

  • steve black

    good pic of your dad

  • Vanessa Hathaway

    BK Lounge. Don’t forget your coups!

    • Haha you and a select few others were the only decent thing about my year of working there!

  • Great post looking back. Nice to meet ya!

    • Thanks so much, Suze. Great meeting you as well!

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Joseph Black

Joseph Black

According to Wikipedia, I discovered magnesium and carbon dioxide, so that's something.

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