VW Bug
VW Bug
VW Bug

What I Learned From a Dirty Chicken Leg

As a high school sophomore in Odessa, Texas, I landed a job as a part-time delivery boy. I was part of a teenage team of drivers for a fast-food restaurant called "Broasted Chicken." We had a small fleet of VW Bugs, and we delivered chicken dinners around town.

My first night on the job—and my very first delivery—was a minor disaster.

The chicken was packaged in flimsy white cardboard boxes, and it took practice to handle them properly. When I arrived at the customer’s address, just as I was getting five boxes out of the back seat, I dropped two of them. The chicken spilled out, and all I could do was grope around on the floor in the dark feeling for drumsticks and wings, which I put back in the boxes, hoping they would be alright.

When I rang the bell, the door was opened by one of my high school friends. Okay, I thought, this isn’t good. I was starting to feel guilty. As my friend’s father told me to put the boxes on the kitchen table, I knew I had to speak up. Sheepishly I said, “You might want to check those boxes.” My friend’s dad was puzzled and annoyed. “What do you mean I need to check the boxes?” he asked, opening them up to take a look. When he saw that his family’s dinner looked like it had been dipped in a bowl of dirt, he wasn’t happy—he was angry.

I called my boss, told him what happened, he sent someone with a new order, and I was sure I would be fired. Everybody called the boss “Doc Cree,” and everyone except his wife was afraid of him. He was a huge man who frequently yelled at the cooking equipment as well as the delivery staff. Although it was my first night, I already knew that when Doc Cree was angry, you needed to be somewhere else.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing my boss after my botched delivery.

As if my aborted attempt to deliver dirt-covered chicken wasn’t enough, as I was leaving to make my next delivery, I pulled away from a stop sign, accelerated, then shifted into second gear. Suddenly, the floor-mounted gear stick went limp. I coasted into a filling station, called Doc Cree again, and trying to hold back tears I said, “The transmission is out.”

Now there was no question. I would definitely be fired.

People often surprise us. Doc Cree was reasonable about my botched delivery and broken transmission—apparently the VWs routinely broke down—and I kept my job. Soon, I knew how to balance the white boxes, get to each delivery location quickly without getting a speeding ticket, and how to avoid pushing whichever VW I was driving too hard. And I learned that being genuinely polite to the customer almost always generated a higher tip.

Several weeks after my first night on the job, a guy named Doug joined our delivery team. His first order was six of the boxed dinners—piping hot—headed for an unfamiliar address on the south side of Odessa, near the big petrochemical plant. As the evening wore on, all of us “veteran” delivery guys started to wonder what had happened to Doug.

You could make a round trip to any location in Odessa in 20 minutes or so, but in 1963, before GPS units and cell phones, you had to know where you were going. Apparently, Doug didn’t. Someone said he had found a land-line and called in early in the evening to ask for directions, but no one had heard from him since.

Doc Cree gave up on Doug, sent another guy to make the delivery, and the other guy was already back. Just as we were calling it a night, Doug finally walked in the door looking like the world’s most discouraged teenager. He had spent the whole evening seaching unsuccessfully for the location of his delivery. When someone opened Doug's Styrofoam container—the one used to carry the dinner boxes and keep the food warm—the flimsy white boxes were all open, the food had fallen out, and was strewn all over the inside of the container. I felt sorry for Doug. I’d been there. But I knew that regardless of how frightening Doc Cree might be, he could show mercy if it was your first night on the job.

Doc Cree fired Doug on the spot.

Years later, I pondered on why Doug got fired on his first night and I didn’t.

The broken transmission had nothing to do with me, and Doc Cree knew that. But what about my messed up first delivery? Why wasn't my first night on the job my last? Here's what I decided: How I handled my mistake was more important than the fact that I made it. Although my initial reaction was putting the chicken back in the boxes and hoping to be gone before they were opened, I decided to admit my error, realized I could not fix it by myself, and called in for help so the customer could have a hot—dirt-free—meal as quickly as possible.

I wasn't thinking of it in these terms at the age of 15, but I had, almost accidentally, decided that finding a solution was more important than avoiding blame.

And that's the moral of this story: Finding solutions is better than avoiding—or assigning—blame.

Tim Sledge Copyright © 2018