Mike on Skull Cleaning

posted: 04/11/12
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Mike Rowe

Here's an oldie but goody! Mike reminisces on the fine art of skull cleaning. Find out what he has to say about his on-the-job experience at one of his more memorable positions.

Show Title: Skull Cleaner

Dirty Jobs: Gandy dancer, sausage maker, skull cleaner

Premiere: July 11, 2006

The original skull-cleaning segment was one of the ultimate dirty jobs, quite possibly THE ultimate. Unfortunately, you will likely never see that version. It was deemed too graphic for broadcast, and perhaps it was. It's not my call. The version that aired, however, was, in my opinion, a bit like The Sound of Music with the songs edited out — still a good story, but minus the moments that would stick with you for a long, long time. Let me tell you what I saw on that unforgettable day, memories that I still can't shake.

Step 1. Mail Call. Every morning, UPS delivers dozens of boxes to Skulls Unlimited, boxes full of severed heads. Bear heads, deer heads, monkey heads — you name it. They come from all over the world, and their collective sight defies description. The first part of my day at SU was spent unloading and organizing these severed heads, removing them from soggy boxes one at a time. They come wrapped in newspaper and bubble pack, like fine china. It's really no different than a mailroom in any other company, except for the unique contents. To my embarrassment, I can't recall the name of the guy who unpacks these boxes — the work destroyed my short-term recall — but I do remember thinking at that moment that he must have the dirtiest job in the joint. I was wrong, because moments later, there was ...

Step 2. Remove the brains from each and every skull. This job is completed with the help of a homemade contraption called the "Brain Demiser and Cerebral Extractor," a large barrel with an internal vacuum and a long plastic tube. The actual work is executed by Dale, whose name I will never forget. Dale was quite adept at manipulating the end of said tube into the base of each skull, which, believe you me, is easier said than done. Once accomplished, he would turn on the Brain Demiser, which churned to life with a hungry growl. Then, with horrible efficiency, the brains from the skull would begin to hurtle through the transparent tube and into the barrel, where they plopped noisily onto the previous deposit. Quite a sight. I'll never forget the sound of brain on brain. Needless to say, I tried my hand at the process, and eventually got the hang of it. Nearly lost it, but held on. Quite unforgettable, rather like ...

Step 3. Flensing. Flensing is the process by which flesh, skin, and muscle are carved away from bone. It is delicate, painstaking work, and requires the skill of a true artisan. Here, Dale proved himself a humble craftsman who was capable of much more than sucking the brains out of skulls. Dale spent most of that morning flensing the day's earlier arrivals, and patiently sharing his knowledge with me. I learned a lot from Dale, but mainly, I learned that I do not possess the skill or inclination to work as a professional flenser. Profoundly dirty work, but nowhere near as bad as ...

Step 4. Emptying the Brain Demiser. This may be the dirtiest of dirty jobs. It's certainly one of the worst I've ever seen. The task most often falls to Josh, a 16-year-old lad who just happens to be the son of the owner. Every day after school, Josh stops by Skulls Unlimited to tackle a number of onerous tasks, but this one takes the cake. Typically, Josh simply approaches the giant barrel of brains, now brimming from a full day of demising, grabs it around the middle, and hoists it onto the lip of a large, stainless steel sink. On that day, I had the honor. Under Josh's watchful eye, I hefted the gelatinous, quivering payload and proceeded to dump the chunky amalgam into the steel basin. Conservatively, I'd put it at over 50 pounds of assorted brains. Again, the sound made by a waterfall of cascading, congealing gray matter is unexampled, especially as it collides into a steel sink, and the smell, as you might imagine, is simply indescribable. With momentum and gravity working in concert, the falling brains accelerate rapidly, and the sink fills quickly. Too quickly. Naturally, a clog forms in the drain, and there is only one way to correct the situation. Someone must roll up his sleeve, dig through the brains, and remove the blockage. On that particular day, that particular someone was me.

Anyway, the day held many other horrors that were glossed over or omitted entirely from the show, and though I believe the original cut was far superior to the one that aired, I am grateful that we were allowed to air some version of the original. However, it needs to be said that the jobs at Skulls Unlimited are among the dirtiest I've ever seen, because the segment you saw did not reflect that. Also, the work done by those guys cut from the original was stellar, and deserves to be acknowledged somewhere. So, I'll do it here.

To Dale, Josh and the fella whose name I can't recall, thanks very much.

You were all fantastically dirty.

You too, Jay.


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