January 12, 2014 1 Comment
If anyone has a child who is hesitating about whether they should go to college, the parents should definitely encourage the child to get a summer job in a factory. After a few days around a blast furnace, putting pulleys into boxes, or sweeping floors, even a career in oral hygiene would start to look good. I know; I’ve been there. But truth be told, I got after school and summer jobs in factories in high school and college because I wanted to. Call it “nostalgie de la boue,” call it slumming, call it trying to get in touch with the lumpen proletariat; there was something alluring about working in a factory.
It started when a couple of guys on the swim team, my mentor Paul M*** included, got part time jobs at a small factory in an industrial park. They came to school telling fantastic stories about the characters that worked there and the amazing level of incompetence among the management and owners. There was also the excitement of danger–this particular factory, called Mayron, had huge punch presses. They also paid much better than Baskin Robbins, where I was currently working scooping ice cream for overweight spoiled brats, so I went along and applied.
Mayron made its money by taking huge rolls of steel, about two inches in width, and running them through punch presses that bored and bent them into brackets used in the auto industry. A rag-tag crew of hillbillies, alcoholics, and immigrants–some speaking little or no English–worked there. This was around the time I was trying to study Russian by listening to audio tapes I checked out from the library. One of the workers I especially liked was an ancient, wiry old man with a handlebar moustache. He looked like a Cossack straight off his horse on the Steppes. It turned out that he was the Russian father-in-law of one of the high school dropouts who worked there. I would try to speak Russian to him, and he would chuckle and wonder off pushing a broom. One day, he came in and had shaved off his beautiful moustache. He was proud, but I was depressed, because I thought he was trying to become more American.
The older guys from the swim team got to run the punch presses. I ran a little hydraulic pull cart. I would transport bins back and forth between the machine that would cut the steel to length and the punch presses where my friends worked. It was a messy job, because the parts were covered with thick machine oil which protected them from the elements. Sometimes they’d cut too many pieces and store the rest outside in the rain, so the bins were sometimes full of a foul smelling oil and water mixture, and I would have to unload the piece out of this goo and throw them into my friends’ bins.
My friends loved working the punch presses, though they were incredibly dangerous. They would pick up a piece from the bin, place it on the die inside the press, pull their hands out, and press on a pedal to send about 10,000 pounds of pressure down onto the piece of steel. They wore gloves that were attached by cable to a safety device that would pull their hands away before the top have of the die would come down. These were mandated by OSHA, but there were a few old guys walking around from the good old days who were missing a finger or two.
We worked the night shift after school and management had usually left by that time. Once the owners son drove his brand new Porsche onto the factory floor. He got out and was this huge, grub-like boy-man who’d obviously never gotten his fingers dirty. But most of the evenings, management was nowhere to be seen and we sometimes got into dirty rags fights or would throw chunks of steel at the bin of someone who was concentrating very hard on not getting their finger cut off so as to scare the hell out of them.
One Friday evening we got a call. One of the trucks that delivered steel had overturned on the bypass south of town. The boss came in and detailed one of the more seasoned guys, a guy who said he was a gypsy and me to go and help clean up the mess. We hopped into this guy’s pick-up truck and took off. The first guy–let’s call him Lance–was a real southerner with a truck-driver mouth. He had a lean, athletic build and an Elvis hairdo. I think he was even wearing a no sleeve T-shirt and chewed on a toothpick. Until I met him, I thought I had heard some explicit locker-room talk. Lance, however, talked a blue-and I do mean “blue”-streak all the way there and back. The “gypsy,” who was about 6 feet 5 inches tall, two-hundred and fifty pounds, joined in the conversation, bragging of his own sexual exploits and laughing along at some colorful turn of phrase, which I definitely cannot repeat here. The “gypsy” wore an old, greasy set of army fatigues which had an indescribably awful smell–almost like morbid flesh. Despite this un-sentimental education, I still maintain a certain fondness for the people who work in a factory. I didn’t find them to be vicious and back stabbing in the ways that I have since seen “educated” people behave.
Still, after working in the factory on Friday nights and weekends, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed to study hard so I could get into college. In the evenings after school I would retire to my room, slap on a classical LP and study my physics, chemistry, economics and English. And though I continued working in factories throughout college, I knew that was not what I wanted to do with my life.
One of the albums I listened to was Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Schumann, if you read his biographies, was plagued by depression, committing himself to an insane asylum in his later years. His short, turbulent life, however, had a few bright spots. These came after fighting in court the father of Clara Wieck, who was opposed to his daughter marrying the composer. Schumann won the court case, however, and this gave rise to a burst of creative energy which saw his creation of four symphonies and the first movement of what was to become his piano concert. He wrote the first movement in a week and his wife, Clara, who was an accomplished pianist performed it in Leipzig. Two weeks later, Clara gave birth to the first of their eight children. Four years later, Schumann added the two additional movements in about five weeks and premiered it on New Year’s Day, 1846 with Clara performing and Felix Mendelssohn conducting.
The concerto is a very lyrical and pleasing piece. Unlike some of the big concertos in which is sounds like the piano plays against the orchestra, Schumann wonderfully put the soloist on the same team and the solos flow into the orchestral passages and out again. All three movements are a joy to listen to. The first strikes a nice balance between exuberance and thoughtfulness. The second has knee-weakening sensuousness and lyricism. The finale is full of joy. You really can’t find any fault in it, and it was the perfect antidote to my apprenticeship as a drudge in the steel factory.