January 16, 2014 1 Comment
In my last entry, I wrote about my first factory job back in the 1970s. It was horribly paid, and I was too young to operate the big machinery. That is why, when my friend Ed Wendel told me about an opening in the factory where he worked, I jumped at the opportunity.
The place, whose name I forget, repaired and refurbished industrial machinery. They specialized in reconditioning used chuckers. A chucker is an automated metal lathe that churns out standardized parts like gears at a fast pace. My father had run one of these for a while.
A chucker is an impressive piece of work, and they come in all sizes, from ones the size of a large sewing machine all the way up to behemoths–about as big as a semi truck.
Usually the chucker sits in a big, water-proof tub. In order to make the cutting smooth, a constant stream of water and oil spray onto the part and the cutting edge. The metal shavings fall down into the trough. The operator was supposed to clean the bin periodically, but after several years, they’d get so gunked up that they’d have to be disassembled and cleaned. That is when they were sent to our shop. We would shovel out the shavings and spray on industrial solvents to dissolve the grease and paint. Next, we would take out the removable parts and then spray paint and shellac the whole structure. Finally, the machines would go to the mechanics and tool and die guys, who’d restore them to working order.
There were two reasons I wanted to work at this place. One was because of the stories that Ed would tell about his boss, Frank T***. The second was because Ed’s best friend, Eric worked there, and I wanted to get to know him better. Eric was a kind of rival to my friend Paul M***. M*** was good at literature, languages and biology. Eric excelled in math and physics. I was convinced both Eric and Paul were geniuses, and since Paul had gone off to Chicago and chosen not to come back home in the summers, I needed a new role model.
We were an interesting crew. Wendel was probably the most well-read person I ever met. He would devour any book set before him, be it a classic of English literature, history, science fiction, or a book on arc welding. He was an absolute encyclopedia of knowledge, but without any snobbishness. Everything fascinated him, especially anything that could be taken apart. Eric had a blinding, savage wit, a disdain for the common man, and a massive ego. I was somewhere in between. Frank the boss, was an incredibly naïve, horny and crass buffoon. A bit like Rigoletto.
Frank could only relate to the world in terms of automobiles and machines. Once we showed him a book full of drawings and etchings by M.C. Escher. Frank furrowed his brows. He could not relate to any of it; he had no point of reference. That was until we found a picture called Curl-Up, which was of a pangolin-type animal rolling itself up into a protective, scaly ball. “An alternator,” Frank yelled, relieved. “It looks like an alternator. Hey, this guy made a million drawing pictures of alternators? What am I doing here?” Eric would pull practical jokes on Frank; one day Eric shellacked Frank’s sugar frosted cookies, for example.
Despite Eric’s caustic manner, I did end up becoming very good friends with him. We discovered that we both enjoyed classical music, and we would discuss our latest finds.
One piece I discovered around this time was Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” This is a stirring, nationalistic hymn, written for Sibelius’ homeland. It starts out with ominous trumpet blasts punctuated by crashes of cymbals and tympanis. It then moves into a dark, melodic orchestral section which gives a few hints of lyrical beauty. Next, the trumpet start playing a fast tune that sounds like a military charge. It sounds as if Sibelius might be depicting a battle, which ends in shortly on an upbeat feeling, indicating victory. The music then turns into a kind of hymn, perhaps a thanks to God or a commemoration of fallen heroes. Some recordings add a choir during the hymn. At the end, Sibelius brings back the upbeat horns and closes with a majestic finale.
Working at that factory really was filthy, dirty work, but we enjoyed it. It was nice to see a machine after it had been cleaned, taken apart and put back together. And the mechanics in the shop were generally interesting. They all had the demeanor of Swiss watchmakers, fascinated by pulling apart, putting together and figuring out how to repair these great three–dimensional puzzles. One guy was named Shorty and he always put salt and pepper on his bananas at lunch. “Makes them taste like watermelon,” would say. There was the obligatory southern guy with Elvis sideburns and, a pack of Camels rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve, and a perennial sunburn. But even he was nice and a wizard when it came to machines. After I left the factory for a better paying job, I was upset to learn that he had been electrocuted and died after touching a live wire in the factory.
Working at that place actually was one of the best jobs I ever had. Of course, I shudder now to think of all the toxic fumes I breathed and poisonous chemicals I absorbed trans-dermally. But something about that place appealed to me, and I look back on it now fondly. My father collected junk motors and had a basement and garage full of tools. As a child, I spent many a long hour tearing things apart to see how they worked. So it presented challenges and mental stimulation.
But that job also gave me some insight into my working class-background. It taught me not to disdain working class people as Eric did. My co-workers accepted me. They did not make disparaging jokes about college egg-heads. They were hardworking, kind, generous and wanted what most everyone wanted–to have a job so they could provide for a family and build a better life for their kids. And yes, they sometimes even laid down their lives.