It was the winter of 1979, and I’d been out of work for quite a while. I was spending a lot of time trying to sell my resume to someone and waiting for the phone to ring. I was new in Northampton, living with my girlfriend in a rented house in a nice neighborhood. Most of the past weeks I had been able to cover my share of the rent and groceries, but on the first of the month, when I had to pay off my student loans, things were tight.
Tuesday I went down to unemployment to pick up my check. I had been on the dole for 28 weeks, and I was getting sick of standing there in the line every week with all my fellow deadbeats, manufacturing our stories as to where we’d been looking for work lately. To put off the inevitable, I stopped at the newsstand around the corner to pick up the Globe. There wasn’t anything in there that I hadn’t seen before, so I jammed it back in my pocket. I leaned up against a lamppost, and breathed out a cloud of mist. I remembered an old photograph I had once seen of unemployed men taken during the depression by Steiglitz or someone.
There was this guy standing at a street corner in a black overcoat looking up at the camera with ironic eyes. I was sure he was just pausing a moment to look up at the photographer, and then he was probably going across town to the welfare office or uptown to some soup kitchen. That was me. I thought about it some more. I think I managed my first smile of the day. There I was with my crummy old coat and my paper sticking out of my pocket fogging up the air, looking up at this invisible camera. I was just one more guy out of work at a time a hell of a lot of people were out of work. It wasn’t my fault. I just needed work, that’s all. Any kind of work. Screw whether it was important or rewarding or fitting to my talents, I just needed to go somewhere every day and do something and quit feeling sorry for myself.
So, I bit the bullet, gave myself a hard shove, and went inside the employment office and told the caseworker to give me whatever she had. She sent me to Bear Hill Machine for a second shift machine operator opening. She said they were wonderful people. Oddly enough, I’d been there only a month before when I was writing an article on old factory buildings that once used waterpower in the valley. Bear Hill Machine was a three story mill on a bend in the Mill River about three miles from down town. The first time I was up there I was dressed like a man of letters with a suit and tie and went right in to the front office to talk to the big boss.
This time I was in a pullover and dungarees and had the slip from employment. A bearded young guy in a dirty t-shirt met me in the waiting room. He took me into a little paneled office with a desk piled high with parts catalogues and machinist literature. I sat on a folding chair; he sat on the edge of the desk. He scanned the first page of my application, and then flipped it over. There wasn’t much to it, since the application I did for him had no college, none of those classy jobs I had ten years ago.
I deleted everything in it out of the ordinary. I was an ex-cab driver from Boston looking for steady work. The kid tried to look and act friendly, but the only real stock in trade that he had was this remote air of menace, this glower that was the basic modus operandi of the foreman.
“You understand that this is a production shop,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant. He led me through a big room filled with pushcarts stacked with trays of shiny metal parts. Three overweight women were taking them out of the trays and packing them into cartons. It had been relatively quiet in the office, but out here the noise was deafening. We went downstairs and the roaring from the machinery was incredible. He went around introducing me to the day people, all of whom were tending machinery.
“I need an operator for this spindle,” he yelled, pointing at this huge machine. “But I don’t think you could handle it. It takes experience.”
“We’re not a prototype shop.” he said, leading me into another room. “Production is the name of the game. If you can put out 500 parts an hour you can stay. If you can’t, you leave.”
Now I understood what he meant. That seemed to be that. I looked around at this inferno, the guy trudging by with a wheelbarrow full of oil, the baskets of parts someone was hoisting out of an acid bath, the huge machines screaming and banging. I nodded, he got a W-2 form from the greasy file folder he was carrying and gave it to me.
My first night running the machine was a real nightmare. After I punched in, the foreman gave me a ten minute introduction to the machine, and then I was on my own. It was a small milling machine mounted on top of an open tank of solvent. It was a homemade job fed by high pressure air lines. You loaded metal tubes into two chutes on the top of the machine, you inspected the tubes rolling out of the output chute, you washed them out in kerosene and loaded them into trays. Simple. In your spare moments, you were supposed to sit down at a nearby workstation and take the burrs off ring nuts. There was a lot I didn’t know and a lot I was to learn. The machine didn’t take well to new operators. It broke bits, it jammed; I drowned in the kerosene the first week. Under pressure to put out my 500 parts an hour, I regressed big time. I was scared of the foreman who was always over fixing my machine; I was scared of the fucking machine. I felt like I was going to get fired from a job anyone with a third grade education could do. It was like beginning life all over again. Suddenly you’re a little kid and everything is colored with crazy fear and phony meaning and you don’t have control over anything and everything has control over you. Every night lasted an eternity, every night I’d come home stinking of oil and kerosene. One night Lu came down and found me asleep by the wood stove. My pants were smoking, and I probably would have gone up in flames if she hadn’t woke me up. She got a big pail with a lid on it out of the cellar, and made me put my clothes in it every work night. I had my little changing area there in an alcove off the kitchen, my bathrobe hanging up, a pair of slippers ready to slip into.
Gradually I realized that the main thing was learning to ignore all my feelings. I had to concentrate every ounce of energy I had on the machine: I had to listen to the machine, see what was going on with the machine, anticipate the machine, smell the machine. If a bearing was getting hot, you could smell it if you were alert. It was a school for life. Stay awake, stay keyed up and ready because something is going to go wrong very soon.
Get out of that dream world and wake up, Kirby. If I paused to think, if I said to myself, oh this isn’t working, oh this is working, oh I’m failing, oh isn’t everything wonderful, whatever, I’d miss something. The pressure would drop, a feeder tray would jam, the clamps would grab a rocket off-center.
All my time in the Peruvian jungle meditating finally paid off, all those hours I spent cross-legged on the floor of my cabin with the flies crawling down my nose; I had to learn to ignore all those big juicy raspberry scented and strychnine laced thoughts that filled my waking hours.
“Be here, be now”, said the milling machine. “I am the master.”
If it weren’t for the night foreman’s help, I don’t think I would have made it. It was a repeat of my ten weeks in boot camp. You either adjust to reality or you wash out. One day in boot I failed inspection and they dumped my whole seabag in the shower room and turned the water on full blast. I was to have everything in it dry and pressed and ready for inspection the next morning. The next step for me was a punishment battalion, beyond there was one of those shameful discharges they give the unsuitable, the mentally ill, the men who are broken, often for life.
But when the General Pattons of the world slap you around, it can shape you up. Staring at that sodden mountain of clothing, I realized that I really didn’t want to be a fuckup. I wanted to be a sailor, I wanted in the worst way to graduate with my company, and I did. I worked all night drying and pressing and when I was braced at attention next to my laid-out seabag, my company commander barely looked at it; then went on.
Maybe Ben the foreman saw that this poor guy, like a lot of us, needs to belong, to measure up, as they say. He’s disorganized and he’s uncoordinated, but he tries. Ben spent a lot of time at my machine fixing it the first month. Never a complaint, never a barrage about my stupidity. He never even shot me an angry look at me sunk in my misery. He’d just get my machine unjammed, and then leave.
Disciplined love, forbearance and forgiveness. Forgive the operator’s sins, oh Lord. They have oil in their eyes and kerosene on their breath and they are dim in the eyes and cloudy in the head from seeing too many damn parts every night. Clancy helped me out too. In that forest of machinery, he was the only guy with a clear view of my operation. Night four his big automatics were running well, so he came over to help me pack parts. I was bitching to him about how they wanted me to deburr 1,000 ring nuts a shift too, and he laughed. I must have been pretty frantic. He laid a fatherly hand on my shoulder and shook his head.
“Oh no” he yelled, above the clamor. “Oh no, you don’t do ring nuts. Fuck the ring nuts. Oh, they want a lot, the sonsabitches. Forget what they want.” From that moment I started to relax and I learned how to laugh again. , The worst was over. I began to understand trends, the causes and effects, the back end of my cerebellum began to get some messages.
It all had to do with things too boring to mention, the variations in the air pressure from that arthritic compressor, bad steel, clogged filters, bad reamers, years of poor maintenance, etc, etc. This is what you were given, and you had to make do. You had to do your preventative maintenance yourself, without waiting for things to go wrong. It had to do, like everything in the world does, with growing up, with being a man and not a baby. You had to be in control. Those first days at Bear Hill, the oil/kerosene mix in my reflecting pool under the machine was always up to the brim, it was always slopping over on me.
“Bail out your reservoir” Clancy hollered in my ear. “Keep it a couple inches below the rim, and you won’t be swimming in the stuff.”
I could bail out my own reservoir. I stopped the machine, found a pail and a scoop, and bailed out the reservoir. Lightning didn’t strike me dead. I could take the time to clean up, adjust the machine, even breathe once in a while. I could get control of this goddamn machine and keep control of it. I could run it instead of it running me. By night five it was still rough going, but I was learning to relax. I even felt moments of crazy happiness, but that was bad too. Lost in this happiness, I almost put a batch of my parts in the hot chemicals of the Detrix bath, but Clancy came running over and hit the power switch when he saw me putting the basket on the hoist. If he hadn’t caught me, the whole batch would have started rusting, the inspector would have red tagged them, and then the firing squad would have come looking for me. It’s a cool bath for the 3901 closures, says Bear Hill wisdom. That job lasted about a year, maybe a little less.