Symphony of Work


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The factory was on the other side of the tracks. Low slung and sprawling, it was designed in the early 1930’s and had that serious practical look about it. The brickwork was now gray-red with the soot of a thousand trains and hundreds of thousands of diesel trucks passing by. What had started as a small company that provided barrels for Standard Oil, was now a multi-national corporation with products ranging from industrial tape recorders to water heaters.

This particular plant was the founder’s location and still made barrels/pails for Standard Oil. Like a neglected senior citizen, it sat in the industrial wasteland, oblivious to new technology, fearful of its place in the future.

I went to work there as a nineteen year old, fresh from spending three months hitch hiking in the Western States, grateful to find a job that I might be able to keep while going to the local community college. My best friend from high school had greased the wheels, and the hiring process was just a formality.

The interview consisted of them asking when I was willing to start, but not in a friendly way. It was my first indication that I had descended into a world where the machine and the product were king and the worker was faceless and expendable. Later it was explained to me that this was a “nose against the window” culture. Every worker was acutely aware that there was a nose pressed against the window, watching for every job opportunity, thousands of people ready to take your job if you no longer wished to work. Or if your supervisor felt you no longer wished to work.

It was a union shop, meaning everyone had to pay union dues, but there was a pecking order within the union, and seniority rules. Someone working there twenty years was fairly well protected with good assignments, someone with less than two or three years was up for grabs and no one would complain about anything. I had worked at several different jobs before this, all temporary or seasonal work.

This was really the first place I worked where most of the workers stayed until retirement. “Not for me,” I thought, “I’m just doing this swing shift thing while I’m waiting for the college semester to start. And then, I’ll try to do both until my grades suffer, then I will quit the factory.” My thoughts were written all over my countenance, and my co-workers slightly smiled. The chill that went through me came from the knowledge that more than a few of the long term workers that surrounded me, had never thought that twenty years later they would still be here.

On my first day of work I had to stop at the company store to get my essentials. After paying union dues, health plan co-payments, and payroll deductions, I began spending real money. Steel toe work boots, safety helmet, a half-dozen leather gloves, steel embossed leather gauntlets, heavy canvas aprons, safety goggles, earplugs and salt tablets. I had been at work twenty minutes and I had already spent more than I was to earn for the next several days. Walking out on to the shop floor I looked like an industrial knight, with helmet, gauntlets, and body armor. All I lacked was a weapon. I was actually a little impressed with all the gear. Although the salt tablets had me puzzled.

I was to work at dozens of stations for the next several months. As an extra, or floater, I was thrown into any situation that needed an extra hand, sometimes substituting for people that were sick or on vacation. But not if it was a bid job, a bid job was work that only the long term men could do. It was rarely based upon skill or knowledge, it was just that dozens of jobs were highly desired, because they were easy or they often required overtime. The bottom of the job pile was the world of the new hire “floater.”

One of my first assignments was to help produce 67,000 pails, complete with wire handle and sealing lid. For some production reason the normal production line couldn’t handle the job. A conveyor belt usually carried each pail from one station to another, at one place the handles were attached, at another a drain plug was screwed in, and at another a quick shot of touch-up paint covered the side weld.

Something was different about this job that required part of the work to be done on one line, and some final touches applied from another line. I was stationed at the point where the two conveyor lines were the closest, and I had to transfer each pail from one belt to another. A human conveyor belt, a useful occupation for the untrained and unaware. The pails were not particularly heavy and the distance carried was only several feet, but after four numbing hours of transfer I felt as if my shoulders were on fire and thigh muscles made of rubber.

Grab two wire handles, lift over the guard rail, drop/swing them to your side while executing a half turn to the left, guide them both over the next set of guard rails, remember to let go of the handles, turn to the right and proceed again.

Grab two wire handles, lift over the guard rail, drop/swing them to your side while executing a half turn to the left, guide them both over the next set of guard rails, remember to let go of the handles, turn to the right and proceed again.

Grab two wire handles, lift over the guard rail, drop/swing them to your side while executing a half turn to the left, guide them both over the next set of guard rails, remember to let go of the handles, turn to the right and proceed again.

If the last few paragraphs were boring to read, imaging actually doing this for hours on end.

Repetitive work was the standard in this plant. There may be several steps in the production process, but very few steps took more than a few seconds. But the few seconds work was repeated 30 times a minute, 1,800 times an hour, and 18,000 times in a ten hour work day. I worked as the human conveyor belt for four ten hour days. After the first six hours I lost feeling in my fingertips, my neck muscles fused into a single lump by noon on the second day. By the third day I developed blisters on the balls of both feet, and leg cramps so severe that I walked with locked knees. I began to look as stiff and rigid as any other piece of equipment on the floor. I was the human conveyor belt. Another mystery solved, I also learned that the salt tablets were to replace minerals depleted by excessive sweating, never thought about that.

For the first month I had no other world, all of my time off was spent sleeping or soaking in a tub. The shift started at 3:00 in the afternoon and ended ten hours later at 1:30 am, with a thirty minute lunch. By two in the morning I was back at my apartment, ten minutes later I was asleep until one or two in the afternoon, just in time to get ready for the 3:00 shift. And that would repeat six days a week.

Overtime after eight hours and Saturday work was voluntary, but the floaters soon realized that the “nose against the window” phenomenon was still operating, so no one refused the work. A considerable part of the overtime payment was swallowed in taxes.

One afternoon I was assigned to the barrel line to replace a vacation slot for one day. It was a bid job but no long termer was available. For the next ten hours I sat on a foam cushioned stool, inches from the conveyor belt. Twenty feet to my left, steel sheets were picked up by strong suction cups, fed into a curler to give then the barrel shape, then funneled into the welder to weld the sideseam. Finally the barrel resembled an empty cardboard toilet roll. At the next station the barrel automatically slipped into the swedger and the two protruding bands were pressed from the inside to provide strength and rigidity. I was thrilled to find out that the two parallel bands of an oil drum were called swedges. Future scrabble winner.

All this action occurred without the aide of a human hand. It was then that the barrel traveled on a conveyor belt to the paint station where the still hot side weld was painted to match the barrel color. The painter was on my right, he pointed a spraygun at the top of the barrel and sprayed down. The barrel was moving, but slow enough that he had time to spray one more time. Down and up, down and up, hissing and spraying paint in both directions.

My job was to make sure that the seam was showing to the outside, ready to be painted. All I needed to do was to slightly turn the barrel either a turn to left, or a slight turn to right. One hand could do it.

Barrel after barrel would come. This wasn’t a fixed number order. The barrels we were making were steady products, sold continually, almost as many as we could make within the seasonal year. The barrels were made to store tomato paste, an extremely difficult substance to store in barrels because the acid would eventually eat right through the steel, ruining the contents of the barrel. This plant pioneered the process of tin-plating the interior shell, bottom and top. And the company guaranteed the contents of each barrel sold. Barrels were made as long as there were tomatoes being picked in the valley. When the season ended, the barrel work dwindled, the long termers rotated down to the floaters jobs, and the floaters were laid of until next year.

More barrels, more turning. Sometimes due to the nature of the moving conveyor belt, the barrels would spin by themselves, aligning themselves automatically to the painters station. When this occurred I just let the barrel go by, mindlessly noting how often it occurred, and how many times in a row did it occur.

This was a bid job. This was someone’s career. He was now on three weeks vacation, He had done this for fifteen years and would probably do it for another ten. He must be insane or close to it. Turn left, turn left again, turn right, wait, wait, turn right…

I was finally assigned to a three man crew in the warehouse. The job consisted of pulling the barrels from the conveyor belt and rolling them to the center of the warehouse, where they were placed in an even line.

When the line was complete, another row would be stacked on top of the completed line, staggering the barrels so that two barrels supported one. It was a simple matter to roll the barrel over to the line, grab the back side with one hand, kick with the knee, and pop it up in one motion, right on top and in the middle of the first two barrels. Roll, tip, kick, and pop. And after the barrels were two high, another level would go up. This time it was a grab, tilt, kick, pop and press upward, almost like a weightlifter lifting barbells. To go four high a plank was set across a single row of barrels and one person would kick pop barrels onto the plank, then another person would kick, pop, press the barrel to complete the fourth stack.

Barrel after barrel was welded, swedged, and painted, then on to the tin-plater, leave the tin-plater, turn the corner and on into the warehouse. I would watch each barrel turn the corner, hoping it would be the last. For several seconds nothing would come, and my hopes would soar. Then several more barrels would stagger around the corner, spinning and turning like drunken sailors. The clatter of the rolling bars of the conveyor would amplify in the hollow shell of the barrel, the sounds reflecting off the corrugated sides and roof of the warehouse. Surely that was the last one.

I soon learned that the tinplating machine was filled two barrels at a time. There were about forty arms moving in a circle, almost like a carousel. Each arm would carry two barrels over a tank, slowly drop the barrel into the solution of the tank, then raise them out of the tank and rotate over to the next tank. Forty arms, forty tanks, arms raising, arms lowering. The up and down motion of a revolving carousel.

The operator would load the first arm by clamping in two barrels, then walk across and detach two barrels from the last arm. The completely tinned barrels would head around the corner into the warehouse. The empty arm would then swing across and the operator would clamp two more barrels on the arm, and walk across to detach two more. It took about an hour for the barrels to complete the tinplating cycle. The operator would tell us when the last barrel went in, so we knew that we had about an hour left to work, as the last barrel came out.

Later in the season I had a chance to operate the tinplater. It was the typical repetitive work, but one night I managed to liven things up. When I clamped on the first two barrels, I managed to do them both at once, using both hands. Somehow the cuffs of my gloves got caught in the clamps without my noticing it. I rested there, letting my hands remain in place while the barrels were being lifted into the first tank, I didn’t realize until too late that there was a problem. I couldn’t get my hands off the barrels.

Within a few seconds I was lifted off the ground, unable to slide my hands out of my gloves. I was lifted up about three feet, then the arm started to swing over to the first tank dunking. I remembered being told that the first tank was hydrochloric acid, capable of stripped most of the flesh from my bones within several minutes.

Whatever was missed in the first tank could be handled by another nine tanks of acid, then an electrical charge of several hundred volts would course through my bones, allowing them to being electroplated in the last ten tank dunkings with a thick coating of bright tin. Hanging from the arm, rotating towards the acid, I thought of the brilliant engineers who had designed this machine. Right next to my right boot was a bright red off button mounted on a four foot steel post. I always thought it was odd to put the off switch on that pole, and wondered why it had been done. Now all I had to do was kick the button with my steel toed boot, and wait for someone to cut me down. Apparently the designers had foreseen the problem, or perhaps it was added later after an accident. It got me wondering about the tinplated bones someone might have found. Its funny that there wasn’t much comment when someone finally showed up to unhook me.

Back to the barrel stacking. I asked what happens when the warehouse is full? I was told that as soon as it was full, we would then get the word to empty it. Barrel after barrel removed from the line and placed back on the conveyor belt as it traveled around the walls of the warehouse. The central building was very large but it had been expanded into several side wings. Each area had to be filled completely and then emptied just as completely. The barrels had to go back into the factory in order to have the bottoms and tops put on. I wondered about the logic. Why not just run the barrels through in one step? Was it because the painter also ran the machine that attached the bottoms? I never did find out.

The process of unstacking was simple enough. We reached up and gently pulled the top barrel until it tipped over, then we caught it with the free hand and eased it to the ground. Thousands of barrels falling until caught. Jarring the spine with jolt after jolt. After several days of unloading four high and three high barrels, you felt that you had to be two inches shorter because of disk compression of your spine.

It was here in the warehouse that I began to see the factory and the workers in a different way. I had been carefully coached by my foreman when he first assigned me to the warehouse. He showed me how to carefully roll each barrel off the line, tip it over on it’s side and then rolled to the center of the warehouse where the stacking took place. He watched me several minutes, giving me pointers at different times. I noticed the other two warehousemen being busy somewhere else. People tended to avoid the foremen.

As soon as the foremen left the two warehousemen began tipping dozens of barrels over and kicking them into a rolling motion, heading towards the center aisle. It began to look like a small cattle drive of steel barrels. Just as quickly the center stack begin to get higher and longer. Then I saw something remarkable. One of my coworkers had taken a barrel off the line and was rocking it back and forth on it’s edge. Then suddenly he wrapped it in a curl, like an athlete wrapping his arm around a discus. Then the discus flew, or rather the barrel whipped out on a long slow arc, coming to a gentle stop just inches from the center aisle. It traveled rolling on it’s edge, almost like a unicycle, except at the end of the arc the barrel would settle in an upright position, It look a great deal of practice to learn how to spin a barrel. Nearly every one of my attempts ended in utter failure. Then one day I remember how I had to show a newly hired floater how to do it. It didn’t matter that I had yet to toss a successful spin. I cranked up and let go. The barrel took off like a jet, flying a low slow curve that stretched across the warehouse. The barrel eventual slid between a support beam and a few of the straggling barrel herd, and then slid into the only open spot in the line. My new hire openly dropped his jaw, then asked how can he learn to do that? I let him think what he wished, and told him to practice.

From that moment I began to see how ordinary men put grace into their lives, creating movements of calculated choreography. Each job allowed the development of professional movement and order, often the worker becoming one with his machine. Not in the stiff awkward manner that the novice showed, but in the smooth flowing grace of the professional. Suddenly it wasn’t the quality of the job that was the only importance. It was also in the grace of how it was done. Brain surgeon and barrel spinner are both valued for their professionalism.

I had a new respect for common work and the people who perform it, I saw how it was possible to spend twenty-five years turning a barrel in order to paint. Instead of being profoundly bored, I was alert, yet transcended.

After building up and taking down several pyramids of steel barrels, I was assigned back to the pail line in order to run a punch press. A punch press is often twelve feet high, with a rotating cast iron wheel six feet in diameter. The wheel drives a die cutter combined with a mold. Placing a sheet of steel in the slot causes the press to drop down and cut out a 16 inch diameter disc that is simultaneously press-shaped into a snap sealed lip for some future pail. Then I had to move the steel to punch another, finally obtaining six discs out of each sheet of steel. Punch, Punch, Punch, spin the steel, Punch, Punch, Punch, toss the scrap. Grab a new sheet and do it all again.

I had just learned how to load and adjust the steel without stopping the press. I had my foot on the gas pedal and floored, yet I was comfortably punching steel and loading new sheets. I had developed the grace of a professional. That was when I heard it for the first time.

It was the symphony of the factory. I was running my press, creating a complex collection of clanks and clangs. Ka-thunk shh, cha pssst kaw-thhhfttt. . Ka-thunk shh, cha pssst kaw-thhhfttt. . Ka-thunk shh, cha pssst kaw-thhhfttt.

Several yards away another machine was belching steam and bending steel. Scrakkk, shhheeeeet, pshhhhhht. Scrakkk, shhheeeeet, pshhhhhht Scrakkk, shhheeeeet, pshhhhhht There was an overall timing, and it seemed that everything was in the same key. All around me were men and machines creating subtle harmonies and classic counterpoint. I wondered how it happened that I never heard it before.

When I had to stop to reload a stack of steel, it was as if the music continued, but without its solo performer, then as soon as I regained top speed the sensation would flood over me again. Ka-thunk shh, cha pssst kaw-thhhfttt. Ka-thunk shh, cha pssst kaw-thhhfttt.

Listening to the various sounds reminded me of how much I had changed from my first few weeks. I was tougher, stronger, and yet more attuned to my surroundings. I began to smile at the new hired floaters, feeling sad that they knew so little of the real value of work, knowing that they had never heard the symphony of work.

There is great beauty in the factory… it is filled with honor, and grace, and even music.

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