Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Jobs: Tool or Die

My first job at Brown’s Fried Chicken paid $1.25 per hour. Factoring for inflation over forty years, this is the equivalent of $7.09 in 2014, which is still below the current minimum wage. I have seldom worked as hard since. I cleaned floors on my hands and knees with coarse green scrubbing pads, and eventually worked my way up to slinging fried chicken in 450 degree oil. The little burns hurt. Larger burns sent you to the emergency room. The stench of grease saturated my white uniform and ridiculous paper hat, and the rats by the garbage dumpster scared the crap out of me. Ah youth. At least I got to meet Mr. Brown.

It seemed as if all of us experienced the coming-of-age fast food journey up the payscale. By the next summer I heard about a job paying $3.75 per hour from a friend who came home from work each day soaked in sweat and covered with machine oil. All he talked about was the pay.

The job was in a local tool and die company that cranked out mysterious small metal parts for larger unknown machines. Output was critical. Orders needed to be filled. There was a brief training session that lasted about 15 minutes by one of the senior staff members. Senior status was achieved by surviving workdays in a large metal barn with no air conditioning through blazing Chicago summers. I never got to experience winter in the same structure. Perhaps the machines kept it warm.

I was led over to a grinding machine where I was shown how to flatten one end of an inch-long metal rod by running a grinding wheel back and forth over the end of the rod in exactly the same place, slowly so as not to create blackened friction burn, but fast enough to keep the parts flowing.

Each pass of the grinder made a rumbling screech when the wheel made contact with the rod. I then turned an adjusting lever a quarter turn to bring the wheel down a fraction of a millimeter to grind a bit more metal. Perhaps ten passes got the job done: grind, adjust, grind, adjust, grind, adjust. Toss the part in a box on the floor.

I did this for hours at a time through the increasing heat of the day in that airless shed of a building. For added pleasure, a small amount of machine oil was released onto the grinding platform and sprayed all over the front of my t-shirt with each pass of the wheel. The microscopic metal shavings incinerated instantly, becoming airborne and going mostly up my nose. I discovered this during my first work break upon blowing black tar out of my face into a handkerchief that would never be white again.

I knew it was break when a whistle blew. No kidding, it was like the sound on the Flintstones when Fred yells “Yabba Dabba Doo!” Except at this employer, unlike at Slate Rock and Gravel, an old German man across the shed had decided sometime during the past thirty years to yell, “Jawohl!” (yah vole). By the end of my second day, I wanted to strangle him, or at least blow my nose on his shirt.

My clothes were unlaunderable, covered in oil and black soot. It took most of the evening to clear my sinuses of black tar, and I was so dehydrated and exhausted I nearly cried by the start of day three. This was long before the possibility existed of listening to an iPod with favorite music or audio books. It was mind-numbingly boring work that resulted in my imagination going places I had never had time to go before. And it was not lost on me that the shed was populated by a gang of men who had provided for families for decades, doing the same work week after week, heading off to this hell hole with a metal lunch box and a deadened soul. “Jawohl!” It’s happy break time, lunchtime, end-of-day time. Repeat.

During the middle of afternoon three, the man who had shown me how to grind metal rods into metal rods with flat ends came by to see how I was doing. He picked up a random piece from the box on the floor, commented that it was pretty good, and then said, “Oh, your exhaust fan’s not on.” He then casually walked away. Apparently, my lungs were not supposed to be the grinder’s exhaust system after all.

I went home that day and never came back. For decades since, whenever I feel badly about a particular job or task, I think back on my brief stint as a tool and die worker, cringe and then think more pleasant thoughts. And I never, ever use the word “Jawohl” under any circumstances.

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