It was early in the Korean War. Halfway through college, I had come “home” to Ohio, a thousand miles from the town in which I’d grown up and graduated high school; my folks had moved during my sophomore year.
I needed to make money that summer toward the college year ahead. Happily, the economy was robust; my recollection is that I lined up the first factory job of my life without needing the intervention of my father — who was of the managerial persuasion but hadn’t been in town long enough to be of much help.
I had been three weeks at that job when I overslept. I woke with a sickening jolt an hour after stifling the windup alarm by my bed — far too late to be at work on time. In a teen-age funk, I assumed all was lost.
I was no stranger to work: I’d help drive cattle to summer pastures near the High Sierra in California; had done a day’s work unloading hundred-pound grain sacks from a freight car at a Nebraska rail siding; had covered high school sports for the weekly West Orange Chronicle in New Jersey and earned a bit more by phoning highlights to the Newark Evening News; and had for several years spent a pre-school hour every day mucking out stalls at a nearby riding academy, acquiring a subtle halo of fragrance that hurried showers never entirely expunged.
But this was different: I was a member of the United Rubber Workers, making automobile radiator hose at a B. F. Goodrich plant in Akron.
Had I been more experienced, I might have hurried into work late, and asked my shop steward to win me clemency. But I was too much the neophyte even to imagine my labor union’s going to bat for me.
Besides, I had in my first few weeks given both the union steward and the company’s floor foreman reason to think that I deserved no favors.
I worked on the walk-up third floor of an ancient factory building. The work space was illuminated partly by harsh fluorescent tubes in a high ceiling, but mostly by a huge outer wall of windows, a checkerboard of small panes with rusty steel mullions, admitting such daylight as could penetrate glass clouded by decades of industrial exhalations and probably never washed. In addition to admitting some light, they offered us a fuzzy, grimy adumbration of our nearest neighbor, another once-red brick factory building adjoining ours.
The ceilings were high because most of the machines densely packed on the floor – at least several dozen, as I recall – were in part powered by belts of industrial leather that linked heavy drive wheels on each machine to equally heavy wheels whirring on room-length axles overhead. The cavernous space was cacophonously noisy and of course dirty. We splashed solvents and adhesives onto our products; I shudder to wonder what evil dusts and toxicities – by today’s standards – filled the air we unsuspectingly and innocently inhaled.
My partner on a two-man machine was nicknamed Cherry. A short, clean-shaven black man with close-cropped hair that showed touches of gray, he was at least twice my age and vastly my better in work experience.
Our task was monotonously straightforward: We spread out long, narrow layers of textured rubber fabric down the length of the table, ready to be coaxed between steel rollers that also ran the length. We applied adhesives and helped the machine roll twenty-foot-long tubes that gradually grew thicker and stronger as we glued on additional layers. We scurried back and forth to tend and adjust as each tube grew in heft.
I soon devised a way — details have long escaped me — that enabled both of us shorten our peregrinations the length of our machine. Being thus more efficient, we could complete each tube in perhaps a minute’s less time. For me, it was an opportunity to apply my mind, enlivening an otherwise deadeningly repetitive series of tasks.
I would like to think that my workmate Cherry also enjoyed a variation on the tedium he had endured far longer than I; at least he did not complain about my innovations.
When we took a bathroom break – a prize the union had won years back – the shop steward joined us to brusquely explain the error of our ways. Each machine had a well-established quota, and men were penalized if they failed to maintain that pace. I might suffer no lasting pain by speeding up the process. But in a few weeks, the steward knew, I’d go back to college, leaving poor Cherry to work his ass off or be docked.
Worse, the company might bring in its god-damned efficiency experts to study the shortcuts I’d devised, and might make everyone, on every machine, hustle more – a price I wouldn’t be around to pay.
I got the picture; I remember being genuinely chastened and fulsomely apologetic. Cherry and I went back to making tube the usual way, taking care not to hurry, working by the rules.
So here I was, in early morning a few weeks later, not in the least confident I had won back the union’s heart – and imagining that the foreman, having noticed our brief burst of efficiency and subsequent slowdown, would be ill-disposed to tolerate my tardiness.
I was in the kitchen, despondently nursing a glass of milk, remembering the price tags in the college bookstore where I had checked out the texts required for my fall courses, wondering how I would earn enough money to buy those books now that I’d lost my first real job. I was, in short, wallowing in failure when my mother came downstairs.
What was I doing here? she demanded.
I tried to explain; she brushed aside my stammerings. Did I know the foreman’s name? I did. Did I know the factory’s phone number? I didn’t. She pushed the phone book at me: Look it up. I did. Now dial that number, she instructed, and tell the operator you want to speak to the foreman – by name.
I did as she said. After a nervous moment, my call was duly transferred upstairs; my foreman answered the phone. He may have guessed, but he couldn’t see my shaking hands and may not have known how tremulously inadequate I felt. As Mom had ordered, I apologized, promising it would never happen. Never mind the bus, I said, one of my parents would drive me and I could be there in not much more than fifteen minutes; could I come to work?
Miraculously, he said yes! Get my ass down there right away, and he’d figure out some appropriate punishment for my lateness. Hurry! I did, of course. In a blur of rush-hour traffic and then a frantic dash up those three flights of factory stairs, I was soon reunited with Cherry. The shop steward came by to inquire solicitously about my health and my brief absence – and then to remind me that there was no requirement that we resurrect our shortcuts to make up for lost production. The union, he promised, had my back.
In the years since, as a journalist, I’ve had occasion to remember that moment when reporting on inner-city kids who lost their jobs for minor sins such as tardiness. An important key to getting kids off the streets and into productive lives, I observed, was to assign them wise counselors who could coax them through occasional lapses.
They were no worse than I; all any of them lacked was a mother who knew how to stiffen their spines, and could teach them how to overcome error by appealing to bosses’ better natures.
The rest of that summer in Akron was, with one small exception, uneventful. I was thereafter scrupulously punctual. Cherry and I made radiator hose at the prescribed pace, and I bought him a beer after work now and then. Neither the shop steward nor the foreman had further occasion to be annoyed with the college kid.
The exception to the routine of every day: The union found fault, as the summer progressed, with some work rule that didn’t affect me. I cannot at this point even remember what it was. I assured my workmates of my support — even when it appeared the union might call a strike over the dispute, and I might again face the prospect of empty pockets at the college bookstore.
And then strike we did: The Akron plant of the B. F. Goodrich Company was shut down for exactly two days at the end of the summer. I was assigned a few hours’ placard duty on a picket line that was, I thought, remarkably thinly populated.
It was, I am sure, a mere coincidence that the days we were on strike happened to coincide with the opening of the deer hunting season. But when the dispute was mysteriously resolved and we were back at work, many of my workmates, Cherry included, told me they had fresh venison in their freezers.
I spent another few weeks on that factory floor, then bid my machine partner and my other union friends farewell and went back to college.
Nothing in my next semester’s academic work matched the education I had that summer.