March 09, 2007
Originally published March 1, 2004
When I first hired in at the plant, I took a job as a packer. I stood in front of a machine that spit out pigment whenever I pressed the "GO" button. I took an empty bag and put it on the packer machine spout. It filled the bag up and shut off. I then moved that bag to a weigh scale while I put another empty bag on the fill spout and hit the "GO" button.
I weighed the bag and used a metal scoop to adjust the weight to within .2 of 50 pounds. I threw that bag on a conveyor belt than ran it through a bag flattener and a metal detector. I started the conveyor with a knee-button so that I wore a hole in the right knee of every pair of pants I owned.
By that time, another full bag was hanging from the packer spout, so I moved that one the the weigh scale, put another empty bag on the spout, hit the "GO" button, adjusted the weight on the new bag and threw it on the conveyor. By then, the last bag was back on the end of the conveyor and I stacked it on a pallet.
That was the most mind-numbing job I've ever done in my life. Just the same thing, over and over again, like a trained monkey. Learn to walk that bag-flinging circle and it wasn't that bad a job, if you didn't like to think. I hated packing.
A packer lifted a 50-pound bag of pigment three times before it hit the pallet. Once from the machine, once again from the weigh scale and then again when it returned from the conveyor. The average machine ran between 120 and 200 bags per hour, depending on how the mills were operating.
I was a young man then and the physical part of the job didn't bother me. I could lift and throw 50-pound bags of pigment for as long as the machine was running. I bulked up and became lean and muscular from performing that job. I lost the fingerprints off both hands from handling those bags. The friction wore my fingerprints away. I was paid $8.00 an hour.
Often, at the end of a shift, the supervisor would come by to take his final bag-count and he would hold up two fingers. The packing area was too goddam loud to talk clearly, but everybody knew what that hand-sign meant. It meant that some lazy bastard was laying out of work and the boss needed someone to pull a double to cover the vacancy. I always volunteered.
Hell, I was making $12.00 per hour for that extra eight. It seemed like a good deal to me. I took it every chance I got.
I once pulled five doubles in a row, working from 3:00 in the afternoon to 7:00 in the morning. That's the only time in my life I've ever had a cop wake me up for falling asleep at a traffic light. I was on my way home after that last double and I knew that I was off for the next four days. I just wanted to find my bed and crash. I was 28 years-old and wore slap-out.
I stopped at the light at Skidaway and DeRenne and fell asleep behind the wheel of the car. I must have kept my foot on the brake, but I don't really remember. I fell asleep. All I recall is a policeman waking me up while horns were honking all around me.
"Son. are you drunk?" he asked me.
"No, sir. I just got off work this morning and I've pulled a lot of overtime this week. I'm really tired and I just want to go to bed. I guess I must have gone to sleep at the traffic light. But I'm awake now and it won't happen again."
Those were the days when a cop said, "You look like Fido's ass. Somebody ran you through the washing machine and put you through the wringer, too. Where do you live?" I told him. "Okay, head that way and I'll follow you to make sure you get there safe and sound."
He followed me all the way home. I pulled into the driveway and he gave one toot from his siren as he drove away. I wanted to lay down in the yard and sleep in the grass. I was bone-tired and half out of my mind from fatigue. But I managed to stagger inside and find my bed. I slept for 24 straight hours and still felt like shit when I woke up. I dreamed about packing the entire time I was asleep.
That's one of the reasons that I never put up with whining from operators about being worked "too hard" in the packing area. I did that shit when IT WAS hard work and I did it all, including 80-hour weeks. I don't want to listen to crybabies tell me their troubles. I could have worked them all into the ground back then.
But I still thank that policeman who woke me up and decided to watch me make it home instead of hauling me off to jail that morning. Bless him.
All content © Rob Smith