Over the holidays, my family chatted about the first miserable jobs we had. It also got me thinking about one after the really lousy one. I’d attended freshman year of college, and was living at my folk’s home the following summer looking for work. Since I waited until classes were done to begin looking, I was SOL [Sh*t Out of Luck] for a week. So when a random post appeared in the local newspaper want-ads I jumped at it, even though It was cryptic: “line workers needed for injection moulding plant.” I had no clue what it meant but they were hiring for all three shifts, so I applied and started the midnight shift (11 PM - 7 AM) the next day.
I’d never worked a midnight shift so that was the first tough adjustment. The first night I was trained: “Sit on this chair, in front of this [elephant-sized] machine, take this small [retractable] knife and when the plastic part falls into this tray, cut the plumbing pieces off the outer part [framework], drop the important parts into this box, and put the outer frames into this box. When the boxes are full dump them here, and here.”
We poured the plastic frames into a giant chipper shredder machine that was even louder than the moulding ones, which then melted them, to make more plumbing widgets. “Oh, and whatever you do, DO NOT EVER Stick your hands into the machine! And if you need to shut it down [presumably because you DID stick your hand into the machine!] hit this red button.”
There was one person per machine. It was so loud you had to wear headphones for ear protection. A 15 minute break at 1 PM, lunch at 3:15 AM, another break at 5:30 AM, end of shift at 7 AM. It smelled of liquified plastic (Always a quick-study, the first day I learned that’s what injection moulding did). We all smelled of molten plastic. I also learned we were a scab crew because the regulars were striking.
I was a scrawny, introverted, 20-year old who had no clue how to relate to the seven other workers who all were older than me, smoked, and seemed to need the job more than I did. One morning as I was leaving I saw another HS friend coming in for the morning shift and he said something like “this really sucks” and “I’m outa here by the end of the week!” as we passed. A few nights in, I braved a conversation during lunch with the Supervisor, Bob, and his wife, a couple on my shift who seemed ancient— maybe in their fifties. “How long have you two been working here?” “Oh, we’ve been doing work like this for over 30 years,” he said nonchalantly.
I remember sitting in my chair, back at it after lunch, trimming those warm plastic parts that dumped out every 90 seconds, a bit bewildered, pondering long and hard what it would be like to do this work for eight hours, every workday, for thirty years… It was unfathomable. Was this adult life?! I concluded that night, like my HS friend, I HAD to get out.
I’d been at it about two weeks when one day at noon I woke from my weird new schedule to hear my dad frustratedly calling from the top of the stairs to my older brother in his basement bedroom, that he needed to “call Marathon RV (Recreational Vehicles) today, or they wouldn’t keep the job open” for him. To his defense, my brother Steve had been through a grueling third year of an intense electrical engineering degree from Purdue. So he understandably needed a break from “pidly summer jobs.” He’d be hitting the ground running in the “real world” soon enough and earning far better money [and to his great credit, he’s still working hard 44 years later]. I popped out of bed, bleary-eyed, and asked my dad if I could call them. He said sure.
I happily quit the night shift and spent the rest of that summer sweeping floors, cleaning up debris, and making pick-ups for parts that were not delivered at our small recreational vehicle manufacturing plant. The framework came in one end of the building, where a welder extended the frame and a chipboard flooring was secured, then it rolled forward and frame walls were added, then insulation, electrical, plumbing, cabinets, etc, as it went through the length of the building three different rows, until the last, where after final touches of seats, speakers, cleaning windows were completed and almost miraculously a small RV emerged. I dont know how many were made each week by the 15 person crew.
Because part of my job was cleaning up everywhere along the line, I got to know each dept. (usually one person, and each had a specialty). Maybe because I was at that age where you first start to see adults as something you will one day be, even 40 years later I still remember several of the personalities. Dick (the welder) was a gruff-looking but friendly short guy with tattoos (in 1980 these were mostly still reserved for bikers and sailors); another guy built the cabinets and seemed like a former hippie (long brown hair, laid back attitude); a blonde-haired lady did all the upholstery; another fellow one day was excited to show me a fully intact Luna Moth he had found in the plant that he’d take home to his son, and he knew the Latin name—marking him as a rare “educated” line worker—I think he did the radios, stereo and speakers. I remember everyone got along, hustling like a smooth team through some hot summer workdays, and there was banter and laughter during lunch hours.
I was tired but always felt good at day’s end. At first I borrowed my parent’s old Chrysler sedan to get there, and it always had issues. After the workday it often wouldn’t start. I recall being frustrated and afraid to ask for help. Once after I had flooded it, a plant worker who (I swear) wore white short-sleeve T-shirts with cigs rolled in a sleeve, watched me and came over, removed the Bic pen I was propping the carburetor choke open with, and holding held it with his fingers until it took. With no hint of the humiliation that had kept me from asking for help, and no words, he handed me the pen, and we both headed home. It was nothing to him, but I still remember it vividly. So it was, I was becoming accepted as an adult.
My boss was a fellow named Bill, but everyone called him “Rabbit.” I assumed because he was light-footed, and quick on his feet, in contrast to his Yogi bear-shaped body. He was a 40-ish dude, who chewed tobacco, wore a tractor cap, and talked with a heavy Indiana “good ol’ boy” accent that took me a while to understand. (I’d grown up in Detroit.) He showed me the ropes of what was expected, and I soaked it in earnestly. After the lousy night shift job, I was very happy to be there, and eager to please. I kept all the areas squeaky clean, so diligently my fore-arms filled out from sweeping so hard everyday. I showed initiative, and kept busy, so “Rab” came to appreciate “the college boy.” We got along better every week.
He taught me to drive the pickup which had a manual. I got stuck at a few stoplights at first, but made my way eventually. Rabbit always gave me directions to the many random factories I needed to go to, solely by landmarks. Of course no internet existed, nor cell phones. “Go about up t’ th’ fourth buildin’, then left about two blocks, take a right where that muffler shop is…” I got lost a few times too, and on my return he’d say something like “we was wondering if you was gonna come back today” with a smile. He could somehow tell I could handle his teasing.
He asked me just once what I was studying at college. When I told him I was studying art, he paused a minute and sincerely said “there any jobs in that?” — “I dunno,” was all I could sincerely reply. By the end of the summer we’d bonded, as much as a summer job “college boy” and a “good ol’ boy” twice my age from a very different world could.
One day in mid-August he had to write out something on a box being returned. He called me over and said “Johnboy, how do you spell screen?” I figured maybe he was mixing up the “double E” for “E & A” or something, so I said “S-C-R-E-E” as he wrote each one slow and sure. But then he quit. In that instant I realized he would not add an “N” unless I told him, so I blurted out, “And “N”!” Suddenly, I realized why he never wrote me directions or named streets when he sent me out for pick-ups — he had not learned to read.
I think in that moment, something opened in me. I felt (without being able to articulate it then) maybe for the first time, a mature empathy and compassion as an adult for another adult. Someone very different from me, who, through circumstance, I’d come to appreciate and respect and enjoy. I realized too that the seemingly huge differences between us were mostly because I simply had been gifted parents who made sure we learned in school; who were able to attend to us during our younger years; who were determined to shepherd us so we’d get a shot at college studies, which they had never been able to attend.
In my first week sweeping floors at the Marathon RV plant, I got blisters from pushing the broom. Rabbit noticed. “Don’t you got any gloves, John-boy?” “Nope.” He paused a few seconds. “Here, you can have mine.” They were spanking new. I used them all summer (and had no more blisters) and wore the hide to a gray shine. On my last day he said “keep ‘em” — a parting gift — and I saved them.
When I went back to school that fall, in my odd, “job-less” art major, I saw my undergrad studies very differently. I had a new fire in my belly. During the remaining years I intently took in every word from the professors, challenged them and me, applied myself hard in all my studio classes, worked beyond assignments, visited museums when I could, took home armloads of art books every week to stare at whenever not in class… I was thrilled to work my tail off, keenly aware of my privilege in being there, never forgetting either job from that summer when I became an adult.
I’d seen Van Gogh’s paintings of shoes, and with similar sentiment, I painted Rabbit’s gloves in 1981, half a year after that summer job. It’s not an extraordinary painting. It’s a barely-considered composition, with a minimal sense of how to use or work the full square. I was mostly just struggling to learn how to create form and handle paint. Like the subject (and the artist?), it’s plain and straightforward, not classy, maybe even a bit “heavy,” — there’s plenty of room for improvement. But for me, like the man who gave me his new gloves, finesse and erudition are trumped by sincerity, integrity, and heart any day.
Here’s to you Rabbit, thanks for the gloves, the memories, and the mentoring. Hope you’re looking into a bright new year, wherever you are. Happy new year to all the unassuming hardworking folks out there, we’re touching each other’s lives and affecting people in ways we never imagined. Let’s be gentle with one another.