Friday, October 28, 2016

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - High School Work

A long time ago when I was in High School I had a job in a factory in Taftville. Artistic Wire was its name. It was in a building that was part of a much larger complex. It ran along the Shetucket River and at one time had been Ponema Mills. It was easily a mile long.

A textile mill. One of many on the numerous waterways of New England. My dad worked there after the war. The textile industry crashed in the 50's. The Tennessee Valley Authority made for cheap electricity in the south. Cheaper than water power in the north. And labor was cheaper, too. So the industry went south.

Artistic wire was a remnant of the textile industry.

But I got a job there, anyway. The factory floor was full of machines. Huge machines. Floor to ceiling machines that did odd things. I would sit at a machine. I'd put special gloves on my hands with steel cables attached to them. The cables were loose.

I'd take some wires or tubes or rods from a bin to my left and arrange them on a frame in the machine. There was a little opening, like a small fireplace within the machine, with places to put the rods and such. Above was a huge block of cast iron. Within, the machine whirred and spun.

When I was done arranging the metal pieces in the template I reached up and pushed two buttons. It had to be two. Otherwise the machine wouldn't work.

When it did, the huge block of iron came down. At the same time the two cables pulled my hands away from the machine.


The rods and tubes and whatever were bent into shape and welded together. A garment rack. A record holder. A grate. Was born.

I worked a summer shift. Night shift. I filled in on machines where the operator was on vacation. I got to move around. Every night was different.

Some nights I'd work the rod machine. There was a hugh roll of steel wire on a spool. This was hooked up to a machine. The wire would be pulled into the machine, straightened, then cut to a certain length. A rod. It was no longer flexible. It came off a wire spool and dropped into a bin as a solid rod.

I mentioned the monster machines. The ones that could bend, shape, and weld rods and tubes into useful items. Those were scary. They all came with a sign attached. How many pieces you should be able to do per hour. How Industrial Revolutionary! Gilded Age, indeed!

But it was a job. I remember seeing the full time employees at the lunch room. Men, women. They didn't look happy. I didn't like my first view of the Industrial Revolution.

Another time they had me bring stuff to the platers. The platers were a series of vats of horrid caustic boiling chemicals that gave the garment racks their chrome finish. Electricity was also involved to electroplate the steel record racks or toaster bodies with chrome.

But before I could do that I had to take a basket of finished goods and preprocess it. The basket was made of wire and it sat on a detachable dolly. The finished goods were covered with a thin film of grease. To keep them from rusting. That had to go.

So I brought them to the degreaser. The coffin.

In the middle of the factory was a box that opened up into the basement. There was a chain fall on a rail above it. I would roll up the basket of coat hangers or whatever and hook it up to the chain fall. Then lift it up and lower it into the coffin. Below, very caustic chemicals were splashing, evaporating into steam, and condensing and dripping back down again. I had a sprayer and a nozzle so I could spray the contents of the basket with the degreasing compound.

It was hideous.

The reason that the dolly was detachable was that we didn't want to dissolve the grease out of the wheels. It was that potent.

From there the goods went finally to the plaiter. Copper hooks were used to hold the items to be plated. I stood at one station. The machine would lower a chain to my reaching. I'd take a garment rack, or whatever, and hang it on a hook. Then another. Then the machine would lift the chain up. It would advance to the next station and drop down again. The next station might be an acid bath, or an electroplating, or a rinse.

One by one the machine dipped the items into some bath, then retrieved them, then advanced, then dipped again. At the very end workers removed chrome plated items from the electric soup.

After, I worked picking up the finished pieces and packaging them. I also worked in the shipping department. I learned to drive a fork lift. And to pick up pallets of goods and load them into a tractor trailer. Once I came around a corner too fast and an entire pallet of stuff fell off and crashed to the ground. I had to load the truck and couldn't stop to reload the pallet so I went and got another pallet full, this time more carefully.

Factory work taught me something. That I don't want to work in a factory. Yes. But also that there is an order to things. And a horror.

I went to college that fall. I was going to go back to Artistic Wire to work over the winter break, but the factory burned down over Thanksgiving. Chemical fire in the basement. Probably near the coffin. Investigations revealed that it had been done by the owners for the insurance money.

Fuck the employees.

That taught me something, too.

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