Machines and Me



From Accounts Payable – My Life Past Due

Someone once said that a thief is a capitalist without capital, but I was too square to steal the means of production: I occasionally worked the lathes, drill presses, punch presses, and grinders, but I did not stoop to steal one. Several bouts of unemployment along the random course of my youth had given me cause to take any kind of job I could get, so after washing dishes I landed in machine shops for a spell. I drilled countless holes and even turned out thousands upon thousands of left-handed screws besides right-handed ones; and, among other things, I put the wooden handles on tile knives and sharpened barrels and barrels of them on the grinder.

I shan’t forget the poor man I worked with at a Minneapolis machine shop. He was overcome by fumes from the degreasing tank as he leaned over it to wash a basket of oily parts: he fell into the degreaser tank and drowned. As if that were not enough to ruin the day, I had ignorantly placed my liverwurst sandwich on the housing of a idle machine, where it grew so rancid from the heat after the machine was turned on and until noon that my stomach violently turned just after I gobbled down a big bite to comfort myself after the ambulance had left with drowned man’s body. Several of us got drunk at the corner pub in our fallen comrade’s honor. I am ashamed to say that we inadvertently sideswiped a few parked cars on the way home, but never mind. I stumbled into my girlfriend’s apartment, collapsed on the floor and vomited up a pink solution of beer and sloe gin on her white rug before I passed out.

Although I did not know what I was doing, my girlfriend married me because I loved her and that is what girls do. Life was tough and bitter cold in The Cities, so we moved to Topeka, where I had family; as if that would do us any good, since I had ran away from that family years before because it was not good for me, and I hardly needed a daily reminder of my youthful indiscretions as a frustrated juvenile delinquent – mind you that I was basically a good boy who was wrongly accused of being bad, hence I took the suggestions in one way or the other and got even.

I understand that ‘topeka’ is a Native American term for “a good place to dig potatoes.’ But it was especially difficult for a young paleface to get a job in Topeka; not to mention the impoverished Indians or the poor Mexicans who lived in tarpaper shacks near the railroad tracks. I declined an offer to climb into fuel storage tanks, newly fabricated for filling stations, and to weld the seams together; or rather, I accepted the job but quit before I showed up.  Instead, I took a job at a machine shop; its main customer was Goodyear. Two months later, the union steward got me fired on the pretext that I was incompetent. I had been unwittingly stamping out nearly twice the quota of parts on one of the punch presses, which had aroused the ire of the journeymen. Wherefore the shop steward gave me a task far beyond my competence as a barely experienced apprentice: to dismount a large motor from a huge upright lathe used to turn out tire molds, and mount it on a different type of machine. After I was fired, I resolved never to work at a machine shop again, and I swore I would stay away from rednecks who chew tobacco and have an unseemly habit of grabbing the crotches of their coveralls every ten minutes or so.

I found a night job cleaning the potato chip machine at Frito Lay. The chip machine was laid out along the length of the building to convey and process the potatoes dumped into the hopper at one end. The spuds were scrubbed; the stones dug up and shipped with them sank to the bottom; and then the washed potatoes were dropped into a rapidly spinning cuff; thanks to centrifugal force, they were sliced into chips by the razor sharp knives in its sleeve. The chips were conveyed by a series of paddles along a long cooker full of oil, from which they arose along an incline, dripping off much of the oil, under a huge salt shaker at the top of the incline, and then dropped onto a shaking table which rid them of excess salt and oil. Part of my job was to climb up to the salt shaker with 50 lb bags of salt and load it for the morning shift.

But for one other man, the fellow who ran the cheese-puff machine, I had the plant to myself at night. The puffs were made by forcing flour mixed with other ingredients through a hot collar with holes in it. Although he let me operate the machine during his breaks, and told me about the guy at the saloon who found a thumb in his potato chip bag, I did not like him very much, as he was a spitter and was wont to spit into the large cardboard boxes as they filled with puffs.

Cleaning the chip machine was not a bad job; I worked well without supervision. After washing the machine I spread lye on the concrete floor and hosed it down. I could literally hear the rot oozing from the crates late at night: somewhat rotten potatoes were cheaper and made good chips, with delicious brown rings in them. My job climaxed every morning when I started up the machine: I turned on the gas jets and leaned my upper body into the huge oven, using a burning broom as a match to fire it up so the oil would be heated for the early shift.

I lost the job when Pepsi took over; the main topic of conversation had been the virtue of buying stock before the buyout, but I had nothing to spare on my lowly pay. My wife was pregnant, and now I was out a job, strapped with car payments. I asked the bank to repossess and sell the car, a chrome-laden white Impala convertible with red interior. I was car crazy in those days, and had purchased it with a settlement my wife had received for a car accident. I suppose we were better off without it, as it was always breaking down: it broke down on its new owner just after he bought it at the auction, and sat alongside the highway for several weeks.

Things were not going very well in Topeka, to say the least, and we were reduced to eating mostly potatoes. Almost flat broke, I filled out an application for welfare. The lady from welfare visited us just as the car was being towed away. She was so rude and contemptuous that I ordered her out of the house and resolved that I would never accept welfare as long as I lived. I told my wife that I would rather steal food from grocery stores and rob banks than be a welfare recipient. Two hours later the police came to the door, arrested me for nonpayment of five one-dollar parking tickets, and threw me in the cooler with a bunch of drunks.

Fortunately for the future of my young family my father paid the tickets and the fine; I did not have the thirty dollars, and I would have had to serve thirty days in jail to work it off. As luck comes in streaks, I found a job the very next day, fabricating aluminum window frames for a company whose main customer, Holiday Inn, was expanding. Our pay included one silver dollar every week. It was good to have another job: I bought another car, a tornado hit the capitol building a block from our apartment, and President Kennedy was assassinated.

We see hollow aluminum framing everywhere we go, usually in store fronts. Truckloads of aluminum extrusions came in from Georgia. A journeyman cut them into the right lengths with a circular saw – one man cut his hand off on purpose. I drilled holes and riveted brackets onto the ends of the hollow aluminum lengths so they could be assembled in the field and glass installed in the frames. One day I forgot that my hand was inside the end of a length of aluminum extrusion as I was drilling a hole in it, so I drilled a hole clean through my hand. That hurt badly but did not do much damage as the drill slipped off the bone and glided through the muscles. On the way to the hospital I resolved that someday soon I would get away from laboring on dirty and dangerous machines, and return to the typewriters and adding machines I had had some small experience with earlier on.

David Arthur Walters


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