The Working LIfe

Monday. Ugh. Nobody likes a Monday, unless maybe you are retired. Nobody says, “Thank God It’s Monday!”  Monday signals the beginning of the work week grind…again. It is the day when we wake up to the most horrible of sounds, the alarm clock, after having spent a couple days of the good life, going to bed and getting up at our leisure and leaving us wondering, “Where the Hell did the weekend go?”

For most of you this is just another Monday. For me, however, today is a big day. It marks the end of a long journey, at least in theory. Today I am no longer an employee of the company I have spent my entire life working for. No, I didn’t quit and no, I have not retired or gotten myself fired (that I know of!). Today GE Appliances no longer belongs to General Electric; they have a new owner. If you have the patience, pour yourself a cup of Joe or a cold one, sit down and help me mark this moment in time…warning; it’s a long story.

It was February 1978. I was seventeen years old. My hair rested on my shoulders, my clothes reeked of Marlboros and other questionable substances. Some said I looked like Vinne Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter. I was fresh out of high school and I had no real life plans, unless you count buying a motorcycle and recreating Then Came Bronson. I lived “in the moment.” I suppose for the most part I still do.

I was born and raised in a college town. But it was also a manufacturing community. White collars ruled the city, but blue collars paid the bills. Outside the Sample Gates of Indiana University stood mammoth buildings with names like Westinghouse, RCA, Otis Elevator, Sarkas Tarzian and General Electric. My uncle built RCA televisions all his life. My aunt helped Genearl Electric fill the world with side x side refrigerators. I chose to follow my aunt. I didn’t really choose anything; the job just sort of fell into my lap and I didn’t say “no.”image

My first job was at an enclosed hog breeding farm. I was still in high school at the time. I prefer not to reminisce as to my duties at that job. Working for GE would be my first venture into full-time work. I had no idea what factory work was like, my only exposure being the infamous episode of Lucy and the Candy Factory. Turns out it wasn’t too far from reality. They told me I was going to be a B-11, whatever that was. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it meant I was getting a job that paid a little more because no one wanted to do it. It usually meant heavy lifting, some complicated process or machinery or more times than not, being elbow deep in itchy insulation all day long.

In this modern day of robotics and ergonomics, it is hard to imagine the task I was given on day 1 as a new employee. Having just been filled with foam insulation, the side x side refrigerator case was then loaded to the first phase of final assembly. My job was to take a long metal cover, place it over the exposed wire harness on the rear of the refrigerator, drive 4 screws in it…and then lay the upright unit on its back as it traveled down the moving assembly line. Now days they use hydraulics or other mechanical means to perform such tasks, but back then we relied on muscle. Those of you who know me understand that for a guy who is 5’5″ tall and at the time weighing a measly 130 lbs, dropping a refrigerator on its back 1,000 times a day is no small task. And that was after I had already bent over to drive those 4 screws in the lower portion of the back cover, nearly touching my toes on both operations.

The job did make me feel special, however. First of all, I was given this really cool utility belt to wear. Actually it was a carpenter’s belt, complete with a hammer holster on the right hand side. On the left side, someone had taped a small cardboard box. This box held my screws. I would grab a metal back cover from the bin, drive the 4 screws, then like Wyatt Earp I would holster my weapon without so much as looking down, grab the refrigerator by the top rear corners and use my knee to shove it out, nearly off the edge of the wooden slats conveyor, leaving it only a couple inches away from falling to the floor. I’d then tilt it backwards toward me and lay it on it’s back. Being a cocky young kid and not wanting to bend over 2,000 times a day, I quickly learned to get the downward momentum going and “drop” the refrigerator until it was almost on it’s back, then catch it with my foot and my right hand. I miscalculated once, resulting in a broken big toe. For the first two week my right bicep was so tight that I couln’t extend my arm. I had finger tape on every single finger because I had blisters on every single finger. No, I did not go to the clinic. I did not complain.  I took pride in the fact that I performed one of the worst jobs in the building and that I could do it better and quicker than anyone. I enjoyed knowing that when I didn’t come to work, God’s name would be taken in vain, my name would be cursed by both my Foreman and my replacement and that they were always happy to see me return.

That was just one of the many jobs I held over the years. Some were better, some might have been worse. I remember one job in particular that, while extremely challenging, was really enjoyable. I was part of a 3 person team who built condensor fans offline and loaded them onto the compressor assembly. My tools consisted of two air guns, a tape dispenser, 5 different parts, all to be used in about 17 seconds of time. We started out at a slower rate than the day shift did and had one less operator, but gradually ramped up to match their speed. Unfortunately, the wise counsel, also known as “management,” chose not to give our shift the extra labor. We were in the gray zone where we were just short of first shift rate but many hundreds per night from where we had originally begun, so needless to say, I was cookin’. Since I started on the job at the lower rate, my speed had increased with the rate climb…and I still got done an hour early, but busted my ass to get it. I worked so fast  that my young Foreman would walk by, stop and watch me, then walk away shaking his head. I missed work one day and when I returned, a Chilean guy who worked across from me came rushing up, holding his hands up in front of my face: “7 people do your job yesterday! 7 people!” I got a kick out of that. I guess it was Shepherd pride that helped me become a stronger worker. I would never let a job get the best of me and I always wanted to be the hardest, most reliable worker in the building…my dad would have expected no less from me.

I could easily spend 300 pages telling stories from my factory days, but I doubt you would have the patience to wade through all that. I could tell you about people chasing one another around the plant with fire extinguishers, dumping 5 gallon buckets of ice cold water on one another’s heads during the brutal heat, people passing out on the line who were quickly pulled aside so we could “keep the damn line running,” hidden lairs with lounge chairs, televisions, VCRs and porn. I could talk about rooftop sex, stairwell liaisons and jealous fits of rage that ended with one employee striking another employee in the head with a hammer. I’ve seen punches thrown, kisses planted, gropes felt, drunks stumble, hearts broken and lives crushed. I even spent the night in jail once myself, all because of the company I kept at the factory.

Looking back on it all now, I feel comfortable saying this: for better or worse, good or bad, I’ve been a GE man since I was a kid…and I suppose nothing is going to change that. There were times that I loved my job…and a lot of times I hated it. At age 18 I was driving a brand new Ford Mustang Cobra, with more money in the bank than I knew how to spend (well, my friends helped me spend a lot of it on liquid refreshments), making the same amount of money as the 30-40 year old men and women working by my side raising a family. They sort of took this young kid under their wing, picking on me every chance they got, but doing it out of a commaradre spirit. I was one of them. They even gave me a nickname; “The VO Kid.” I won’t explain that beyond saying it was the result of mixing a Seagrams product with a co-worker known as “Big Daddy,” which concluded with a night of entertaining the local authorities with our “captive” presence.

I was laid off twice, swore I would never return, but always seemed to find my way back sooner or later. I was a union member, as there wasn’t really much choice, but was never a good supporter, even though my wife was an official for over 15 years. I was raised to do what you are told, to give your best and to do whatever you saw needed to be done, so for the most part I never found a need for anyone else to fight my battles. That’s not to say I always got the warm fuzzies from my bosses…or their bosses. In fact, if you haven’t already figured it out in the time you have known me or read my blogs, I’m not much of a Corporate kind of guy. I’m not an ass kisser, nor a ladder climber and I don’t much like being told what to do. Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy…but I’ve been that way my entire life.

I was an hourly employee in the Indiana facility, performing just about every job they had at one time or another, right up until I took a salaried position in Kentucky. At the heart of things, I’m still just a blue collar guy, identifying more with the line workers than the office sitters. In fact, just recently I was walking in the building to start my day. Alongside me was a man who worked on one of the assembly lines. We parked close and often walked in at the same time. I think I rode the bike in that day and we started chatting about motorcycles. As we came upon the time clock I kept on going, he stopped and yelled at me; “Hey, aren’t you going to clock in?” I smiled, turned and said, “I don’t think I will today.” Some would interpret that to mean I am not very professional…they’d be right. I considered it a complement…”I’m no better than you. We are the same.”

So here I am on this Monday afternoon (on vacation on the beach actually!), finding myself in an odd position. Four years away from retirement age and the name on my paycheck is about to change. In some ways it is a miracle I made it this far. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, surrounded by a Purple Haze of Hendrix, Zeppelin, Stones and older siblings who were neck deep in tie-died “love and peace.” Somewhere in all that maybe I inhaled too much incense, because I caught the free spirit bug and ended up with a nomad heart and a wanderer’s soul. I’ve always been a vagabond caged by a healthy dose of responsibility, transplanted into my DNA by my parents in an effort to combat the wanderer’s vibe.

But I didn’t wander. I stuck to the well-worn rut of responsibility. And for the most part I’m not sorry about that; my life has been blessed. I came to work when I wanted to and I came to work when I didn’t…and that worked out pretty well. I made one of my co-workers mad once by suggesting our employer had played a vital part in my good life. Lori and I had just built a new house a mile away from the plant on a very busy road. I think half the plant passed our home every day. It wasn’t anything special, but it was above average for the neighborhood. My co-worker made a comment about the house and without really thinking about it I said, “That’s the house that GE built.” He turned to me, immediately red-faced and angry. “No it’s not! They had nothing to do with it! You did the work! It was your labor that built that house!” Not being one to get angry all that easily, I turned and said, “I did the work, GE provided the opportunity. We needed one another.”

And so it goes. There have been days when I didn’t think I had one more working shift left in me, when I just couldn’t face the prospect of driving another 5,000 screws while the clock crept along. There have been days when I hated myself for not having enough ambition to leave. Heck, there have been days when I’ve hated everyone I worked with! But in the end, this company has been good to me. It has helped us raise 4 wonderful children. It has allowed us to build years of memories as a family, taking vactaions on this very beach in Naples that I”m writing from today. It put food on our table, cloths on our backs and about 50 some motorcycles in my garage.

If you want to focus on the negatives, there is always something to complain about. Always something that could have been better better. Always something that wasn’t done right. There is no shortage of injustice in work and life. But I’m not a pessimist. Nor am I an optimist; I’m a realist and the reality is I’ve had a good run with this company. I have no stones to throw, no backs to stab and no axes to grind.

Well, if you insist, I guess I could find a few things to blame on my years of factory work:

1. I do everything fast…it is as if I hear the voice of June Judd (a Foreman well known for getting the job done) saying to me, “What’s the hold up? Get moving!”

2. Because of #1 I am a very impatient person, especially in check out lines.

3. I eat really fast. The only person I know who eats faster than me is my wife.

4. Speaking of which, work is all Lori and I talk about it seems…we have always worked for the same company and in the same facility…always…yeah…think about that!

5. My feet are shot, my hands and wrists hurt, especially my clutch hand. My left elbow is racked with pain and my shoulders are not much better…oh, and my left hip catche and cramps when I try to stretch it out on long bike rides.

6. Our friends and acquaintances all want us to fix their refrigerators and washing machines.

7. A lot has changed over the years…and not much has changed over the years. Read into that what you will.

8. Because of #7, I am more cynical than ever, and believe me, a Shepherd does not need any help in that department.

9. Every time I go into a big building, I reach for my safety glasses. And I almost yelled at a guy on the beach today, “Hey, no walking and talking on your cell phone!”

I thought tha by now, pushing 56 hard, I would be singing BTO’s Takin’ Care of Business, but instead my life’s soundtrack has more resembled Springsteen’s Factory. But I’m not complaining, nor hanging my head. At this point in time I am closer to the end than the beginning. I’ve just about paid my dues. Soon my focus will shift outside the confines of that concrete giant, toward my wife and children, my lovely grandchildren and the coming opportunities to roam the world on two wheels.

Today there is a new name on the letterhead, but I’m still making GE Appliances, just like I did 38 years ago. And I’m proud of that.




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