I worked at Totem Manufacturing Company in New Jersey for a summer. Totem made metal containers, ranging from quart paint cans to ten-thousand-gallon water tanks. I worked almost every station as a floater, earning what was a generous sum in those days.
My first job was to shave off weld beads (metal residue around the flanges) in water heater tanks that came down an assembly line, then stack them on the floor so they could be taken to the galvanizing vat. For this, I wielded a pneumatic chisel, a tool like a miniature jackhammer. The steel-on-steel process made such a racket that the earplugs I wore barely kept the sound down to tolerable levels.
I floated to many other jobs in the factory. Sometimes I’d be on a line for making lids of quart and gallon paint cans. I fed sheets of metal into a large press controlled by a foot pedal. The machine would stamp out circular sections much like a cookie cutter does with dough. It also crimped the edges. If any part of my anatomy got under the press when it descended, it would be stamped out too. Workers after my station put the lids on and, farther down the line, stacked the cans in freight cars.
I also had to paint quart and gallon cans, positioning them on a belt and then activating a series of nozzles that would spray them. I wore an apron, mask, and goggles, but by the end of the day, these would be coated with paint although I stood behind a barrier most of the time. Like every other job I did for that company, it was terrible for my health. The smell of the paint affected my breathing, Sometimes I thought it would overwhelm me. But I was young and game for anything. I figured if the regular workers could do the jobs, I could too.
In another messy operation, I coated septic tanks with a hot tar mixture. I’d pick them up with an overhead pulley system that slid on a ceiling rail, dunk them in the black tarry liquid until they were fully coated, then hoist them out. I reached into this mixture with gloves more than once when the hook came undone and I had to reposition it. The tar wasn’t quite hot enough to burn me, but I did get fingernails on one hand coated with the black gunk, a condition that lasted weeks although I tried hard to wash it off.
A fourth job I had was pounding barrel hoops flat (they came out of the manufacturing process askew) and fitting them around steel barrels. For this I had a large sledge-hammer. It took no brain power, but required a sturdy pair of arms and a good aim. The job was exacting; unless the hoops were pounded perfectly round and could lie flat on the floor, the barrels wouldn’t take them.
I worked on another part of the barrel line after that. Before the barrels were fitted with lids, I dipped them in hot galvanize (830 °F), pulled them out of that bath, and lowered them onto a set of slanted rails positioned so these cylinders could roll down to the floor. My job was to guide them to the end of that process. The barrels were too hot to touch. I had to stand with a large wooden stick and make sure they rode to the floor without incident. For this I wore gloves. Luckily, I didn’t get burned, but at home, when I took off my heavy work shoes, I noticed holes in the leather where hot metal had dripped.
I was also involved in manufacturing giant tanks that utilized large, square sheets of thick metal with holes bored in one edge. My job was to hook into the holes, hoist them up and put them through a ceiling-mounted machine that curved them until the two ends came together. These were later welded into huge cylinders; three of them joined together made a ten-thousand-gallon tank.
The worst job in the factory was before the tank ends were welded together. Men stood inside the giant cylinders and struck them with large mallets to dislodge weld residue. The cylinders acted as sounding boards, so this could be heard a half mile away, and the men were standing inside them!
The bits of weld residue that accumulated from many of these jobs were salvaged and put back into the galvanize mixture. Men would sweep these up, shovel them into a machine that shook them, letting dust and other fine particles from the floor fall through a screen. I saw this wasted many of the fragments, so I got the idea to put them through twice and recover almost twice as much valuable metal. I experimented doing it this way and it worked, so I went to the foreman who oversaw that job, but he just shined me on.
Another job in the manufacture of water tanks could have turned disastrous. I’d hook on to the tanks through holes, using a pulley and roller in the ceiling, raise them, then lower them into an acid bath. When they were suitably coated, I’d raise them again, lower them into the next vat, a water bath, to neutralize the acid left on them. After that, I’d raise, then lower them into a liquid metal mixture of about 700 degrees Fahrenheit. This required that I make sure all the water had drained out of the tanks before they went into the galvanize bath. If water hit the hot metal, an explosion would occur.
The jobs I had in that factory went from marginally to drastically unsafe, but I got through them without serious problems, a feat that gave me confidence in my ability to follow instructions and watch out for myself. I felt sorry for the men who did those jobs day in and day out until something went wrong and they were injured or sickened. I’d read about coal miners in West Virginia suffering similar fates.
I suspect most of what the men did back then has now been replaced by robots, cheapening their labor even more. We’re seeing situations in this era where the few working people left with jobs never get raises while managers and officers at the top increase their salaries and benefits. I see serious problems unless something is done to reduce the inequality.
John Laue, a former teacher, counselor, editor of Transfer, and Associate Editor of San Francisco Review, has won awards for poetry and prose, beginning with The Ina Coolbrith Poetry Prize at University of California, Berkeley. With six published books to his credit, five of poetry and one of prose, The Columns of Joel Mobius, he coordinates The Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium reading series, and edits the online magazine Monterey Poetry Review.