restricted access The Blue Machinery of Summer
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52 The Blue Machinery of Summer “I feel like I’m part of this damn thing,” Frank said. He carried himself like a large man even though he was short. A dead cigarette dangled from his half-­ grin. “I’ve worked on this machine for twenty-­ odd years, and now it’s almost me.” It was my first day on a summer job at ITT Cannon in Phoenix in 1979. This factory manufactured parts for electronic systems—­ units that fit into larger, more complex ones. My job was to operate an air-­ powered punch press. Depending on each item formed, certain dies or templates were used to cut and shape metal plates into designs the engineers wanted. “I know all the tricks of the trade, big and small, especially when it comes to these punch presses. It seems like I was born riding this hunk of steel.” Frank had a gift for gab, but when the foreman entered, he grew silent and meditative, bent over the machine, lost in his job. The whole day turned into one big, rambunctious dance of raw metal, hiss of steam, and sparks. Foremen strutted about like banty roosters. Women tucked falling curls back into hairnets, glancing at themselves in anything chrome. This job reminded me of the one I’d had in 1971 at McGraw Edison, also in Phoenix, a year after I returned from Vietnam. Back then, I had said to myself, this is the right setting for a soap opera. Muscle and sex changed the rhythm of this place. We’d call the show The Line. I’d move up and down the line, shooting screws into metal cabinets of coolers and air conditioners—­ one hour for MontFrom The Best American Essays 2001, ed. Kathleen Norris (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011). 53 gomery Ward or Sears, and the next two hours for a long line of cabinets stamped McGraw Edison. The designs differed only slightly, but made a difference in the selling price later on. The days seemed endless, and it got to where I could do the job with my eyes closed. In retrospect, I believe I was hyper from the war. I couldn’t lay back; I was driven to do twice the work expected—­ sometimes taking on both sides of the line, giving other workers a hand. I worked overtime two hours before 7:00 a.m. and one hour after 4:00 p.m. I learned everything about coolers and air conditioners , and rectified problem units that didn’t pass inspection. At lunch, rather than sitting among other workers, I chose a secluded spot near the mountain of boxed-­ up coolers to eat my homemade sandwiches and sip iced tea or lemonade. I always had a paperback book in my back pocket: Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Albert Camus’s The Fall, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, or C. W. E. Bigsby’s The Black American Writer. I wrote notes in the margins with a ballpoint. I was falling in love with language and ideas. All my attention went to reading. When I left the gaze of Arizona’s Superstition Mountain and headed for the Colorado Rockies, I wasn’t thinking about higher education. Once I was in college, I vowed never to take another job like this, and yet here I was, eight years later, a first-­ year graduate student at the University of California at Irvine, and working another factory job in Phoenix, hypnotized by the incessant clang of machinery. Frank schooled me in the tricks of the trade. He took pride in his job and practiced a work ethic similar to the one that had shaped my life early on even though I had wanted to rebel against it. Frank was from Little Rock; in Phoenix, everyone seemed to be from somewhere else except the indigenous Americans and Mexicans. “If there’s one thing I know, it’s this damn machine,” Frank said. “Sometimes it wants to act like it has a brain of its own, as if it owns me, but I know better.” “Iron can wear any man out,” I said. “Not this hunk of junk. It was new when I came here.” “But it’ll still be here when you’re long gone.” “Says who?” 54 “Says iron against flesh.” “They will scrap this big, ugly bastard when I’m gone.” “They’ll bring in a new man.” “Are you the new man, whippersnapper? They better hire two of...