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  • A Paint-Factory Education
  • Mark Edmundson (bio)

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Paint tanks in the Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory. Gloucester, MA.

(image courtesy of the historic american engineering record, library of congress)

[End Page 44]

The summer after my first year in college, I worked in a paint factory. Packard Paint was a small operation—no more than thirty people worked there—tucked away in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a city of about thirty thousand. Chelsea was known for its rank corruption, its crummy schools, and its overall status as the most down-on-its-heels city north of Boston. From what I could see, there were no “good parts” of Chelsea. It was all three-deckers and pawnshops, thrown beside liquor stores, bargain-bin joints, and grim-faced factories like Packard Paint. But Chelsea and Packard gave me something invaluable, something I dearly wish my students now had a shot at: They gave me a paint-factory education.

When I signed on at the Packard Paint factory, I needed money for school. Student loans may have been available then, but my family and I knew nothing about them. To my mind, I had to come up with my own cash to pay tuition and room and board at the University of Massachusetts. My father didn’t have it, and my mother didn’t either. And though my younger brother stashed oodles of coins in his steel bank, breaking into it—as I’d done before—wasn’t going to pay my tuition bill. It was Packard Paint or no school—and I dearly loved school. And in the 1970s, a good blue-collar summer job paid enough money to pay college tuition.

At the time, I thought Packard would be a means to an education, not an education in itself. But the situation turned out to be a little like the one Henry David Thoreau created by cutting his own firewood. It warmed him twice. Packard sent me off to college, yes. But it educated me in its own ways as well. The paint factory schooled me twice.

I wasn’t certain what the paint manufactured at Packard was for, and none of the workers at Packard Paint knew that for sure either. Some thought that the paint, which was thick and industrial strength, was used to insulate the bottom of ships and that the place did a brisk business with the US Navy. Others thought that we were simply making various types of paint that were going to various uses: Occasionally someone claimed to have seen—or to know someone who had seen—a can or two of Packard Paint in a supply store out by Mattapan.

But the presiding theory among the workers at Packard Paint was that the factory was owned by a large conglomerate (large, that is, for 1971). Most of the guys who worked at Packard mixing the paint, canning it, cleaning out the mixing bins, and then starting all over were persuaded that the conglomerate was using Packard to create tax losses. So the paint never got sold but simply ended up in a warehouse somewhere in Chelsea (and there were plenty of warehouses in Chelsea). Others, the more rebellious of the Packard gang, said that the paint that we spent long days producing was taken every month and dumped to the bottom of the sea. This was what the bosses meant when they informed us that we were mixing “maritime” paint.

In 1971 there were no internships, or none that I’d heard of, and everyone I knew who was home from college tried to pick up summer work of any kind. Viewed from one angle, Packard Paint was an especially good summer job. [End Page 45] It was a union job: The International Chemical Workers Union (I think that’s what it was called) extracted a significant piece of my first check and solid hits from all the rest. But the union ensured that I made good money, at least three times minimum wage. I also had access to overtime, for which I was paid time and a half: outrageously good money.

But for this...


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