A couple of uncles were coal miners in southwestern Pennsylvania. I’m pretty sure they were union; that work deserved labor representation, and these men weren’t uneducated or backward.
As an underpaid teacher, each summer for several years I went looking for a full-time summer job. In my mid-20s I worked in a unionized ice cream plant, extension of a regional grocery store chain. There were 15 people working the line on everything with a stick in it, such as dreamsicles, but only Larry and I ran the carton-filled ice cream.
On a planner’s big board, with all equipment running smoothly, no hiccups, that would have been all the personnel required, but once the machinery had a lot of use, problems popped up daily, hourly or usually every 20 minutes. One of us would be taking a smoke break in the lunchroom and, having just lit up, see the other in trouble through the big picture window. Rushing out, trying not to slip and fall on the wet floor with rubber boots, I would usually see the problem and go right to it, or wait for directions from Larry. He had been there for a couple years; I was the green newbie.
The shift manager would always plan for 8 hours of ice cream runs; 800 gallons of this, 500 gallons of that, usually 4000 gallons total. (When we started a new run, if it was a premium ice cream, say, macadamia or strawberry, with the fruit embedded inside each half-gallon carton, my job first thing would be to pull the empty cart to the cold room and load it with the required ingredient. More often than not, I would also load up, taking my time with the work in order to sample as much as I wanted.)
I remember a couple days when we were running exceptionally smooth; we always collectively held our breath and usually were not disappointed – something would malfunction. A few times it was the shrink-wrapper; instead of wrapping the cartons in bundles of six, and dropping them off onto the conveyor belt on its way up to the cold room, had other ideas; another couple days it was the belt, dead with dripping, melted ice cream. Once any melting occurred, the ice cream was considered “dirty,” and would have to be thrown away. Some days we had trouble with the cartoon filler, trying to catch the unfilled ice cream in stainless steel buckets and hurry back to the big aluminum vats to dump them back into the swirling mix. And you could only do that a couple times: when a carton was automatically filled, air shot into it at the same time, making the ice cream at that point 50% air. The rule of thumb was no more than twice; if we still had filler problems, we would then have to do the dreaded act of shutting down, not an easy decision since restarting took about 20 minutes, putting us further behind.
Eight hours of regular operation daily were turned into at least 12, if not 14 hours, and made for long days but a healthy weekly paycheck. Overtime was time-and-a-half, union wages to start with, and especially knowing I had the end of August and no longer, I did no complaining. With the union, birthdays were considered holidays, double overtime, and I worked mine in late July; made enough in one day to be able to afford a Schwinn ten-speed bike, an expensive ride. (I put a child’s seat on the rear and a lot of mileage on our neighborhood streets with my 3-year old son.)
A few other memories stand out. One morning the floor manager for the stick-stuff was trying to loosen a frozen pneumatic tube on the line; suddenly it unstuck and neatly sheared off half a pinkie finger. The next two hour was a frantic search for the sadly departed digit, to no avail; it was decided he shouldn’t wait any longer to go to the ER. Had someone found it, there was a strong possibility for reattachment. Someone did find it, about 4 p.m. that afternoon, hiding in a corner, black as the ace of spades.
Another day, one filled with endless interruptions, scrambling, a shutdown,
the carton filler deciding to go on vacation and resist all attempts at adjustment, Larry and I both were up to our knees in bad ice cream. After many cries for help (which was supposed to be part of a shift manager’s job, to help bail us out until we had our heads above water) Larry, in extreme frustration, chunked one of the cartons on the floor straight at the manager’s office window, he sitting in his chair, presumably occupied and deaf as well. That momentarily got his attention, but seconds later was back to his important task at hand. Larry and I both looked at each other, got that Cool Hand Luke grin on our faces, and started throwing dirty cartons at the office window, fast and hard as we could, until the only clear space was framed by the manager’s myopic stare, like what was that?, us on the floor bent over from laughing so hard.
Once, well into August, everything purring and the roller bed in the cold room stopped working. After a smoke break, Larry and I decide to go help Hershel, the plant’s mechanic. After suiting up in insulated coveralls and gloves, we climb up to the roller bed, only three feet from the ceiling, to join Hershel, who has commenced with his usual swearing and snorting. He was laying on his stomach on the far side, and started asking me for different tools, half of whose names I didn’t recognize, feeling like a nurse in an OR on her first day, trying to stretch out and hand him the correct tool. With just two hands, pretty soon Hershel was asking for more tools than I was capable of holding and switching and handing, so without thinking I put a screwdriver between my lips. The look on Wile E. Coyote’s face when he’s suspended for that one split second over the chasm, and realizes he’s been had once again? As I withdrew the screwdriver from my mouth I could feel, in slow motion, the skin from both lips tearing away where metal had made contact with moist skin. Eating and drinking, for the next few days, were dicey operations, but with only a couple weeks left I could manage to grin and bear it. I had made good money for a young, growing family; it was hard work and long hours, but I was no stranger to either.
Richard Dixon is a retired high-school Special Education teacher and tennis coach living in Oklahoma City. He has had poems and essays published in Crosstimbers, Westview, Walt’s Corner of the Long Islander, Texas Poetry Calendar, Cybersoleil, Dragon Poet Review as well as numerous anthologies including the Woody Guthrie compilations in 2011 and 2012 and Clash by Night, an anthology of poems related to the 1979 breakthrough album by the Clash, London Calling.
He has been a featured reader at Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City, Benedict Street Marketplace in Shawnee, Norman Depot as well as the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada and the Woody Guthrie poetry readings in Okemah.