Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I Have an Old Rusty Nut

I have an old nut on my desk at work. My office is scattered with odd little trinkets that biologists tend to pick up in the field: antlers, leaves, sharks teeth, golf balls, etc. This nut is different. It’s a metal nut (as in “nuts and bolts”) that’s bigger than any nut you’ll ever see at your local hardware store. It’s bigger than a golf ball and probably weighs as much as a tennis shoe. It’s also quite old. It’s faded, worn, and rusted. It’s pitted, gouged, and the thread is completely stripped away. And for me, it is a constant source of inspiration.

To understand why, you need to know where the nut came from. I guess I don’t exactly know its origin; some smelter somewhere I suppose. Where it crossed my path was in Idaho. I stole it from a former place of employment on my last day there. I’m sure nobody missed it; the floor was littered with them. That same floor was also cover with tobacco spit, wood chips, glue, dirt, sweat, blood, long metal bolts, and heavy metal bracers. It was, and I suppose still is, the floor of a beam plant.

I’m not fond of sharing how I ended up at the beam plant so let’s just leave it that I was there. A beam plant is, as the name implies, a plant where they manufacture wooden beams to be used in building construction. The whole process works down a long conveyor belt. Boards come in one end of the building, are cut and planed down to certain sizes in the prep room then sent on down the conveyor belt to the glue room to be glued and dried to make beams of specific dimensions. The beams then go on down the conveyor to be planed again and sanded and eventually shipped out the other end of the long building. The manufacturing process is labor intensive and dangerous, no more so than in the glue room. As a result, the glue room has a relatively high turn-over rate. Consequently, that’s where I was hired to work.

The glue room consists of the long conveyor belt down the center of the room leading from prep and moving on to the sanding area. Spaced evenly along both sides of the belt are large metal frames shaped like 6’ tall L’s standing up off the floor. As each individual board enters the room from prep, it passes through a machine that coats the top side of the board with thick, hot, foul-smelling glue. The glue is made with formaldehyde and its fumes cause headaches and eye irritation in new workers. Some workers are unfortunate enough to react badly to contact with the glue, breaking out in rashes on any exposed areas of skin. Getting the glue off at the end of the day involves copious amounts of soap and scrubbing, usually leaving you pink and raw.

A man (and I’m not being sexist, no women work in the glue room) standing just in front of the glue machine (to the side of the conveyor belt) known as the “thrower”, grabs each board as it comes whizzing out from the glue machine at high speed. The thrower then whips the board, each of which may be up to 60’ long and weigh nearly 100 lbs, off the side of the conveyor belt and down steep metal ramps to rest in the L shaped frames. If the thrower gets his fingers between two boards as they come out of the glue machine, they will likely be crushed.

On the L-frames, a man known as the “stander” has seconds to stand the board up so that the glued top of the board will rest evenly against the unglued bottom of the adjacent board. He uses a specially shaped hammer to pound and wrestle the board into place. The boards whip down the ramps and slam into the frame. If the stander doesn’t move quickly enough when grabbing the boards to stand them up, his fingers will likely be smashed and broken.

Layer after layer of glued boars is stacked into the L’s. In between each layer, 2 or 3 men working behind the L’s lay long heavy metal bolts that hang from racks on the walls. As each layer is completed, the bolts are run up with powerful pneumatic wrenches using heavy metal bracers (known as irons) and large nuts to squeeze the glued boards together to dry. If the man running up the bolts mistakenly holds an iron with his fingers between the iron and the wood as the bolt is being tightened by the pneumatic wrench, the worker will probably loose the fingers. Any misstep can send the long metal bolts teetering from the racks down onto the workers.

As the stacks of glued boards grow higher, the workers must climb higher on the stacks to stand the boards and lay the bolts. The stacks routinely top 6-7’ and the hot glue is slippery making falls not an uncommon occurrence. Tall stacks also bring the workers closer and closer to the dozen large heaters that keep the glue room at a minimum 96 degrees for the purpose of drying the glue as fast as possible. When working on the top of the stack, being so close to the heaters can raise air temperatures well over 100 degrees.

The glue is allowed to dry until the next shift at which point the newly formed beams are hoisted back onto the conveyor using pneumatic lifts. The beams can weigh hundreds of pounds and the lifts must be raised and lowered in unison so as not to upset them. If upset, the beams can fall off the lifts and crash down the ramps right back at the workers.

I personally witnessed a number of accidents, most minor, some major. Every-day injuries included banged-up knees and shins from irons, boards or bolts, banged-up and smashed fingers, splinters of every variety, dehydration, heat stress, slips, scrapes, and falls. I experienced all of that myself. My wife was always pulling slivers of wood out of my battered shins. I was also one of the unfortunate few that reacted badly to the glue, breaking out in painful and itchy rashes on my arms. I very nearly lost some fingers while running up a bolt but was saved that fate by an alert coworker (to whom I am still grateful). I was lucky however, to avoid the more serious injuries that I witnessed.

In my 6 months in the glue room at the beam plant, I knew of or witnessed a number of broken fingers and toes, several lost fingers, and a chainsaw that kicked back and cut a whole big enough to hide a softball in a coworker’s torso. There was a guy on a different shift that fell off the stack and broke his pelvis. The worst injury involved a guy I worked with that was bent backwards over the conveyor by a large beam. He broke his back and lost most of his spleen. There has been one reported death at the plant that I know of but that was before my time. And while I was employed there, we received a safety award from OSHA; now that’s irony.

The guys I worked with were, strangely enough, a bit of a bright spot. They were all crude, some racist, some bigots, most sexist, some addicts, and some worse. But for the most part they were good guys doing hard, honest work. They treated each other like shit, but that was just part of the deal.

The take home message of this long-winded tutorial is that this place was pretty much hell. It was hot, smelly, and dangerous. I lost 25 lbs during my time there just because of the intensity of the labor (and I was skinny to begin with). I slowly got tired of pain. Few people, myself included, enjoy pain but to be exposed to it so regularly that you actually get physically tired of it is something else completely. I reworded Grateful Dead songs so that the lyrics talked about escaping from my beam plant hell. I hated that place. And today, I wouldn’t give my time there back for anything.

I think that one of the main reasons people become unhappy, especially here in the US, is that they don’t realize how good they have it. Find two couples that have been together about the same length of time, one that has gone through some real rough times and one that hasn’t. The couple who’s always been happy will most likely be bickering about every little thing that comes up. The couple who’s been through hell and come out the other side knows not to sweat the small stuff.

That’s what QB did for me. The nut on my desk has been worn down from a shiny brand-new piece of industry to a rusted and broken paperweight. I keep it on my desk to remind me how good I have it. I could easily be in a place that would wear me down; that would break me. Instead I’m in a good place doing something I enjoy. This may be a little melodramatic, but maybe you have to go through hell to appreciate heaven.

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