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Pass It On
I was seven years old the first time I ever set foot inside an automobile factory. The occasion was Family Night at the old Fisher Body plant in Flint where my father worked the second shift.
General Motors provided this yearly intrusion as an opportunity for the kin of the work force to funnel in and view their fathers, husbands, uncles and granddads as they toiled away on the assembly line. If nothing else, this annual peepshow lent a whole world of credence to our father's daily grumble. The assembly line did indeed stink. The noise was very close to intolerable. The heat was one complete bastard. Little wonder the old man's socks always smelled like liverwurst bleached for a week in the desert sun.
For my mother, it was at least one night out of the year when she could verify the old man's whereabouts. One night a year when she could be reasonably assured that my father wasn't lurchin' over a pool table at the Patio Lounge or picklin' his gizzard at any one of a thousand beer joints out of Dort Highway. My father loved his drink. He wasn't nearly as fond of labor.
On this night, the old man was present. I remember my mother being relieved. If he hadn't been there, it would have been difficult for her to explain to my little brother and me why we had made this exhaustive trek through Satan's playpen just to ogle a bunch of oily strangers and their grinnin' lineage.
After a hundred wrong turns and dead ends, we found my old man down on the trim line. His job was to install windshields using this goofy apparatus with large suction cups that resembled an octopus being crucified. A car would nuzzle up to the old man's work area and he would be waiting for it, a cigarette dangling from his lip, his arms wrapped around the windshield contraption as if it might suddenly rebel and bolt off for the ocean. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. No wonder my father preferred playin' hopscotch with barmaids. This kind of repetition didn't look like any fun at all.
And here, all of this time, I had assumed that Dad just built the vehicles all by his lonesome. I always imagined that building adult cars was identical to building cars in model kits. You were given a large box with illustrated directions, a clutter of fenders, wheels and trunk lids, and some hip-high vat of airplane glue. When one was finished, you simply motioned to some boss-type in the aisle: " Hey, bring me another kit and make it a goddamn Corvette this time!"
Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that mechanical octopus squirming against nothing, nothing, NOTHINGNESS. I wanted to shout at my father, "Do something else!" Do something else or come home with us or flee to the nearest watering hole. DO SOMETHING ELSE! Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Christ, no.
It wasn't as if this profession was a plague that appeared out of nowhere to ensnare my old man. Quite the opposite was true. His daddy was a shoprat. His daddy's daddy was a shoprat. Perhaps his daddy's daddy's daddy would have been a shoprat if only Hank Ford would have dreamed this shit up sooner.
Ditto dear old Aunt Laura. My mother's dad had been a shoprat. (If you're wondering what happened to my mother's mother and her sense of duty-well, Christ, somebody had to stay home and pack this clan a lunch.)
My great-grandfather got the wheel rollin'. In 1910, he began his twenty-year tenure down on Industrial Avenue piecing together mobilized buggies. This was a period right after the invention of the gas-powered engine and long before the introduction of freeway sniping. My great-grandfather would have hung in there longer, but he bumped heads in the thirties with something called the Depression.
My grandfather hired on in 1930. He rode out the turbulence of the Depression and worked as a skilled tradesman for thirty-two years at Buick. He had no plans to retire, but the cancer took him down at age fifty-two. He died one week to the day after he cashed his first pension check.
My other grandfather hitched his way from Springfield, Illinois, to the Vehicle City in 1925. He put in forty years, from Babe Ruth to the Beatles, as an inspector at the Chevrolet Engine plant. He always claimed that the only reason he retired was his disdain for the new breed of autoworkers in the sixties. He referred to them as "candy-asses." I assumed he was remarking about some inedible new brand of chocolate bar.
During the war, my grandmother helped build machine guns at the AC Spark Plug factory. She later switched over to working on aircraft out on Dort Highway. To this day, my grandmother still helps me change the oil in my Camaro.
My Aunt Laura and her husband Jack pit in a combined sixty-five years at the AC plant and the Buick Foundry. Uncle Jack was well known for his lust for overtime, often volunteering to work double shifts and sixteen -hour days. This may provide a valuable clue as to why they never had any children.
For sheer longevity, my Uncle Clarence outdistanced everyone in the family tree. From 1919 till 1964, an amazing span of forty-five years, he answered the whistle over at the Buick Engine plant.
Forty-five years! That's longer than the life expectancy of over two-thirds of the world population. Forty-five years! Shit, just imagine- from a cradle down in Dixie to his hunched-over demise on the potty- Elvis Presley never even lived that long. Forty-five years! After all of that, what do they give you for a retirement gift? A grandfather clock? An iron lung? A bronzed calendar the size of a Yugo?
The factories weren't looking for a few good men. They were dragging the lagoon for optionless bumpkins with brats to feed and livers to bathe. An educated man might hang out for a while, but was apt to flee at any given whistle. That wasn't any good for corporate continuity. GM wanted the salt of the earth, dung-heavers, flunkies and leeches- men who would grunt the day away void of self-betterment, numbed-out cyborgs willing to swap cerebellum loaf for patio furniture, a second jalopy and a tragic carpet ride deboarding curbside in front of some pseudo-Tudor dollhouse on the outskirts of town.
Which is to say that being a factory worker in Flint, Michigan, wasn't something purposely passed on from generation to generation. To grow up believing that you were brought into this world to follow in your daddy's footsteps, just another chip-off-the-old-shoprat, was to engage in the lowest possible form of negativism. Working the line for GM was something fathers did so that their offspring wouldn't have to.
In the case of my ancestry, we had been blessed with this ongoing cycle of martyrs. Men who toiled tirelessly in an effort to provide their sons and daughters with a better way of living. Unfortunately, at the same time, our family was also cursed by a steady flow of uninspired descendents who scoffed at alternative opportunity and merely hung around waitin' for the baton to be passed from crab claw to puppy paw.
By deftly flunking my way through St Luke's Junior High, I was already exhibiting symptoms of one who was pointing squarely to the loading dock of the nearest General Motors outpost. Even my father was accurate with his diagnosis. Another Hamper banging the gate of idiot industry with a ten-foot scowl and a forehead fresh for stampin' . I could practically hear my freat-grandfather yelpin' from his crypt: "Not another one! Hey, don'tany of you pricks wanna become lawyers or somethin'? Huh? HUH?" Silent decades drifted by choking on indecision. "Well, piss on ya, I'm going back to sleep. Car, windshield. Car, fuel pump. Car, ignition switch. Car, zzzzzz..."