The Summer after my senior year in high school I wanted to make money for college and I was finding the farm work I had been doing at the orchard to be a little boring. Through a friend I got offered a job as a Machinist's Apprentice at a local custom metal fabrication company.
EdSamm's was a one story wood frame building that sat on an oil-soaked lot in Maple Shade, one of the working-class communities surrounding Haddonfield. My best friend's father had a connection with the owner somehow and had managed to secure two jobs for my friend and I, one at each of the two shops the company owned. My friend ended up sitting in an air conditioned, modern factory feeding metal stock into saw at the rate of one push every 15 minutes. The rest of the time he sat around watching the saw and reading magazines. I, meanwhile, went to a pre-World War II factory with no air conditioning where I was soaked in machine oil and grime by the end of the day. I learned to operate automatic screw machines, which are massive multi-step metal lathes that take 20' lengths of hexagonal stock into a rotating barrel much like an elongated Gatling Gun. The load of 6 or 8 pieces of stock is rotated every few seconds while 6 or 8 cutter heads performed a sequence of operations on the stock. My job was to keep the long strands of razor sharp metal from getting stuck in the machine as they got sliced off the stock. For this I had a pair of triple-thick, industrial strength gloves to keep me from cutting my hands, and I had to have the presence of mind to move myself out of the way of the cutter heads or else I would get crushed between them and the stock. I was careful, but soon got the rhythm down.
I worked with an interesting array of folks at EdSamm's, either older white guys who'd been factory machinists all their lives, or else the younger Mexican guys who looked at this as another factory job. I was 'the college kid'. There was only one of me, but I could see that they had had college kids before. They were nice enough, but knew that I'd be leaving, so didn't get too close to me.
Passing the Time
For my part I liked to listen to music while I worked. This was in the days before iPods though, but even so the machines were so loud when they were runnign that you couldn't have heard anything over them anyway. I soon realizad that I could play the albums in my hear (since my favorites I new by heart). I could also sing along at the top of my lungs, which bothered no one because the machines were so loud that no one could hear me singing. Jethro Tull's "Songs from the Wood" and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" were favorites for this task.
The machines were mostly older, and one day I took a rag to try to wipe off the metal tag that was riveted onto one of the machines I was working on. "Property of the War Department" was what it said, along with a serial number. That meant that most of the machines that were in that room had been sitting there since World War II had ended about 40 years before I started working there. I liked that the old machines were still working.
The Older Guy
I worked with older guy who liked to give me fatherly advice, as well as tips on how to be a better machinst. I think he knew I wasn't going to be doing it for life, but that didn't matter. If I was going to work with him he wanted to see things done right. He had a large gray blotch on his right forearm. One day I asked him what it was.
"Well", he began while rolling up his sleeve a bit more to expose all of it, "when I got it on Iwo it was an American flag, but it doesn't look like much now."
I think about that gray blotch whenever I see young hipsters with fresh tatoos. They may have a cautionary tale to tell someday as well.
My Future as a Machinist
The swelter and filth of the factory was a good antidote for any illusions that perhaps I didn't want to go to college. After a summer of that I was incredibly thankful that I was not staying there when the weather cooled.