I was home on fall break in my final year at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and I needed money to pay tuition, so I was working a twelve-hour shift with my father at the ceiling-tile factory. It was a couple of days after Thanksgiving in 1990. I’d been assigned to the wool mill, where coke rock was fed into enormous furnaces, heated to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, and churned out like pure white cotton candy; then we packed it into enormous bales and sent it by boxcar to our sister factory in Detroit, where it was turned into tiles.
Dad drove a forklift, removing the bales from a weigh station where I jotted down weights and lengths, struggling to stay awake. I’d already put in sixty hours that week. The summer before, I’d begun taking speed to help me stay alert on the job. I kept my stash at my parents’ house, behind Mom’s home-canned green beans. Even with the drugs, though, I couldn’t pull never-ending overtime the way my dad could — as effortlessly as he took a drag on a Salem Light. I was prone to mistakes and sometimes let the bales get too heavy, a mortal sin in the eyes of the Local 563 Paper Workers Union, because it made everyone look bad. I felt certain I was an embarrassment to my dad, whose advice to me, during our rides to and from the factory in his battered pickup, was “Pay attention.”
That and “Don’t be a lifer. Don’t even think about it.”
“Lifer” was the term for college kids who started working in the factory to pay for school and never left. The truth is I had thought of simply dropping out and joining the union. My grades were average at best, and though I liked my psychology courses, I had no idea what kind of job the degree might afford me. The factory work paid well: enough for my tuition, with a little left over for groceries. I didn’t know what I should do. At least all the speed I was taking — not to mention the weed and alcohol after work — dulled my concerns about my future.
The only reason I had this job was because of my father. All the sons and daughters of Local 563 members who managed to get into college were guaranteed as many hours as they wanted over fall, spring, and summer breaks. I was the first in my family to attend a university, and though my father had arranged for me to work at the factory, he seemed slightly bewildered by my presence there. I knew he loved me, but the words were hard for him to say. Really, words in general did not come naturally to him. Unlike the other men, he didn’t waste time complaining or spreading idle rumors about the factory being moved to China. He spoke about as often as he asked for time off.
That’s why I was surprised when he wanted us to eat together.
At 6 PM, two hours into our shift, Dad zoomed up to the weigh station on the forklift and edged the prongs under a bale of rock wool that I’d made slightly larger than I should have. Once the bale was off the conveyor, he killed the motor. I was so tired I saw two of him.
“Your mom packed us roast-beef sandwiches,” he said, looking at his watch. “Meet me at the warehouse dock.”
I wondered what was up. Dad and I never took breaks together at the factory. He cranked the engine back to life and zipped off into the building’s cavernous interior, my too-heavy bale making the forklift bounce.
Fifteen minutes later we were sitting on the docks. Moths flitted around the security lights, and crickets chirped. Dad opened his silver lunchbox, worn smooth from twenty-five years of use, and handed me a heavy sandwich wrapped in wax paper. I rested the sandwich in my lap. The speed had ruined my appetite; I needed weed to make me hungry. Dad opened his thermos — the same one I’d helped my mother wash as a kid — and gulped coffee.
“Eat,” he said.
I halfheartedly removed the wax paper from my sandwich and took a small bite.
Dad asked if I’d seen the news about the standoff in the Persian Gulf: Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and U.S. forces were gathered along the Kuwaiti border in Saudi Arabia. Everyone around the factory was talking about the possibility of war. I nodded, following his taciturn example. He’d already finished his sandwich, and he lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the cold air. A hoot from an owl cut through the night.
“You’re all set to graduate in the spring?”
I nodded again. The factory smokestacks billowed dusky plumes into the sky, blocking the light of the stars. Dad poured a cup of strong coffee from the thermos, handed it to me, and stood up. I remained seated, staring straight ahead.
He asked if I had anything I wanted to say to him.
I shrugged. My throat ached, my thoughts muted by exhaustion but also flickering with energy from the speed. I felt a kind of furious sadness I couldn’t articulate.
Dad pushed the steel toe of his work boot lightly against my thigh. “Well?” he said.
There had been hundreds of times growing up when I’d felt confused about some aspect of being a man and had longed for him to engage me in conversation. I resented that he was making an effort now. I wanted him to tell me that it was natural to feel unsure about the future — the most natural thing in the world, even. I suppose he was worried I might not graduate, that I’d do something stupid like drop out, maybe join the military and fight in the war. I swallowed and craned my neck to look up at his dark shadow, tall and straight.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” I said, feeling as if I might break down. I was tired and scared and strung out and angry, and now he wanted to talk. I asked what was so important that we needed to eat together.
Though I couldn’t see his face, I felt him smiling the way he would after I’d cussed in front of his union brothers as a little boy. “Your mom packed those sandwiches and made me promise you’d eat,” he said, and he flicked his cigarette butt into the blackness. “Just keeping my promise to her, son. That’s all.” Then he left.
I was trying not to cry when I heard his footsteps coming back. From the shadows he said, “Goddamn world’s about to burn down. You stay in school.”
The trick to working overtime was to adjust your outlook by the hour. At eight o’clock, in the break room, a man named Harold motioned toward the time clock and said, “Just like a normal shift now: four behind you and only eight to get you home.”
Harold had the biggest hands I’d ever seen. Like my dad, he was always signing up for overtime; they’d worked together week in and week out for twenty-five years. Harold was from Paintsville, Kentucky, and proud of it. A few years back, after Libya had bombed a discotheque in West Berlin, killing two U.S. soldiers, Harold had spray-painted his feelings about Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi high on a concrete wall of the factory: “No mar, Momar!!” The men at the factory voted Democrat to protect the union, but they lined up behind the president anytime it seemed the U.S. might be drawn into a conflict. As a teenager I’d gone to a friend’s Quaker church, and I’d admired their pacifism, but I’d never talked about this with my father or the other men. Offering dissenting views on war was as bad as taking management’s side during contract negotiations.
The government was telling us that up to 250,000 Iraqi troops were poised to roll into Saudi Arabia, our country’s key Middle Eastern oil supplier. Our military presence in the region was the only thing holding them back. President George H.W. Bush had asked Americans to support his plan to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, and the union men did, wholeheartedly. The president’s words could be found spray-painted right next to Harold’s message about Gaddafi: “. . . to stand up for what’s right and condemn what’s wrong, all in the cause of peace.” Four workers in their mid-twenties had already enlisted and were in basic training in Mississippi. Their postcards home were pinned on the bulletin board next to the time clock. On breaks, while the men sat around eating from open lunch pails, some of the more religious might offer up a prayer that those boys would honor their country and, in so doing, honor the Local 563 Paper Workers Union.
Harold and I were the only ones in the break room; the others would be trailing in soon, faces sweaty and red, tiny filaments of rock wool clinging to their eyebrows and raising a persistent rash on their forearms. The bulletin board held photos of the union men who’d joined the Army, dressed in their fatigues. Harold asked if I was going to sign up. Before I could answer, a door opened behind us, and I heard coins plinking into the coffee machine.
“Dan,” Harold said, greeting my dad, “I was just asking your boy here when he was signing up. Make it five from 563 taking on Saddam.”
I started to speak, but Dad cut his eyes at me as he blew on the steaming coffee. “How’s your boy Steve doing?” he asked Harold. “He still up in Alaska logging wood?”
Harold launched into a story about how Steve once had to wait for grizzlies to leave before he could enter a part of the forest where he was working. Dad gave Harold the cup of coffee in his hand and returned to the machine to get another for himself. As I slipped out of the room, my father was nodding politely at another of Harold’s stories.
At midnight, with four more hours to go, I went in search of my dad and found him in the cramped office next to the warehouse. Before I went in, I paused to watch him through the window. He sat at a wooden desk, using a pencil to tick off items on a clipboard. His cigarette smoke coiled up to the ceiling, and the light from the desk lamp reflected in his reading glasses. There’s a moment at which every young adult first realizes a parent is getting older, and for me this was it. In the dim light my father appeared vulnerable. There were dark circles under his eyes, and I thought I could see his hand shake as he wrote.
He noticed me staring, mashed out his cigarette, and got up to invite me into the office as if it were his. It wasn’t. The foreman allowed Dad to use it, I suppose because he spent more hours in the factory than he did at home.
Dad asked if I was hungry. I’d taken more speed at the last break, so I wasn’t. He poured us both a cup of coffee from the pot sitting atop a dark-green filing cabinet.
“Why didn’t you let me answer Harold?” I asked.
“Didn’t stop you. Harold’s just nosy, is all. Besides, he always likes to talk about his son.” Dad went back to ticking off items on the clipboard.
“Were you afraid I was going to say I wouldn’t enlist?”
Dad glanced up. “You best get that coffee drunk and get back to the wool mill. We’ve got forty bales to get out before sunup.”
“I asked you a question,” I said.
He tapped his pencil on the desk, staring at a spot over my right shoulder.
I tipped the coffee back and felt it burning in my throat and chest. Dad bent over his work, the pencil tip scratching against the paper.
“See you at the time clock,” I said.
Dad finally spoke: “Isn’t Harold’s business what you do. He’s got enough to worry about with Steve.”
I left. He still hadn’t answered my question.
The twelve-hour shift was nearly over when I fell asleep at the baler. Dad woke me, and I saw the catwalks above, heard the roar of the furnaces, and smelled hot oil and my own sweat. The bale of wool I’d been making was twice the size it was supposed to be.
“We’ll have to bust it up and get it fed back in,” Dad said. “Hurry.” He pulled me up by the arm, but not too roughly.
I shook off the sleep and did as he said. After he’d managed to maneuver the bale off the scales, I cut the steel bands that held it together and used a pitchfork to toss clumps of the rock wool back into the baler. Dad raced back and forth between helping me and doing his own job, delivering supplies and loading materials on the boxcars. The train would leave at sunrise, and if there were vacant spaces where bales should be, I’d be written up, maybe even brought before the union and management alike. It wasn’t my first mistake. I’d overfed the ovens more than half a dozen times. But this was a big one.
I pitched the wool as fast as I could but barely made a dent. One of Dad’s friends showed up early for his shift and helped without clocking in. Everyone makes mistakes, he kept telling me. For a half-hour we fed the baler until new bales exited the other end in the correct sizes. I was winded, and bloody blisters stretched across my palms. Dad quickly loaded several bales onto the forklift at once, which was forbidden. The engine whined and kicked and spewed black exhaust from the additional weight, but he made it work somehow.
At last Dad parked the forklift and yanked off his gloves. “I think we’re good.” I apologized to him. He tucked his leather gloves in a back pocket, lit a cigarette, and picked a stray piece of tobacco from his lip. “Who cares if you can’t make a perfect bale,” he said.
Our shift was over. Dad seemed to have more energy than when we’d arrived twelve hours earlier. I was about to drop. I knew my place wasn’t at the factory, but I also feared I wasn’t smart enough to do work that didn’t entail manual labor. Would I ever find a way to make a living? I imagined Dad had similar concerns about me, but neither of us spoke of it. Making our way toward the break room, we agreed to eat breakfast at the Hoosier Point diner after we clocked out.
In the break room men stood around as the clock ticked off the last minute before 4 AM. Most were yawning, their eyes red. At the bulletin board, Dad used a pencil attached to a copper wire to sign us both up for more overtime. Seeing him print our names on the paper, I felt as if I might break down in front of the other men. I didn’t think I could work anymore.
As the clock reached four and the men began to punch out, Harold pointed to the photos of the young men in basic training. “Doug Crandell,” he said, “you gonna make us proud and enlist, too? Freedom isn’t free.”
I couldn’t speak.
“Harold,” Dad said. “That Steve of yours?”
Harold waited with a smile for Dad to go on.
“You sure those grizzlies weren’t squirrels?”
Harold’s smile faded, and a couple of men on their way out chuckled.
Dad punched my card and his. “Harold,” he said, “this boy here is going to graduate from college next spring. He’s worked more than seventy hours this week.” Dad’s words surprised me. He couldn’t say he was proud of me, but I felt it.
“He sure has,” Harold said. “Your boy’s a hard worker.”
The three of us walked together across the parking lot and said good night. Harold got into his car and drove away past the guard shack.
Inside his truck Dad started the engine and said, “We’re back in four hours.”
“How have you done this for so long?” I asked. “The overtime and all?”
He shut the engine off again. “What I’ve been wanting to say to you is this,” he began, reaching over and patting my thigh: “This place isn’t for you. I don’t know what is, but you’ll find it. It’s not an easy thing.” His throat caught, and his eyes were wet. He was as out of words as I was out of stamina.
“You ready to eat?” he asked, trying to sound upbeat.
We drove into town and then cut over toward the highway, where the diner sat on a bare hill, semis and pickups parked in front. In the lot we got out of the truck, and I reminded Dad that he’d never told me how he managed to work so much overtime for so long. Inside the restaurant, behind windows fogged by heat, union men sat with steaming mugs of coffee and plates of food. Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “You get used to it, like anything else,” he said.
I told him I didn’t think I ever would.
“Getting used to something is nothing to be proud of,” he replied, and we went inside the diner.