The Foreigner

The summer after graduating from high school, I worked in a textile mill that made women’s pantyhose.  Back in those days, textiles were king in the South.  Summer jobs were plentiful for kids like me.  The mill was a large open building with hundreds of high-speed industrial sewing machines all lined up.  They weren’t like Mom’s old Singer, these things were fast.  Because of the high speeds, they had to be lubricated at least twice a day, first thing in the morning, and also during lunch break.  My job was to keep them oiled.  There were so many, oiling them was kinda like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, by the time I finished, it was time to start again.  

There were three sewing machine mechanics and a mechanic’s supervisor.  Their responsibility was to keep these screamers running.  All the machine operators were being paid for production, so the machines had to run constantly.  These guys moved like a NASCAR pit crew.  Speed was number one.  When a machine went down the operator and the company both lost money.  All the operators were women.  Most had been working in the “Mill” for years.  They were a friendly bunch until there was a problem.  Problems cost money and they were quick to let you know.

If the mechanics were like a NASCAR pit crew, the operators were like the drivers.  There were those who were constant winners, those who ran in the middle of the pack, and those who constantly hit the wall.  The ones who hit the wall were the operators whose machines were always breaking down.  Sometimes parts fail, but as in NASCAR, operator failure is usually the problem.

These mechanics knew the machine’s and the operator’s weaknesses.  They could guess with almost certainty who, and when someone was going to hit the “wall”.  Friday afternoon always brought a plethora of problems with a couple operators.  On Fridays, sometimes getting an early start on the weekend was more important than the day’s production numbers, so, their machines would mysteriously break.  Broken needles were a common problem but that was too easy a fix.  They had to break a major part that took an hour or so to repair.  Long extended repairs allowed them to leave early.  Management took a dim view of this, so every effort was made to get the operator back to work to keep production up.

Like the operators, the mechanics were an eclectic bunch.  Two were top-notch mechanics with thirty-plus years of experience.  One was an apprentice who was learning the business, and the supervisor was an older man with a German accent.  He had worked in textiles all his life since migrating from Germany in the late nineteen twenties.   He was the “go-to” guy.  He handled the major breakdowns and any issues that came up between the operators and management.  He also approved the time cards for all employees, so these Friday afternoon “wrecks” were his responsibility.

Just like clockwork, one Friday afternoon a machine broke down.  The operator was a mid-thirties woman who spoke often of her weekend partying.  When Gene, one of the mechanics, went over to check her machine, it was obvious this was going to take more than an hour or so to repair.  She had torn it up pretty good.   Gene called the supervisor over to take a look.  When he got there, the operator said she was going to leave if they couldn’t get the machine running.  After all, without a machine, she couldn’t make money.  That’s when the supervisor threw her a curve.  Anticipating her next breakdown, he had brought in a couple machines from another plant that were not being used.  Instead of allowing her to game the system, he took her over to the replacement machine and told the apprentice and me to move all her work.  To say she was mad is an understatement,  She began swearing at anyone and everyone around, especially the supervisor.  He stood there and listened to her insults but gave no ground.  Politely he told her, “There is a machine, go to work.”  Then it got personal.  She stared at him and said, “Why the hell don’t you go back to where you came from?”  This was the ultimate insult for an immigrant, and she knew it.  His expression never changed.  I’m sure he had heard it many times in the past.  He looked at her and calmly explained that he had passed a test to become an American citizen and that he wasn’t going anywhere and neither was she.  Turning to walk away, he said, “Now get to work.”  I learned a lot that afternoon.  I saw someone rise above a personal attack most of us never experienced, and do it with grace and dignity.  I was so proud.  Why was I proud?  That German immigrant was my father.

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