Way to go, Paula! Way to go!
Page 121, Final Draft, April 13, 1981
An Officer and A Gentleman
My Factory Memoir
In the fall of 1988, in my junior year of college, I took a part-time job in a factory in Oklahoma City. I worked five days a week from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. For the times, I made great money. After taxes, I drew $140.00 a week.
I worked assembling pumps a variety of products, like, I’m-not-really-sure-what. I lacked the talent required to successfully apply epoxy to tiny little plastic disks that fit over something, and when the products I worked on were returned, they moved me to a different job on the line.
I started out operating an electric screwdriver. I got really fast at fastening backplates onto stuff. Within a few months, I moved up the line to the coveted tester position. I even got zapped a few times testing products. Thrilling, I say!
All the factory workers were full-time employees with the exception of six college students. The factory decided to try something new that fall and hired a few part-time workers on the evening shift. Some of the employees resented us and treated us like we thought we were members of some privileged class generation. Three years later, I finally learned our name: Generation X.
Sometimes, our co-workers, most of whom were Baby Boomers, asked us what we were studying in school and what we were going to do with our lives. When we answered them, they’d scoff. They’d make snide remarks about Russian Literature or International Relations or Intercultural Communication. They’d dismiss us as book-smart and street-stupid.
They weren’t all jerks, but the jerks were louder and harder to ignore. Some of the people I worked with were very kind and brilliantly funny. I still remember all their jokes. Some were backward, and some just liked to act backward pronouncing words like “buffet”, “buff-it.”
Some were smarter than I’ll ever be, and most were very tough. One woman, a boss-lady, was built like a house and walked like a horse. She rode a motorcycle and every time I came face-to-face with her I felt like a gnat on the horizon. She scared me to death.
Looking back, I can’t blame them for being a little bitter. The facts were pretty cruel. Our part-time jobs were their full-time lives. We received the same benefits they got including a turkey, ham, and a week’s pay at Christmas, health insurance, and a week of paid vacation every year. I’m still not sure how I landed such a great job, but I did and I was very thankful for it.
I Briefly Considered Faking My Death
The employees we worked with eventually knew we would all move on. We would graduate college and become nurses or political scientists or somethings. In reality, the traditional Generation X career trajectory was underwhelming, at best. I, for one, spent my first summer out of college sitting at a desk taping car rental coupons to paper so someone else could put them on microfiche. I briefly considered faking my death so I wouldn’t have to pay back my student loans, but I thought jail might actually be worse than that job, so I didn’t do it.
At any rate, we would escape the factory and its free turkeys, even if it meant we took desk jobs that paid less. I remember one day when some people were giving me a hard time, a woman I worked with on the line told me to keep at it. In her gravelly voice, she told me I was going to make something of my life. She hated factory work but accepted it as her lot in life. Her name was Jean.
I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember, Mary acts like she don’t care…
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse that sends me
Down to the river though I know the river is dry
Down to the river, my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride
–Springsteen, The River
For years, every time I was anywhere near that factory, I’d go out of my way to drive by it. I was looking for Jean and the girl they thought I was and the girl I used to be. I was remembering the people I loved then, gone now in one form or another. One time, 10 years after I’d graduated college, I drove by and locked eyes with some of the people with whom I’d worked. We exchanged mutual expressions of loneliness and isolation, for paths that would never cross again as they did back then.
The irony is that mine was a blue-collar childhood. My father would have given anything to have a job as good as that part-time gig. In fact, the year, 1989, was a hard year in Oklahoma. Both my parents lost their jobs and moved away. And, what all those fools who gave me a hard time never knew was that I sent half my paycheck home every week.