I was given a job for one night, a 12 hour shift. It was at a plant in Springfield. I had no idea what to expect so I bought some coffee and put in a thermos, some chocolate for blood sugar, carried some hamburger helper, dressed in layers and called wrightbooks. She was gracious enough to let me put my bike in the trunk of the car and give me a ride to the job. I didn’t know where the job was exactly and this allowed me to find it without being late. As a result of her help I was early. Speaking of which, wrightbooks… coffee soon!
I stowed my bike and introduced myself to the lady at the front desk. Behind the building were all manner of tanks and pipes and steam clouds and towers and trucks. It reminded me of my dad who is a millwright in Arkansas. Shortly, a guy came to get me holding a hard hat and safety glasses. Donning these, I was soon led to the maintenance shack out in the plant. I was told that we’d watch a video on Formaldehyde.
This video was a joke. I am well familiar with the sometimes monotonous safety videos, believe me… the military knows how to do monotonous training (I am Sgt Williams. The purpose of this class is to instruct you in the use of the m-17 grenade launcher. The tools used will be two dummy grenades, a flip chart containing instructions, first hand application of skills taught in the instruction portion of the class, and two instructors. Are there any questions at this time?). I was told that there would be a test as well. So I paid attention and learned the signs and symptoms of various levels of exposure to formaldehyde. What was really expressed was that the chances of my getting cancer from formaldehyde were virtually non-existent, remote, hardly thinkable, between rats and mice only the mice got cancer in the nose. A doctor spoke of using concentrated formaldehyde in med school and how he is fit as a fiddle now. All of the arguments used reminded me suspisciously of the tobacco ads. I was beginning to suspect that the tape was only in the guise of safety, but that it was really attempting to sway the hearts and minds of workers to accepting the safe nature of formaldehyde. But one can die of other problems from exposure than cancer. I do believe that the chemical weapons used around the world kill by other methods than by causing cancer. When the video was finished we were given the test. It was three pages and multiple choice and the administrator, an old worker at the mill, pointed out to us in somewhat hushed tones, that the answer was the one that was bold typed and underlined. Thats right, the test was not a test. We only had to sign our name at the top. The old man took these two tests and with them and us he went to the work site. There he handed the tests to the man in charge and explained the job to us. I was thinking to myself, what a joke. But I kept the job, but that is a bit of a sidetrack in thought.
The site was an odd structure. It was fifty feet high or so. At the top there was a mass of pipes converging into a hard iron dome. The bottom looked like a crock-pot and in the middle was the waffle iron. That was our location, in the middle. The top and bottom had been seperated and people were inside the waffle iron. Inside was a circle about 12 or 14 feet across on the feet. Above our heads were the insides of the dome with an intake. But what was above our heads didn’t matter. The job was the circle beneath out feet. It too was iron and was filled with holes, each a little less than size of a quarter coin. The floor of the circle was divided up into pie shapes, six of them, and each person had a pie shape to his own.
When I asked what the machine was I was pointed to lots and lots of pellets lying around the ground beneath. Those were some ingredient that was mixed with formaldehyde and other stuff and turned into resin. Resins and glues, that was what this plant made. The floor upon which we stood was above 6 feet of solid iron. The holes bore straight down that iron to the container below. Over the past 18 months the holes had become clogged with a ceramic type gravel. Last night they hammered through all of them. Tonight we clean them out. This is accomplished by using a power drill, one of the large kinds with the handle on the side. On this drill is a 6 1/2 foot pole and on this pole is a large wire brush tip. You stick the brush into the hole and you drill all the way down and then back up. If it is too clogged to go through there are tools for your use, a hammer and a pole and an air hose hooked up to a long hollow pole. It is a pain in the ass. You stand there and you stretch your hands up as high as you can (those not as tall as me had to stand on tip-toes or let go of the drill and hold on to the pole, which might still be rotating). Now, holding onto the drill high above your head you look down below you. You have the end of the pole and drill and brush moving about and you are to align it with the small hole and put it in. Then you start the drill and push down… all the way down, bending your back and touching the drill to the floor. It is sometimes frustrating when the brushead moves around, your back muscles and shoulders burn with lactic acid, and you can’t get the brush into the hole. When the day supervisor came out to check on us before leaving us in the charge of the night supervisor, he asked how I we were doing. I answered that it reminded me of high school. After about five minutes the guy next to me stopped and asked with a puzzled look on his face, why it reminded me of high school. I answered “I’m just trying to get it in the hole”. The environment was noisy as well. With trucks coming by, noises from the pipes and other odd contraptions around us and everyone using drills.
Did I mention that in total there were 10,000 holes? Six pie squares we each had about 1,750 holes to do. This is 1,750 touch your toes, squats, reaching high over your head. But some of the holes had to be done with two or three passes. HA! I am glad that I didn’t do my shoulder workout today.
Occaisionally the smell of formaldehyde would reach us. Tankers filled with the stuff came by and filled near us. But once, while we all covered our mouths, retreated for a minute and then went back up, my throat seared in irritation and my eyes instantly watered and I couldn’t breath. I got up and said “god-damn, I can’t breath” and I walked down the stairs followed by the other three workers. We retreated again out of the area. When the supervisor came over he told us to take a break until they found out what it was. Turns out it was ammonia. Joy!
Back to work. The hours seemed to roll by. It was tedious work. After we were to drill out all of our holes, we had to go back through them with just a punch brush which was just a another set up but without the drill. This was to push out any last particles of the build up. But to add to the comedy of the night, my last two hours of work were spent in nausea and I kept a bucket next to me while I worked in case I had to re-experience my lunch. Add to this the temperature dropped to the 30’s and we had a large industrial fan blowing on us (to keep area clear of fumes and the dust we were creating).
After 13 hours it was time to go. A guy gave me and my bike a ride home in his van. I gave him 4 bucks for gas. Then it was shower time, a long, hot shower, and then bed.
When I feel like slacking on my studies… I’ll just think back to this, and several other hard jobs I’ve worked, and I’ll put my nose to the books.