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The Village Idiot

40 Years in the Hole

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(6/2013) Therese, the oldest of the sisters, wanted to go into town for a job. She didnít want to go alone so I walked through the front door of "the factory" with her. I didnít want a factory job. Hell, there were 43 people in that little building, mostly scary female strangers. I was hired (Therese was not), forty years ago last March.

Had they placed me at a machine where I did the same thing for eight hours a day Iíd have quit immediately. I was hired as a "roustabout", easily replaced by the next strong backed/weak minded monkey.)

The factory super in those early days was Maine Man; he talked funny. He tried to train me as a mechanic; thinking because Dad could tear an engine apart and rebuild it as easily as a bicycle, so could I. Maine Manís enthusiastic "Jack, youíll never make any money working here, but youíll learn enough to work as a mechanic in a shoe factory. Thatís where the money is." still rings in my memory. I never found Maine Man weeping in despair over my lack of mechanical ability, but I learned some interesting combinations of cuss words from him. Today, Iím still better at emptying trash barrels than I am at figuring out why a machine isnít functioning.

Maine Man was wrong about my moving on to the shoe factories. I was aware of several in 1973; Freeman Shoe in Emmitsburg, Hanover Shoe in Hanover, Gettysburg Shoe (with factories in Gettysburg, Dillsburg and East Berlin), and two factories I never knew the names of, in Fairfield and Thurmont. None remain.

I have a pay stub from the first check the factory cut me for a 40-hour week of work. I was told Iíd start at minimum wage, which was $1.30 an hour. I would eventually be taught to operate all the production machines, but would never be paid "piece rate" because I wasnít hired as an operator. That was fine by me, as I didnít know what the boss was talking about anyhow. The less than $40 I took home that week allowed me to pay Mom some of what I owed her, covered a carton of smokes and a case of beer (after I found someone old enough to buy it for me.) I decided working in a factory wasnít as bad as I had thought it might be.

I learned to operate, maintain and sort of repair most machines the factory used in production. Sewing machines quickly became the bane of my existence. Maine Man told me there were thirty reasons why a sewing machine would drop a stitch. The problem was often caused by one of six things, or a combination of them. Today, I canít name those six things.

The factory rarely bought a "new" machine. Most everything came from other factories that had closed. We had Singer machines so old the Singer reps claimed Singer hadnít made them. I learned to make springs and other simple parts to keep the antiques clunking away.

Over the years other factories tried to hire me as a mechanic. They offered as much as three times what I was making. Upon learning they ran between 100 and 300 sewing machines Iíd laugh. I had six or eight to deal with at "the factory".

Iíd like to claim trying to maintain sewing machines was my reason for getting drunk in those days. The truth is I endured those cast-iron junkyard rejects so I could get drunk at the end of a day.

Around the time I was perfecting my drinking techniques we got an order for a product that required the use of machines I hadnít much experience with. Those machines probably started me on smoking pot to calm the frustrated anger that steadily built as the production problems grew until all the people involved in the run were on the verge of violence. When the owner asked why the orders werenít getting filled on time, everyone pointed at me.

The boss finally asked me why I couldnít keep things running. I told him I simply couldnít figure out what was wrong with the machines. He asked if I would mind if he brought another mechanic in from Hanover Shoe. I begged, "Please?" (It didnít occur to me until years later that I was asked before an "expert" was brought in. Something had changed over the years.)

The expert spent half a day going over and adjusting the sewing machines. When he was done they were running as they were supposed to. I stopped the man as he was leaving and asked what heíd found, and corrected, that Iíd missed.

"Nothing."

BULL! There had to have been something!

"Jack, Iíve been at this for more than 25 years. None of the machines were out of time, they were clean, everything where it should have been. I did the same things youíve been doing to them. I honestly canít tell you why they are working now."

I still didnít believe him. We were in a part of the building where no one else could see or hear us. The expert looked around before he told me what he thought the real problem was.

"Never tell a machine operator that a problem is something they are doing. But thatís what I think was happening in the sewing room. I didnít do anything to those machines that you havenít done. But Iím not you, so when I made suggestions to the operators they didnít get riled. They are sewing differently now whether they know it or not. You werenít doing anything wrong. Donít let this get to you."

It didnít get to me, but several of the operators quit before the production run ended. That happened over the years, people letting things build up until they finally stormed out of the factory, often taking a few friends with them. Thatís how I ended up doing so many jobs I wasnít hired to do. The company was downsizing too, so I was told to take up the slack.

The factory employs five people today, four of us working part-time. I usually go home at lunch and nap until itís time to go back to the factory to shut it down at the end of the day. When Iím not napping I sometimes try to order my thoughts via a keyboard. Sometimes I send those thoughts along to an editor and sometimes they end up in print.

While Iím still only making around minimum wage I get much else of value working at the factory. For example, one coworker asked me if I really thought anyone wanted to read the garbage I wrote under the heading "Pondering the Puzzlement". When I allowed it was unlikely and I was simply writing because the editor had asked me too, I was told the editor was a bigger idiot than I was.

Hmm. As the editor doesnít live in town and I doÖ. The Village Idiot column was born. 40 years at "the factory" and Iím still learning things!

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.