I am saddened to hear Lordstown’s GM plant will be closing. I went through a plant closing in 1999. I think first about the upcoming struggles that unemployed workers and their families will face. I also think about workplace friendships and solidarity that will be lost. Every workplace has some unusual characters, not easily forgotten. I want to talk about some of the guys that kept me amused at the plant I worked at that closed.
Looking back 47 years, at a place I worked at is surreal. The cast of characters at the barrel plant made for some interesting and strange times. Let me start the journey by setting back the clock to 1972.
On the first day at the plant, I worked alongside Gene aka “Lean Gene.” He was in his 60’s about 5’6” and as thin as a rail. He worked at a slow pace and was never seen without a Lucky Strike hanging from his lips. He looked very wrinkled and battered from years of alcohol abuse. He had the look of many alcoholics that I worked with. They looked like they are dying by degrees. In these alcoholic’s case they were punished by their sins and not for them. Gene only worked 4 days a week as he missed every Monday. Someone painted a message on the wall near where Gene worked. It declared, “Gene’s workshop, closed weekends and Mondays.” Gene was friends with the foreman so he got away with missing work. Truth is Gene did so little work he wasn’t missed.
On day one, I was almost killed by a tow motor driver who spilled a load of steel in an aisle near me. His name was, James Benjamin Franklin Harrison Parker Morrison III. There is no way the last two people with his name were anything like this guy. He stood 6”6’’ and weighed about 370 lbs. His arms and legs were far too skinny for his body. He daily wore one t-shirt over an another. The top shirt always had holes in it that were patched. The patches also had holes in them. A Camel non-filter, burned down to a half-inch was always in the corner of his mouth with three inches of ash that would fall on his t-shirt. His mouth contained one half green tooth on top and two brown quarter teeth on bottom. He liked new employees as older workers had already heard all of his bullshit stories.
Like a lot of employees he had a nickname and his was “Big Ben.” A guy who ate baloney sandwiches everyday was called, “Baloney John” which seems more than fair. Joe who pirated movies and pornos to rent, was justly called, “Porno Joe.” Most plants have a weigh master nicknamed, “Bounce” and an electrician named, “Sparky.” We had neither but we had an alcoholic electrician called, “Wino Joe.” Joe had wine and whiskey bottles hidden throughout the factory. He couldn’t be fired as he had wired the whole plant and is the only guy who knew the electrical layout. Joe’s brother-in-law was the guy who looked like an Indian that could be seen walking along highways throughout the Shenango Valley.
“Big Ben” is probably the most colorful guy I remember from work. Ben was friends with the state police in Mercer and would hang out at their headquarters. He received a trooper hat as a gift from one of the state cops. Ben loved to wear that hat and put a magnetic cop bubble on his car and pull over speeders on Rt.80. At this time the state police had many strange cars they used as undercover vehicles to catch speeders. Given that, it still had to be weird to be stopped for speeding by “Big Ben.” Can you imagine being stopped by a tall guy in a trooper hat wearing a t-shirt that looked like a patchwork quilt? I can see him now getting out of his Gremlin, or later on, his Pacer with the light flashing on top. He would saunter up to a speeder’s car with his slow John Wayne swagger, with a half-inch Camel three-inch ash ciggie hanging from the corner of his three tooth mouth. On the plus side, you’d be lucky because he’d be a nice guy and only give you a warning, this time. That’s because the troopers were smart enough to have never given Ben a booklet of tickets to use. I have to think most of the motorist he stopped saw this giant monster getting out of his compact car and fled in fear.
Like all stories about weird eccentrics Ben was said to have quite a bit of money. His father had owned an AMC car dealership. Ben did have the money to travel extensively on his vacations. His wife wrote a travel column for an area newspaper (in her free time from sowing patches on his t-shirts).
Bob K. aka “Cowboy Bob,” was a major alcoholic who had a side job serving as a bartender at the VFW. Bob served himself more drinks than he did members. He had a bent over back from being in a bad car crash. He was in the backseat of a car with three other guys when the driver smashed into a cement block gas station. The driver and everyone in the car were inebriated. Bob was the only survivor of the wreck. That wreck never slowed Bob down and he was arrested dozens of times for drunk driving. At one point Bob had to attend a school for people who had multiple DUI’s. Being the oldest guy attending, they made Bob a trustee and expected him to be a role model. Bob knew he was going to be there for the whole weekend so he parked his car nearby. Bob would go outside for smoke breaks and make trips to the car where he had a couple of cases of, “Milwaukee’s Best” his favorite beer. He often claimed the cops had it out for him and would stop him for no reason. After seeing Bob driving one day, I would tend to disagree with him. Bob was driving a block long late 70’s white Cadillac Eldorado convertible with the top down. Bob had on his 10 gallon cowboy hat and the ever-present non-filtered Pall Mall dangled from his lips. Bob was as thin as the cigarette as no one had ever seen Bob eat. Bob’s red eyes that matched the Cadillac’s crimson interior could be seen even from a distance. Bob had traffic lined up behind him because he was driving 10 MPH. I’m sure in Bob’s pickled mind he was just moving with the flow of traffic. At one time Bob ran for union president. Many of us thought it would be a hoot to have Bob trying to talk sense with our POS bosses at the contract negotiating table. We changed our minds when Bob came to the union hall drunk in a fluorescent orange leisure suit and Hawaiian shirt to check on the election results.
Paul P. “Pauly” the welder was another guy like Big Ben that had put away some big money over the years. Paul had not turned down one day of overtime in his 45 years of work. Paul missed family weddings, funerals etc. because overtime came first. Paul chose to give up his vacations and worked them instead. You would think the bosses would have loved Paul for being dependable and always being willing to work overtime. Instead, they mocked him as being a stooge they could control by waving the almighty dollar. Paul financed his son Paul Jr. to start an auto body paint shop. After a year the son ran up bills for the business and skipped town. Paul Sr. was left paying off his son’s huge debts. Paul also had to take in his son’s wife and her children. That is because when Paul Jr. left town in the middle of the night, he took his mistress with him. All that overtime of smelling welding fumes earned Paul Sr. dementia in his short almost penniless life after retiring.
Luckily, Vince C. aka “Crazy Vince,” worked outside on the loading docks. He was very strong from loading over 3,000, 55 gallon barrels a day into semi-trailers. Vince was even stronger in stenchy body odor. He wore the same unwashed dirty clothes every day. Add in that he didn’t wear deodorant or shower and ate garlic sandwiches for lunch. The EPA should have closed our plant-based on foul air violations from Vince. The other loader on the dock and truck drivers complained to management about Vince’s putrid essence. The manager had a meeting with Vince and asked him how often he bathed. Vine did not reply and angrily stared at him. The manager then stated that Vince’s fellow dock workers were complaining about his pungent fragrance. Vince replied, “I smell like a man, they smell like pussies.”
Al nickname “Rufus,” also had some foul body odor. When he passed you, you could actually visualize that cartoon type drawing of stinky, Pepe’ Le Pew whiffs of air. Rufus lived in the country and had a yard full of scrap. A rusty Model A sedan with a not for sale sign sat in his driveway for four decades. He was going to get around to fixing it, just like every other piece of junk in the yard. A fellow worker once visited him for used lawnmower parts. He said Rufus had an oily disassembled antique car motor on the kitchen table. Rufus claimed he started working on it at the table four years ago but was still trying to scrounge up enough parts to finish it. Rufus was a long time bachelor who finally married when in his fifties. He said his wife was a fancy woman because she put sheets on the bed. He decided to build a new home for his step-daughter and her husband in his backyard. He drove a dump truck to work and would fill it up every day with stolen lumber or the nicer term fellow workers use, “appropriated goods.” My brother and I happened to drive past Rufus’ house months later. We noticed a very small poorly built looking tool shed in his backyard. I asked Rufus about the structured a few days later at work. He proudly stated, “That’s the house I built for my step-daughter.” I asked why it seemed so small. He replied, “That’s what size the wood was.”
I could go on and on about the dozens of quirky old timers we had in the plant. You have to realize these guys were so wacky they couldn’t even get drafted into WWII or the Korean War. Let me mention some of the wacky twenty somethings who were my age when I started there. It will show you that wacky was a preferred hiring trait to work in such a place.
Millwright six-foot six Dave was known as, “Parrot.” He had a parrot shaped nose which made the nickname appropriate. He took the name literally and had several parrots in his rental home in the country. Parrot missed quite a bit of work due to a back injury. He made up for the lost wages by being a major pot dealer in the valley. I visited Parrot’s place just to help my fellow co-worker earn some cash while he was recuperating from his back injury. I saw four parrots in separate cages and noticed some other animals. His whole dining area was caged in and inside was a tree in a larger container. In the tree was a least three squirrels. Parrot was finally cleared by the doctor to return to work. He did not as his side job was more lucrative and easier on the back.
Who could forget Joe C. from the 100 lb. can line? Several of us were drinking in a bar in Hubbard after work on a payday. A movie with Clark Gable was on the TV over the bar. Joe asked us, “Was Clark Gable alive when he made that movie?” Joe drove a Corvette that had huge chunks of its fiberglass body missing from so many wrecks while drunk driving. I remember Joe’s last day of work. We were walking in together when we saw Charlie the janitor. Charlie was a very mean senior gay man. When new young workers rejected his advances he’d call them, “Motherless cunts.” Joe said, “I’m going in the office and quitting because I don’t want to end up as a bitter old man like Charlie.” Joe also decided to quit being in the National Guard that weekend. He didn’t show up for his duties at the National Guard camp so he was drafted. He got lucky when he arrived at Army boot camp as his name was not on the drill Instructors list so they sent him home.
I’ll save stories about; Show-T, Lazy Loren, Mad Al, Buffalo Breath Bill, Sam the Snitch, Sleeping John, Hammering Hank, Paz the Spaz, Tommy Trash, Governor Mac and Ricky Maladjusted for another time.
These workers were a lot like Atlas. They never would have carried the workday world on their shoulders had they focused on the size and weight of it. Instead, they did the best they could on a daily basis. At one point, our barrel plant was written up in a trade magazine as making the best barrel in the country. My fellow workers deserved more than to have their plant close and to have part of their pensions stolen.
The Killers: “Land of the Free”
“Employees aren’t just workers, they’re the backbone of business and that makes them more important than the boss any day of the week.
Good Employees = Good Business”― Anthony T. Hincks