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Authors: Ben Hamper

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Rivethead (36 page)

BOOK: Rivethead
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This behavior was truly absurd, not to mention incredibly dangerous. It got so bad that I couldn't even remember making the thirty-five-mile commute back to Fenton each day. It was as if the Camaro was being watched over by some freeway guardian angel. My wife was less than happy. I'd regularly stumble through the door and collapse into bed without bothering to remove my shoes. The next morning, Jan would ask me if I remembered driving home the previous afternoon. Driving home? Shit, I couldn't even recall leaving the plant.

This went on for a while, a very short while. Anesthetizing one's self in an effort to fend off the dreaded panic was one thing. However, driving across the median at eighty miles an hour into oncoming traffic with a booze level that could've boiled mercury was quite another. It was either drop the drinking or run the risk of killing innocent commuters. It was a difficult choice. I opted to stay sober.

Things settled down to a point where I truly believed I was gonna make it. I still had the occasional flirts with anxiety, but I was always able to talk my way clear of total panic. I would bury myself in my job, reinducing my old ploy of pretending my job was an event in the Olympics. I'd muscle and tussle, all the while inwardly narrating the frantic action: “We haven't heard much from Hamper, the ex-riveter from Flint, Michigan, who provided such a startling Cinderella story back in the ‘82 games. He appears to be in great shape as he prepares himself for his latest specialty—the four-wheel-drive shifter installation. Who will ever forget the stunning triumph he provided his country…blah-blah-blah.” Needless to report, I swiped another gold medal.

I suppose there was always gonna be an April 7, 1988. It just hid there like a heartless sniper behind the diesel haze and the minute hand. It knew my name. It knew my brain. It could smell fear a mile away. Its aim was true. The kill was a clean one.

I felt it on the way down to Pontiac that morning: the numbness, the screwy vision, the hovering dread, the disorientation. I chewed down an extra Triavil and drove on. There would be no rest area bailouts this time around. I was stickin’ to the path. I was gonna ride this bastard until it either dissipated or completely felled me.

Inside the plant, I attempted to bury myself into the strenuous labor of my rut. It didn't help matters any that my heart felt like a trampoline full of ferrets. I did my best to avoid eye contact with my neighbors. I was certain that they were all staring me down. I kept trying to hold it together. Just let me hang in there until break. April 7, 1988, would have none of my resistance.

I surrendered. I called the foreman over and asked for a pass to go to the plant hospital. He immediately started bitchin’ about how he was short of bodies. I assured him that it was an emergency. Reluctantly, he rounded up the Quality man to cover my job.

It didn't take the hospital nurse long to see I was in bad shape. After taking my blood pressure and pulse, she asked if I had a doctor. When I replied yes, she advised that I leave the shop at once and pay him a visit. She wrote me out a slip to give to my foreman stating that I should be allowed to leave the plant immediately.

I went back to my department and handed the slip to my foreman. My arms and legs felt like they had gerbils running through them. Sweat was pouring down my back. My foreman read the slip and launched into a tirade. Just what I needed.

“I've about had it with you goddamn pussies that don't want to work,” he yelled, making sure half the department could hear him. “You're a bunch of sorry bastards and, believe me, I'M GONNA START MODIFYIN’ SOME CHANGES AROUND HERE!” (This guy loved big words, context and meaning be damned.)

“Listen, all I know is that I was supposed to give you this slip. I know exactly what it says so don't try pullin’ this bad-example bullshit on me. I'm outta here.”

The foreman flew into a rage. He took the slip, wadded it up and threw it at my feet. In another time and place, under a different set of circumstances, I would have enjoyed this tantrum to the hilt. However, right then, I was hardly in the mood for idiot drama.

“Why don't you kiss my ass,” I said while brushing past him.

“When you come back, I swear I'm gonna KICK YOUR ASS!”

However, he was out of luck. April 7, 1988, saw to it that he'd never get that chance.

EPILOGUE

A
BEAUTIFUL, SUNNY DAY NEAR THE END OF A VERY HOT SUMMER
. Since it's Tuesday, the Anxiety and Panic group is out for its weekly field trip. Typically, not all in our group are present. A few have chosen to remain back at the mental health clinic, the thought of mingling about in society simply too abhorrent.

Today's outing is miniature golf. It's not so bad. At least we've received another week's reprieve from cowering through the mall.

By the third hole, we are already down to a fivesome—myself, Pat, Debbie, Marge and our faithful psychologist/babysitter, Lenice. Lucy has retired to the van complaining about the heat. We shuffle forth, hole by hole, urging each other on, applauding nice putts. Through the first nine, I am in firm command of the lead. Everything is running smoothly.

However, on the fourteenth hole trouble brews. Pat has smacked her orange ball into some swinging donkey appendage and the ball careens all the way into the parking lot. Everyone, including Pat, is in complete hysterics.

“That'll cost you a penalty stroke, Patty,” I announce.

“I'm just gonna play it over,” she replies.

“Go for it. It's still gonna cost you a stroke for a ball out of play.”

“What DIFFERENCE does it make?” Pat howls. “It's only a GAME! Just like volleyball. IT'S ONLY A GAME! Why do you treat it so importantly?”

I can't answer. There is no answer. Rivet Hockey is now volleyball. Putt-putt is now Dumpster Ball. It only makes sense to win.

We play on. With tremendous ease, I'm able to salvage the victory. Patty cools down. She is old enough to be my mother. I give her a cigarette and we stand beside the van puffin’ like fiends. I rib her about how I'm gonna destroy her ass in volleyball when we get back to the clinic.

Lenice parades us into the van. She hands each of us a small envelope containing our four dollars in lunch money. We begin our search for an unpopulated eatery. I take command of the radio and find a Paul Revere and the Raiders tune on an oldies station. The old women in the back of the van crack up as I mimic Mark Lindsay's vocal and pound on the dashboard during the organ solo. The old women love me. They keep repeating that they wish they had a son like me.

Jump ahead a few months. One evening I decide it's time to pay a visit to the Rivet Line. I haven't been back there in a year and a half and I'm curious to see how everyone's doing.

I slide right past the guard booth, right on by the old time clocks, up the stairway and onto the Rivet Line. At first, it feels as if a day hasn't passed since I'd been bangin’ away on that lurchin’ snake. I can hear the old familiar clang of the carrier chains and the repairman's chisel. I can smell the eternal aroma of grease, sealer paint, smoke and sweat.

I begin walking down the line when it suddenly hits me: the jobs all look unchanged, but the faces are entirely different. There's the pinup jobs, but no Tommy or Earl. There's the frame rollover job, but no Cam or Hogjaw. There's the rail-pull jobs, but no Big Red or Willie. And where are Al and Dougie and Paul? The place looks the same but, from a human aspect, it has been almost totally gutted.

Eddie and Dick are still around. We shake hands and swap information about our old cronies. I ask them whatever happened to Paul, my double-up sidekick.

“He got laid off soon after you left,” Eddie says. “He works plumbing and heating now.”

“What about Jehan?”

“Got pulled over with a gun and a mess of dope. He's been in jail for months.”

“Well, what about Terry and Matt and Joe?”

“They've been out on the street for nearly a year now,” Dick reports. “Ever since they shut down the Pickup Line, it's been here today, gone tomorrow.”

I look over at my old job. Some new guy's leanin’ there at my bench. My faithful rivet gun dangles at his hip. It infuriates me. It's like seein’ your wife bein’ kissed by a total stranger. As far as I'm concerned, that damn rivet gun is private property.

I go over to the guy and tell him I'll catch the next job. He looks at me perplexed and says “Be my guest.” I grab a front wheel spring casting, four rivets and position old faithful. Click, click, click, click. I still have the touch for whatever that's worth. The rivet gun hums like a contented child. I look over at Eddie and Dick and they're both smiling. It's sad and confusing. I almost feel like I belong here. Almost.

I ask Eddie if he feels like drainin’ a few Budweisers at break time. I have a twelve-pack in my Camaro and nowhere else I have to be.

We park it back by the barbed wire fence and the railroad tracks. The stars mingle with the smokestacks and the sky whispers winter. I tell Eddie all about my inglorious swan song. I tell him about the volleyball wars out at the clinic.

“You can't tell me you'd rather be playin’ volleyball than bustin’ up a shin with some Rivet Hockey.” Eddie chuckles between chugs.

No, I can't. Nor can I tell him that the only ones who are gonna survive thirty years on an assembly line are those who can consistently blot out the gradual and persistent decay of the trick. There really isn't anything gallant or noble about being a factory hack. The whole arrangement equals nothing more than lousy prostitution. Thinking tears you apart. Start peering at the walls too closely or leaning on the clock too heavily and the whoremaster reality of all this idiocy will surely gobble your ass up whole. The demons aren't demons. The demons are
you.

“Just about time for that ‘All Aboard,’” I tell Eddie. “I'll drive you up to the gate.”

“You gotta drop by more often, Ben. Next time I'll try and swing a double lunch and we can have a go at some Hennessy.”

“We'll do that,” I lie.

I drive away feeling lucky or something like it.

“Do you ever wonder who built the car you drive? Do you think about the personal toll it extracts from those individuals who spend the best years of their lives in a hot, dirty, dehumanizing factory? Well, you know, they're paid so well for their ‘unskilled’ labor. They should feel lucky they even have a job! In this book, Ben Hamper tells what a lucky guy he is.”


FROM THE FOREWORD BY
M
ICHAEL
M
OORE, AUTHOR OF THE
#1
N
EW
Y
ORK
T
IMES BESTSELLER
D
UDE
, W
HERE'S
M
Y
C
OUNTRY
?

RIVETHEAD

Not since Hunter Thompson has an American writer delivered the kind of open-throated, full-barreled blast of truth and gritty reality that Ben Hamper unleashes in this journey through the belly of the American industrial beast. A former assembly-line riveter at GM's Truck and Bus division who rose to national prominence on the pages of
Esquire, Harper's, and Mother Jones,
Hamper—a.k.a. The Rivethead—uses a hard-edged, driving prose style to chronicle his outrageous career as an unhinged assembly-line grunt. From pulling double shifts to drinking and drug-taking, from GM's idea of quality control (a life-size “Quality Cat” who patrolled the line) to the gonzo characters who worked at Hamper's side, this is an extraordinary story of humanity trapped in a netherworld of suffocating noise, boredom, and absurdity that is by turns hilarious and tragic.

“This can't be what Henry Ford had in mind…. If you want a real whiff of life from the assembly line to the unemployment line, pack away your Bruce Springsteen CDs and pick up RIVETHEAD.”


B
OSTON
G
LOBE

BOOK: Rivethead
2.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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