By Ed Staskus
I never thought I would be spending two weeks in East Texas in the middle of a blast furnace summer but there I was. I was deep in the heart of Dixie. It rained every afternoon for a half hour and was bone dry a half hour later, racing right back up to 100 degrees in the shade. But by that time, we were on our way to work.
Tyler, Texas was the second last leg of a month-long job. The last leg would be Louisiana and then back home. I was working for American Electro Coatings, a Cleveland, Ohio outfit that refinished desks, files, and cabinets on site. We traveled in three-man crews in white Ford Econoline vans, carrying our gear and luggage. There were two bucket seats and a custom-made bunk that doubled as storage behind the seats. The van was big enough for a sofa if we wanted to. One of us was always sleeping. We rotated the driving.
We started in Chicago, went to Des Moines, OK City, Tyler, slowing down in Louisiana for crawfish, and then got on the hillbilly highway back to the Buckeye State. Our ride never broke down because Ralph, the crew leader and painter, made sure it never broke down. He did an all-points inspection beforehand, had it tuned up, oil changed, and confirmed the steel belts were on the newer side. He didn’t believe in 4-60 air conditioning, four windows open going 60 MPH, and made sure our on-board AC was in perfect working order. The van looked like a creeper on the outside but ran like an angel.
Our workday started when everybody else’s workday was ending. We worked from about six to about two in the morning. Ralph was an old hand. He always got a motel as close as possible to where we would be working to cut down on drive time. “Efficiency is doing things right,” he said. Effectiveness is doing the right things. Ralph was both, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He looked like a skinny chain-smoking Jackie Gleason.
I wasn’t a full-time employee and didn’t work with the same crew all the time. I always asked for Ralph, though. He was fifteen-some years older than me, testy but steady, smoked too much, but drank less than he smoked. He had a wife and two kids and was as stingy as Scrooge. He didn’t spend much of his own money on the road. When we got back to our motel room in the middle of the night it was lights out, Ralph’s orders. In the afternoon we were free to do whatever we wanted, but he expected us to be ready to go at five o’clock.
Some of the employees were Americans at American Electro Coatings. The rest weren’t. They were from Mexico and Central America. Some of them got paid cash on payday. Jose was Ralph’s right hand man. We always got a room with two beds which meant, since I was the odd man out, I always slept on a rollaway. Some of them were better than others. The first thing Ralph and Jose did when they woke up was hack up a storm and have a cigarette. They shared an ashtray on the bed stand between them.
When they asked me if I wanted to join them in a smoke, I said, “Thanks, but I don’t need one of my own. I’ll just breathe the air.”
Our job in Chicago was smooth sailing, some old-time law office, but we hit a bump in the road in Des Moines. It was a downtown bank and the first day we started on the first floor, which was the lobby. Jose and I were cleaning and taping desks. He called me over to one of them. There was a kind of fancy doorbell button screwed to the well of the desk and wires coming and going to it.
“What we gonna do about this?” Jose asked.
We were going to have to do something to be able to move it to the painting tarp. There were several screws that the wires were attached to. “Let’s make a drawing of where the wires go, unscrew them, and put them back later,” I suggested.
“OK,” he said
Five minutes later three police cars screamed up to the front doors and five seconds later a half dozen cops with guns drawn were bellowing, “Down on the floor, face down!” We couldn’t go flat fast enough. It got straightened out after a while but not before a stern warning from the peace officer in charge to stop messing around with alarm wires.
Every night we drove down East Grand Ave. back to our motel near the State Fairgrounds. The streets were always deserted. We could have burgled anything we wanted. We navigated by the lit-up gold dome of the early-20th century Iowa State Capital building.
OK City was a two-day job like Chicago. We didn’t like short jobs, so when we got to Texas, we were glad to unload our gear and settle in for two weeks. We were going to be working at the Kelly Springfield tire plant. The factory went back to 1962 and was on the order of a million square feet. A rail spur ran alongside an inside platform from one end to the other end of the factory, bringing raw materials in and hauling new tires away.
The front offices were routine, all of them together, and no fuss about setting up and getting it done. The other offices were on the factory floor on raised platforms. It was where foremen worked. We had to wheel our gear there and carry it up. We got a platform-or-two done a night. We met Barry and Skip on one of them. They kept their eyes open on the down below. They got us acquainted with Tad, another one of the foremen, a friend of theirs who worked at ground level. He had gotten his legs shot out from under him at the Battle of Xuan Loc, the last major battle fought during the Vietnam War. He was discharged with a Purple Heart and a wheelchair.
One night we had lunch just past midnight in the cafeteria with the three of them. I noticed all the white men were sitting at one end of the eatery and all the black men were sitting at the other end. The brown men and yellow men sat where nobody else wanted to. I knew black people were held in low esteem in Cleveland. They were held in no esteem in East Texas. If they weren’t outright hated, they were disliked and shunned.
“We can’t call them niggers no more, so we don’t,” Barry said. “But we don‘t got to eat with niggers. They can’t make us do that. Besides, they don’t want to eat with us either.” Their racism was a great time saver. They were busy men at work, home, and church. They could stick to their long-held beliefs without bothering about the facts.
Barry invited us to go night fishing with them on their next day off. We had been at it at the plant for seven days and were ready for a day off. Barry picked us up in his GMC Sierra Grande pick-up. It had plush carpeting, a padded front seat, and an AM/FM radio. The only stations in town were AM. We listened to a radio minister whoop it up. Ralph sat up front with Barry and Skip and the gun rack. Jose and I hung on to Tad’s wheelchair strapped down to the bed of the truck.
Their 28-foot deck boat was docked at Lake Palestine, west of Tyler. Besides rods and reels hooks bobbers sinkers and bait, they brought lots of ice and a couple hundred cans of Lone Star beer. They did their best to drink it all. We helped out but couldn’t keep up.
We fished for crappie and catfish. Tad was deadest on crappie and used minnows. There were more catfish than anything else. We drift fished for them using worms and chicken livers. Skip was targeting blue catfish using cut fish as bait. The best catfishing is done at night. Flats, river bars, shorelines, and weeds are good places to find them.
Everybody caught a load of everything, tossing them into five-gallon buckets half full of water. Tad forgot to chock his wheels and almost went over the side before Barry grabbed him by the nape, saving his neck.
“We can’t have him yelling and splashing,” Barry said. “The number one rule of fishing is to be quiet. Don’t scare the fish!” We did some firefly and star gazing and lots of mosquito swatting. There was a full moon. I looked carefully and steadily for the Swamp Thing to surface, but he never did.
The next day was Sunday. Barry invited us to his house for a fish fry. We ate our fill. The fish was fresh and tasty. The catfish weren’t as scary dead as alive, their heads cut off. Ralph had a Lone Star, but Jose and I had sworn off it for the Lord’s Day. The Texans were unfazed and drank their fill. Barry brought his family Bible out to the backyard. It was as big as a suitcase and had all the names of his known forebears inscribed on the inside cover.
It was hot and swampy the day later. The tire factory was noxious, like it was every day. We were lucky to be working in the air-conditioned offices. There were enormous exhaust fans for the working men, but the only fresh air was the air that flowed from one end of the railroad tracks to the other through the big bay doors.
The plant reeked of rubber, special oils, carbon black, pigments, silica, and an alphabet soup of additives. Banbury mixers mixed the raw materials for each compound into a batch of black material with the consistency of gum. It was processed into the sidewalls, treads, or other parts of the tire. The first thing to go on the building machine was the inner liner, a special rubber resistant to air and moisture penetration. It takes the place of an inner tube. Next came the body plies and belts, made from polyester and steel. Bronze-coated strands of steel wire, fashioned into hoops, were implanted into the sidewall of the tires to form a bead, so there was an airtight fit with the rim of the wheel. The tread and sidewalls were then put into position over the belt and body plies, and all the parts pressed firmly together.
The result was a green tire. The last step was to cure the tire. Working at the Kelly Springfield factory for two weeks cured me of any inclination I might have ever had about working for a tire manufacturer.
The day before we were due to be done and gone, Barry found us and led us to the open west end of the track platform. He and Skip had rigged up a sail and mounted it to the back of Tad’s wheelchair. There was a stiff breeze blowing through the bay door heading due east from the other open bay door. “We got him some new rubber on those wheels of his,” Barry explained. “He wanted to give them a good test, so we arranged a scoot.”
They pivoted the sail, Tad let go his chokehold on the wheels, and set off rolling down the platform. He picked up speed and we started walking fast. He picked up more speed and we started jogging. He picked up even more speed and we started running. Before long we couldn’t keep up and watched him becoming a crazy fast speck in the distance.
Then he disappeared.
When we got to the other end of the plant and looked down from the platform to the railroad tracks below, we gawked at the runaway. He and his wheels were a mess. Tad had old rail grease all over his work shirt. He rolled off the overturned wheelchair and cursed up a storm. Barry and Skip jumped, got Tad back up to the platform, lifted his dented wheelchair, and set him back to rights. The sail was a shambles. They left it where it lay.
“You sons of bitches ain’t going be doing that again anytime soon, believe you me,” Tad grumbled.
We loaded up the next day and headed for Louisiana. It was a three-day job. We stayed at a motel with a pool and ate crawfish at a roadhouse next door. “You got to suck on the head first thing, before you peel the tail, honey,” our waitress said. We drank Falstaff beer kept cold in galvanized bins full of ice water and salt. We stayed an extra day for more crawfish and to hear a zydeco band everybody said was the best in the parish.
The day we left for home was the hottest most humid day in the history of the world. We rolled up the windows and cranked up the air conditioning. Jose tucked himself in on the bunk behind us and was asleep in no time. I glanced back at him as we drove north up through Mississippi.
“I’ll take the next turn at the wheel,” I told Ralph. “Jose is sleeping like a baby.”
“That’s because he doesn’t have his baby here with him,” Ralph said. “He’ll be making noise on his old squeezebox soon enough.”
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”