The Year: 1997
The Music: “Promised Land”, Elvis Presley
It was the summer of 1997, and I was scheduled to graduate from college that December. I would leave UT with five and a half years under my belt. Entering college as a violin major, doing a stint in Early Childhood Education (thinking briefly of Psychology) and settling on Business and Marketing Education. I remember vividly the night I spread the university catalog, time tables and all my paperwork out on my dorm room floor. I added up all the various credits I had accumulated, and landed on a major which could get me out the door quickly. So, when I say, I “settled on” Business and Marketing Education, it was exactly that…settling. A liberal arts major at heart, I could not for the life of me pass the foreign language requirement. I would leave college with as much direction as I came in with…none. I can liken it to the feeling of being caught in a riptide. About the time I would see the surface, another wave sucked me in and pushed me out. I was caught in a constant state of push-pull.
My eldest sister more than likely realized I was floundering, and in what could have been 10 seconds of insanity (or scandalous grace), offered to let me move in with her family for that last semester. I had exhausted my student leadership work experiences, and was slow to find a summer job. My brother-in-law, in his ever-gentle way, suggested that I speak with his little brother who was a supervisor at Eagle Bend Manufacturing in Clinton, Tennessee. So, I did just that. Off I went to the temp agency to fill out the paperwork in my snappy little business suit.
I should pause here and tell you that I could write an entire book on my brother-in-law’s large family, and what they have meant to my large family. The understated love between our families is some kind of connection that involves all the senses. Mamaw, biscuits, rain, rolls of film, smoky hills and sandy beaches. It’s impossible to sum up in a few sentences.
Anyway, the lady behind the desk at the temp agency gave me the up-down over her half-eyes, and said, “You know this is a manual labor job, right?” “Yes, ma’am.” I’m sure my snappy little business suit threw her for a loop. She went on, “And it’s a graveyard shift. You alright with that?” “Yes, ma’am”. Good lord, I just needed a job. Who was I to be picky?
Eagle Bend Manufacturing turned out car parts. Even after having worked there, that’s the extent of my knowledge. The place smelled like a copper penny tastes, only dusty and on fire. And if you told me you’ve never put a penny in your mouth and sucked on it, well, I don’t believe you.
I don’t remember needing much training. I stood at the TY-14 spot welding machine for 10 hours a day (or night as was the case) and pressed a button that welded a small metal part into a big metal part. Mind-numbing. “TY” stood for Toyota, and the part that I was working with was for a bumper. I wore steel-toed boots from Wal-Mart, ear protection, safety glasses, gloves and arm guards. The sparks that flew out of my welding machine were somewhat like tiny, orange fireworks though rarely painful. Every once in a while, a spark would sit and sizzle on your skin for a few seconds.
I didn’t work on an assembly line. It was just me, standing there all alone with my welding machine. I would weld a bin full of bumper parts, hoist the bins with my knee-to-hay-bale-lifting style, one on top of the other, all-night long. My brother-in-law’s brother would stop by to make sure no one was hitting on me, and check that the weld was good. We got two 15-minute breaks and one lunch break. My guts never really got used to eating lunch at 1:00 in the morning. That’s just weird.
What made life a little easier during those long shifts were the people. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a gift it is to work with people that aren’t afraid of work. “Blue-collar” folks are real. There are no pretenses. Pretty much, no one gave a shit what purse you were carrying and if it matched your shoes. One particularly squirrely fellow named Vince, still stands out to me. Upon introduction, Vince wanted to hate me. He wanted to call me a stuck-up little college girl. But I made it impossible for him.
Vince had a mohawk, slicked back to meet company policy. Everything that could be pierced on Vince, was pierced and he was the angriest cuss I had ever encountered. He was wiry and lean – one solid sinewy muscle. I suspect that he had managed to overcome quite a lot, but the rage the kid had! The pilot light was always on, all it took was a match and he could burn practically anything or anyone all the way down. Vince started hanging around my machine when he realized I would listen to whatever he had to say. Girlfriend problems, baby daddy problems and legal problems. I don’t remember ever giving him advice, but I do remember coming to the realization that I really had no real problems. I would graduate and move on from Clinton, but I was fairly sure that Vince never would.
Sometime that summer, it dawned on me that what I really needed was a tattoo. I had always wanted a tattoo and now with a graveyard shift wage premium, it seemed well within reach. I made the appointment, took my best friend and spent an entire $60 dollars on a tattoo the size of a quarter. I was obsessed with Elvis’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” that summer. I wore out a cassette tape playing that single. Summer air and cigarette smoke flying out of the car window, singing to the top of my lungs. So, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Elvis’ death, it seemed only appropriate to get his TCB emblem permanently engraved on the back of my right shoulder. It took a year and a half, and a fair amount of beer before I could tell her, but my mother was never so impressed…ever. She said it looked like a spider, which hurt my feelings. But now, on my 42-year-old shoulder, it does resemble a spider that’s been half stomped on.
There was a feeling of freedom when the shift was up, and I could scream out of the plant’s parking lot blaring Elvis Presley and throwing gravel. It was that time right before the sun comes up, when even in the summer you can feel a current of cold air move past you. It was a lush, sweet-smelling stretch of highway back home. Drop into bed, try and sleep through the light peeking in the blinds, wake up around 2:00 p.m. and start again.
On my last day of that summer job, the shift supervisor walked up and said that if I ever needed a job, I would have one waiting at Eagle Bend.