For two summers in the late ’70s, I helped assemble dishwashers and refrigerators at GE’s Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky. Each day, I’d come home smelly, aching, caked with filth. I didn’t complain: There’s something to be said for a job that lets a guy wear sturdy boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and — most important — an attitude. And I was being paid more than any fry cook, grocery bagger or clerk.
Back then, GE employed about 25,000 people at the sprawling, 1,000-acre complex. I was summer help -– one of several college students who were sons and daughters of GE employees. During production, we filled in gaps on the line; during shutdown, we cleaned up the factories.
Cleaning an industrial plant was no simple bucket and mop job. Some of us in the dishwasher plant, for example, had to climb inside the idled ovens to sweep out empty liquor bottles. During my first summer shutdown, when I was assigned to the graveyard shift, we filled several 55-gallon drums with the evidence of a year’s worth of hard, on-the-job drinking.
Most of my time during shutdown, however, was spent in the paint pits. With a pneumatic chisel, I scraped the thick but pliable paint from the floor and walls. The chisel was loud, but it was nothing compared to the ear-splitting din of metal on metal when the lines were running.
Working graveyard meant arriving near midnight and leaving just as the first shift showed up. At night, mercury vapor lights turned utility poles, water towers, and other fixtures into abstractions. Inside, without the bustle of hundreds of workers, the cavernous 10-acre dishwasher building was almost cathedral-like, with high ceilings, secret passageways, hidden corridors, and sanctuaries. One could steal away, and find solitude behind the stacks of parts.
Graveyard meant long stretches without supervision — or company. Most of the time, I didn’t have to talk to anybody. It was me and my thoughts — and the constant pounding of a chisel. Some of the other guys weren’t there to work or think. Having failed to earn or bank enough time for vacation, they were determined to make the best of it.
I was busy early one morning when one of the guys came in and interrupted.
“Take a break,” he yelled.
I ignored him.
A few minutes later, he returned.
Again l ignored him.
The third time, he didn’t say anything, but just disconnected the air hose to the chisel and turned off the lights.
“You need to stop,” he said. “You’re making us look bad.”
Where was the foreman? I asked.
In an upstairs office, getting high, he told me.
The other men were sitting on picnic tables, drinking beer. They’d driven a couple of forklifts outside and two of the men decided to have a pushing contest, out in the grass. They lined up the vehicles face to face, and started accelerating. The lifts were smoking, but one was in a bad spot and its wheels dug into the ground.
We left the unfortunate driver and returned to work, laughing.
Anybody who experienced it back then — the noise, the boredom, the repetition and relentless pace of the line — could understand why some guys felt entitled to steal a little time.
They knew, GE would always come out ahead.