August 3, 2022
Selected tales from a budding anarchist
It’s said that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. I suppose that’s possibly true, but I think that “playground” is a better term than “workshop”.
Finding creative ways to amuse yourself when stuck in boring situations is one way of coping with life. The stories that come from some of those episodes can endure and be relived when shared with others. The best stories need no embellishment.
One of the myriad jobs I’ve had in my career as a kid pretending to adult was at a paper mill in northern Michigan.
The work was hot, long, and repetitive most days. The only times when it got exciting was when things went wrong. And those times were rarely fun.
Things going wrong usually meant that the newly-formed paper fell off the machine, halting production and costing the company money. This is when life got a bit more frantic for those of us assigned to keep production running smoothly.
A papermaking education
I’ll quickly give the layperson an overview of a paper mill, specifically a containerboard (think packing and shipping box material) mill like where I worked. The process begins with timber being debarked and chipped into small pieces, which are then boiled down into a pulp using hot water and chemicals. The virgin pulp is mixed with recycled paperboard (from those used packing and shipping boxes) and pumped as a slurry to the paper machine.
Containerboard is generally a brown color, as it’s not generally necessary to bleach the material like with other papers. The watery pulp is sprayed onto a tightly-woven screen, and the excess water is suctioned out as it rapidly proceeds to a system of large steam-heated rollers which dry out the new paper before it’s accumulated at the end of the machine into a massive roll weighing tons.
Those gargantuan rolls are then unwound at high speed through a winding machine with razor-sharp slitters, and rewound tightly onto sturdy cardboard tubes (think of the tubes paper towel come wrapped around, just bigger and thicker). These smaller rolls would be created to match width dimensions specified by the box manufacturing plants which ordered them.
Suffice to say, a building housing a single paper machine along with the attendant winder can easily take up the length of a football field. It’s a big place. A hot place with all of the steam. And a noisy place. It’s near impossible to hear normal conversation on the floor next to the machine. Ear plugs are mandatory, and hearing loss is always a risk.
Dull days are better sometimes
When I first started working at the mill in late 2001, they were experiencing a lot of issues keeping the sheet (what we called the paper as it moved through the drying rollers) on the machine. The mill was over 80 years old and management was trying to improve the speed of the process to increase profit margins and keep the mill competitive.
Making tweaks to the process was a lot of trial and error, and of course the errors kept us busy trying to get the sheet to stay on the machine instead of breaking and falling to the basement floor in a hot steaming pile. There were also problems at the winder machine, as defects in the paper caused it to fail spectacularly during the high-speed winding process, causing more headaches.
At any rate, we experienced lots of days that were overly busy- getting the sheet back on the machine properly and cleaning up the huge mess that was left from the previous break. During one weeks-long period it got so bad that management was calling us in to work extra overtime to help out the crew that was on shift.
But eventually, they got the process under control, and we began to enjoy 8-hour shifts with maybe only one or two paper breaks. Then a shift with no breaks. And then a full 24-hour day without a break. Then two.
It was really nice when we didn’t have to hear the loud air horn which indicated a problem during our shift. We were able to do our normal jobs which usually required about ten to fifteen minutes of work every half hour. Otherwise, we sat in our air conditioned shack and talked a bunch of bullshit or read books.
When New Year celebrations go wrong
The problem with that was the monotony. Eight to twelve hours of the sameness gets to you, especially during the night shifts when there were no supervisors around for whom to look busy. We often found ourselves making mischief to break the tedious boredom.
For instance, there was the New Year’s Eve incident when we decided to fuck with the basement guy, Ronnie. Ronnie was a special person, and maybe I’ll write a bit more about him someday. But not today.
Our crew was scheduled for night shift the week when December 31 became January 1. So in celebration of that, four of us made a plan to shower Ronnie with good cheer in the form of balloons and confetti by tossing it down the gaping hole in the main floor which was used to push our paper scrap to the basement for the guy (or woman) down there to feed into the recycling pulper using a small skid-steer loader.
For safety reasons, we were supposed to yell down or make a phone call to the basement dweller as a heads up before we shoved a load of paper scrap down the hole. But much of the time no warning was given. Basement people just learned to avoid walking under the hole without looking up first.
At the stroke of midnight, someone called Ronnie and screamed “Happy New Year” as the rest of us dropped about 100 balloons and boxes of paper confetti we had chopped up by hand for the occasion. It was a “joyous” occasion, but Ronnie wasn’t amused so much, as he had to clean up the mess.
We didn’t stop to consider that Ronnie would be too lazy (and stupid) to separate the rubber balloons from the paper before tossing the detritus into the repulper.
The next day the paper machine began to suffer unexplained paper breaks. Unexplained until investigations by management started turning up bits of colorful rubber in the pulp mill and the forming screen on the paper machine. It was a huge deal, and heads were going to roll for this foolishness.
To everyone’s credit, not one person spoke up about how those inexplicable balloons made their way into the system, and ultimately no one was suspended or fired for it. Even our night shift foreman kept her mouth shut about it, though she was completely aware of the epic water balloon fight we had with the remaining elastic orbs during the early morning hours of New Years Day. It forever remained a mystery.
“Kenny” and the truck that wouldn’t go
On another occasion, the maintenance crew left us an opportunity for a bit of roguery on the weekend. While all of the workers were supposedly union “brothers”, the maintenance guys acted like a bunch of prima donnas and were quite dismissive of the production workers.. They worked a “normal” schedule most times– day shift Monday through Friday– unless we were on a scheduled maintenance outage or they were called in to take care of emergency problems.
My crew came into our Friday night shift at 10:30pm to find a small utility (ATV-style) truck parked on the floor of our work area. While it wasn’t directly in the center of our workspace, it was a bit in the way. And whichever dickhead parked it there, he took the keys with him.
Which was a two-fold problem. One, we couldn’t easily push it out of the way. There wasn’t really any good place to put it. Two –and this was the biggest issue–, we couldn’t take it for a joyride around the mill property. We were right pissed about the situation and discussed ways to deal with it.
One of the ideas was to pick it up with a forklift and place it atop the large crew shack or in some other inaccessible place. This idea was fraught with danger as any number of things could go wrong during the attempt. Cooler heads quickly nixed that idea, as we had only recently escaped trouble in the balloon incident. No reason to have the evil eye of management turning its gaze upon us again.
The stupid truck sat there for over two days, mocking us. We couldn’t just let it rest. Something had to be done.
I devised a plan to get even with the maintenance jerks. My idea, based on a prank that I’d been aware of since I was a teenager, was to raise the little truck just enough so the tires didn’t touch the floor. This was accomplished by measuring the distance from the floor to the axles and cutting the heavy cardboard tubes used for the finished paper rolls about 1/4 inch taller than that distance. I figured that three of these custom-sized tubes taped together would be sturdy enough to support each of the designated points. While my coworkers lifted one corner of the truck at a time, I slid the tubes under the axles.
This had the desired effect of keeping the rubber off the tarmac, but not so it was obvious. However, I still felt reservations about it not looking quite right, as there was no bulge at the bottom of the tires being that there was no weight on them. So I created a distraction by making a scarecrow-style dummy driver using some of my extra work clothing and stuffing it with paper scrap.
The dummy wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves held to the steering wheel with tape, a hard hat, and reflective safety glasses. Using a black marker, I gave Mr. Dummy a beard. He ended up looking like Kenny, one of the maintenance guys, and that was what we named him. Going the extra distance, I either taped earplugs or put earmuffs on “Kenny”, and stuck a cigarette in his mouth. At any rate, the dummy looked real enough to the casual glance if you were just walking by and not paying close attention.
This special op took place on a Sunday night, and because we were going off shift at 6:30am Monday morning as the maintenance guys were coming in, it was doubtful that we would get to enjoy the fruits of our labor. So I told the incoming crew what we had done and asked them to observe and report upon my return 8 hours later, as I had picked up an extra shift.
When I came back on the machine floor at 2:30pm on Monday, the truck was gone. I asked one of the crew members whom I was relieving what happened during their shift. The answer was even more satisfying than I had hoped for.
The guy telling me couldn’t make it through the story without stopping because he was laughing so hard. First, it took several hours before maintenance finally sent someone to come get the truck. During that time, many people passed by the vehicle with “Kenny” sitting in the driver’s seat. More than a few of them waved to our beloved dummy. The mill manager was one of them. He noticed that the greeting was not returned and he stopped in his tracks and backed up for a closer look. He ended up shaking his head in bemused disgust and went on his way.
Not until after the maintenance crew had their lunch break did one of their guys come up to collect the truck. He was also not amused about seeing the dummy in the driver’s seat, and he dragged it out and unceremoniously dumped him on the floor, breaking him in half. Poor “Kenny”.
Then the asshole climbed in and started the motor. He put the truck in forward gear and pressed the accelerator. And went nowhere. Confused, he threw it into reverse and hit the gas. Again, nothing. No movement.
Sure, the tires were rotating in the appropriate directions, but because there was no contact with the floor, shithead wasn’t going anywhere. According to the guy telling me the story between laughing fits, the maintenance guy tried several times, gunning the motor and alternating between forward and reverse. This continued until the shift foreman, who was witnessing this glorious moment, regained his own composure and walked over, tapped on the window, and motioned for the guy to get out and see what was actually happening.
Being there personally to watch this would have been the best, but the version I was getting from my coworker was a hilarious close second. I felt victorious.
Better than a runway show
Again, because we had so much time on our hands when operations went smoothly, it was difficult for us to not find ways to entertain ourselves. One day I found myself on a long, boring afternoon shift with two coworkers who were assigned with me to the winder.
Rob was the third hand, in charge of operating the multi-million dollar piece of equipment. I was fourth hand, his direct assistant, and my duties included weighing and labeling the finished rolls, then banding them with metal straps before sending them on to the shipping department. Martha, as fifth hand, assisted us on the winder and cut all of the paperboard cores to size, among other duties.
We were enjoying a late-afternoon conversation in the shack and somehow we got to talking about poor clothing choices. This led to imagining what bizarre wardrobes we could wear at work. We decided that on the following Friday, the last day shift before our long weekend off, we were going to attend to our work duties in the worst-looking outfits we could imagine.
There were rules. We could spend up to $10 on our outfits. The clothing had to fit safety standards. And we could NOT chicken out, no matter what was said by anyone else.
For my “costume”, I went to Goodwill, my favorite secondhand store. There I found some awful blue and green checked golf pants, a ridiculous hat, and a screaming bright pink western-style button-down shirt with pearl buttons and horrible hand-painted patterns on the shoulders.
Martha also found ugly checkered pants and a really stupid top to wear. Rob, being younger, dressed like he was living in the 80s, which I found a bit insulting, because what he had on might have been things I would have worn during that period.
We didn’t actually wear the tacky clothes coming into work, past security and the revolving prison-style gates. We waited until we got to the locker rooms to put on our crazy getup.
We were also joined by Mac, who was on day shift because he was training for the next highest position as backtender, responsible for most of the paper machine after the pulp sheet started into the dryer section. He didn’t put in a lot of effort, but did have on a pretty wacky-looking hat. Jerry, the backtender assigned to our crew wanted absolutely nothing to do with our foolishness.
The paper machine had been experiencing a long run of good luck, with no breaks for almost a week, and we were looking forward to a relaxing normal day of work, even if we weren’t dressed “normally”.
Our shift foreman saw us and just shook his head. There wasn’t a specific dress code, and as long as we didn’t have on loose clothing, we were okay. But the department head was none too happy and threatened to have us drug-tested if anything at all out of the ordinary happened.
Unfortunately, right around 7:30am, 60 minutes into our shift, the loud air horn blew, signifying that we had experienced a paper break. Notwithstanding how we were dressed, we were professionals and quickly got the sheet back on the machine so the company was making money again.
About an hour later, we were sitting in Jerry’s big backtender shack at the end of the machine while we waited for the paper reel to reach its maximum size before starting a new one. Suddenly, the door to the shack opened and to our shock the mill manager Bob P. stepped inside.
We were trying to keep straight faces as we sat there looking like Village People rejects, but Bob was so engrossed in what he wanted to say to us that he didn’t instantly notice what his eyes were seeing. He started speaking.
“Well, we almost made it a week with no breaks, and I want to congratul- WHAT THE FUCK!!!???? What is WRONG with you idiots????”
He turned and stormed out the door, then continued walking towards the office complex, swearing loudly as he went. We let him get about ten feet away, lost in the noise of the machine before we collectively laughed our asses off.
I’m not saying that I felt sorry for Bob, but the fact that he was happy enough at first to offer extremely rare praise to the workers, only to have his good mood completely shattered by seeing us dressed like circus clowns was almost tragic.
And funny as hell.