What’s My Name?

June 24, 2023
Krabi, Thailand

“Hey!” The tall, lanky man with the thinning gray hair shouts for my attention as he walks up to me. He doesn’t need to shout today, but it’s probably a matter of habit about which I can’t be upset. Normally, the noise from the paper machines operating would have required him to raise his voice to a much higher decibel count to compete with the din. But today, we are on a plant-wide maintenance shut-down, and it is pleasantly quiet.

I look away from the task I am performing, wiping grease off of the inner frame of the 80-year-old paper machine that we are rehabilitating after years of disuse. The price of paperboard has increased and it is financially viable for the plant to restart this ancient equipment and begin making more corrugating medium that will be used to make shipping boxes. I watch as Bill approaches, wondering what I have done this time to deserve his attention.

“Yes, Bill?” I reply casually, putting my rag down. Not to have my hand free to shake his. I am pretty sure that isn’t in the cards. I simply want him to know that he has my attention. “What can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to talk to you a minute and let you know that there are no hard feelings about our little meeting the other night”, he says. Cute thing for him to say. Maybe he doesn’t have any hard feelings, but I certainly haven’t forgotten being called into the foreman’s office on third shift to be dressed down by the plant operations supervisor.

The previous Thursday night, Laurie had rung the phone in the air-conditioned shack that the papermaking crew hung out in between reel changes on the machine. Laurie was the shift foreman, and was quite relaxed in dealing with the crews. We all liked and respected her as a good boss to have. Not all of the foremen and supervisors were held in high regard. Some of them were complete assholes.

“Bob”, Laurie said after I had been handed the phone. “Would you mind coming to the office in about a half-hour? Bill wants to talk to you.”


Bill Osterman had been crawling up my ass for the last month and a half, it seemed. I had only really made one mistake, and even though it was a rather big one, I had been drawing more of his ire than I deemed necessary. It wasn’t even about me, I thought. He was dealing with some personal shit, and I just happened to be a convenient target for his frustration. It wasn’t my fault that his wife got caught fucking the assistant plant manager, whose name was also Bill. I could imagine how humiliating it was for Bill Osterman that everyone in the paper mill knew that he had been cuckolded by his superior. The really bad part was that she also worked at the mill, so everybody knew everyone involved. There was lots of talk about it, and the deed(s) were memorialized on the stalls of the men’s restroom. I had written a particularly clever gem myself, but there was no way that Bill could have possibly known it was me.

So maybe it was just karma that got me when Bill took an interest in my workplace activities. The first was probably right after Kathy’s little tawdry affair with Bill Bosteen was revealed. My crew was on third shift that week, and during one rather quiet night when everything was running well, I happened to be sitting at the winding machine control panel with my feet up on the surface. Osterman, who was normally only seen during the daytime shifts, walked up the short flight of concrete stairs from the corner entry door and spied me doing my job, which at the time was waiting for the winder to finish its 10-minute run.

“Get your fucking feet off the desk!” he bellowed, in his sonorous baritone. He didn’t even stop as he strode past, so all I saw of him was his skinny backside as he continued down the length of the building’s interior which housed the massive #2 paper machine and its attendant winder. He didn’t see me roll my eyes at him as I stood up and stepped into the little shack to ask my two coworkers what the hell was up with Osterman.

Two weeks later, I made the actual mistake.

My position on the crew was named “third hand”, and I was relatively new at the job. As third hand, my responsibilities included operating the multi-million dollar winding machine, into which the reels of newly-formed paper were fed, cut to size, and rewound into tightly-rolled cylinders that would be shipped to the box plants. I was also in charge of the steam turbine in the basement. The turbine was powered by steam at 600 lbs per sq. in. and was what drove the massive paper machine. Each shift, I was required to check the pressure readings and perform some lubrication to the equipment. I knew that if the seals failed on the turbine, it could cause a catastrophic explosion of live steam and metal debris which could easily be fatal to anyone unfortunate enough to be standing nearby.

During a shut-down of the machine, the third hand was responsible for flipping a switch on a control panel housed upstairs in the machine tender’s shack. The switch would trip out the turbine and the paper machine would slowly spin to a halt. The machine tender was the top person in the crew, and was supposed to let the third hand know when everything was ready for the turbine to be shut down.

We were experiencing some unexpected issues with the machine and had to perform an unscheduled shut-down. Due to a miscommunication between Sal, the machine tender, and me, I ended up switching off the turbine before it was supposed to be switched off. The machine started to wind down while the pulp was still being sprayed onto the wire, which was the first screen fabric used in the paper-making process. The result was the screen got completely overloaded with pulp, creating a huge mess that took a lot longer to clean up than normal, and the supervising staff was livid.

It had been my first time switching the turbine off and my inexperience was partly to blame for this incident. During my six weeks of training, there hadn’t been an opportunity for me to be in the situation. Nor had it been covered in the written test that I had to pass in order to receive the third hand position. But it was my fuck-up. And I owned it at the time. Bill Osterman yelled at me. Andy, the #2 machine supervisor, yelled at me. Bill Bosteen didn’t show up to yell at me, as he was laying low after his adulterous affair with Osterman’s wife was uncovered. Laurie didn’t yell at me. She knew I had already been reamed enough by the others.

Another two weeks passed and we were on yet another unscheduled shut-down. I had just finished tripping the turbine correctly this time and was back at the winder shack getting some gear out of the crew locker before heading back down to the wet end of the paper machine to handle other duties with the rest of the crew. Bill once more appeared from the staircase, and being in a foul mood, took the opportunity to yell at me again.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he thundered. “Get your ass down there and start working!”

He didn’t wait for me to explain that I was just grabbing some needed protective equipment before joining the rest of the crew. He simply kept on walking and I could hear his expletives fade as he got farther and farther from me. I was seething inside. This was unfair and uncalled for on his part. But I wasn’t about to shout back at him. I’d find another way to get even, and I did.

At the other end of the machine, there was still a fair amount of pulp stock on the rollers and it needed to be cleared away. The method we used for this was to aim high-pressure water hoses at the mass of pulp and spray it down, dissolving it completely so it would fall into the pit below the wire. I took my turn manning one of the fire hoses, and while doing so, I spied Bill walking past on the shop floor. “Accidentally”, I let my hose get “out of control” and hit the pile of pulp at just the right angle to spray some of the brown sludge on my nemesis. Then I quickly got it “under control” and completely avoided any eye contact with him. There were several others with hoses, so he couldn’t know that I was the one who hit him.

I felt a little petty about the incident, but fuck him. I wasn’t the one banging his wife.

When it was time to start the operation back up, I had to go to the turbine to open the steam feed that would begin the process of rotating the long driveshaft to the paper machine. They were in a hurry, and the supervisor (one of the assholes) who was required to be with the third hand at the turbine was pushing me to get my checks done so I could start it up. There was supposed to be a metal step stool at the turbine so the third hand could easily reach the small relief valve which needed to be turned, but it had been dragged off by someone during the shut-down and not replaced. I ended up pulling a muscle or wrenching something in my right shoulder in an awkward attempt to turn the valve.

The pain didn’t go away, so as required by the safety rules, I reported the incident. All incidents of injury were posted throughout the mill, so it wasn’t a secret that I had gotten hurt doing my job. Any injury was a black eye to the mill, and of course, the supervisors were not happy about it.

It was the following week when Laurie called me to her office to meet with Bill. Because I trusted Laurie, I rather foolishly declined union representation for the meeting. When I got there, Bill had not yet arrived. Laurie told me that I should just listen to him and not say anything. Wise words from her, but I’m not always one to follow wisdom.

When Bill showed up ten minutes later, he started in on me. “Four times now I’ve had to deal with you and your fuckups”, he began. Then he recounted each incident as if he had been taking notes. I accepted the first one about having my feet on the console. It was bullshit, but I wasn’t going to make an issue of being righteous about it.

When he got to the others though, I was less inclined to follow Laurie’s direction.

I had grown up being told that I should always listen respectfully to my superiors, no matter if they were right or wrong. And I dutifully obeyed that directive, but it was detrimental to my self-confidence. One one occasion, about ten years prior, the manager of the home improvement store where I was working threatened to fire me for something for which I hadn’t been guilty. I almost shit my pants at the time, and just stood there and took the abuse from this manic-depressive jerk. I needed the job desperately, and I was cowed into submission. The feeling that I took away from that experience was one of humiliation and I swore I would never let someone talk to me that way again.

I began speaking up for myself when it was appropriate. No longer did I simply take bullshit from people just because they thought they could dish it out. This applied both in my work life and in my religious activities. Speaking my mind became something that I would do, even though I did it tactfully most of the time. I finally grew a pair of balls, and it was liberating.

When I was being interviewed for the job at the mill three years before, I had been told to show up no fewer than ten minutes before the meeting was scheduled, or don’t show up at all. This wasn’t a problem for me, as punctuality has always been part of who I am. But when the time came and elapsed by twenty minutes before I was called into the interview, I was a bit peeved. At the end of the interview, I was asked if I had any questions for the six members of the supervisory staff who were conducting the meeting. I did.

My first question was “How long have each of you been here and what do you like/dislike about the job?” This earned me some impressed smiles and one of the supervisors said, “That’s a thoughtful question. I don’t think anyone has asked us that before.”

Now that I had them thinking highly of my attitude, it was time to drop the bomb. I hesitated for only a split second, then decided, “fuck it!” My next question hit them squarely between the eyes.

“I was told to be here ten minutes before the interview or not show up at all. But I waited twenty minutes past the start time before you came to get me. Is there a reason for this, and should I expect this to be how things are done here?” My asshole clenched a little bit right after the words came out of my mouth. I really needed this job and the good pay that came with it. But I wasn’t going to take shit laying down, either, and I wanted them to know it.

The staff looked at each other, nonplussed. One of them finally spoke up. “Um, yeah. We don’t … we had someone cancel at the last minute because of a situation and we had to scramble to find a replacement. Sorry.”

I smiled and accepted the apology, and felt like I had done what I needed to do to set the parameters of our working relationship, should they decide to hire me.

Now, sitting in front of Bill Osterman, I wasn’t about to let his unfair accusations pass without some words being said in my defense. As I ignored Laurie’s eyes beseeching me to shut the fuck up, I went after Bill. I told him that my injury was due to being told to do something unsafe by my direct supervisor at the time. That I was at the crew locker getting safety gear when he yelled at me for not being with the rest of the crew at the time of the shut-down. And I told him that yeah, I made the mistake of shutting down the turbine too quickly, but that proper training would have been a good way to avoid that situation.

Actually, I think my exact words were, “Your training here sucks!”

He glowered back at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Laurie’s mouth agape. I knew that I had probably gone a bit too far with that statement. Shit.

“Would you like to rephrase that?” Bill boomed.

“Yeah, sorry. I should have used better words”, I replied. “I think the training should cover more situations than it currently does.”

“Okay,” he grumbled. “That’s better.”

Our meeting concluded and Bill walked out first. Laurie stared at me and said, “What the fuck, Bob? Are you crazy? I mean, yeah, he was being an asshole, but Jesus!” I left feeling pretty good about myself, but wishing I had bit back a little on my irritation.

Now Bill is in front of me once again. “I just wanted to talk to you a minute and let you know that there are no hard feelings about our little meeting the other night.” He extends his hand, surprising me.

I take his hand, wondering what I should say at this moment. Then, all of a sudden, I realize something. He hasn’t addressed me by my name. Simply “Hey!” And before that, “Get your fucking feet off the desk!”; “Get your ass down there and start working!” All of a sudden, I know exactly what to say.

“It’s okay, Bill. You said what you needed to say, and I said what I needed to say.” Not letting go of his hand, I continue, “But I do have a question for you.”

“What’s that?”, he asks. I feel him trying to let go of my hand, but I hold firm.

“What’s my name?”

He stares at me and this time I let his hand go. He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he begins to stammer, “uh..uh…mmmm”

He may have extricated his hand, but I am not letting him off the hook. “You said you have had to speak to me four times in the past few weeks, ending up with a meeting in the foreman’s office last Thursday. But you don’t even know my name.”

“Uh, yeah,” Bill continues, looking extremely uncomfortable. He looks around and spies one of the maintenance workers. “I know his name!” he blurts out.

I follow his gaze. “Of course you do,” I remark. “Everyone knows Spanky.” Spanky is the nickname of the maintenance worker who has a reputation for being a belligerent jackass. “But what’s my name?” I press him.

Completely discombobulated, Bill waves goodbye to me and stalks off. I watch as he heads down the #1 machine in the direction of Laurie. He begins to talk to her, but is far enough away that I cannot hear any of the conversation. Red-faced, he points in my direction as I quickly duck back into the frame of the machine.

Later, I spy Laurie and take the opportunity to walk up and greet her. She just starts laughing and shaking her head. “You! Oh my god! That was priceless!” she howls. I smile. This moment was totally worth the entire six weeks of hell raining down on me from Osterman.

The following day, I am back at the winder performing some maintenance. I see Bill coming up the stairs. He starts to walk in the direction of the paper machine, but then spots me. He changes direction and strides over to me.

“Robert!” he shouts unnecessarily while pointing at me. “Your name is Robert!”

I knew that he had asked Laurie what my name was, but I let it go. “Nobody calls me that, Bill. It’s ‘Bob’ to anyone who knows me. Or if you’re really my friend, you can call me ‘Pugsley’, my nickname here at the mill”, I tell him.

“Bob”, he says to himself as he walks away. “Bob. Bob. Bob.”

Don’t fuck with me. I don’t take shit.

As for my nickname, “Pugsley”, that’s a story for another time.