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Thursday, 07 February
Run Of The Mill

The first couple years I was in college, I would come home in the summers. I had two jobs waiting for me those years: one was doing p-line surveying for the Forest Service (don't ask--it's more boring than public television), and the other was doing the clean-up shift at the local sawmill. That was once a week, on Saturday mornings. Occasionally, as I was told by Gary, the foreman. "Occasionally I'll call you for some help," Gary told me when we first met. "It probably won't be every Saturday."

It was every Saturday. Every fucking Saturday at six AM the phone would ring, and Gary's funereal voice would march implacably down the phone lines, through the receiver and into my ear, where it would then start brushing its voice-teeth with steel wool right there in my fucking ear canal. If it sounds deranged and kind of complicated, remember that it was SIX AM ON A SATURDAY.

"Skot. Need ya today," he'd invariably say. Now the voice was taking a bone saw to its voice-ankles. "I'm pretty tired, Gary," I'd say every time.

"I'm fuckin' tired too," Gary would reply flatly. "Tough old world. Need ya today." Then he'd patiently wait while I hopped up and down silently, waving the phone around in a fury. He knew I wouldn't hang up or snap back, because Gary had that quiet sort of demeanor that had a tendency to scare the living shit out of everybody.

"All right, I'll be there in half an hour," I'd always say. "See you in a few," Gary would say, and hang up, and as the phone line clicked into silence, his voice would die in my ear and start to rot there, macerating my brain with its fetid echo.

The Bible tells us that God rested on the seventh day, and I can tell you why: it's because on the sixth day, the exhausted Motherfucker had to clean out His divine sawmill. He looked at this enormous fucking building, the Silver City's stinking, clanking, yammering machinery, littered with animal shavings, shattered soul-fragments, discarded jackalopes, an entire room filled with excess night, etc. etc., and He thought: Fuck.

Cleaning up a sawmill is not without its excitement. For one, there's the unavoidable fact that not all of the machinery is shut down when it's being cleaned, so there's always the off chance of being sucked into some shrieking geartoothed leviathan. Or there's an even better chance that one of the (exhausted, idiotic) burnouts that you work with will simply turn on a machine at the wrong time, such as when you're standing on it. Or in it. That's what happened to a fellow known only as Jerry, who some years ago was cleaning the innards of some gigantic piece of infernal destruction--I've long forgotten the names of most of these things--when someone for unclear reasons turned it on. The device in question resembled a six-foot tall mixing bowl, and had two-foot long metal blades that whirled at the bottom, and that's how the legendary Jerry was turned into tapioca one lonely Saturday afternoon while the horrified workers unlucky enough to be present were treated to the unforgettable sight of Jerry's upper torso bouncing merrily and leglessy above the rim of the death bowl until someone unscrambled his nerves long enough to shut the man-mixer off.

So there was a certain brain-tingling sense of adventure when one found himself wedging himself into the narrow space between two four-foot tall circular blades to brush the conveyor belt free of sawdust. I got jobs like that because I was skinny, or so I was told. A darker voice inside my head told me, It's because they hate you and they are going to turn you into thinly-sliced chum. Which may have been true, but I was not murdered, probably because everyone realized that someone would just have to go in afterwards and clean all the me out of the blades.

The debarker was another crowd favorite. The debarker is just what it sounds like: it's a giant structure that violently bullies all the bark off of logs before they enter the sawmill. It's so giant, of course, that it is outside. Which further means that cleaning the thing means climbing around on the thing clearing it of enormous strips of bark. Which further means that the task becomes exponentially more horrible when the bark happens to be soaking wet, which it always was, because the powers that were always decided that the debarker needed to be cleaned right after a punishing rainstorm--or, better, during a punishing rainstorm.

I never did see someone turned to a paste at the sawmill, but I did see one unfortunate fellow take a slip on the wet debarker chain and have one of the sharpened cleats that grab the logs go right into his ass; he howled like silverback and wriggled while we all stared at him until someone vaguely in charge told us to "unstick that boy." It was horrifying, to be sure, but slightly mitigated in my mind by the convenient fact that I thought the guy was an asshole anyway.

But really, the job was mostly dreary. Mountains of sawdust that needed moving from here to there; tiny little flywheels bearded with filaments of wood that needed brushing; magnetic plates on conveyors that needed clearing lest nails, spikes, wristwatches or severed boot-clad feet gum up the valuable sawblades. The dreaded Saturdays were, if truth be told, hated mostly for their endless grey tedium and numbing ennui, only occasionally shot through with electrifying moments of grave, pointless and stupid bodily damage. Sort of like a Uwe Boll film, but with shovels.

After my second summer of this nonsense, I told Gary that I'd had enough; the next year I wouldn't be coming back home. He chewed his mustache for a moment, regarding me with unsurprise.

"Well, that's too bad. You were a pretty good worker, even if you are a dinky little shit," he said. I regarded this as high praise. "You could really get in those tight spots 'tween the blades," he continued with a sigh. I felt the previous compliment shrivel up a bit as his voice shimmied up my brainstem and started doing a hornpipe on my medulla; I wanted to get the fuck out of there and go home and shower for six days and be done with the place.

"Well," he said, readying his final benediction to me. "You won't believe me now, but you're going to miss this job some day." Now the voice was doing half-pipe stunts in the buttcrack of my brain that leads down to the corpus callosum, and getting some pretty sweet air.

"You ain't never gonna have another job that gives you so much wood," he deadpanned.

Gary's been dead for years after succumbing to a typically awful and futile bout with cancer, but his voice lives on inside my head to this day.

Right now it's singing "Sussudio."

Note: Comments are closed on old entries.


That which doesn't kill you, gives you endless wood. Apparently.

Note to self...

Comment number: 016852   Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' on February 8, 2008 06:43 AM from IP:

My brother worked in a sawmill when he was 20 (about twenty years ago). A machine was clogged with debris so they stopped it and while he was clearing it out someone, somewhere else in the mill, turned it back on. Imagine your hand going between a bicycle chain and the cog (?) that it hooks on to cycle thru. Times the size of that chain and cog by several hundred and you have a sawmill conveyer chain. There was plastic surgery involved and now he has a few gnarly fingers to wave at my kids and freak them it actually worked out pretty well.

A friend worked at Pizza Haven at Northgate Mall in the 80's. His hand went thru the pizza dough roller and got stuck at his wrist. Apparently the fire department has wrenches as well of hoses so they were able to take the machine apart to rescue him after an hour or so.

Comment number: 016855   Posted by: kb on February 8, 2008 06:52 PM from IP:

"I was not murdered, probably because everyone realized that someone would just have to go in afterwards and clean all the me out of the blades."
That is one of the most profound and hilarious sentences I've ever read.

Comment number: 016858   Posted by: Barb on February 9, 2008 08:42 AM from IP:

Let me guess. In college you were also captain of the javelin catching team.

Comment number: 016862   Posted by: Lung the Younger on February 11, 2008 12:54 AM from IP:

My first boyfriend was missing his left thumb from a mill accident. I didn't even notice until he told me.

Comment number: 016888   Posted by: Susan on February 14, 2008 12:42 PM from IP:

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