Rheem Manufacturing (1957) by John Laue

After my junior year at The University of California, Berkeley I worked at Rheem Manufacturing Company in Richmond, California for the summer, a job one of my fraternity brothers, a management trainee for that company, got for me. As a floater there I earned five dollars an hour, a generous sum for those days. Rheem made many kinds of metal containers, from quart paint cans to ten thousand gallon water tanks.  Before leaving that place, I worked at almost every station there.

My first job was to shave off metal residue called weld beads around the flanges  (raised rings around holes) in water heater tanks that came down an assembly line, then stack them on the floor so they could be taken to the galvanizing vat.. For this I wielded a pneumatic chisel, a tool like a miniature jackhammer. The metal on metal process made such a racket that the earplugs I wore barely kept the sound down to manageable levels.

I floated to many other jobs in the factory. Sometimes I’d be on a line for making lids of quart and gallon paint cans. I fed sheets of metal into a large press controlled by a foot pedal. The machine would stamp out circular sections much like a cookie cutter does with dough except it also crimped the edges. If any part of my anatomy got under the press when it descended, it would be stamped out too, so I had to be careful. Workers after my station put the lids on cans and, farther down the line, stacked them in freight cars.

I also had to paint quart and gallon cans, positioning them on a belt, then activating a series of nozzles that would spray them. I wore an apron, mask, and goggles, but by the end of the day these would be coated with paint although I stood behind a barrier most of the time. Like every other job I did for that company, it was terrible for workers’ health. The smell and feel of the paint affected my breathing, sometimes threatened to overwhelm me, but I was young and game for anything. I figured if the regular workers could do the jobs, I could too.

In another messy operation I coated septic tanks with a hot tar mixture. I’d pick them up with an overhead pulley system that slid on a ceiling rail (many of the plant’s jobs used these), dunk them in the black tarry liquid until they were fully coated, then hoist them out. I reached into this mixture with gloves more than once when the hook came undone and I had to reposition it. The tar wasn’t quite hot enough to burn me, but I did get fingernails on one hand coated with the black mixture, a condition that lasted weeks although I tried hard to wash it off.

A fourth job I had was pounding barrel hoops flat (they came out of the manufacturing process askew) and fitting them around steel barrels. For this I had a large sledge hammer. It took no brain power, but a sturdy pair of arms and a good aim. The job frustrated me because unless the hoops were pounded perfectly round and could lay flat on the floor, the barrels wouldn’t take them.

After that I worked on another part of the barrel line. Before they had lids, I dipped the barrels in hot galvanize, then pulled them out of that bath, and lowered them onto a slanting set of rails positioned so these cylinders could roll down to the floor. My job was to guide them to the end of that process. I had to stand with a large wooden stick (the barrels were too hot to touch), and make sure they rode to the floor without incident. For this I wore gloves. Luckily, I didn’t get burned, but at home, when I took off my heavy work shoes, I noticed holes in the leather where hot metal had dripped.

I was also involved in manufacturing giant tanks. This was with large, square sheets of thick metal with holes bored in one edge. My job was to hook unto the holes, hoist them up, put them through a gadget in the ceiling that curved them until the two ends came together. These were later welded into huge cylinders, three of which would be put together to make ten thousand gallon tanks. Before the tank ends were welded on, the worst job in the factory (by my reckoning) was done. Men stood inside the giant cylinders, and struck them with large mallets to dislodge weld residue. The cylinders acted as sounding boards, so this could be heard a half mile away–and the men were standing inside them!

The bits of weld residue that accumulated from many of these jobs were salvaged and put back into the galvanize mixture. Men would sweep these up, add them to a machine which shook them, letting dust and other fine particles from the floor fall through a screen. I saw that the way this was being done wasted much of the fragments. I got the idea to put them through twice and recover almost twice as much valuable metal. I experimented with doing it this way and it worked, so I went to the foreman who oversaw that job, but he just shined me on.

I had another job in the manufacture of water heater tanks that almost turned out to be disastrous. I’d hook on to the tanks through holes, using a pulley and roller in the ceiling, raise them, then lower them into an acid bath. When they were suitably coated, I’d raise them again, lower them into the next vat, a water bath, to neutralize the acid left on them. After that, I’d raise, then lower them into a liquid metal mixture of about 700 degrees Fahrenheit. This required that I make sure all the water had drained out of the tanks before they went into the galvanizer bath. If water hit the hot metal, an explosion would occur.

The foreman who explained the job to me somehow left out this part (or I didn’t hear it). One of the first tanks I put into the galvanizer bath blew hot metal over everything nearby. Fortunately, no one got burned, but it could have been a tragedy; I found out later that the year before, when this had happened, it had sent two men to the hospital

Before I left, I became quite popular with the men. To break the monotony I played a few jokes. In one I got them to think a tedious job of stacking water heater tanks for a large order was finished when there were still many to go (I’d hidden the others behind a machine). They groaned and grumbled, but were good sports about it.

The best joke I pulled there (and one of my best ever) was when several of us were having lunch just outside the building. We weren’t in love with eating in the company cafeteria, especially because one of the men, who I privately called Pigpen (after the Peanuts comic strip character), smelled so bad, and was so gross with hacking and hocking, it caused some of us to lose our appetites. Shorty, a foreman with a reputation as a bullshitter, was holding forth.

Shorty: Last year me and Jeff went up the Rocky Mountains to hunt bear. We was climbin out of a ravine when we saw a big un. I bet that bear was ten feet tall when he stood up, but we wasn’t close enough to get a shot at him. He seen us and scooted out a there like lightnin. I never saw a bear move that fast in my life.

 Me: One of my best buddies went to the Rockies to hunt bear. A big one came out of the bushes just a few feet from him. He tried to shoot it but his gun jammed. That bear chased him a while, then got him up against a tree. My buddy thought he was a goner, but he got an idea, reached down, grabbed the bear’s dick, and jacked him off. And you know what—that bear didn’t even chase him, just laid down with a smile on his face!.

 There was a long pause. The one of the men said, He’s funin us!, and they all burst out laughing.

After that every time some of those men would pass my station, they’d pump their hands like jacking off a bear.

I liked my time at the factory. It gave me a chance to earn enough money to go back to school at U. C. Berkeley. Though I made no long-term friends there, I learned how to fit in with a group of working class white men (I don’t recall even a single black although many lived in that city). That added to my confidence later when as a liquor store clerk, teacher, and driving instructor I had to deal with all segments of society.

The jobs I had in that factory went from marginally to drastically unsafe, but I got through them without serious problems, a feat that gave me confidence in my ability to follow instructions and watch out for myself. I felt sorry for the men who did those jobs day in day out until something went wrong and they were injured or sickened. I’d read about coal miners in West Virginia suffering similar fates.

The plight of these workers caused me to become a member of three more unions (I’d already been in the Musicians Union), even be a founding member of one for driving instructors. I suspect most of what the men did back then has now been replaced by robots, thus cheapening their labor even more. We’re seeing situations in this era where the few working people left with jobs never get raises while managers and officers at the top increase their salaries and benefits exponentially. I see serious problems on the horizon unless something’s done to reduce the amount of inequality. .

John Laue, a former teacher, editor of Transfer, and Associate Editor of San Francisco Review, has six published books of poetry to his credit plus one of prose, The Columns of Joel Mobius, a guide for people with psychiatric diagnoses. Besides editing The Monterey Poetry Review, an on-line journal, and coordinating a long-running reading series for The Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium,he has served as Co-Chair of the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board.