At Butler Mfg, a long time ago...

by Terry Hogan

Back in the mid-1960s, Butler Manufacturing in Galesburg did a wonderful thing for college students, while also helping itself. It offered summer jobs for college students -- great for college students. It offered them jobs at less pay than regular, full-time employees -- great for Butler. Except for one summer when I worked in the transportation department, which was a surprisingly challenging job, most others were hot, noisy, and repetitive and mostly mind numbing. In later years, I was even allowed to work at Butlers during winter break, so then the work was mostly cold, noisy, and repetitive and mind numbing. However, it provided a income that was better than about any other in the Galesburg area for a summer job -- around $2.25/hr, as I recall. It also provided me the opportunity to meet some interesting folks that I would have never otherwise met. For both the job opportunities and the opportunity to meet a few characters, I thank Butlers, perhaps a little untimely.

My first summer at Butlers I worked in the carpenter shop, a ''labor grade 4''. Who knows, perhaps Butler still uses that system? One of the full-time, long time employees of Butlers and the carpentry shop was a WWII veteran. He not only saw a lot of time in Europe, but he saw it from within the confines of a tank. Further, he was, according to department lore, in the Battle of the Bulge, and lost two or three tanks. Although he apparently suffered no significant physical harm, he did not always cope well with the sound of the pneumatic nail guns we used. They were loud, with a banging noise. At times, he would stop in mid-whatever, and mentally go somewhere else. While he was ''gone'' his body would not move- arm frozen in time, stopped in the middle of some task. He might be gone a minute or two, sometimes longer. He never offered an explanation. We never asked, nor did we know if he knew that he'd been somewhere else for a while. We were told the'''whys'' and told to simply leave him alone. We did, and he always came back from wherever he went. (No traumatic shock syndrome back then)

However, before you paint him into too much sainthood, I must say that he was probably the most prejudiced person I ever met, as far as Mexicans were concerned. I don't know why, I just know he had absolutely nothing good to say about Mexicans. However, being partly college educated and therefore liberal and know-it-alls, at that point, we could not leave this bias unscratched. By ''we'', I mean that I had the good fortune of working with another young summer college employee whom I had known from high school days.

We hatched a plan. We knew this WWII veteran and anti-Mexican had an attractive daughter who was a few years younger than us. He had shown us her photograph once. He was proud of his daughter. We also knew that he and his family lived in a little settlement that had a name, but was just a few houses at the intersection of a couple of county roads. So during a lunch break, my friend and I started talking about this young, pretty girl who we saw hanging out with an older-looking Mexican. We described the older guy as looking like a ''no-account'' and the girl as young and bright and pretty, but looking for trouble, apparently. Of course, our fellow worker's bias caused him to listen in to our conversation. We tried to recall her name, but could not, but we both agreed that she lived at or near (you guessed it). His face got red, but not a word was said to us. I suspect an innocent daughter, or at least innocent of one accused event, had a rough night. It really didn't turn out like we expected, but we weren't inclined to ''fess up'' after we'd gone that far.

One winter break I worked with a young guy about my age, but who was a full-time employee at Butler. He lived in a small town miles from Galesburg and had a substantial drive every day. The winter driving was doubly hard for him. First, he had only one car, and it was a Jaguar- the small sporty black convertible type. These are not known for their winter handling abilities, especially where snowdrifts are involved. Second, it seems that sometime back, when the roads were clear, he was driving at an excessive speed and wind got under the convertible top. The wind lifted the top up off the windshield frame and bent all the metal structures that were designed to support the raising and lowering of the top. It had to be removed. The parts had to be special ordered from England and they had not arrived by winter. Thus, my friend would arrive at Butlers daily, a little before 7 AM, in the dark, in the bitter cold, and sometimes snow. A black Jaguar, top down, driven by what appeared to be an Eskimo, parka up and closed down as tight as possible. He was doing this when I started my winter vacation work, and was still doing it when I left to return to college after the first of the New Year. It was a high price to pay for a Jaguar.

I spent another summer working in the same carpenter shop and the veteran was still there. He still had his peculiar breaks in activity, and it was still being handled the same way. However, this summer, I worked mostly with a guy whom I had only known slightly in high school (he was a couple of years older, and this makes all the difference). He was a full-time employee and had all the markings of planning to make it his lifetime profession. He was married and he was taking an after-work welding course at Butler in the hopes of becoming qualified for a welding job that paid more than the carpenter shop. Although the work was a little more complex than what I had started at, it was not overly taxing. Monkeys probably could have been trained to do the work, and probably would have been happier doing it, and therefore probably would have been better employees. (And would work for peanuts!). Anyway, we were hammering 20-penny nails by hand (too big for nail guns). To break the monotony, we decided to see how few hammer strokes it would take to drive a 20-penny nail flush into the hard yellow pine boards. (For those who are not well versed in the world of nails, a 20-penny nail is a little smaller than a railroad spike. I jest, but only a little). We would sit, straddling the board we were nailing, tap the nail once, to set it, and then swing with great force to drive it through the hard, yellow pine wood. He was much bigger and stronger than me, so I had little to loose, if I lost the contest. He- well that was a different story. He'd never live it down. We were repeatedly tying- a tap, and then two strokes with the hammer. With a trace of frustration, he tapped a new nail, firmly gripped the hammer in both hands to get more force, and reared back to drive the nail home. Instead, he planted the claw of the hammer into his own scalp. It was not a bad injury, but it did bleed to the point that he couldn't hide it. It was hilarious, and the end to the contest.

I worked part of one summer in the punch press shop. Excluding the foreman, the best paid job in the department belonged to the setup man. He was the one who had the job of reading the engineering drawings and arranging the size and location of the punches for the press. This would insure that when the press was put into operation, holes would be punched in the right size, shape, and location in the heavy steel plates. He had done the job for years, and made reasonable money for it. But he had paid a price in terms of lost fingers over the years. He wasn't mad at Butlers. He was mad at the Workmen's Compensation Law. About once a week he'd lecture us'''college boys'' about the unfairness of the law that set the ''going rate for body parts''. He'd wave a hand in our faces and point at all or part of a missing digit. He'd say, ''Would you sell half of your little finger for $1,200? That's what they pay for it. Do you think that's fair? Do ya? Well would you sell yours for $1,200? It ain't right!''

That's where I learned the truth that this particular law was to protect the employer and not the employee. The price was set and that was that. Barring unusual circumstances, the employee had little other recourse. I guess he thought that'''us college boys'' would be able to make it right. I don't believe we have.

One of the worst jobs I had was at the end of a paint line. The job consisted of nothing more than standing, waiting for a large piece of steel to come out of the oven, having red paint being baked on. My job, and the job of my partner, was to each grab hold of an end of the piece of steel and lift it off the steel rollers and onto a wagon. We then would place a few narrow strips of plywood on the steel, which was not completely dry. The purpose of the plywood strips was to minimize steel-to-steel contact so that the next piece would not get ''glued'' to the first by drying tacky paint. We became so bored that we began a contest to see how many layers of plywood strips we could stack across the tops of our head and then by force of our hands, break them (like breaking a tree branch across your kneeŠonly using your head for a knee). Such was the degree of boredom.

When I was finishing up at Knox, I signed up for a job interview with a well-known chewing gum company that had a history with Knox. I really had no plans on taking a job, as I was facing two years of military duty, but I thought the interview practice might be good. The company representative was young. After the normal chitchat, and review of my rather limited resume, he posed a question: ''I see that you earned most of your college money by working at Butler Manufacturing Company. What did you learn from this experience?''

Like a darn fool kid, full of ''book-learnin'' and no worldly experience, I did the worst possible thing for a job interview. I gave an honest answer. I said ''I learned that I didn't want to work all my life at Butlers.''

I didn't get a job offer. But if he'd spent a few summers and winters of trying to adjust from ''book learnin'' to simple, repetitive tasks, and back again, perhaps he would have appreciated the nuances of the answer.

I learned that work comes in many forms. I could work hard on farms, get dirty, smelly, etc., but the hardest work for me was the mind-numbing repetitive tasks. It was a good place to work, and the ''regulars'' were pretty tolerant of ''us college kids''. Like one ''old timer'' told me -- ''You young college kids come for a few months and then leave and go back to school. We have our lives here.''

That's what I learned.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 2, 2002

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