War & Peace in the Window Factory - Lawrence Farrar

            Not what Tyler Bentley expected. His father’s old university chum, Charles Acton, now the senior vice president at the Midvale Window Corporation, had promised Tyler a summer job. Tyler assumed it would be something in the company’s front office. After all, Tyler was a rising sophomore (class of 1956) at prestigious Wilherst College. Convinced university people held a patent on wisdom, he described himself as committed to the life of the mind. He’d intended to spend the summer reading and, well, thinking about things. He’d applied for the job only to placate his father who had declared it time Tyler “learned to do some real work.”
            A brown-eyed, lanky nineteen-year-old, Tyler convinced himself that puffing on a pipe enhanced his contemplative image. He was bright but lazy and self-centered. In fact, conceit embraced him like an intimate friend. The only physical activity he’d counted on for the summer had been a few sets of tennis at the Club. So, when the personnel officer phoned to offer him a laborer’s job on the factory floor ‒ a night shift at that ‒ Tyler did not react well. He groused to his father, a physician at the Midvale Family Clinic. “But, Dad, I’m not good with my hands. And I was hoping . . .”
            Seated in his paneled study, Dr. Bentley, a well-knit, middle-aged man, sent his son a spare me look. “You were hoping for something soft where you wouldn’t have to get them dirty.”
            “That’s not true. It’s just that I’d be more suited to being some kind of assistant in the front office.”
            “Look, Tyler. You avoided doing anything last summer. Not this time. A job that makes you sweat a little will do you good. Might even give you a sense of how I started.”
            Oh, God, Tyler thought. That again; the old up from the ranks story. He’d endured the mantra a hundred times.
            “The job is exactly what I asked Charlie to arrange,” his father went on. “Anyway, Tyler, it’s only for twelve weeks. I think you can handle that, don’t you?”
            “I’d planned to read War and Peace.”
            “I’m sure you and Tolstoy can work it out.”

            Tyler maneuvered his Thunderbird into the parking area at 4 p.m. Like denizens of a used car lot, at least 100 beat-up Fords, Chevies, and Oldsmobiles occupied row on row of white-lined spaces. Topped at intervals by rectangular glass skylights, a complex of flat-roofed white buildings lay directly before him. The factory impressed him as bigger, much bigger, than he had anticipated.
            The sky overcast and the air heavy, rain seemed imminent. Jags of lightning scampered across the distant sky. Not an auspicious beginning. Tyler slid out from behind the wheel, slammed the door behind him, and trudged toward the main entrance. Khakis and button-downs had given place to a tee shirt, jeans, and a ball cap. About to step onto a new stage with new actors, Tyler felt his confidence falter. It occurred to him he really didn’t know any blue-collar people. How were you supposed to relate to them, anyway?
            A forty-year-old assistant named Conway ushered Tyler into the personnel office. Tyler eyed the man’s tie, too short and obviously a clip-on. Conway seated him at a table and outlined the company’s organization. He also described the profit-sharing system; unfortunately, summer help didn’t qualify for a share. He then issued Tyler a timecard.
            “Any questions?”
            Tyler suppressed the desire to ask how at his age Conway occupied such a mediocre position. Instead, he said, “Well, I was wondering when I might meet Mr. Acton and the other senior officers.”
            Conway responded with an expression of incredulity. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
            “I just wanted to be certain there wasn’t some mistake about my job, especially about this night shift. I mean that’s when I sleep.”
            “The plant has two shifts now during the busy season. That’s why we take on extra workers. Four to 12:30, that’s it. Bring your card. I’ll show you where to punch in.”
            Racks of cards bracketed the time clock near the workers’ entrance. “Best to be on time,” Conway said. “Otherwise, your pay might be docked.”
            Tyler considered the pay of $1.14 an hour laughable, the regimentation represented by the clock to be oppressive.
            “Surprised we don’t have to wear a number,” he said.
            Conway disregarded the sarcasm. “Let’s go meet the foreman.”
            As they stepped onto the factory floor, hot wet air washed over them. And the clattering, whirring, and pounding of the machines, forced the men to stand close to hear each other. To Tyler, it seemed like bedlam.
            The section foreman, Jack Peters, was a tall man with slicked-back black hair and thin, unsmiling lips. Outfitted in dark blue work pants and shirt, he mumbled a brief greeting. “You’ll be an assistant on a sanding machine. We expect a day’s work for a day’s pay. No clowning around.  Do your job, and you’ll be okay. Oh, yeah. Two ten-minute breaks and twenty-five minutes for your meal.”
            Tyler experienced another surge of unease. “But what am I supposed to . . .?”
            “Gus will explain. Come with me.”
            “Who’s Gus?”
            “Guy you’ll be working with. Over there behind the sanding machine.”
            Tyler had never encountered, never imagined, such a machine. With a green metal housing, the contrivance measured six feet wide and twelve feet long. It loomed before him like a giant box, topped with large tubes that funneled away the dust it generated. The machine featured waist-high openings at opposite ends. At one end, the operator fed partially finished wooden frames onto a conveyor belt that passed through the machine. At the other end the helper, soon to be Tyler, retrieved the sanded frames and stacked them onto wooden pallets.
            Gus spotted them, shut off the power, and emerged from behind the sander. A man who’d been helping him raised a hand and sauntered away.
            Gus was a short, compact man, and Tyler thought, old, old enough to be my grandfather. Gray-haired and gray-eyed, he squinted through heavy lensed spectacles perched atop a battered nose. His face was deep-lined and worn-looking, like weathered wood. His hands, too, looked worn; his nails chipped and dirty. He had on bib overalls, a denim shirt, and thick-soled work shoes. When he spoke, Tyler detected a hint of “the old country,” maybe Germany. He could only be, Tyler surmised, an uneducated man.
            “Ain’t much to it,” Gus said. “You just stack ‘em up and some fella comes by with a forklift or hand cart and hauls ‘em away. Button right there if you must stop the belt.”
            “You mean I start right now?”
            “What did you think? Time’s awastin.’ We’re goin’ for jackpot.”
            “Didn’t that personnel fella tell you? We’re doin’ piecework. Get extra credit for anything over the eight-hour quota. Limit is ten and a half hours. They put a cap on her so people don’t get beat down tryin’ for more. Anyhow, ten and a half hours; that’s jackpot. You’ll get the hang of it.”
            And so, it began. The frames just kept coming as Gus fed them into the machine.  No sooner had Tyler retrieved one and placed it on a growing pile than another appeared. His shirt soaked through with perspiration, his hands reddened, his shoulders ached, and he needed a trip to the bathroom. The machine, it seemed, possessed a limitless appetite. For that matter, as the frames appeared one after another, Tyler thought Gus himself must be a machine. Like the Chaplain character in Modern Times, Tyler felt overwhelmed, struggling to keep up. At long last, break time provided a respite.
            Tyler trailed Gus to the toilet, the urinal a long metal trough with slow running water. Malodorous open stalls lined the wall behind them. And grey metal sinks lined another wall. Badly lit, the place lacked soap and towels. It repelled Tyler.
            “You done alright for the first time,” Gus said while they stood relieving themselves. “But you’re gonna have to pick up the pace if we’re gonna make jackpot.”
            As the night dragged on, Tyler fell into a mindless rhythm. Grasp. lift, pivot, step, stack, pivot, step, grasp, lift. To his chagrin, he’d been assigned a job that required absolutely no thought; one of repetitive drudgery. So much for the life of the mind.
            At the meal break, Gus disappeared, and Tyler wandered out onto to a loading dock. Legs extended before him, he slumped down against a wall nibbling a roast beef sandwich he’d brought along in a paper bag. A railroad siding paralleled the back of the plant. Beyond the track, the Excelsior River flowed by in the darkness. Tyler savored a faint breeze as he watched men loading boxed windows into freight cars. Lightning still illuminated the distant sky.
            That night Tyler made his way to his car, convinced this had been his first and last shift at the factory. When he arrived home twenty minutes later, he collapsed into bed without a shower. Exhausted, he slept until mid-day.

            He’d decided not to go back. “Just not for me,” he said when he wandered into the kitchen in early afternoon.
            His father, home for lunch, looked up from his mixed salad and said simply, “You’re going back.”
            And back he went.  About to leave the house Tyler glanced at the stack of books he’d set aside for summer reading. War and Peace topped the pile. Impulsively he picked it up and carried it with him to his second day on the job.
            Once more the frames came at him in a fast-flowing torrent, but he managed the stream, determined not let old Gus show him up. And, while he occupied himself with mind games, he became increasingly conscious of his surroundings. Everything ‒ walls, pillars, floor ‒ painted light green or grey. Forklifts shuttled here and there under the glare of overhead fluorescents, and individual machines acquired distinct voices. His muscles hurt, and sweat dripped into his eyes. He wallowed in self-pity. But while he toiled at his machine, he conjured up a strategy to relieve the tedium. Tolstoy awaited him.
            When the lunch break came, he searched out a corner, settled on the floor, and opened his book. He’d set himself a task. Every night, even during short breaks, he would immerse himself in the book. He could in this way not only defeat the boredom but engage his brain. He intended to work his way through the book, or as much of it as he could, during his summer at the factory.
            He’d been reading for five minutes when a punch press operator, also on break, approached and hovered over him. Mostly bald and with a pinched face, the middle-aged man said, “I’m Willie Kirk.” When Tyler lifted his eyes, like a self-appointed inquisitor, the man said, “What are you reading?”
            “War and Peace.”
            “Never heard of it. What’s it about?”
            “Well, I’ve just started. But it’s about Russia during the Napoleonic era.”
            “Better not let the bosses catch you reading that.” Kirk looked at him suspiciously.
            “Why not?”
            “They don’t want no communist stuff here.”
            “But it’s not . . .”
            “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The man stalked off, shaking his head.
            Ten minutes later a heavy-set nailer from the window assembly section stopped. “You reading a book?”
            “Yes.” It seemed obvious.
            “Because I hope it’s interesting and . . .” About to say because I wanted to keep my mind engaged, Tyler thought better of it. “Just passing time.”
            “I got other things to do myself,” the man said. “I mean I can go out on the dock and get in two, even three, smokes. You can’t smoke in here, you know?”
            During the nights that followed, Tyler sensed the factory hands marked him as a kind of curiosity.  During breaks, instead of napping, or eating, or smoking, or just sitting, he buried himself in his book.
            In a Saturday phone conversation with a school friend, Tyler described the workers’ reactions to his absorption with Natasha, Pierre, and Prince Andre. “These factory workers aren’t exactly intellectuals.”
            “You don’t say?” his friend said, derision lacing his voice. They both laughed. Yet, oddly it seemed, Tyler felt his laughter somehow diminished him.
            As nights went by, the job proved even more demanding than Tyler had envisioned it. He ached in places he didn’t know he could have aches. And he disliked the hours; he found himself on the way to work when his friends were headed home or preparing for an evening out. And his hands smarted from small, embedded splinters. He decided to wear gloves, even if his workmates might consider him a wimp. He suspected they probably did, anyway ‒ the kid who always had his nose in a damn book, the uppity college boy whose dad had connections.
            And then the quality control inspector introduced himself. “Name’s Phil Hogdson. I’m the quality control man.”  He had a raspy voice, and he peered at Tyler with candid dislike. Tyler soon learned two things. One: the man always carried a clipboard; it served him like a badge of office. The second thing: the other men despised him. Hogdson liked to show up unannounced, and he delighted in finding shortcomings in people’s work. He even commented on the way Tyler stacked frames on the pallets. “Could tip over, you know.”
            Shortly after Tyler’s first encounter with Hogdson, a barrel-chested farmer who worked a nearby drill press punched Tyler on the arm and said, “Hey, kid don’t worry about that bastard. Used to be one of us ‘til he got to be a big shot.” Tyler wondered if don’t worry kid meant he’d found a kind of acceptance from some of his co-workers, an occurrence he’d believed unlikely.
            Mulling this question, he realized he didn’t know these men. What did they think about all evening? Maybe they dreamed. Maybe they didn’t think about anything. The moments of their existence seemed empty. As Tyler saw it, hopes blasted, in a haze of despondency, they worked like automatons. Maybe they’d had no hopes to begin with.
            Nonetheless, Tyler wanted their acceptance. He couldn’t have articulated it, but while the life of the mind might be noble and uplifting, there also had to be a life of the spirit, a life of being a human among humans. Why he felt this desire for affinity puzzled him. After all, in his view, the lives of these men had little significance. Yet he wanted them to accept him. Perhaps it was human nature. He was more of a social animal than he’d realized.

            From time-to-time Tyler put down the book, escaped the plant’s choking atmosphere, and went out on the dock. When he did, he invariably encountered Phil Woodley, a window assembler. Woodley delivered a patter of unrelieved criticism of the bosses and the unfairness of their work environment.
            “They don’t just give a guy a chance,” he said. “I’ve gotta get out of here.”
            “I guess if there’s anybody that’s got it in for the brass, it’s you,” Tyler said.
            “Ya got that right, buddy.”
            Then, not even a week later, Tyler ran into Phil near a drying room. “You’re looking pretty happy tonight,” Tyler said. The man rarely smiled.
            “Hey, guess what? I got promoted to sub-foreman. Gotta make sure people do their job right.”
            “I thought you didn’t go for the supervisors,” Tyler said.
            “Well, I guess I was wrong. They got their reasons. Just have to see things the way they do.”
            He sang from a different sheet of music now that he’d become a supervisor himself. So much for getting away; so much for deeply held views. Apparently, it didn’t take much to change somebody’s mind.
            Whatever they thought about him, Tyler’s reading on breaks continued to intrigue his workmates. They didn’t say much, just looked at him with sidelong glances when they went by.
            One night, however, while Tyler hunkered down on the concrete floor reading, a gaunt-looking window assembler sidled up to him.
            “Still reading, huh?”
            The man’s eyes traveled to a faded photo of three scantily clad women fastened to the pillar above Tyler’s head. Such photos and calendars festooned posts and walls throughout the plant.
            The assembler addressed Tyler in a smarmy manner. “Got any good parts in that book?”
            “Good parts?”
            “You know.” The man’s eyes traveled again to the photo. “Some of the guys thought maybe that was why you’re reading this . . .”
            Tyler smiled. “Nope. Lots of good parts. But not the kind you’re thinking.”
            The man’s face displayed disappointment. “Well, I was just kind of wondering.” Who knew what libidinous fantasies motivated his question? He started to walk away, then pivoted and said, “I guess then maybe you’re just showing off.” Not everyone had accepted Tyler.
            Yet there was also the evening Lenny Bartlett, a freckled and crew-cut young man from Midvale approached him. Two or three years ahead of Tyler, he’d dropped out of high school and marched straight to work at the factory.
            “It seems like every time I see you, you’re reading that book,” Lenny said. “Is it hard?”
            “Not too hard. Just kind of long and complicated. Lots of characters.”
            “I read quite a bit myself. I like to read, mostly at home, though. Guys here would think I was weird if I read here.”
            “Do they think I’m weird?”
            “Some do. Some think you’re standoffish.”
            “I don’t mean to be.”
            “I think they’re just green. Because you’re something they aren’t.” Then, as if part of the same thought, he said, “I wish I could read a book like that. I’m kind of stuck on Westerns and detective stories.”
            “I could loan you some books if you’d like.”
            “Maybe for now you could just tell me the story.”
            “Sure, I can try. At least as far as I’ve gone. How about tomorrow?”
            Lenny’s curiosity drew Tyler’s attention. Tyler began to realize he’d underestimated the people with whom he spent those night shifts. They weren’t all unthinking automatons. At least some of them had curious and active minds. But they’d become trapped in what he reckoned to be a dead-end life.
            It disappointed Tyler that Lenny never came back. If Lenny were to stay in the factory, Tyler thought, the guy’s curiosity and interest would over time be stifled, and he’d end up like the lifers, stumbling along in a haze of hopeless despondency. For the first time, it soaked in as to just how fortunate a life Tyler led. More than once it struck him, he probably offended them. It was not anything he said or did. Likely his very existence, his very persona, disturbed them. He belonged to a world of possibility and mobility. They did not. On further reflection, it also occurred to him he might be on an ego trip; they couldn’t really care less about him, one way or another.
            Sometimes he wondered how the workers did it. Repetitive brain-numbing tasks, over and over. He could handle it for a few more weeks.  But could he do it for twenty or thirty more years? When he went out the door at summer’s end, they’d still be there; still doing the same things.
            One night, coming back from a trip to the water fountain, Tyler passed a work area where assemblers faced each other across a hydraulic press. Here one worker extracted putty from a specially designed extruder and squeezed the gooey stuff into grooved wood rails that formed the sash. They placed the rails into the press, inserted a pre-cut glass sheet, and activated the press to seal the glass in place. Then, the men set nails in each corner of the frame. If they lacked precision, their hammers smashed through the glass. A wooden box provided a repository for shards. Tyler perceived the operation, like most others in the plant, as demanding and mind-numbingly repetitive.
            On this evening, however, loud voices flagged Tyler’s attention. Someone called out, Putty fight! Putty fight! The men were laughing, ducking, and flinging wads of putty at each other and at passers-by. Now, these normally impassive assemblers behaved like kids throwing spitballs in a classroom. Tyler recognized that the job really did get to them from time to time.
             “They’re just letting off steam,” Gus said when Tyler told him what he’d witnessed. “Sometimes you just gotta let go. Best not to let the inspector see them, though.”
            Kind of pathetic. But, on reflection, Tyler decided in their place he’d probably have fired a few rounds of putty himself.
            Such antics were the exception. Most of the time the workers labored steadily, indeed, relentlessly. Jackpot. Sand more sashes. Jackpot. Punch more holes. Jackpot. Set more nails. Jackpot. If you worked hard enough and fast enough you could tally it every night. The men just kept going.
            Sometimes Gus grumbled and scratched, but he never said much. Of course, over the whirring and grinding of the sander they couldn’t communicate anyway. Tyler might just as well have tried shouting into a jet engine. Once in a while, however, Gus and Tyler took their meal break together. And Gus opened up a bit. He even teased Tyler. “Man ought to have a real lunch bucket and thermos, not a little paper bag like the one you got there, Tyler. And you outta drink black coffee. It’ll put hair on your chest.”
            Tyler just grinned. A strange measure of manliness, he thought. But he went out and purchased a bucket the next day. And a thermos, even though he detested coffee.
            When Gus did open up, he exhibited understated pride in his job. “Been here nearly thirty-five years,” he said. “Never missed work except that one time I had pneumonia and that other time I got my hand stuck in the sander.” That answered one question. Tyler had been reluctant to ask about the missing finger.
            Tyler had another question. “I don’t see any women here,” Tyler said. “How come?”
            “Man’s work. There was some of them here during the war. But when the boys come home, the girls went back to keep house. Just the way it is. Man’s work.” Gus subscribed to the prevailing view.
            There had been no people like Gus in Tyler’s classes at Wilherst. Tyler’s father had indeed steered him into another world.
            One night near summer’s end, Tyler said to Gus, “How do you and the other men put up with the routine? I mean doing the same thing over and over. Don’t the younger men at least want other jobs? To do something else?”
            Gus drilled him with a look of disdain. “It’s the hand we’re dealt. It’s honest work. Tyler, you sound like you still got a case of the swelled head.”
            Tyler wished he’d kept his mouth shut. “I didn’t mean . . .” He wasn’t sure what he meant; but whatever it was, it didn’t come across well.”
            “Some folks are more favored, some are luckier. That don’t make them better; just remember that.”
            Tyler kept slogging away through War and Peace, but he also worked his tail off on the job. If he had to be a robot, a robot he would be. And he relished his workmates’ recognition on the rare occasions they deigned to extend it. He was not sure why; it made no difference in the grand scheme of things. Still, he paced himself and when his shift ended, he yelled, “Jackpot” before anyone else. He grinned when Gus said, “You done good tonight, Tyler.”
            As summer neared its end, Tyler had only managed about 400 pages of the novel. People occasionally still asked, “What’s the use of reading something like that? Is it gonna make you rich?” He began to wonder himself why he read on. At the same time, he knew that, at least from some of the guys, he’d earned a kind of respect, if nothing else, for his willingness to stick with it.
            Despite those earlier efforts to insulate himself willy-nilly, he’d become caught up in the workaday world around him. His one-time inclination to show disdain and mock them had over time morphed into empathy for these men who dealt uncomplainingly with a dreary, physically demanding life; a life for most of them with no wonderful end in sight.
            Reluctant to admit it, he admired their toughness and resilience. In those first weeks, he’d considered himself too good for them; now he wondered if he was good enough. He realized values and standards different than his animated them. But he had taken on board the notion they were just that ‒ different. They deserved respect.
            The summer ended hard for Tyler because it ended hard for Gus. Many of the men in the plant were farmers. They’d work on their places during the day, then drive forty or fifty miles to the factory for the night shift. Tyler frequently saw the exhaustion in the eyes of these sleep-starved men. How did they keep it up? As it turned out, sometimes they didn’t.
            At the beginning of Tyler’s last Monday shift Gus had a troubled look on his face.
            “Did you hear about Ed Spaulding?” he asked.
            “No.” Ed assembled casement windows.
            “Run off the road heading home to his place up north Friday night. Hit a tree. They say he hadn’t had much sleep all week. Probably dozed off.”
            “That’s bad news.” Tyler didn’t know what else to say. Spaulding was an old timer like Gus.
            “Good worker, you know. Him and his son was milking fifteen or twenty cows.” His voice loaded with deference; Gus showed a serious face. “When it come to hitting jackpot, he was one of the best. Yes, sir.” Gus paused. “Been here a long time. Him and me started out together.”
            Things like that had importance for Gus and the others. Tyler had considered Spaulding a yokel. Now he felt guilty. He’d missed the sense of camaraderie, the long-term friendships, and the shared experiences. He’d missed a lot. Tyler hadn’t thought about these men having lives outside the factory. He knew nothing of their families or of their children. He didn’t even know if Gus was married. But he sure as hell had grasped one thing; Gus had feelings.
            On the afternoon of Tyler’s last shift, Jack Peters told him he had invitation to stop by the front office. “Mr. Acton says he’d like to ask you how the job went.”
            “Okay, but I better check with Gus first. Don’t want him to miss out on a jackpot.”
            When Tyler mentioned the invitation, Gus said, “Of course, you gotta do it. He give you the job, for Christ’s sakes. And he’s a friend of your old man.”
            “But what about tonight’s run?”
            “Don’t you worry. New fella is already here. Name is Bartlett. Lenny Bartlett.”
            “Guess this will be it then,” Tyler said.
            “Yeah, guess so. I’ll be watchin’ the paper; for when you do something famous.”
            Tyler studied his shoes and then haltingly extended his hand. “Well, see you around.”
             “You done good, Tyler. You’re still kind a full of yourself. But you ain’t such a smart ass like you was when you come. You done good.”
            Tyler relished the words. Yes, sir. He’d done good. Tolstoy could wait a while longer.

Lawrence Farrar served multiple diplomatic tours in Japan, Europe, and Washington, DC.  Government assignments also took him to thirty-five other countries. He says, “I spent a lot of time climbing in and out of airplanes in places I’d never heard of growing up in Minnesota. I have stories to share, so I’m writing.” Recent pieces appeared in Main Street Rag, Blue Lake Review, Evening Street Review, and Haunted Waters (Splash). For a sampler, click on https://www.northoakswriter.com. Farrar is a member of a cadre of Foreign Service “Japan Hands.” He lived in Japan as a graduate student and as a naval officer. Not surprisingly, many of his ninety published stories have a Japan connection. He adds, “I am especially drawn to stories of people who find themselves encountering the cultural norms of a foreign society.” Farrar and his wife, Keiko, live in Minnesota where he is a member of The Loft Literary Center.