Author: Cornish, Rick

The Rock
A week from today I’ll be sixty years old, but I swear I’m a nineteen-year-old kid trapped in a downwardly spiraling body. In many ways I still think like a nineteen year old, though a little bit wiser, have the same tastes, though a trifle less extravagant, the same sense of humor with maybe a little more understanding of the irony that makes things funny. And fortunately, it seems that the older I get, the easier it is to slip back in time, slip back to nineteen, to nine, to junior high wood shop. It’s like I grew up, hit adulthood, and in order to make a living and raise a family without distractions, I just sort of put the first twenty years of my life in archive. Now, with two grown boys and the freedom that comes from working not because you have to but because you want to, the files so carefully catalogued come tumbling out with just the slightest provocation.

Take this morning; barreling down the foothills to a work day in the flatlands, I listened to a Chinese peasant’s account of the terrible pollution being caused by the huge Three Gorges Reservoir nearly completed on the Yangtze River. Through a translator the poor fisherman described in agonizing detail the yellow sludge being pumped into the new body of water by a chemical plant. Not accidentally escaping from the plant; methodically and aggressively being PUMPED into the river.

And in a nanosecond I am whisked away to the jarring racket of a jack-hammer engaged in mortal conflict with a forty inch thick slab of concrete, nine feet wide, about thirty feet long and straddling a little creek with just a trickle of sulfur smelling water. I lean hard into the bucking hammer and let go a tumult of blows, each opening a new but ever so slight fissure in the ‘Rock’. That’s what we call it even though it doesn’t look like a rock. But it was hard as a rock and stubborn as a rock and on that hot afternoon in June of 1967 the Rock seems to taunt, ‘Are you kidding? Move me from where I’ve lain for forty years? You chumps must be out of your mind.’

I let go the handles of the jackhammer and it bumps a last sputter and goes silent. My ears ring and my hands tingle like they’re wired to a car battery.

“Okay, Doyle, all yours.” My partner moves in and begins removing the chunks of slab I’ve broken up. He heaves each piece into a small, iron dumpster next to the demolition. I light a cigarette, sit down in the shade and look westward, beyond the salt flats, across the San Francisco Bay, at the purplish coastal mountains above San Mateo.

“I don’t get this. I just don’t get it. It almost seems like they’re having us do this just to have us do something. Something back breaking. And did you get the expression on Moe’s face when I asked him why we were removing a buried monolith of concrete and re-bar in the middle of nowhere?”

Doyle looks over his shoulder at me and then spits on the ground.

“Let go of it, man. Just let go of it. What the f___ difference does it make, anyways. They could have us doing this, or that, or any other damned thing, and you know what, that’s what we’d be doing; exactly what we were told to do. Just let go of it.”

Doyle had been right. It was the first week in July and I’d be there until the third week in August and it really didn’t make any difference what they had me doing—jack hammering, digging a ditch, stacking palettes, cleaning silos. It just didn’t matter. I would work eight exhausting hours per day for nine weeks, I’d take the money, (very good money for a nineteen year old in the late sixties), and I’d high tail it back to college. Nine weeks out of my life, not big deal even then? (Now barely and instant.)

Doyle was a different case altogether. I’d snapped up the high paying summer job at FMC’s Chemical Division, in Newark because I knew it was a quick in-and-out way to make tuition money. Doyle Mc Ginty, a year younger than me, was there for the long haul. He’d begun working at the plant a year before and would be working there long after I’d returned to San Jose State. Doyle was tall, buff, a very good-looking guy with shoulder-length hair tied in a pony-tail, many rough edges and a good ol’ boy, a party-hearty dude. He used poor grammar, thought reading was for sissies but although a high school dropout, there was nothing stupid about my partner; he lacked book learning and was proud of it.

“Okay,” he grinned, “your turn, Hug.” (Hug was the nickname I was given the very first day I came to work at FMC-ChemD. Short for tree-hugging hippie environmentalist…’s true, term ‘tree-hugger’ goes at least that far back.)

And so it went for the next two weeks—hammer, clean up, hammer, clean up. And then the next day, we’d switch. Doyle would handle the jackhammer and I’d toss the concrete remnants into the dumpster. Very slow going, despite the fact that we were both hard workers. Three feet of solid concrete is, well, three feet of concrete.

One mid-morning about two weeks into the combat with the Rock, our supervisor, Moe Avila, drove his golf cart out to the isolated spot where Doyle and I were working. Moe waited till my jack hammering went silent and then said, “Come on, boys, hop on. We’ve got somethin’ real special for you.” Moe grinned a sadist’s smile, I shuddered but Doyle, in pure McGinty style, spit and said, “Sure, whatever.”

“Moe,” I asked as we headed back toward the main part of the plant, “would this special something have anything to do with the silo’s?” I knew about the dreaded silos.

“Guess we’ll just have to wait and see about that, won’t we Huggey?” Though not what you’d call an intellectual by any stretch, Doyle clearly didn’t hold my ‘college-boy’ status against me; his reaction ranged somewhere between indifference to mild curiosity. Moe, on the other hand, most assuredly did. A short, stout Portuguese man in his late 50’s who’d spent the past 30 years moving up the corporate ladder from ditch-digger/jack hammerer like Doyle and me to supervisor of ditch-diggers/jack hammerers with beat up old golf cart, clearly had no use for a coddled college boy, especially one whose dad had helped wrangle the summer job at excellent union wages. (My pop had worked at the plant since before I was born; he was a maintenance man and a Class A welder. While it was true he’d helped me get the job, ‘getting your kid on at the plant’ for a summer was pretty much a tradition there. Moe knew that, but there was something about my returning to college in the fall that rubbed him the wrong way.)

Sure enough, Moe Avila drove us straight through and into the opposite end of the plant to the South Silo complex, a series of six fifty-five foot steel silos used for storing calcite and feldspar, the two abrasives used for the production of industrial cleansers manufactured by FMC-ChemD.

“Jack says you two have three days, starting tomorrow, to scrub one through six. All of ‘em are empty, or will be by tomorrow. That’s two a day. On Friday we’ll have three rail cars coming in to fill ‘em, so you got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Jack’ll be here first thing Friday morning to inspect ‘em. Got it?”

“Got it, Moe-Man. Where’s our stuff?” Doyle knew the drill. He’d dangled his turn the summer before. And now it was my turn, and Moe loved it.

Moe pointed to a corrugated shack next to Silo One. Doyle jumped out, walked over to the shack and immediately started throwing our equipment out. Leather harness, respirator, goggles and a shovel……everything we’d need to scrape off the inside walls of six fifty-five foot silos. I felt sick.

Doyle and I ate our lunch together everyday, outside, on the porch, not in the lunch room with the regular, older guys. (In most respect, my partner and I were light years away: he the tough guy, the bad dude, the fighter; me the the college boy, the tree-hugger, the literature major who’d never been in a fight his entire life. But in a
Posted:  1/11/2008

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