by Mike Doyle
This story was written in the summer of 1975 when I worked very briefly for the Rosamond Woollen Company, a textile mill in Almonte. The mill was in operation from 1867 until the early 1980’s. I was 32 years old. Names have been changed.
First day at work. A new job for me at the textile mill slinging man-made fibers around. I am coming into the old stone mill, at least 100 years old, old hardwood floors with the knots rising up from the wear, tongue and groove ceilings in the place, and four men sitting in their usual spots, before this 4 to 12 shift. One, Des, sits on a large cardboard box filled with feedbags, a comfortable spot for him. Two more on the workbench, one on a short step-stool and me on a small oil drum beside him. Des is tall and lanky. Just a shadow of a mustache above his full lips, tight curly hair framing an angular face with wide-set eyes. He speaks loudly, has a ready laugh, and lots of confidence. I wonder where it comes from.
Later with Des at the beginning of the process, ready to be trained.
“See, this is a scale, up to 100 pounds. Here’s markers at 20 and 40, and the rest is 60. We got 3 fibers, you throw 20 pounds of the first, 20 of the second, and 60 of the third into this box, watching the scale all the time.” He starts throwing them in, first fiber goes to 30, second to 60, and he takes a load of the other that brings the needle right around and over the hundred. He pulls a lever, doors open on the bottom of the weigh scale box, and the fibers plummet to a moving belt. The doors are cranked up, hiding them from sight. More throwing, more levers dropping fibers, until the belt is full.
“You’re an expert already”, he quips. “If a foreman asks you how much you throw in at once, tell him 12 pounds.”
Later at break time the conversation turns to a discussion of the weight of the bales. If we have more weight in each finished bale we’ll make more money. Des suggests to just record more weight than there really is. “But we can’t be over too much because they know the weight that we started out with.”
“But what about the oil and water that’s added in the last run — surely that will give us more weight?” Some more discussion about the weight of the oil and water that’s added to the fibers. And then Des, “Listen, if you got a wheel barrow full of sand and you add a pail full of water to it, it’ll get awful heavy. I bet you won’t be able to lift it. The water runs in through all the sand and sort of spreads out. The total weight is more after than the water and the sand were before.”
Des comes in Monday morning, down the hall, through the opening in the end into our section of the mill, straight out past the boys waiting to start their shift, and out the back door with the walk leading out over the falls smashing down through the rocks, green with age, and throws up. Back in immediately to sit with us as usual. A little white, but an old hand at it. Part of the weekend.
And Des, right through the week, always smoking in the window, or throwing fibers in the hopper behind the picker instead of the feeder, more jokes, limericks and TV ads, more love stories, and good ones too, and him sleeping in one of the back storage rooms while we work, and the tender talks with Des about his youth on the farm with his 12 brothers and sisters, and the father that provided for them, and how he has beaten up our foreman at least twice, and would have run over him if it hadn’t been for his girlfriend pulling the steering wheel to one side.
Sitting down to lunch with Des. “You one of them people that don’t eat meat?”
“No. I eat meat, but not much of it. Not fussy about it to be honest with you.”
“I don’t know how a person can do without a good hunk of beef at supper. I remember at home we used to get meat at every meal. And there was 17 of us at that table. 13 of us kids, my mother and father, a hired hand, and a roomer. We’d all sit down there and there’d be a couple or 3 big roasts, lots of potatoes, carrots, turnips and peas, fresh cow’s milk, and pie for dessert. I remember that roomer. He used to go to bed with nothin’ on.
“Not that there’s anything special about that today y’know, but in them days it was unusual. I was about 6 and had heard about this from one of my brothers, so we used to wait outside his door in the morning until he woke up, and we would stand there and watch him get out of bed to see if he had any underwear on or not. But he knew we were there y’know, and he would pull the covers around him and jump out of bed into his trousers so fast that none of us were ever really sure. He didn’t care whether we saw him or not – it was like a game he played with us. Man that guy was fast gettin’ out of bed.”
Feeling different driving home from work. The streets are empty, feeling lonely, just me and the headlights cutting through the night. Turning out the headlights, ahhh, feeling better now. The full moon gives all the trees and roadside weeds a colourless, shadowed glow and looking is a pleasure. Somewhere in the back of my mind a small doubt arises about driving without my lights. I turn them on. Always a reservation whatever I do.
Thinking about the time I was mixing cement and added water to the sand and how heavy it felt.