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This volatile memoir from Doug Crandell weaves a darkly comic and thoroughly heartbreaking coming-of-age tale set in 1990 as the author is about to graduate from college. With very few job prospects and in need of tuition money, he joins his father working at a ceiling tile factory in tiny Lagro, Indiana. As his father moves headlong into a midlife crisis—complete with a bad toupee and a penchant for drinking on the job—Crandell’s mother struggles with depression and talks in the third person as ...
This volatile memoir from Doug Crandell weaves a darkly comic and thoroughly heartbreaking coming-of-age tale set in 1990 as the author is about to graduate from college. With very few job prospects and in need of tuition money, he joins his father working at a ceiling tile factory in tiny Lagro, Indiana. As his father moves headlong into a midlife crisis—complete with a bad toupee and a penchant for drinking on the job—Crandell’s mother struggles with depression and talks in the third person as she manages a fast-food joint, where she compels her crew to dress in homemade costumes. As the author struggles to finish his degree, he also fights the urge to stay where he is and end up a “lifer” like his father. But before long, the monotonous work takes its toll on Crandell, making him realize just how similar he and his dad are. From their joint substance abuse to their feelings about the coworkers they watch buried from asbestosis, the Crandell men struggle to find a way to communicate. This powerful book explores themes of modern manhood, hope, and the power of labor to bring together workers, families, and even macho men.
It was the end of my first full day on the job. The time clock in the break room ticked midnight, making it June 5, 1990. A line of men stood fiddling with their punch cards, flicking them against dirty-legged Dickies, while others used them to fan themselves. One man named Ronald, whose wrinkled skin hung like soft leather from his face, used the corner of his time card to clean between his few teeth. I tried to act like I wasn't looking for my dad, but I turned slowly around in line to try and spot him. Carl, my dad's best friend, entered the break room, nodding at me, his short little body outfitted in work clothes fit for an adolescent. Someone asked him if the twins were going to swim all summer and he smiled and nodded. "Can't keep 'em out of that pool." He was proud of that fact, and that he'd been able to build them a place to cool off on his grain farm. Like my dad had done before we lost our farm, Carl worked both the factory and the farm, and paid heavily for it.
My father was nowhere to be found. I hadn't spent much time with him since my grandmother's funeral almost six months earlier. At the wake, I'd hoped to see him crying, broken down, needing a son to lift him up and provide some love, but he stood stoically by the casket, not a trace of emotion in hiseyes. I'd hugged him and he stuffed a twenty-dollar bill into my shirt pocket. Since then I'd talked to him on the phone, but that was always just a formality, after I'd spoken with my mother about what I was eating or how the weather was at school in Muncie, just an hour away from them.
The time clock rattled with a metallic buzz, and one by one the third-shift men shoved their cards into the metal box bolted to the wall and carried themselves and their lunch boxes out the door to the parking lot. I could hear the engines of Impalas, Rams, and El Caminos revving up and peeling out the front gates as I waited alone on a bench in the break room for my dad. He was my ride home.
The motors on the greasy vending machines whirled as the time clock ticked fifteen after midnight. Finally, the rear door of the break room opened and my dad walked in. At first, I couldn't determine what was different. He didn't speak as he plunked a quarter into the coffee machine, and then waited for the paper cup to drop and fill with black. I stared at his head. He always wore a finely starched farmer's cap, usually one with a seed corn company name on it, on his bald head. Now, his cap looked fuller, more substantial. A thick crop of gray hair rested above his ears, and he had bangs. It was stiff and unnatural to be certain, but there it was, sticking out from his cap: a maladjusted toupee, shyly waiting for the right moment to be unveiled.
My dad gingerly escorted his steaming cup of coffee to the bench, careful not to spill a drop. He brought it to his lips and blew slightly over the rim. I ogled his new possession as he sat down, not looking at me. I took my eyes from his head momentarily to look at his burly hand cradling the cup. Nicks split the skin on his knuckles, and light brown spots pocked his broad fingers. My eyes soon strayed back to that head, to the poorly configured hairpiece that couldn't have shocked me more had it been alive, which, with its grayish bristles and mousy texture, it almost appeared to be-surely a member of the rodent family. I was about to say something about it, but, perhaps sensing it, he said, "You've got to keep your eye on the overtime roster, son." He slurped his coffee, making a sound like a zipper coming up. His steel-toed boots were laced as usual, the long brown cords strung through each eyelet and crisscrossed at the top from one gold clasp to the other, the extra length wrapped around the back. Mine, the same standard-issue boots from the factory's prisonlike supply room, were loosely tied and very new, not worn and beaten-up like his.
"If you don't sign up every day on the clipboard, Doug, you won't get the extra shifts. It's in the contract. The foreman can't call you if your name isn't on it. You've got to sign that sheet every day."
I felt like a failure. I still had one class to complete to graduate from Ball State University, and moving back home to take the factory job meant I hadn't made it on my own. But the union pay was good, and I had student loans to repay.
"Did you hear what I said?" My father looked at me, searching for any sign I'd understood. I nodded.
He took a braver drink of the coffee and brushed some filaments of rock wool from his pants. The stuff looked like slightly toasted cotton candy. It came out of 2,600-degree cupolas that heated a mixture of coke and limestone rock and spun it into fibers that were then rolled into gigantic heaps. The factory was covered with the stuff. It clung to everything, dangling in the nooks and crannies, hanging along the exposed pipes, and sticking between every concrete block and board slat. The fibers acted like nearly invisible filaments of glass, creating small pimples if brushed into bare skin, itching like poison ivy in the heat, and causing rashes and ill tempers. My father, who'd worked in the factory for twenty years by the time I started there, rarely carried rock wool on his pressed blue jeans, Carhartt jacket, or work shirts. He kept his clothes tidy.
The men working the next shift-from midnight until 8:00 A.M.-had been clocked in for more than half an hour when my dad finally stood up and adjusted his cap. The toupee seemed to be sewn to the cap itself, the whole thing moving as one piece.
"Come on," he said in a monotone, as if any change in inflection might cause Mr. Toupee to lose his footing and slip, along with the cap, off his head and onto the scuffed linoleum floor. I didn't ask where we were going as I trailed behind him. We plodded along the eerie factory floor, the metal machines lurking in a steaming haze.
The first shift carried a skeleton crew made up of men who either had been demoted to such an owl-like existence by lipping off to management, or simply preferred to work late-night hours. As I followed my dad, we passed men working on jobs named A-car and B-car, gel makeup, paper operator, paint booth man, and simple maintenance. Each of the workers briefly stopped and tipped their heads at my dad, and a couple of them gave him the thumbs-up. Their required safety glasses, the ones I wore like a dork, were absent.
Finally, after walking the factory floor for a block or so, my dad opened a door leading down a cold hallway. It was air-conditioned, unlike the rest of the boiling-hot factory. We made our way into a cramped office. Here the tile orders were processed and loaded onto the waiting semis that throttled like long, red-eyed behemoths in the darkness off the crumbling docks. My dad's counterpart, the man who was to perform his job from midnight until the sun rose over the glassy lagoon next to the rear of the factory, was nowhere in sight.
"Sit down," my dad instructed. The cool air made my body shiver; it had to be fifty degrees in the office. Later, I'd find out what a luxury the air conditioning was, like the privileges of an extended break or bidding on the best jobs. I sat down in a steel chair, its padded seat all but gone. I looked around and noticed something right away: there wasn't any rock wool clinging to anything inside the tiny office. It had been swept clean. The scent of pine cleanser hung in the cold air. The ashtray on the desk was spotless, serving as a heavy glass paperweight on top of a stack of transport bills. My dad switched on the desk lamp, opened the drawer at his knees, and pulled out two pencils sharpened to perfection. He inspected them nonetheless and handed me one. "Pull your chair over here," he said, a look of concentration on his face. For the next twenty minutes, he showed me a mock-up of the sheet used to get the coveted overtime. He used his big forefinger to direct my attention to the blank spaces where I was to write my name, and showed me which boxes to check to ensure the optimal conditions for being called in. It was a complex system that had been hammered out by the union and management a year earlier in the contract negotiations that blistered up every three years, causing the men in ties and the men in work clothes to angrily debate and fight for advantage. I tried to listen carefully, to grasp the nuances of how the system worked-its flaws and how to beat the odds to get the desirable overtime pay-but I was at a loss. He was about to ask me if I had any questions when the phone on the desk rang. My father's hand shot across the desk and he plucked the receiver from the cradle before it could ring again.
"Hi," he said into the phone. "Yes. Sounds good." His voice was intimate, yet more formal than when talking with my mother. I sat next to him, chilled to the bone. I'd only been living back at home for a week, and during that time the same kind of enigmatic calls arrived at the house. Sometimes, when my mother answered, whoever was on the other end hung up, leaving her staring at the receiver, the dial tone crackling, her eyes filled with hurt. Now, my dad hung up the phone with precision and began to fold the sheet we'd been studying into a neat square. It was approaching 1:00 A.M. He stood and handed the cube of paper to me.
"You take the car home. I've got another eight to pull here." He seemed as fresh as if starting a new morning. "Why?" I asked. He smirked a little and patted me on the back as I stood. "Son, you better get it into your head now about grabbing these extra shifts when you can." With that, he opened the door to the office as if dismissing me from an interview.
I stood, not wanting to leave. Why had he gotten a toupee? Why couldn't we talk about my grandmother's death? I tucked the sheet I was to study into my back pocket and started to walk down the tiny hall. Through a small window I could see my father working at the desk, carefully preparing the paperwork that the trucker who sat idling in the dark outside needed. I stopped and stared in at my dad. That toupee. It signaled something. I sensed in him a brokenness, a hardship he could not find words for, or at least not words he was willing to use.
* * *
Between 1985 and 1989 my father lost both of his parents and a farm. He was forced to auction off the household items and farm implements his own father and mother had used all their lives. At a court hearing to determine his bankruptcy status, a county circuit court judge had him take the stand. At the end of the judge's questioning about income and various debtors, he had my father stand up. "Take out your wallet, Mr. Crandell," he said. My dad handed his wallet to the bailiff, who handed it to a clerk. She rummaged through it and passed it back through the chain to my father as if it were a bucket of water ushered along a fire brigade. The clerk took a piece of paper to the judge and handed it up to him. He read it while my father stood in the witness box. "Let the records show Mr. Crandell has seven dollars on his person." My father slowly put his wallet away and was ordered to leave the stand. Out in the courthouse lobby, other tired and foreclosed farmers sat in threadbare jackets, smelling of dried manure and diesel fuel. Many had already taken jobs at convenience stores or had broken out their musty suits from twenty years before to try and hawk insurance. My dad hadn't been able to depend on just farming to support his family for almost fifteen years by the time he took the stand; he had the factory job and he felt fortunate, but that also meant he'd be required to pay as many of his debts as possible, leaving just enough to get by.
* * *
I continued to spy on him through the window. He was back on the phone, smiling.
In 1981, when I was thirteen years old, some factory men helped my dad build me a basketball court. The sweaty workers smoothed the concrete with flat shovels, pushing the slick gray mixture into spots that were uneven. I watched their strong, dark arms, roped with oddly shaped muscles, pulse in the heat. When the men were around, their hairy bodies pushing and pulling and lifting, it never failed to make me feel inadequate. My own string-bean arms were blindingly pale, and I couldn't imagine having anything other than my hairless, concave chest or smooth, weak legs.
The summer sun baked us as the towering stalks of corn across from the court rustled their leaves like great, upright grasshoppers rubbing their legs together. The corn silk gave off the spicy, tangy smell of growth and made me think of my father's aftershave. The men had come to the farm as a favor to my father, who was revered for helping out his fellow union men and their families. He'd work extra shifts so a union buddy would have the money for a child who needed an important operation. He'd volunteer to work in place of a man who'd forgotten a special anniversary or birthday celebration so the guy could attend. He would even act as a lay therapist, listening to men's problems and giving them advice. But I wouldn't be privy to those stories about my dad for years. Now, as I followed the men scrambling to keep the cement from setting up, I knew only that my father and I had a secret, and it made me feel more like a man now that he had trusted me with his confidence. The thing we'd hidden, already buried under two tons of sand and a layer of flat steel bars, was being covered over with wet cement.
The last churning truck backed up to dump the final load of cement into the farthest corner of what would be a half-court playing surface. I was going to learn to be the next Kent Benson, an Indiana University basketball icon my father greatly admired. How I would manage to grow Benson's sideburns was something I hadn't figured out yet; my face was absent any beard except a few little hairs I sometimes confused with lint in the mirror of my bedroom.
The men worked close together and the heat was stifling; the scent of Ivory soap only slightly masked the body odor wafting around their saggy jeans. Ass cracks were visible everywhere, and I assumed part of being a man was to expose your flat butt some. But mine was round and ample, and my jeans were tight, not droopy. Carl, a short man with stubby legs, yanked and pulled on a long harness attached to a smoothing board, creating a gleaming finish to the final section of the court. Carl had worked with my dad forever, both on the farm and at the factory. I remember when I first found out he wasn't part of our family, it was a shock; all those years I had just assumed he was related to us.
My dad said, "Doug, go get us some of your mother's tea. Bring the whole jug out here." I imagined myself in an apron as one of the men teased me. "Yeah, Dougie, be a good girl and go get us something to drink." My dad ignored it, as he smoothed a section of concrete so expertly that it looked like murky glass. I returned lugging the iced tea with a stack of plastic cups under my arm. I passed around the cups and my dad poured each man a portion of the cold tea. I ran back to the house and brought out the sugar. Some men spooned in the glittery stuff as others simply gulped down the tea, sweat and tea staining dark spots on their shirts. I drank a hearty gulp as well, the taste bitter without the sugar I normally used and would've added had I not been in the men's presence. Jerry, a guy who scared me with his crazy eyes and comments about women's private parts, pulled a bottle from his hip pocket and started to pour a good stiff swig into his tea. He was six-foot-two and missing a few front teeth due to a couple of accidents at the factory. His forearms sported a jungle of tattoos. When he came to our house, he covered the tattoo on his right bicep of a curvaceous nude woman with a thick thatch of pubic hair, her face sad, her carmine lips parted as if to confess an unbearable truth. I'd seen her once and she was beautiful. It was the other ones that scared me, the skeleton on a black motorcycle going down in flames, or the letters on his knuckles that spelled out hate and love in faltering black ink.
My father had scolded Jerry in the past for his language, and now he gave him a tight-lipped glare. I caught the look and knew it was intended to keep me from seeing a man drinking during the day. On a few occasions, I'd seen my dad sip a beer or even have a mixed drink, but for the most part, he kept his family shielded from the sight of men drinking.
Jerry quickly tucked the nearly empty bottle back into his frayed jeans pocket and, attempting a diversion, raised his cup to toast, his wooly, matted-down underarm hair in full view. "Here's to Doug playing for IU!" I was self-conscious and acted as if I were still drinking my iced tea, faking swallows, keeping the glass to my lips. The basketball court was perfect, and I was eager to play on it, but more than anything, I was thrilled to have done a secret deed with my father.
Excerpted from The All-American Industrial Motel by Doug Crandell Copyright © 2007 by Doug Crandell. Excerpted by permission.
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