Home on Transition

My brothers and I recently began a road trip which will take us from northern New Jersey to New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle, and back before the end of the summer. I have a few purposes in keeping a blog going during the trip, not least of all that it’s lots of fun, but also to keep interested friends and family in the know and to keep me writing. However most people who know me are aware of and often annoyed by my aversion to or at least general ineptitude for digital communications. Things like texting, emails, snapchat, and now, blogging. I’ve kept a journal with thoughts for this blog running for going on two weeks and also for several weeks leading up to the trip but in typical fashion haven’t posted any of it until now. Ain’t nobody got time to read all that at once – and this trip also frequently and deliciously involves periods of little to no cell or internet service, which contributes to the backlog. We’ve been in San Diego now for a few days, so I’ve taken the time to schedule posts on every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for a little while.

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to follow along, and I hope you enjoy reading!

~

After about six weeks at home in Sussex County, it was time to hit the road again. It was an odd transition out of AmeriCorps back to “normal” life and about as soon as I made it I was ready to make another. Home is a beautiful, beautiful place. I love Sussex County, and I love our property, and my family – but I know now is not the time to be a homebody. Now is the time to explore.

So I treated my time at home as an extension of the adventure I knew was coming, or as a bridge between AmeriCorps and this summer road trip. I tried to keep busy as soon as I got back, knowing from experience that the longer I sit still the harder it is to get up. My aunt called me on the road during the last hour of the trip home from Vicksburg and offered me a job at her plant starting in four days, which I worked for three weeks. I spent the next three planning, packing, fixing up my car, spending time with the family and my friends and generally getting ready to leave. But in the meantime and between time I had some interesting experiences, some of which I think are worth sharing.

My job as a temporary maintenance worker at the manufacturing plant in Morris County was to fix up the security guard shack, grind welding beads, and vacuum cobwebs off 20 foot ceilings using a ridiculously long string of shop-vac extensions. I’ve designed parts for manufacture at my previous internships at Hasbro and PCA, and I’ve toured fabrication facilities in Rochester and the Mars Chocolate factory production floor in Hackettstown NJ (once you’ve had hours-old peanut M&M’s, you’ll never be able to eat them out of that crinkly yellow package again) – but I’ve never actually worked in a factory. Arguably I still haven’t, because I didn’t work as molder or production technician, but the experience was still interesting.

My first two weeks or so as a fresh-faced, orange safety vest-clad newbie were spent cleaning, spackling, painting, and generally repairing the cluttered approximately 8×10 foot guard shack and receiving life instruction from the friendly security guard who much to his good-natured chagrin was forced to stay at his post with me and the wonderfully fragrant chemical fumes filling our tiny box during the renovation. I would really love to repeat some of our conversations but I don’t want to get either of us in trouble.

My boss assigned me a veteran employee as a mentor to make sure I had the proper tools and knew what I was doing. I liked just about everyone I spoke with at the company, but I had the good fortune to be assigned to Luigi, who despite my assurance to him that I did in fact “know my ass from my leg” about painting, taught me many things about how to paint like a craftsman at a level above the common laborer. That doesn’t mean I can, because I still have relatively little experience, but I soaked up what I could. Every day was generally a new lesson in some area of construction or life in general, but my favorite was welding. The shop at the plant has a tungsten inert gas welder, or TIG for short. After I finished restoring the guard shack I spent some time grinding down welding beads on some of Luigi’s work before my boss gave him some time to let me play with the machine. Ironically, there’s something magical about entering the world of this icon of modern industry.

After work on the first day I got to use the welder, I sat out on the small second story balcony outside my parents’ room, our family parapet overlooking our tiny fiefdom. As I watched the sun dip into the Great Appalachian Valley, I thought about a different kind of sun – a blaze of ghostly blue light shaping the molten surface of the dark alien landscape a few inches from my visor earlier that day. With hearing aids out and ear-pro in, I explored in eerie silence a mystical plane of existence where light jumped from my finger tips and steel bubbled like butter in a skillet, bending the fibers of reality as wide eyed and beaming under the heavy black mask I suspended my disbelief. Later, sensory deprivation from grimy goggles and earplugs provided just enough disconnection from reality to allow me to slip away into the magic of grinding metal and grit, to shatter and shoot off into space in a burning shower of sparks along with atoms that I imagined lay dormant millions of years before removal, refinement, and a final cataclysmal end beneath a power grinder in an exodus of speed, heat and light of such magnitude as to suffice for the next billion dormant years.

Luigi is a self proclaimed relic of an old world, a period when industry and timeless craft went hand in hand. Born and raised in New Jersey, he fondly remembers attending the same Catholic school I did in its hey-day before its recent closure. He didn’t see a teacher who wasn’t a nun until after the fourth grade.

A former contractor before the industry prospects turned unfavorable, he learned his father’s trade, who learned it from his father before him. He has sprawling family ties and a sense of heritage to cement them (he is a great-great uncle, and at two points in his family history five generations lived concurrently). To hear him talk is insufficient; it’s arguably more a visual experience than auditory. The mid-century Jersey Italian dialect and body language are almost too good to be true. He’d be a perfect caricature if he were not so fiercely intelligent and self aware.

Now in his early sixties, Luigi sports a neatly groomed salt and pepper mustache beneath close cropped, curly black hair that’s just beginning to take on a silver sheen. There are deep creases in the leathery skin on the back of his neck. His face is appropriately weathered with time and experience, but harbors none of the tired resignation of so many working men his age. He moves quickly, fluidly and with purpose. The only outward nod to his physical age is the comical interjection of “ooch, owch, de knees” when he bends with as yet unhindered speed. His most striking features are his hands. Huge for his height, with thick fingers encased in scarred and calloused skin, they are deft and durable tools earned and honed over years of constant use. As I watch him work I imagine I am observing a lifetime of physical wisdom in motion as plaster, wood, stone and metal obey the man’s manual commands in almost reverential deference.

He is confident and demanding, expecting excellence while patiently nurturing growth. He can bitch about management while still taking pride in the often avoidable work their laxity and mindboggling wastefulness frequently mandates. As we bustle about the plant he’ll bullshit with the guys and smoothly compliment a lady in interjections between tales of Canadian fishing adventures, motorcycle crashes, and unfathomable incompetence. He understands the science behind everything from oxidation and electrically nonconductive impurities to the expansion of galaxies and spontaneously combustible wood fillers – and he sees God behind it all.

It took me over a week to finish a room he says would’ve taken him two days – and I believe him – but he says I have a touch for welding. I very much enjoyed my brief sojourn under his tutelage and I hope he did too. Before I left I did manage to explain to him some of the magic of one of the few tools I know better than him: computers.

3 thoughts on “Home on Transition”

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