18 January 2011

The Arkansas Boys

The following is the second of two excerpts from Paul Clemens’s Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, an account of the last days of the Budd Company stamping plant on Detroit’s East Side. Punching Out will be published by Random House on January 18, 2011. Read our first excerpt from the book.

There were still places in Detroit that respected working-class culture. The Arkansas Boys’ pickups could be seen, most lunchtimes, in the parking lot of the Texas Bar, about a mile southeast of the Budd plant on Kercheval. The bar’s demographics contrasted strongly with those of the surrounding area. In one of the bar’s front windows, near the door, was a handwritten cardboard sign:

No Public Restroom or Telephone’s. No—Bum’s. No—Hooker’s. No—Thieve’s. No—Selling of Anything. We Do Call the Police.

The lunch special at the Texas was a cheeseburger, fries, and beer for $5.50. I asked the barmaid, on a snowy Friday in February, to substitute a Coke for the beer. I might well have asked for water instead of wine at Canaan. Despite its being a Friday during Lent, I ate the burger, having already forgone the beer. I was waiting on the arrival of the Arkansas Boys—whom, despite months of observing, I’d spoken to only in small snatches. Our dialogues had been nothing to write home about, or even write in my notebook about.

There was honky-tonk on the stereo. A woman down at the end of the bar was holding court. She was in her forties and fat, with a terrific memory for song lyrics. In between laments, she sang along. “I know my kids are bad,” she said, “but I don’t need no one to tell me they’re bad. I don’t like my children sometimes, but I love ’em. I had my first child at nineteen. I’m going to get drunk,” she said, for some reason employing the future tense.

Behind the bar were stickers: “Union Roofers Local 149.” “Proud to Be a Union Sheet Metal Worker.” St. Patrick’s Day was six weeks away, and behind the bar, too, were one-dollar shamrocks that had been sold on behalf of Jerry’s Kids. After purchase, the donor signed his name or that of his organization, and the shamrock was taped up. “From the Heart of _______ Comes a Shamrock to Help Fight Muscular Dystro- phy.” Local 58 had bought a shamrock. Local 299 had bought a shamrock. So had several individuals, though some used pseudonyms. I doubted the existence of Dr. Felter Snatch.

By the time the Arkansas Boys had walked into the bar and seated themselves at a table, I’d lost my nerve to approach them. This was their habitat, not mine, and I was out of my depth, sipping my Coke. I continued to observe their work from a distance, as I had for months.

My next close brush with the Razorbacks came a couple weeks later, when Arkansas Dave pulled up on the scale alongside Eddie’s shack. It was nowhere near quitting time, but Arkansas Dave said that they were going home to the motel “to do laundry and shit.” Dave said that they’d come in around 10:00 the next day, a Sunday, to drop the side columns in 9-line. After they’d pulled away, Eddie said that they were angry that they didn’t have any lights down in the pits. “Bring a flashlight,” Eddie said he’d told them.

“‘Do what you have to do to get the job done.’ They know we have no electricity. I don’t have a charge card. I can’t just send them out for whatever they want.”

The majority of the plant’s power had gone out in mid-January. Generators and floodlights had been brought in, and Eddie and Guy, as management, would often go around at lunchtime, turning off the lights to keep down costs—parents following after forgetful kids. The lights would click off in this part of the plant, then that, with Budd looking more and more like a movie studio where filming had stopped.

I arrived at the plant around 11:30 on Sunday, hoping to see the Arkansans. When I walked into the press shop, I didn’t see a soul. The fire in the basket above 2-line was nearly out— a clue in itself as to how many people might be about. The Budd plant must have been one of the few places on earth where fire’s presence or absence was still a predictor of human habitation. In the absence of people, the barrel and basket fires resembled the smoldering remains of a sacked village.

In the distance, down by the base of 9-line, I saw the flames of a fire barrel that was serving as the furnace for the Arkansas Boys—who, good as their word, were working to drop the side columns of the line’s fourth press. Three fire extinguishers were by the fire barrel to prevent freezing. Their pickups—a 2005 Chevy, a silver Ford F-150, and a white Ford F-150—were parked nearby. Shafts of sunlight came in from the coated windows above, producing something of the effect of stained glass.

Their task for the day wasn’t a big deal, rigging-wise, which was just as well, since it gave us time to talk. They were at the rough midpoint of what Matt Sanders called “unstacking” the press. Its crown and ram had been removed. They were, now, working on the columns. After that, they’d pull the bolster, then the base, and that’d be that: another press down.

Jeremy was atop the left column of 9-4. Dave and Josh were down in the pit, the darkness of which Dave had complained about the day before, where Dave was torching off a nut. Terry senior and Terry junior controlled the P&H overhead crane, above us in Bay 5, with the pendant controller that dangled down. I stood next to them. Father and son had a habit of sticking their gloved hands into the barrel fire, both to warm their hands up and to burn the grease from their gloves.

“They heated it,” Terry senior said, explaining their problems with the stubborn nut. Heating it had caused it to expand, and “they” were some guys on the crew who weren’t from Arkansas and who, as a result, didn’t have the slightest idea what the hell they were doing. Dave knew damn well what he was doing down there. I asked the two Terrys how big the nut was that Dave was cutting. They both extended their arms in a circle, as if making to pick up a big dog. They figured it weighed three hundred pounds.

As we waited, Terry junior provided me quick biographical sketches of the Razorback crew. He himself was 18, from Atkins, Arkansas, and was sending some of the money he earned in Detroit back home to his grandfather. With the money he kept, he wanted to buy a truck or a “crotch rocket”—a motorcycle. I said a truck was more practical. “A bike is cheaper on gas,” he said.

So far, he’d gotten a thousand dollars’ worth of tattoos done in Detroit; he showed me a picture on his cell phone of the tattoo he had done on his upper back. He’d also bought a TV/DVD player for his dad’s Ford F-150. He considered this an investment in the future, as he thought that he might want to buy the truck from his father. He’d started at Budd back in September or October—couldn’t recall exactly. At the moment, he was waiting on Dave to cut the nut so that, with the overhead crane, he and his dad could pull the tie-rods that ran the length of the press’s columns.

Jeremy, atop the columns to handle the hookup between rod and crane, was 20 and from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Dave, in his forties, was from Cabot, Arkansas, but now lived in Indiana. Josh, down below, was 21, looked 12, and was also from Fort Smith. The women in the plant, if there’d been any, would have considered him “cute.” He laughed the most, was the quickest to smile, and had curly hair. Terry junior and Jeremy were more withdrawn, intent to learn a craft and draw a check. All three of the kids had started rigging at 18, Terry junior told me.

“After high school?” I asked.

“None of us graduated high school,” Terry junior said. “My old man did, and Dave.” He said he had dropped out in the ninth grade.

“Aren’t you supposed to stay in longer?” I asked.

“Supposed to, I guess, until you’re 16, or whatever.” His main concern was staying in school long enough to get his driver’s license, which somehow he secured. His youth freed him from concerns about future employment. He said his dad “knows everyone in Arkansas. If this goes south, he can always get a job in Arkansas.”

Terry senior, who stood with us near the barrel, didn’t like the weather in Detroit and wanted to go south in the literal sense. He said that it didn’t get this cold in Arkansas—down to the single digits—and that it didn’t stay this cold this long. There might be some freezing rain in Arkansas, he said, but there was nearly no snow. Terry senior had graduated from high school in 1980. When I talked to him up close, it looked as if he had more teeth missing than remaining. He was even leaner than he looked, with prominent cheekbones and a bit of gray in his beard. On his head he always wore a green hood, which looked to be the lining from a racing helmet. None of the Arkansas Boys ever wore hard hats—another of their distinctions.

“This is scrapping,” Terry senior said of the work that they were doing. I said that 9-line wasn’t getting scrapped, but had in fact been bought by Gestamp, the same Spanish auto supplier that had bought 16-line for Mexico. Terry just laughed.

Uli, the German engineer from Müller Weingarten who was overseeing the 16-line and 9-line dismantlings for Gestamp, had been around the plant earlier in the day. Uli—short for Ulrich—had been in Budd since May 2007, back when work on 16-line began. He spent November and December back home, outside Mexico City. “We call Uli ‘Schultz,’ ” Terry senior said. “Sergeant Schultz. Hogan’s Heroes.” For Christmas, he said, “We got Uli a quart of moonshine.”

We looked down into the pit where Dave, an American flag bandanna on his head, was finishing torching the nut off. Josh stood with him in the smoke, oil, and water. When Dave came up from the pit, job done, he explained his technique. “I cussed it more than I cut it,” he said. The nut sat smoking in the grease of the pit, cut in three equal pieces. Dave’s glasses were covered in grease. He wiped them, and said something I couldn’t quite catch about having “the biggest rod and nuts around.”

 


A week or so after Dave’s assertion of rod-and-nut supremacy, he and Jeremy got into a fight in their Macomb County motel. It was probably bound to happen: five grown men living in close proximity in lousy conditions for months on end. Guy Betts told me that Jeremy had gone to jail, but was out now. Whatever the story, Dave’s left eye, swollen and discolored from a right hand, told it.

“How you doing?” I asked him when I saw his shiner.

“Could be better,” he said. “I’m going home. Fuck it.”

By home, Dave meant home, not a Macomb County motel. Terry senior would be dropping Dave off in Indiana while on his own way to Arkansas. This was just a quick vacation, Terry senior told me, not a permanent departure. I was greatly relieved: a Budd plant without the senior Arkansas Boys would be a badly diminished thing.

It was early March. “This might be the ugliest I’ve ever seen the plant look,” I said to Guy. It was cloudy and smoky inside the plant, with fog all over the press shop. I could actually see a cloud line above the pits to 3- and 4-lines. “Be careful walking around,” Guy warned. “Pipes are bursting right and left.” Though it wasn’t a Friday, Terry and Dave were waiting on their paychecks to arrive from the rigging company before departing Detroit on their trip.

While they waited, there was some excitement: the plant was invaded. Two crew members, working by the light of a fire in an area outside the press shop, said they spotted the wannabe crooks sneak past them wearing parkas. Once they knew they’d been spotted, the crooks began to run, and the crew members came into the press shop to sound the alarm.

I asked if the invaders might not have just been guys on the crew.

“No guys on the crew run that fast,” I was told.

Crew members picked up whatever tools were to hand—crowbars, heavy rods, wood boards, big wrenches—and tore ass thataway, into the plant’s darkness. Eddie, who’d been summoned from outside, walked in with a shotgun over his shoulder. I stood by a fire barrel at the base of 8-line with Terry senior and Terry junior. The other two Arkansas youngsters, Jeremy and Josh, had joined the chase, only to return soon thereafter.

“Here comes one dumb ass,” Terry junior said, seeing Jeremy reemerge from the darkness, rod in hand. Behind him was Josh, also carrying a rod.

“I stabbed his ass right through the heart,” Jeremy said, jokingly.

As the manhunt continued, Guy Betts came over for a chat. “See what people will do for scrap metal?” he said. “They figured we wouldn’t be able to hear them during the day, with all this noise.”

The search turned up nothing, though later that afternoon, two guys were seen running out of the plant onto Conner Avenue. Eddie, for one, wasn’t the least bit surprised that the guys hadn’t been caught.

“There’s lots of places to hide in here,” he said.

I talked to the Arkansas Boys every chance I had from then on. Arkansas Dave’s good cheer was a constant. When he’d returned from vacation, I asked him how it had gone.

“What vacation?” he asked. His black eye was healing but still showed traces of trouble. “That was no goddamned vacation. And then I gotta come back to this goddamned place.” He yelled at the boys among the Arkansas Boys, who were using a crane. “They don’t listen, they don’t learn, I’m getting goddamned sick,” Dave said.

Around the fire basket a month later, I chatted him up again. His eye had long since healed. “How much longer you here?” I asked.

“Until they’re kind enough to tell me to go the fuck home.”

I had nothing against Arkansas and wanted to hear from the boys some kindness about the city of my birth. I asked Josh, since he was the sunniest of the Arkansans, if he’d miss Detroit when the Budd job was done.

“No.” “Won’t you miss the Texas Bar?” “No,” he said. “I don’t even drink.” He considered the dubious accuracy of this, then added: “I drank thirty-two beers the other night, between six o’clock and one in the morning, but that was the first time in a long time.” He wasn’t entirely sure how he got back to the motel, but said, “I remember pissing on a Dumpster on 9 Mile Road.”

I asked Josh if his real name was Joshua. “Naw, it’s just Josh. I mean, it might say Joshua on my Social Security card, or something. I don’t know.” He asked about the pictures he’d seen me taking around the plant. I said that I could email them to him. “Hell, I don’t even know what email is,” Josh said. “I think my girlfriend’s got a computer, though.”

Now that we knew each other, Terry senior had his own way of greeting me. “Asshole of the earth,” he said whenever he saw me.

“It’s my hometown,” I said, defending Detroit.

“It’s my hometown, too, last five or six months, and I fucking hate it.”

“Where you going after this?” He shrugged. “Unemployment office, probably.”

 

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