Saturday, July 10, 2004

What's Up, Chief?

Sometimes people do things that they don't even realize.

I remember a time not too far after high school when I was working in a factory. It was a fairly small shop, and we were building industrial plastics machinery. Fun times.

Some days I would come in and drill and thread holes for most of the day. Others would see me laying out pipe, threading it, and piecing together cooling systems. Arc welding was a lot of fun, even on very hot days wearing protective leather gear and heavy helmet and goggles. Sweat and sparks flying - life couldn't get much better. Some of the most fun was working the pneumatic painting equipment, making large machines a uniform shade of blue, with some orange accessories (the shop trademark colors).

We worked ten to twelve hour days on a regular basis. Listened to the same radio station every day. I could guess the next song with a remarkable accuracy rate, having heard their repeated call letters often enough to understand their format, and know which songs where normally plugged into each of the 19 spots they were using. It was something I picked up on, without really giving much thought to it.

I also found it important to know where most people were on the shop floor. With a small staff like we had, many people performed multiple functions on the factory floor rather than one specialized job such as lathe operator, or welder II, or fork lift operator. They didn't work at specific stations, but moved around our large industrial area (we had ten people and probably could have fit another twenty-five people in there comfortably). I'd make an effort as I was working, of noticing who was where every ten minutes or so. After a while, I was doing this without really thinking about it. There was an almost zen-like quality to my awareness of our shop activities.

Those were some habits I was aware of. I'm sure that there were others I wasn't. And I wasn't the only one.

Our shop foreman had a habit of calling everyone "Chief". "What's up, Chief," he would say, or "Can I give you a hand, Chief"? One day, we decided that we would all call him Chief. About two-thirds of the way through that day, he asked one of us, "what's all this "Chief" business"? We stopped, but he didn't.

It's funny the habits that you can pick up as you acclimate to an environment. It's been a few years since I was a card-carrying union member, and I haven't welded anything in probably too long a period. I forget what it's like to build something from metal and sparks and sweat. I wonder about the habits I've picked up in my present working environment that I'm possibly not even aware of.