"Sometimes bad things happen to good people."
"Chunk chunk chunk" went the rhythmic, methodical throbbing of the machine. "Chuck chunk chunk hisssss." George looked up from his workstation. 3:25pm read the grimy "Detroit Iron Works" clock at the back of the plant. "Only two more minutes" he thought. "Then I will shut down; clean up, and start walking to the time clock." The machine let out another "chunk" and a piece of steel slid toward George on a curved metal chute. The machine let out "ugggg" as it lifted it bulk up. The table of the press slid a section into place and dropped into a jig. "Chunk chunk chunk" a triple hit of the machine, and 6 pieces of a differently shaped metal slid into George's reach. He quickly snatched up the parts and placed them into the large rusty wire bin to his left. "I can't wait till this run is over," he thought. "Couple more parts and this one is history." He shuffled some excess material in the waste basket. "And when the heck did all this stuff get so heavy?" George took off his glove and placed it on the outer steel of the machine. He brushed his thumb over the peeling paint. "Don't worry old girl; you made our last run a good one. I am glad we can retire together." The date was December 23rd.
It was early spring when the Dundee Stamping Company, where George has employed for over 25 years, got a new contract. It was a minor run of auto part stamping, no more 5 months in length, but projected to be lucrative. Partly because of the complexity of the materials and unique die setup, but also because they could run it on the oldest piece of equipment they had in the plant. The McMillan press.
The McMillan press was a, just slightly, post WW11 relic. It stood nearly 18 feet high and 12 feet wide, much bulker than newer machines that could stamp out the same parts at only a quarter its size. The McMillan's paint was deep worn green. Under the faded green, you could make out dull red bubbling back to the surface, most likely its original fire engine factory coat. George imagined it must have looked brilliant when it came off the assembly line. Like a 1969 Firebird read to race. Now, the worn green with red underneath gave it the appearance of an old dinosaur scared with red flesh poking out from scabbed wounds. That could have been why Gorged never liked the machine. Or maybe it was the fact that is shared his last name. In obscenely large bold letters stamped into its main press screamed brutishly in nearly all caps (McMILLAN!) However, that is not what George disliked the most. What frightened George was the shimmer.
At some point, the higher up's had made the decision to put the machine in the back lot, but management; being the penny pinchers they were, would not completely abandon hope of resurrection. In an effort to slow the inevitable spread of rust, they had sprayed a protective coating of oil over the metal exterior. Under the one and only operating light in the back 40 the machine seemed to shimmer like a mirage at the end of a dirty dark tunnel. George would occasionally see the press bearing his family name while dropping off obsolete parts or loading a truck for recycle. It was a glistening green dinosaur standing between walls of discarded metal, patiently waiting for the call back into service. In the summer of 2011 the dinosaur would be reawakened.
It was a Thursday morning in Jun of 2011 when George's supervisor called out "Hey George can you come over here" Mr. Palko shouted from across the shop floor. George looked up from his station where he was placing small auto support brackets into a cardboard box. He saw Mr. Palko standing on the metal stairs out front of the shop office waving for him to come over. "George let Jay take your spot; I need to talk to you for a few minutes." George shot a quick look to Jay, and Jay shot right back. It was a look that simultaneously said "kiss ass, and go ahead you slowing me down anyway old man." Jay moved over to center himself between his own box of parts and the one on which George was working.
George made his way across the concrete floor and up the three metal graded steps to the supervisor office, grabbing the yellow handrails to help steady him. By the time, George made his way into the office Mr. Palko was already sitting behind his desk. "You wanted to see me boss?" George asked.
"Yes sit down I have an interesting proposal for you, if you're interested." Mr. Palko pointed to the one of the two metal folding chairs at the front of his desk. "Sit, sit." George pushed up his safety glasses onto the top of his head, not worried about disturbing his hair, most of that left with the birth of his daughter over twenty years ago. George pulled off his leather gloves, placed them together and trapped them under his left armpit. He let out a slight grunt as came to rest on the chair. This was a common occurrence for most men over 50 like him.
Mr. Palko picked up a manila folder from his desk. Opened it and gave it a quick glanced. There was a slight grimace on his face as he read. George had seen this look before. He could tell this was bad news.
"George" he said. "How are you holding up on the new line?"
"Ok, it's a little fast paced but I like the challenge." This was a lie. George did not like the fast pace. Over the last few months, his hands had gone from a dull throb to a constant grinding glass over hot coals. He unconsciously rubbed his crab claws together. "I'm doing pretty well."
"Hands hurting?" he asked.
"Nope." Another lie.
"Bullshit." Mr. Palko said confidently.
"You've been holding up pretty well since Elizabeth passed away last summer, but I still think you should have taken more time off."
George gazed through the gated glass window to the production floor. "Yeah I could have taken more off, but we were so busy. I just wanted to keep moving."
"Well she was a good woman." Said Mr. Palko.
"Yes, she was my angle." George's head began to hurt.
George thought back to how Elizabeth would cure his headaches. She would position one hand on the back of his neck and one on his forehead and push. He would call to her, "hey short stuff, my head hurts can you push me calm?" That was a special phrase between only them. It started within weeks of dating, through one daughter, and 30 years of marriage. Even when she was near the end with cancer and could barely move, she was worried about his headaches and who would push him calm. He knew she was a better person and he loved her for it, and"Push me calm" was their intimate ritual.
"Well" said Mr. Palko, "I may have something that will give you a break. It's slower, but more complex. And frankly you're the only person here with, ... the qualifications or experience to do this." Over the next hour Mr. Palko outlined a new contract obtained last month. It would contain a tough jig setup and, as promised, the output was lower. Although temporary, George thought it would be a welcomed change. "No more than a few months. You should be wrapped up by new year." Explained Mr. Palko. "George there is only one catch. We are going to dust off the McMillan press." George stared down at the floor when the news registered in his brain.
"Yeah fine just a little tired." Yet another lie, he was not tired nor was he OK, in fact, he was a worried. He had no reason to be. He had never set hands on the machine. Truth told he had never stood within 15 feet of it, but all the same, he had always made sure he never got too close. For some reason his wife's face flashed into his mind. He blinked is eyes and regained eye contact with Mr. Palko.
"If I remember correctly you ran a similar machine before you signed on here, right?"
"Yeah, back for LaDappa. It pressed out rockers for one of the big three. Ran it for a couple years." George said.
"Like I said you're the only person here with the skills to get the old bastard back up and running. I want you to get it into shape, complete overhaul. Once you get it functional, you can set your own hours just as long as you meet your weekly quota. Based on the projections I see the number should not be an issue. You may even be able to trim off a day or two during the workweek here and there. How does that sound?"
George knew a good opportunity when he saw one, and despite is misgivings about working on the sleeping giant, well this was too good to pass up. George made solid eye contact and with determination said, "No problem, I'm your man. When do I start?"
"Great." Mr. Palko stood up an offered out his hand, which George immediately shook. "Start tomorrow. Just finish out your shift and see Scott in the maintenance crib first thing in the morning."
George repositioned his glasses, turned, and began to make his way toward the door.
"Oh and one last thing."
George pivoted to face Mr. Palko.
"We are not going to relocate the press. We are going to keep it in the back. We just don't have the room to move it up front. Plus that thing is heavy as a motherfucker."
"Ah a nice little cherry on top" George thought. "No problem." He said.
The next day George did as he asked and began reconditioning the machine. Over the next two weeks, George worked the team removing and replacing parts, greasing fittings, and pumping the machine full of hydraulic fluid through new hoses. Had he been give more time he would have even thrown on a fresh coat of red paint. George worked out the details of the material flow, various inputs and outputs to maintain efficiency. Unlike the rest of the plant, all the materials for his operation kept not in central raw storage but near his operation. The McMillan, being the only press in the wing, keeping everything within easy reach made the most sense. George was for all intensive purposes a plant onto himself. When it was time to fire up the press, George took off his leather glove and placed his hand onto the metal of the machine. "I think we did good Elizabeth. This one is for you short stuff". He pressed and lifted the main power switch. The press lifted up and launched back into life as planned. He managed to locate an old desk from the back and used it as both office and storage locker. Once the initial die setup was complete, George began to run his little factory.
Over the next few months, George McMillan, and what he and others in the plant called, The McMillan Press Company, produced a steady quality flow of material. Mr. Palko was speaking the truth when he said the numbers were low. George managed to hit his Friday targets on Thursday. This was with the extra time he took on both lunches and breaks. He even began to enjoy the solitude of working in the back of the plant.
It was late December with Mr. Palko met George in the back of the east wing. "George how is business?" he asked.
George looked up from his clipboard of paperwork. He had been hovering over a wire been of parts recording inventories. "Good. Looks like I am about wrapped up until after the holidays'."
"Well actually that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Sit down." George sat at the old desk. Mr. Palko plopped one old but cheek on the edge. "From what I can tell, this last shipment... well it will complete the contract. Over the Christmas holiday, maintenance will put the old girl back into the deep freeze. You've done a good job George, in fact, so well that there will be a little something extra in your Christmas stocking."
"Wow". George paused. "That's unexpected, thanks." George said. Most unexpected because the penny pinchers stopped giving Christmas bonuses out five years ago. He thought. Mr. Palko looked up at the press. It was then when Gorge saw the dismay in his eyes.
"Something wrong boss?" George asked.
"Yeah something is wrong, very fucking wrong. I asked what line they want you on after New Year, now that the contract is up; those bastards told me "all positions are filled". George I am sorry but, I am going to have to let you go."
George could feel his stomach give way. It felt like a cannon shot to the gut. "Oh, wow, OK, I really don't know what to say. Why?" George asked.
"You know why, there is just no room for dinosaurs in their business plan." Said Mr. Palko.
"No room for hard working old timers like George McMillan or the McMillian press." Said Geroge.
"You know how it is, the egg heads up stairs can bring in two new rookies for your salary. They are more up to speed with the new press technology. I'm really sorry this came at such a bad time."
"Yeah me too." George repositioned in his chair and blankly at the old desktop.
"I need you to finish up your inventory tonight. Come in tomorrow for your exit interview and say your goodbyes to everyone."
"Ok see you in the morning." George did as asked; he finished his paperwork and headed out for the night.
The next day was awkward, to say the least. It was full of hugs and handshakes. Some of the women eyes had grown puffy and red, and someone brought in a cake. It was chocolate, George's favorite. However, at the end of the day he grabbed the continents from his locker shot one last look at the shimmering McMillan and headed home for the bittersweet holidays.
It was New Years Eve about 8:00pm when Gorge got the phone call that started the countdown. It was Mr. Palko. "George?" Mr. Palko said without giving him the time to say hello. "George, are you there?"
"Yea, hi what's going on?"
"I am sorry to call on your holiday but there is a bastard of an emergency."
"I'm sorry but I don't work for you anymore." Georg said.
"I know but I am in a real situation here and you're the only one who can fix it."
"OK, what's going on."
"Well we went over our final numbers and we found a mistake. Not on your part, your inventories were fine. We failed to account for a stock of spare parts. We need at least a quarter shift worth to cover. If we don't, we will get major penalties. Which will be compouned by running them out over a holiday? George I am asking if you can come in tonight and run."
George let his arm holding the receiver fall into is lap. "Uggg.. I don't know."
"I can make it worth your while."
George lifted the receiver back to his ear.
"I can pay you an outside consultant fee. But I have to get it on the books that the parts were produced before midnight."
"Fine I'll do it."
"I can't thank you enough; you're really saving my ass. Scott is in the building right now making sure the machine is back up. He only had to reset a few connections. Leave as soon as you can, he will keep the shop open until you get there."
True to his word, George got dressed in typical work clothes and headed to the plant. When he arrived, he was surprised to find that Scott was waiting outside for him.
"Hey, Mr. Palko called me and said you needed to run the McMillan for a couple hours." Scott said in his usual Kentucky tone. "I got it reconnected for you, but I gotta get heading out. Wife if waiting for me back home, and she is pretty steamed. We are hosting a party. She was none too pleased when I headed over here. You gonna be OK by yourself."
"Yea I've gotten used to working on my own lately."
"OK, just head out the side door on your way out tonight. It has the fire safety lever so I will lock behind you. Don't worry about the light. Only one on, it's the single above your press. Just leave it on, maybe it will keep some of rats at bay. Mr. Palko said for you to give him a call once you finish. The office is locked, but I ran a cord out and hooked a phone to an old line. You should be good. Are you all set?"
"Yup I should be fine, go enjoy your new year."
"Thanks, and for the record. I think it was shitty what they did to you. That's no way to do business. I probably would have told them to shove their parts up their ass and sit on that for New Year."
"The thought had crossed my mind." George said.
George made his way through the class double doors and in the shop. He stopped when the he heard the doors click then automatically lock behind him. He stood there for a few minutes, slowing turning his head left they right surveying the shop floor. There was a unique feeling running up his back, he was unsure what is was. Slowly, he took a dragging step forward with his left foot, and heard the echo back from the opposite side of the building. "That's it." He thought. He scuffed his foot on the floor and again heard the report from the back of the shop wall. "I have never heard it quite in here." In all the time, he was been employed at the plant there was never a time of silence. There had always been the whirring of engines, the hiss of presses, or the chunk of steel falling into containers. There were no semi trucks loading or unloading, and no forklifts propelling their way along on propane. For the first time he noticed the space seemed lifeless. It was an empty shell, it was a cold dirty, creaky unwelcoming space, and George suddenly did not want to be there.
George shut his eyes and took a deep breath, in through his nose. Holding it in, he smelled the familiar scent of the grease and steel. This calmed his nerves and he exhaled. Took another breath, this time with his eyes open, and exhaled once more. Now he was back to his normal self. The neck tightening feeling was almost completely gone. He glanced to his right and saw the dark shop floor with the new machines. They only dimly lit by exit door signs and a few low level security lights. To his left he saw the glow from the direction of his press. He thought of it as his press now. After the work, he had put into it he looked on it in the same way a musician would look at a fine instrument, which they had lovingly restored and with it had been able to create fine music. George turned in the direction of the glow began to walk down the corridor. When he reached the edge of the material bins the machine came into view. He stopped dead in his tracks and almost gasped. The machine was, again prepped for retirement, and although quickly set up for one last run, the machine had once again been encapsulated in grease. Under the single light strand with the darkened shop floor, the shimmer from the press was undeniable. Top to bottom the press shined. "McMILLAN" screamed louder than ever.
Upon seeing the press, with its fresh glow, George realized he no longer had the uneasy feeling toward it. Rather he thought it looked tough, battle ridden, and ready for one last run. He recalled of something he learned in school. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more. "Was that Shakespeare?" He thought. He began to make his way toward the dinosaur. Along the way he spotted a small "boom box" radio, he believed belonged to Jay. He went over, unplugged it, and tucked it under his arm. He planned on tuning in a local station and at least listening to the New Year countdown.
He reached the machine and set the radio on the make shift manager deck. He plugged it into a nearby outlet and tuned in the local station.
He noticed a new phone (at least new to him, the phone looked as old as the desk) sitting on the right hand corner of the desk. Gorge assumed, it was the phone that Scott had set up for him to report out once he had finished the run.
George stood up tall, stretched his arms above his head. This was actually a little painful to his lower back. He folded his hand together and flexed them away from his center; again, this stretched caused him pain. He looked at the Detroit Ironworks clock the wall behind the pres. George had appropriated it from the new line a couple weeks earlier. "OK 9:00pm, I have three hours to make this happen, no problem." Over the next two and a half hours, George got the business of making parts. The McMillan's both ran like well-oiled machines. Georg paused only briefly at the 11:00 hour to stretch his fingers and change to the second, more complex, dye. At 11:30 he looked up at the clock. "Almost done, couple more hits and I am out of here. "I wish you were here with me short stuff. I could use a new year's hug and kiss." George looked down at the parts coming off the end of the dye, picked one up and examined it. "Hmm..That's not good." He noticed that the last couple of hits were coming off center causing the upper ends to skew out of position. "Well these should be acceptable, I'm almost done. I can just let it go. Besides I won't even be here by the time these part are used." However, that is when George's honesty got the better of him. "Any job worth doing is worth doing right. No point in running perfect parts for the last 25 years and falling short on the last ten pieces." It was not in George's nature to let things slide. He prided himself doing things right. Georg hit the stop button and approached the front of the machine. He move the part exit ram over to the right with a shove. It squealed out of the way and exposed the edge of the dye. George again looked up at the clock. 11:35. "OK, I've got time, but not much." He looked over the adjustment bolts located at the corners of the dye. Nothing seemed to be out of place. He looked into the center of the dye and noticed that the secondary lower jig had come loose. This secondary dye way set approximately two feet deeper that the outer edges of the dye. A thin strip of metal connected the center to the outer punched part on each corner. This arrangement allowed both parts to be punched at the same time it also allowed for each punch to be removed as one piece, although it did make the setup much more difficult. Unfortunately, it also forced the setter to enter the dye when making adjustments. The newer machines allowed for the entire set be done outside the press and be slid into place later, this was not a luxury the McMillan press offered.
George once again checked the time. The digital clock read 11:40. He walked around to the back of the press and hit the emergency stop button. This would ensure the press would not cycle while he made his adjustments. George leaned his head into the press on surveyed the dye set. He loosened the set with an Allan wrench from his pocked and pushed the inner dye to the left. "Little bit more." He pushed again. "That should just about do it." He gave it a push and felt it catch on something and the motion stopped. "Dimmit!" he yelled. He leaned back and gave it a hard shove. The adjustment block broke loose and fell into the center of the jig. "Son of a bitch!" George said. "I don't need this now." He thought. Now with only 15 minutes left he needed to get at least ten more hits to complete the order. The George did something he would never normally do. He crawled into the press. He reached the center jig and located the bolt and the fallen adjustment block. He placed the block into position and threaded the bolt.
As the clock turned from 11:46 to 11:47 that's when the sound came. The sound was a faint hiss, which unconsciously registered in George's brain. The presses upper bulk began to drop. The gradual movement had gone completely unnoticed by George who was working to secure his bolt. "Dam it stinks in here." He thought has he tightened the bolt. It was not until George leaned up to survey his adjustment that he felt press contact his back. All at once, he recognized the smell, the soft hiss sound, and realized what had happened. He knew one of the hydraulic hoses had sprung a leak and fluid was spraying onto the floor. He also knew that five tons were making their way down behind his back.
In frenzy, George scrambled to the edge of the press and attempted to make his way out, but it was too late. Gorge realized he was trapped in the center sunken dye, and the press was coming down.
George shot his legs out the front of the press at the widest point. His legs kicked wildly and his pelvis shot up and down but his buttock and remainder of his body would never fit. The press continued to slowly lower, increasing the pressure on his back. He pulled his legs in and curled into a fetal position at the center of the dye. He looked around the room from the diminishing view between the press heads. He saw the clock. It was now 11:55pm. Over the radio, he heard the announcer. "Now we are going live to Time Square", the New York crowd's applause began to drift out from the speaker. Gorge spun around and looked toward the work desk. "The phone!" he screamed. As if frightened by Georges scream, the phone began to ring, not to pulse or beep, but to ring. It briefly reminded him of an old school bell. The table sat over three feet from the edge of the press. George reached for the receiver but it was clearly too far away. He moved back into the center of the dye and took off his belt. The phone continued to ring in the school bell tone. George again stuck his arms out through the press, noticing this time there was less room. Dick Clark began to speak with a post stroke impediment. "Ok, it's almost time! The ball is lit up!" George hung his belt out from his left arm with the buckle at the dangling end. He threw it toward the phone in an attempt to knock it off the receiver. "Maybe if I know it off the base I can scream into the phone." He thought. However, on the first try something happened. Something better than Gorge could ever hope for, George was momentarily stunned. The belt buckle had caught on the coiled phone cord. With a deliberate tug, he jerked the belt toward into the press. Both the phone and receiver jumped off the deck. The crowd on the radio grew louder. George reached for the receiver in his right hand and managed to grip and hold. He pulled the speaker to his ear. It was Mr. Palko. "Hello George are you there? Hello?"
"Palko, thank God! You need to get over here right now! I got stuck in the press and it's coming down! I can't get out! Please God get over here now! Now!"
"Hello? George are you there?"
"Yes I am here Jesus get over here, I need help."
George's hart sank, all the color ran from his face, when he realized what had happened. Scott hooked up the line, listened for the dial tone but neglected to do one very important thing. He never placed a call, or checked the microphone on the old phone. A click came from the phone. It was the sound of Mr. Palko hanging up. Gorge held onto the receiver and sunk back into the press.
"It's almost time, wont' bee long now." Dick Clark said in his mumbled voice. George's eyes froze in place on the Ironworks clock. He lay on his side still holding the receiver. He watched as the gap of the press begin to close faster.
"OK, let's start the countdown." Dick Clark said.
George pushed is back against the raised side of the lower dye. He could now see the upper dye center pushing down. His mind started to race. His life did flash before his eyes, but not like you would think, it was more of everything all at once. His mind could not effectively process what was going to happen so it began to fire off every image, every thought Georg had ever stored in his brain in a shotgun scatter. He began to see a red haze as the press made contact with his shoulders and pelvis. There was a rumble like sound, but not from the outside, it came from within his head.
"10" shouted from the radio.
"9", "8", "7". George could no longer hear the radio.
He felt no pain as his pelvis snapped, and his shoulder folded in on itself. He only felt a pressure and the loud rumbling in his ears.
"6, 5, 4, 3"
"I love you wife. I love you short stuff." George thought.
"I love you soo much."
The last thing, of which George was aware, was the feeling of slender fingers cupping the back of his neck, pushing hair from his brow, and gently pressing down on his forehead. Pushing him calm.
The radio exploded in applause and cheers. "Happy New Year" announced Dick.
The McMillan press company was now officially out of business. Both the aging and obsolete Georg McMillan and the McMILLAN press were now retired. The plant was again still and quiet. The only sound was from the radio, drifting up the New Year melancholy anthem.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and auld lang syne?"
From the author:
"You're a good man George McMillan, I will miss you."