Saturday, February 21, 2015
Southern Workplace Politics
(Author's note: This is a true story, Names have been changed or simply gone unsaid. I have added a diagram of an electric motor at the bottom to help show what in the hell I am talking about.)
The conversation in the winding room of the electric motor repair shop I worked had ranged that morning from a discussion on whether the reining country music diva, Shania Twain, was actually too sexy for the Nashville crowd to the possibility that Jesus might not take the saved up to Heaven until after the Antichrist took control of the world. This being the late-90's the assumed Antichrist by those interested in the subject, generally conservative Southerners, was thought to be either Bill Clinton or his wife Hillary.
On the first topic Jenna, the senior winding room worker, who could actually count the thin copper wires going into each slot of the empty stator and talk, believed that yes, Shania showed just a little too much skin in her videos while on the second topic knew for a fact that the Antichrist was the pope. Jenna emphasized her certainty by telling Sammy, the other worker besides myself in the winding room, it was all written down clear as day in the book of Revelations although she never mentioned exactly what chapter or verse.
“But Jenna,” Sammy exclaimed, “doesn't the Bible say the Antichrist would arise from a poor family? My Uncle Travis was a pastor and he always said the Antichrist would come suddenly out of nowhere, that sound an awful lot like Bill Clinton to me.”
Sammy could be best described as a hulking, corn-fed redneck of the highest order whose chief accomplishment in life, besides earning a GED, was that unlike some of his closest friends, he had at that date in his life only spent a total of thirty days in jail. Sammy's best friend hadn't been so lucky, he was in a federal prison doing twenty to life for manslaughter over an incident that occurred when the two were out partying one night. Sammy was a lot of things, a number of them bad, but he was overly friendly and naturally gregarious to a fault and would normally run off at the mouth on every subject, including ones that shouldn't be discussed in mixed company. The fact that he refused to say anything about the night his best friend got in trouble was something immediately noticed by everyone he worked around. The unspoken assumption was that Sammy's best friend had taken the fall because he had three small children.
“See Sammy, it has to be the pope because he has all that money hidden away in the Vatican and Switzerland. Not only that, he has an army of Jesuit priests that will give up their lives the second he commands. When you think about it for a few minutes it makes perfect sense.” Jenna responded in a matter-of-fact manner that was enough to quell any further discussion from Sammy.
All during this discussion, I was the proverbial fly on the wall, mainly because Jenna didn't like me. While being a self-professed expert on all things connected to the Biblical end times, Jenna was in actuality probably the best electric motor technician in the state of South Carolina and ruled the winding room like an insane queen whose authority on any subject should never be questioned.
Electric motors are ubiquitous in industrial processing and manufacturing and like anything else they eventually wear out and break down, sometimes going up in a shower of sparks and smoke. Once that happens electric motors are stripped down and cleaned and then people like Jenna go through the tedious and time-consuming process of rewinding the things. Depending on the size of the motor it can literally take thousands of feet of expensive extremely thin copper wire carefully wrapped into loops, then painstakingly inserted into the empty slots lining the underside of the cylinder-like stator, the main part of an electric motor. One miscount of the proper number of loops, a wire damaged during rebuild, or bad connection and the newly refurbished motor could burn up again during testing before it ever made it back to a factory floor.
Jenna did her job extremely well and took an instant disliking to anyone brought into the winding room she didn't approve of first. And since the shop foreman, not Jenna, wanted to see how I did at rewinding a motor, all her disdain was showering down on me like a spring rain. You couldn't fault Jenna for being particular, she was a divorced, middle-aged woman without any real education who had found a well-paying job and would do anything to protect it.
“Who do you think is the Antichrist, Brian?” Sammy asked me as I struggled to insert a loop of new winding in the stator I was trying to rebuild.
“Beats the hell out of me,” I said, “that stuff is beyond me.” I hoped my neutral answer leaning heavily towards ignorance on the subject would allow me to return to my fly on the wall status. I'll admit that during those years my political opinions leaned to the right but even then I didn't care for those who paraded their religion in public like someone would do a thoroughbred horse or dog. However, my attempt to stay neutral didn't work.
“Well Brian,” Jenna said in a clearly exasperated manner, “someone with a young son really should have an opinion on the subject. Jesus is coming back soon and those who aren't right by him will have to suffer the consequences.”
I didn't appreciate getting dragged into other peoples conversation, especially one dealing with religion, but the only thing for me to do was ignore Jenna's comment as if I hadn't heard a word she said and continue my work. I did glance up a few minutes later and catch her staring at me with a look of utter contempt. But eventually her and Sammy settled upon another subject of discussion and for the most part forgot I was in the room. Namely, which NASCAR racer was the best of his group and who would more than likely take home the championship cup that year.
By the end of that day I was completed the process of inserting all the copper wire loops into the stator and then soldering the connections together. All that was left was dipping the stator into a huge vat of a lacquer-like substance, to protect all the wiring, then placing it inside an industrial-sized oven to dry overnight.
The next morning I pulled my creation out of the oven feeling curiously like the fictional Dr, Frankenstein. In a properly rewound stator all the loops of copper wires should lay down on each other in an organized manner looking like fallen dominoes. The copper wire loops in my stator looked like a bird's nest built by an extremely farsighted crow. So you can imagine my trepidation as the shop foreman ran my stator through a couple of static tests to see if any of the copper wires were undamaged and my connections were strong. Much to surprise of everyone in hearing distance, including myself, all the results were good.
After that I cleaned out the excess lacquer, then slide the rotor into the stator ignoring Sammy's sexual sound effects emphasizing the clear sexual innuendo of that phase of the rebuilding. After I installed the bearings and the end bell covers the moment of truth had arrived, it was time to hook my rebuilt motor to the testing platform and run some electricity through it.
As the electrical leads running from the test stand to my motor were hooked up most of the people in the shop gather to see what might happen. This included Jenna, who is smiling at me much in the same way you would while watching a Willie E. Coyote cartoon right before one of the inventions he built to capture the Roadrunner blew up in his face. It is a smile made up of a mild evil expectation of something bad about to happen offset by the assumption that whatever the outcome the results will be exceedingly funny. Standing beside her are the two guys who work in the warehouse. They are both humorless drones who talk of nothing but their high school football careers until even the most sympathetic person would run away from them in disgust telling the two to get a life. Despite their high school sports predilection and Jenna's own interests being light-years apart they are workplace allies.
The shop foremen unceremoniously applies power to my creation with the anticlimactic result of the motor's shaft spinning up to a little under two-thousand RPM's and continuing with its engineered business oblivious to everything else in the universe. I'm not out of the woods yet, the motor needs to run for about two to three minutes just to make sure there is not some flaw that will manifest itself with a display of smoke and sparks. I have a surreal moment looking at the people around me, some almost holding their breath, waiting to catch some drama in an otherwise boring day.
No such luck, my motor makes the required three minute run without an issue and after the shop foreman kills the power the shaft quietly spins down to a stop. “Paint her up and complete the paperwork Brian, and I'll call the owner and tell him it's ready.” The foreman says before walking off to another task.
About an hour later I walk back into the winding room to do the paperwork. Sammy and Jenna are back at it discussing some new existential philosophical subject.
“I really don't know why you would wash bath towels if you hang them up properly to dry after each use.” Jenna says to Sammy while opening up a bucket filled with copper wire. “It probably has something to do with detergent companies wanting people to wash everything so they with buy more of their stuff.”
“Yeah,” Sammy says, “I'm not sure why my wife freaked out. It sure would save on the laundry bill if we just hung up towels instead of washing them with the other clothes.”
“You're both kidding right?” I say feeling a little cocky while looking straight at Jenna. Who in turn gives me this angry stare. “You don't know that every time you use a towel it grabs a hold of millions of skin cells that your body sheds. Bacteria and fungus eat the skin cells and start to grow on the damp cloth causing them to eventually stink.”
I'll give Jenna credit, she may have believed the pope was the Antichrist and that all things Catholic were based in evil but from the look on her face it was clear that the wheels in her head were clearly turning. You'd have to know an opinionated Southerner to understand that logic and reason have little to no connection what they believe to be true. Once a typical Southerner stakes out an opinion on a subject it is truly doubtful that Jesus Christ himself could change that person's mind.
“Yeah, that makes sense,” she eventually said before going all embarrassingly quiet. Even Sammy registered the change in Jenna's mood and started quietly snickering to himself. Not wanting to press the advantage, I finished my work and got the hell out of there.
My successful audition in rebuilding an electric motor did not get me the promotion to the winding room. My efforts were like a situation comedy pilot episode that the audience found funny but the network honchos didn't pick up for the fall television season. So I returned to the shop floor and continued with tearing down worn out electric motors and diagnosing whether or not it was worth rebuilding, refurnishing, or just trashing them.
About six months later I left that job, and in doing so I lost all contact with everyone there. Years later I did run into Sammy at a local park. After having five kids, Sammy jokingly confided in me, he and his wife eventually figured out that having unprotected sex greatly increases the likelihood of getting pregnant. He also made a truly gratuitous joke about his vasectomy that even now causes me to cringe in pain, just thinking about the procedure.
As we talked, Sammy updated me on the various others who worked at the motor repair shop. Most everyone's situation was the same except for Jenna. It turns out that sometime after I left she meet, fell in love, and eventually married what Sammy described as a really nice guy. The thing that made me laugh so hard I had tears running down my face was the fact that Jenna's new husband is a devoted and strict Catholic.