Every once and a while, I move slightly differently than usual. Maybe I shift position too fast. Maybe I pick up something a bit too heavy. Maybe I’m sitting askew for just a bit too long. Whatever the cause, one second I’m fine… and the next, my old spinal injury flares up. It’s that fast. Pain radiates outward from my core to my extremities.
It traces a burning track to the tips of my fingers. I am aware of exactly where each nerve runs back to damaged vertebrae. And there is nothing much I can do in the way of palliative care but let the latest flare-up run its course. I mean, sure, I can do light exercise. I can do some special stretches learned over years of occasional physical therapy. I can use ice, then heat, then ice again. Then I can rest. And start over again the next day.
With luck, after a week or three, whatever inflammation I caused calms down. The pain comes with decreasing regularity. And then I return to my “normal” state. The state that has made me unable to do manual labor for many many years. And unable to drive in recent years. If my friends or family need help moving, I can’t do it. If anyone needs me to jump in a car and pick them up, they have to ask someone else.
As I type these words on Labor Day, I have just had such a flare-up. Which is, it must be said, kind of ironic. Yesterday, I sat texting someone in a marginally different posture than usual… and bang, I’m hurt again. So it hurts to type. A lot. But I’m pushing through anyway. Like I always do. Like I’ve done for decades.
Because I was first injured directly after leaving the last shift of a job in late March 1989. But it was not an actual job. It had neither security, nor benefits, nor decent wages. It was certainly labor, though.
The incident occurred at the conclusion of an eight-week temp assignment for Manpower—then, as now, one of the largest so-called “staffing agencies” in the world. The company I worked for—yet didn’t work for—was Belden Electronics. The plant in question was in Essex Junction, Vermont. I had moved up to the Green Mountain State the previous year and was never able to find a decent “job job” in the two years I lived there. Or in several years before or after my “mountain sojourn.” Like many other members of my generation coming of age in the 1980s, I was discovering that the “good jobs” my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation had enjoyed after WWII were already becoming a thing of the past. The late ’80s recession under the first Bush presidency only made things worse.
Prior to the factory gig, the temp assignments I had gotten were shorter term. And I wanted something that lasted for longer than a week at a time. The better to pay my rent and keep my car on the road. So when Manpower offered the Belden assignment, I took it. It was swing shift, and I’d be working from 3 pm to midnight, Monday through Friday. I was a night owl, and that allowed me to do other things I was doing in Vermont at that point in my life. I was told I’d be driving a forklift—which I thought sounded interesting. I was 22 years old.
So one fine afternoon in early February 1989, I coaxed my old car with manual transmission and a busted second gear I couldn’t afford to fix into driving the half-hour from Burlington’s more or less urban sprawl into the deep woods where some genius had thought it was a good idea to drop an industrial park. Snow was piled 10 feet deep on either side of the country roads as I pulled into a large parking lot outside the commodious Belden facility for the first time.
Inside, I was given a quick tour of the factory floor, break room, and bathrooms. Then I was “trained” to drive two kinds of electric forklifts for a total of three hours. One of which involved watching a video. The other two of which involved a manger running me through my paces on actual equipment at speeds much lower than I was going to be expected to drive in the coming weeks. Then I was sent out onto the floor to start work. I received the rest of my training, such as it was, from the guy whose job I was helping eliminate. After working there eight years, he was to be replaced by temps like me.
He was a devout Mormon. Many folks don’t realize it, but Mormon church founder Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in the early 1800s. So there are more of that flock about on the starboard side of Lake Champlain than one might think. My trainer and his wife were doing their level best to increase that flock, too. So he had several children. And that was why Belden let him stay on after using me to render his job redundant. He was allowed to work on a machine station, after being forced to accept a pay cut. To make ends meet, he had already started a second job as a janitor at his Mormon temple. Yet despite all this adversity, he never said an unkind word to me—the guy who was to be the first in a series of temps to work his old job—or anyone else in the plant.
He was, in fact, one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. Toward the end of my brief tenure at Belden, he gave me a Book of Mormon that he and his family had inscribed with their best wishes. I read it, and discussed it with him. Explained that I was still searching for a spiritual home, but was honored and humbled by his gift. Then went back to work.
And what was that work? Well, the factory made wire for electronics companies—including the nearby IBM works. The wire was then spooled. And the spools ranged in size. From little ones that might weigh 10 pounds each. To huge ones that weighed 1000 pounds or more. I am 5’6”, and at the time I weighed 132 pounds soaking wet. My job was to lift or roll those wire spools onto the tines of either of my forklifts—the fast one (which I loved) or the slow one. And take them from station to station, machine to machine, where the wire went through the various stages of its processing.
All that lifting and pushing of spools took its toll on me in the brief time I was there, but my body seemed to handle the stress ok. After all, I was young and bouncy. But I didn’t realize that, in the absence of proper training or safety equipment, I wasn’t doing anything correctly. Not to say that I wasn’t a good worker. People from management on down were quite decent to me, as far as it went. I was, however, putting a great deal of strain on my spine.
Meanwhile, I was essentially participating in the forced speedup of a nonunion factory by corporate management who were trying to increase profits by cutting labor costs. Driving from station to station, I got to talk to lots of workers—many of whom, like my trainer, had been there for years. They were very stressed out and unhappy. They were working harder and longer for less money with worse benefits. And I began to wonder why they couldn’t unionize.
I didn’t know much about unions. Though I was aware that the only recourse working people have on a bad job is to start one. So I actually tried to get a longer-term contract with Belden in hopes of being able to try to do just that.
But there was no way they were going to hire a temp they were using to keep their longer-term workers off-balance. And at the end of March, I worked that fateful last shift. Shortly after midnight, I said my goodbyes—taking a few minutes to fill out whatever paperwork Belden and Manpower needed me to complete on the way.
By the time I walked out the plant door with the remaining manager, everyone was gone. There was no third shift at that time, so the parking lot was already empty. The manager’s car was parked next to the plant, and he drove off straight away. The door had locked behind me, and there was no one in sight. Except for a lone car in the middle distance that I hadn’t noticed. Which started up unexpectedly, causing me to snap my head to the right to see whose it was.
And then I heard a sickening crack. Followed by a massive wave of pain—emanating from my spine—that coursed through my body from head to toe. And then I realized my left arm wouldn’t move.
I was only halfway to my car. There was no one around. In the middle of a large parking lot. In the middle of the night. In the middle of the woods. On a freezing Vermont night many years before cell phones became common. A light snow was falling.
I was completely alone.
Be sure to check out Part II and Part III of this series.