It was a hot July afternoon in 1998, four years after I graduated high school, when I walked into the Pacific Engineering Factory, with no experience, ready to start my new job.
It was just after 3 p.m. when a wide assortment of people from all walks of life greeted me in the factory.
Older white haired educated men, middle aged soccer moms, mentally challenged men and women, homeless temporary workers, divorced men starting over; new immigrants from other countries and other people from all other walks of life comprised the melting pot of people that worked for Pacific Engineering Company or, PEC as we called it.
To me, the factory was a big and ominous establishment. Everywhere I looked, I saw massive machines quickly spewing out parts, while employees ran quickly back and forth like rabbits, to inspect, box and ship off parts worldwide.
Just as I was preparing myself for my new experience, the bell rang, releasing the first shift from another eight hours of tedious labor and readying those of us on the second shift for a long night with a 12:30 a.m. end.
It was happening, I was becoming my father, continuing the tradition that his father had passed onto him of being a “company man”. I wasn’t a child with my dad’s friends asking me if I was going to work for the same company as him, I was now all grownup and our destinies had finally intertwined.
On one hand, I felt like I was abandoning my dreams and ideals that every young person has in their early 20s of an exciting, creative job for the steady, secure life that my father and grandfather before him had lived with comfortably for years. And on the other hand, I felt like I was selling out my young ideals for money.
But what I really needed at that time was a normal job, solid paycheck, reliable hours and a good work environment while I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life.
On the assembly line, I would have a lot of time to think about my aspirations and how to turn them into actuality.
As the bell rang on my first day, my father walked up to me all dirty from his shift and welcomed me to the “team” at PEC.
He assured me that this would be a good experience for me and that I was doing the right thing with my life.
“You need a good steady job and a paycheck so you can settle down,” My dad said one day.
“Dad I’m only 22, not 32, I don’t want to settle down until I figure out what I want to do with my life.” I replied.
In his excitement for my job opportunity at PEC, my dad told me that he would wait up for me when I got home to find out how my first night went.
I felt like it was my first day of school, like I would say goodbye to my mom in the car and walk to my classroom to start another grade.
As I talked with my dad and said goodbye to him a few of his friends from his shift walked up to me to say hello and I heard a common theme from them, “Just like dad,” and “keeping up the tradition of your father are you?” I cringed when they said things like that. They didn’t know anything about me and yet they were already sentencing me to 30 years of production labor. Help!
This factory was my second home for the next two years. Even though it was small compared to other factories in the area it was filled with lots of Japanese machines both big and small that served many different functions.
There were two main production lines where metal was pressed, bent and stamped by each individual press with its own function and handed down the line to employees that boxed the parts for shipment.
Whenever I told my neighboring coworkers how amazed at the production process, size or efficiency they responded with: “This place ain’t so big, I worked a year at Rohr and that place is one heck of an operation!”
They traded their workplace stories like old veterans, telling stories of battles long lost and won. And as they looked back, sharing their respective experiences, their voices reflected sadness for a society that no longer existed. They knew that they would never work for a company that enabled the security or lifestyle they sought.
On hot summer days like this one, all of the gigantic roll -up doors were open and fans were turned on at every workstation to let what little air that was available circulate throughout the factory.
This never helped because the area of town where I worked was called Santee, well known for the hot Indian summers. From May to October every year, count on it to be scorching hot and unbearable during the day and hot and balmy during the night. The heat and humidity in the factory even at night, was enough to humble even the toughest of men and fittest of athletes.
Mr. Mossy the head of engineering from Japan ran and maintained the machines in the factory. He was a tall, lanky man who always loomed in the distance with a frown on his face.
He was always stressed from the pressure his corporate bosses put on him. Anytime I saw him, he was tending to one “bombshell” or another.
The only time that I didn’t see him frantically running from one machine to another was when I saw him taking a cigarette break or with his arms submerged his toxic chemicals fixing one of the machines.
I was sure that this guy would be dead in five years from either stress or cancer. I just couldn’t see the logic of killing yourself for your company like Mr. Mossy did on a daily basis. And in turn Mr. Mossy and the other Japanese engineers considered workers like me lazy and undisciplined because I would never commit to working 10 hours a day, six day a week shifts.
I had heard many stories of Japanese people breaking down mentally from being overworked and ending up hospitalized and later unable to recall the details of their personal lives.
It was definitely a big, sometimes comical pursuit, working for PEC. Especially with Mr. Muhammad, the lead man for the first shift, he always smelled like rotten eggs, Vodka and never had anything good to say about anyone.
Even though he was smaller than most employees in the company he always asserted a delusional sense of superiority.
And Mr. Mossy never agreed with Mr. Muhammad on anything.
The first thing I did every day was check with my friends to find out if I should avoid either one of these guys during my shift.
I did this because whenever production levels were down for the first shift, Mr. Mossy looked for Mr. Muhammad to chew him out.
The bosses in the office always wanted more, more, and more, and were never satisfied when production slipped, even if there was a major problem that day.
One side was always blaming another when there was a problem. It was either the engineer’s fault; the team leader’s fault, management’s fault, seldom, it was because of an act of God that the company had a bad day.
So it was not a good idea for me to get in either mans way if they were at each other’s throats. If I did accidentally bump into them, when they were pissed off they usually yelled at me or stuck me with doing a crappy job for the night.
My boss on the second shift was a big and tall balding Texan named Mike.
Mike was a great guy, he hated it when employees addressed him as “Mr.” and always insisted that we treated him as “One of the guys,” and call him Mike.
He really reminded me of John Wayne because we never saw him without blue jeans, a big belt buckle and cowboy boots.
He was our favorite shift leader because he stood up for us whenever anyone in management complained about our productivity levels. He wouldn’t let himself or his shift take the blame for anything that wasn’t our fault.
The environment itself resembled a prison or what I always imagined a prison to be. We wore prison blue uniforms and took orders from a “boss” that roamed the factory during every shift. Every night after the bell rang at 12:30 a.m. indicating our shift was over, we filed past the time clock, punching our time cards, and filed out the door to our cars and the drive home.
And like a prison, there were many different types of people, from various walks of life, all there for different reasons.
I learned very fast that if I was going to keep this job, I was going to have to find ways to keep my mind occupied every night. Otherwise I knew I would go crazy from boredom and would end up quitting, fast.
I learned to listen and ask questions. I worked with a different person every night and I found myself immersed in conversations with my co-worker about everything from politics, sports, art, philosophy and religion.
Warrior poets surrounded me in the factory and each person had a story to tell.
While most of my friends were still attending college and getting their degrees, I was learning life lesions from my new teachers in the factory.
On my night, I started to work on one of the massive bending machines, always careful to keep my hands away from the big press that bent the parts.
As I did my job, all I could think of were scenes from the movie “The Mangler,” where people loose their limbs and lives to a killer machine.
My friends seemed to find it amusing when I told them about my new job, they kept repeating “dude you’re going to get your hand ripped off!” Then they laughed with no remorse.
I wasn’t too happy about loosing a limb on my first night there, so I played it extra safe, keeping an eye out, extra careful to not loose a limb.
As I worked the machine of intimidation I turned around to box parts and was greeted by a burly man covered with tattoos all over his arms. The burly, tattooed man stuck out his big “catchers mitt” hand for me to shake.
“Hi, my name’s Dave,” he said. “What’s your name?”
I shook his hand. “My name’s Jeremy,” I replied.
“Well, Jeremy, welcome to the party. I can’t guarantee that you career will take off in this place, because the only way to advance here is if someone gets injured or dies. And if either of the two happens, I’m sure management will still find a way to make that person come to work the next day.”
Dave said this and topped it off with a laugh that shook his large stomach.
Dave was a mystery. He looked older than his years, but always talked about things that only someone in their 20s would be interested in.
Of special interest to me were the latest movies, comic books and TV shows, and Dave always seemed to know more about those things than I did.
I never asked him how old he was or pried too much into his life because from when he told me tales of his military service in Vietnam and the turmoil he’d experienced in his life I figured that he didn’t want to get to close to people. Especially since the peace and privacy that he enjoyed now mattered too much to him to be invaded by my questions.
Dave was our machine maintenance guy. We always looked for him whenever we had problems with our machines.
I could always count on Dave to fix my machine when it was down; give me advice on current problems and walk away, leaving me with a joke that would have me laughing all night long.
On that first day, he gained my respect instantly when I noticed that he had a couple of fingers missing from his right hand. I knew that he was someone who had learned from experience and I figured that I had a lot to learn from him if I wanted to keep my job and my limbs.
“Where are you from Jeremy? “ Dave asked in his gruff voice.
“Everywhere,” I said. At that moment I felt like Plato, thinking over everything I had done since high school and questioning why I was there and what I was doing with my life.
“Ah, I see we have another philosopher on our hands. You should fit right in with this bunch, “Dave said.
“Have you met Gill yet?” Dave asked.
“Not yet, I was hoping to introduce myself to people during the lunch break,” I replied.
“Well there’s no better time than the present to meet people, “Dave said.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you to him now.”
As we walked over to where Gill worked Dave quickly gave me the rundown of Gill’s background.
He told me that Gill had once been a teacher at a well known university in Northern California and before that, he was a somewhat famous artist/sculptor whose work was very popular with the wealthy in Los Angles during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Later, I found out from one of my conversations with Gill that he dropped out of the art scene in the early 1980’s because he felt like he had sold out his artistic soul for money. He also felt that his work was being placed in homes with the same respect as a coat rack or nightstand.
Gill was an enigma. He looked and acted like a wise, old professor but here, trapped at PEC, in the prison blue uniform, he was a “prisoner” like every else.
He always had a bag of books next to his workstation that he would read at every 10 minute break. His most interesting trait was his way with women, they were drawn to him, and he never was without a girlfriend even though he was in his late 50’s with a few grandchildren.
I found out one night that he had been married four times to four different women who had all ruined him and forced him to leave everything that he had and start over again each time.
Even though he had his troubles, he told me that he was still seeing a few women in town with whom he still had hopes of finding the right women to settle down.
“Love is a wonderful drink of passion, pleasure, and pain. And when you fall out of love, you are always searching for the right one to fall in love with again.”
“That’s why I keep searching, because there’s nothing better in the world to wake up in morning next to the one that you love. Of course, now it does get kind of tough around the holidays, having to decide which ex-wife and kids I am going to spend my time with,” He said with a laugh.”
“Maybe next Christmas, I will invite all of my ex-wives and their children to spend Christmas vacation here instead of bouncing around from house to house like I do every year,” Gill said with a laugh.
And so on my first night there, I shook Gils hand as Dave introduced me as the latest philosopher and poet in the company.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Gill said right before he went back to his work. He looked like a guy who didn’t want to be bothered, like someone who was perennially deep in thought.
I wasn’t sure if he was someone with whom I was going to be friends, since he seemed like a guy that everyone respected and yet kept their distance from.
“Give him time, Jeremy,” Dave told me. “Gill is someone whose trust and respect you have to earn. But with me, Hell all you need to do is buy me a good beer or wine and we will be friends for life.”
I later learned from Dave that this was totally true. Dave was a man who, even though he worked in a “grease monkey” job, had the refined tastes and palette of someone used to eating at exquisite dining venues.
I spent many weekends over at Dave’s house as he barbecued, grilled, or sautéed another awesome meal of ribs or steak. He was a big guy who liked to eat big meals. Whenever I went to his house, I always brought my appetite and bottle of wine or beer to go with the meal.
After we finished our feast, we always sat back and watched the newest video on Dave’s deluxe home entertainment system, debating if the latest science fiction film that just came out had special effects, story and action worthy enough to qualify as a good film.
Dave was a big man who enjoyed the pleasures of life and wasn’t afraid to let anyone know it. During the weeks and months to come, as I got to know him better, I felt privileged to call him and his family my friends.
Even though they were poor and lived in a rundown apartment complex, they lived well on what Dave earned working for our company.
My dad couldn’t understand why I would want to go and spend time at his house on the weekends.
“Why do you want to spend time in the ghetto again?” He asked after I told him that I was invited to another dinner at Dave’s house.
Dave’s home was my home, I went to La Presa elementary school, a block away from where he lived and knew a lot of people in the area that still were my good friends.
My house was high up on Dictionary Hills, in Spring Valley and overlooked Dave’s apartment and the area of town that my Dad referred to as the “ghetto”.
Living up on that hill was like living in a castle that hovered over the peasants in the city. It could give you a false sense of security even though I could hear sirens and occasional gunshot on the streets below almost every night.
My dad didn’t understand how I felt about Spring Valley because he didn’t have to live in that area everyday like I did. In spite of the blighted conditions, poverty and violence on the streets I felt a connection to that area because I grew up there.
My dad woke up every day and went to work, and often came home complaining how bad the area was. I had to get up every morning and walk to Elementary School, catch the bus, play baseball in the park, walk to the Seven Eleven, Blockbuster Video, K-Mart while avoiding the trouble on the streets.
At work, one night when Dave and I were talking during lunch, Dave opened up and I learned that he had once owned a highly successful chain of motorcycle shops back east and was once wealthy. But like everyone in the factory, his life took a turn for the worse.
Many of my co-workers like Dave had once led productive, successful lives and then because of bad decisions or horrible luck, they lost everything, ending up with nothing as a foundation to rebuild their lives on.
For some reason, everyone I worked with in the company had lived very full lives in a short period of time. In fact it seemed like this factory was more of a pit stop on life’s road than anything else where many people came to regroup from hardships before returning to the race.
These people weren’t good-looking actors who have never lifted a finger to do hard work, they were people who had endured hard times and their weathered bodies and faces showed outwardly the wounds they felt inside.
Even though these people worked hard, they always appeared to be happy and content about their lives.
They were always examples to a young person like me whose only hardship was debating whether or not I wanted to go back to school to be an architect or live out my dream to be an artist.
After meeting Dave and Gill, I went back to my workstation, wanting to once again diminish into the background going unnoticed by Mike, Mr. Muhammad, or Mr. Mossy. Because it was my first night there, and I didn’t want to screw it up by making my bosses think that I was a slacker who didn’t work hard and didn’t care.
I was happy to be earning a good income for the first time in my life and didn’t want to screw up any opportunity I had to stay there. So I worked hard the way I was trained while keeping an eye on the clock for 12:30 a.m. when I was free to go home until another day.
Toward the end of the first night, I had produced and boxed a few hundred small parts. I was happy and still wired from the work that I had completed, and as a self-proclaimed “night owl” I was wondering what I should do after work ended.
Just then Gill, asked if I’d like to accompany a few of the guys to the bowling alley.
“Sounds great,” I said, without knowing what the guys did besides playing pool and bowling on these nights out.
I was going to find out fast.
After the bell rang, the mixed assortment of men and women on our shift quickly filed out, punching their cards in the big time clock on the wall as they left.
I was happy that my first night was over. I hopped in my truck and followed the guys to Parkway Bowl in El Cajon for a fun game of bowling.
When I arrived at the bowling alley, as soon as I stepped through the door, I met Orion.
Orion looked like a leftover from the 1950’s. He always wore his hair slicked back, wore thick black glasses like Buddy Holly, cowboy boots, and Levi’s.
Everyone knew he was from the south, because he reminded us every time we had a conversation with him.
I remember one day, when Orion and Anna, a lady from Louisiana, sat in the lunchroom before work, quizzing each other to see who was more southern than the other.
Orion eventually secured his winning status on the basis that his accent sounded more original than Anna’s did.
Anna, was a burley woman with a mustache and didn’t agree with the verdict, so she got up and stormed out of the room challenging Orion to a knife-throwing contest out back before we started work.
Orion eventually won that contest as well, by throwing his trusty knife the farthest at the pallets behind the warehouse.
Orion was an old-fashioned tough guy determined to initiate me into the bowling group when he handed me a pair of bowling shoes and a pitcher of beer. “Here, this is for you. Welcome to the company, you’re buying the next round,” he said.
That night was the beginning of many great nights that I let loose and had a good time with everyone from the company.
With a laugh and a smile, he walked off with his pitcher of beer in hand to our lane, to pursue the game of the century.
Orion was always happiest when he was with the guys, drinking and bowling.
Cracking up, I sat down, put my shoes on, poured my first beer of the night, and joined my new friends.
I rarely had any fun anymore since high school had ended. While my buddies in college were busy on the weekends with fraternity parties and girls, I was usually either working or at the movies by myself, like a nerd.
With this in mind I decided that it was time to party!
I joined my buddies, downed my first glass of beer as fast as I could, and joined the game.
Orion’s eyes popped out of his head when he saw me down that glass of beer as quick as I did.
“Orion’s never met anyone who could hold their liquor like him. I think you just renewed his hope in life,” Gill said laughing.
I laughed back and said, “Well you ain’t seen anything yet,” I was having fun.
That night flew by faster than a great movie. Even though I wasn’t totally drunk, I did get my first beer buzz and enjoyed walking around feeling like someone else was controlling my body.
After we got tired of the available games we sat around the bar inside the bowling alley, watching sports and ESPN replayed on the TV’s inside the bar.
After everyone slowly tired out and went home for the night, Orion and I sat at the bar swapping jokes, and stories, when he slowly started telling me how he ended up where he was in life.
“You know, I wasn’t always as poor as I am now,” He said.
Thirty years ago, I was the best damn country music singer in the business.”
“Really?“ I replied, Orion had a beer buzz and I was ready for a good story.
“Damn right, I was,” he said. “You ever see that movie Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall in it,” He asked.
“Yeah, I did,” I replied
“That was my life story 30 years ago.”
“One night, that damn Robert Duvall and I were drinking Tequila in a bar back in Amarillo Texas when old Robert Duvall got me talking about my life.”
“I didn’t think anything of the conversation until the next year, as I was driving through Houston, I saw his film “Tender Mercies,” advertised on a big billboard as the best film of the year.”
“I went and saw that film with my wife Betty Lou and all she kept saying during the film, “Orion this is you! This is your story. How did Robert Duvall steal your life story?”
“Well, what did you do about it?” I asked.
“Well, Hell,” Orion exclaimed as he took another large gulp from his beer.
“I knew it was my story, and remembered that night back in Amarillo when we were talking. I just didn’t realize he was going to steal it like that.”
“What could I do? I couldn’t prove myself before a judge because I didn’t have anyone to defend me.”
“Do you really think a judge would listen to the story of some redneck who worked in the oil fields without a dime compared to the high-priced lawyers from old Robert Duvall?”
“There was nothing you could do?” I asked.
“Damn, I was broke and poor, and I wasn’t in the mood for another fight, so I let it be.”
“You let it be and the film made him millions,” I said.
“Well. Kid, sometimes life sucks. It will probably happen to you someday, but, you just have to move on.”
“That wasn’t my first brush with fame and it won’t be the last. I got more stories to tell you sometime.” He said.
“How about you? What are you doing at 21 or 22 years old working in a factory with a bunch of old guys like us?
I looked down at my beer and thought it over for a moment. I had been asking myself this question and especially other ones a lot lately.
“I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life,” I said.
“Well kid, you’re still young. I would give anything to be 21 again with no ex-wives or cares in the world,” He said laughing.
“My advice to you is to discover life. Don’t get trapped in a place like where we work for too long because it’s just like a prison in there. You can loose years of your life working there real fast.
“I will,” I said. I could see that I was going to enjoy getting to know my new friends and learning about their philosophies and life experiences from them.
“It’s easy to get “institutionalized” in a place like where we work. One day, you wake up and realize that you need every penny of your paycheck because you have a wife, kids, bills, and you have more days left in the month, than you have money.”
“It sucks, don’t let it happen to you” Orion said.
He looked out the window and saw the morning sun slowly peaking over the hills of El Cajon and contemplated what he just said for a minute before suggesting that we, “call it a night.”
“I better get home soon because, my old lady won’t be too happy to wake up without me there to give me her honey-do list for the day,” he said with a smile.
As we walked out to the parking lot, squinting as the sun slowly ended our long night, Orion and I shook hands and walked to our vehicles.
As he warmed up his battered, baby blue, 1966 Mustang he shouted over to me before he drove off, “Next week I’ll tell you how Willie Nelson won the song “On the Road Again” from me in a poker game.” He said laughing.
“I better get home quick. My old lady might start thinking I’ve got a girl-friend,” he said.
“Good night, Jeremy! Thanks for the beer!” he shouted as he drove off.
Just then I realized that I had spent $50.00 on beer for the night but I had heard some inspiring and insightful stories and would gain a friend for a lifetime, so I felt that it was a pretty good investment…