Robert Cormack

1 month ago · 6 min. reading time · visibility ~100 ·

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The Catchers.

Once you're crazy, you know you've made it.

 

 

In an assembly line, the smaller the pieces of work assigned to any single individual, the less skill it requires, and the less likely the possibility that doing it will lead to doing something more interesting,” Jill Lepore

We were the catchers, the ones they called “crazy.” Every day we grabbed those fence panels coming off the extruders, each four seconds apart, just enough time to catch and stack. That’s if one didn’t cut you in the process. They told us to wear rubber gloves, but the metal stuck to the rubber, so we took our chances barehanded. We grabbed those panels coming out, hoping we didn’t get stabbed by one of them on the way out.

That’s what happened to Gizmo. He was as skinny as a fence panel himself, and fast enough ordinarily, but when one panel caught on another, then another, you got fourteen feet of joined metal flying out.

Herman was an older guy, gray hair, big sloppy gut. When he told you to get on the line and catch, man, you caught.

Like most catchers, Gizmo turned his body sideways, taking those panels in the ass. Twenty stitches later, Gizmo was on another line, filling boxes with bags of nuts and bolts. Herman the German put me on in his place. Herman was an older guy, gray hair, big sloppy gut. When he told you to get on the line and catch, man, you caught. You caught each panel, slid it on the stack, caught another, stacked it until you had twelve.

Twelve meant your partner grabbed the stack, put it in a box, and waited for the next one. My partner was Bubbles. He was Gizmo’s before me, until Gizmo got cut, and Bubbles took that as a sign to pray to a higher order. His eyes kinda went to the heavens, seeing Gizmo’s blood on the concrete floor. Bubbles wasn’t very good with blood. None of us were, but it was almost a daily occurrence with those fence panels being so sharp.

Any time a catcher went down, they’d stop the extruders, and some guy from shipping would come running down the line with his first-aid kit.

In Gizmo’s case, there was no band-aid or cotton swab that was gonna stop the bleeding. The shipper told Herman, “That kid’s gotta go to the hospital,” and there’s Herman, hands flopping, saying, “Take him.”

Gizmo was barely out the door before the extruder started up again, and Herman’s pointing his big thumb at me, yelling, “You’re catching.”

There I was, taking Gizmo’s place, with Bubbles still all pan-eyed, and me not knowing the first thing about catching.

Next thing you know, you’re smacking a stack of twelve, and Bubbles is hauling them off to the boxes, and I’d hear one of the Caribs over at the next line, Big Lester, saying, “Please don’t cut me today, boss,” talking to the panels.

Your first instinct is to step away, like with any flying object, but then you catch one, you lay it on the table, then another comes out. Next thing you know, you’re smacking a stack of twelve, and Bubbles is hauling them off to the boxes, and I’d hear one of the Caribs over at the next line, Big Lester, saying, “Please don’t cut me today, boss,” talking to the panels.

Over on another line, a guy forming boxes had the press come down on his foot. Blood all over the place again. Bubbles sees that and wants to run out the side door. You think it’s cowardly, but Bubbles was no coward.

Someone in the lunch room made fun of his short legs one time, telling Bubbles he ran like Barney Rubble. “Hey, Barney, run over and grab me that can of grease, will you?” Bubbles took it a few times. Then one day he pulls a wrench out of his pocket and chases the guy all over the lunch room.

Bubbles had respect after that. Nobody called him “short legs” or “Barney.” Nobody flipped his safety hat off his head.

Somebody threw sawdust down on Gizmo’s blood during our lunch break. I’m pretty sure it was Herman. He was a butcher in Heidelberg before emigrating. It did the trick. Bubbles was able to work again.

Sometimes we had to retool for fence posts. Man, they came out like battering rams in ten and twelve foot lengths. You caught them, and your partner pulled them off. No stacking, just drag and drop.

One day I’m grabbing a pole that way. I swung it to Bubbles, but when he grabbed it, it jerked up, catching me in the wrist.

Off I go down to the shipper’s office, and damn if everyone doesn’t want to see my wrist, debating whether I needed stitches or not.

Next thing I know, they’re calling my girlfriend. She shows, and we end up in Emergency, sitting there waiting our turn. What a sad bunch they were. One fat woman sitting next to me was crying away. She’d been having stomach pains all day. “Take her first,” I said to the nurse. “She’s really suffering.” Sandy, my girlfriend, thought I was crazy.

Anyway, the nurse takes all three of us down the hall, me and Sandy to one room, the fat woman to another. We can still hear her going on about her pain and how it’s getting worse. In the middle of her cries, we hear the doctor calling for a gurney. He telling our nurse, “She’s having a baby.”

“Are you sure?” the nurse said.

“Yes, I’m sure, get the gurney.”

After she’s wheeled to delivery, the doctor comes in our room. He sees my wrist and tells me I’m the luckiest bastard in the world. That pole just missed an artery. He gets me fixed up with three stitches, prescribes some pain pills, then I’m back at the factory, telling everyone about the fat woman having a baby. “She thought it was heartburn,” I said.

Someone pats Herman’s big gut. They tell him maybe he should get checked for twins. We all laugh, especially Bubbles.

“You’re catching,” Herman screams at him.

Herman’s screaming, “Toss it, toss it,” and Bubbles can’t listen and catch at the same time. So he tosses a good one. Herman goes nuts.

So poor Bubbles takes my place, the machine starts, and the first panels come shooting out. Herman’s standing there watching. He sees a panel with a blemish. We’re supposed to toss those. Bubbles doesn’t see it. Herman’s screaming, “Toss it, toss it,” and Bubbles can’t listen and catch at the same time. So he tosses a good one. Herman goes nuts.

“You idiot,” he screams again, and Bubbles tosses another good one, then another. Herman shuts everything down. “What the fuck are you doing, Bubbles?” he yells, his hair standing up like a porcupine.

“You said toss it,” Bubbles yells back.

He grabs Bubbles by the collar, dragging him past the skids to the main assembly line. That’s where you went when you couldn’t catch. They stuck you doing nuts and bolts, a bag to each box, instructions, plastic caps, rail end assemblies. The dummies did that. Herman was telling Bubbles he was a dummy, dragging down the line by his collar.

Everyone’s watching Bubbles getting tossed around like one of those bags of nuts and bolts. It’s a sorry sight. We figure Bubbles has to just take it. Only Bubbles doesn’t figure it that way. Maybe it’s the humiliation, maybe it’s seeing Gizmo’s blood on the floor. He stops in his tracks. He won’t budge. Herman gives him a yank. Bubbles still won’t move.

“You want me to crack your skull?” Herman screams.

Bubbles sticks out his chin and squints his eyes.

“You hear me, you little shit?” Herman says.

He doesn’t get a chance to say anything else.

Man, he chases Bubbles from one end of the factory to the other. The line stops, the forklifts stop, people are running out of the offices.

Bubbles pulls that wrench out of his pocket and hits Herman over the head with it. Even with the machinery going, we can hear the crack.

Herman stands there, eyes flaring, one hand pressed to his head. He looks at his hand, sees the first spot, and he’s off, a big man with a big sloppy gut, ready to pull Bubbles apart right there on the assembly floor.

Man, he chases Bubbles from one end of the factory to the other. The line stops, the forklifts stop, people are running out of the offices.

Bubbles runs out the side door and across the field. He runs right over to the highway. Herman, meanwhile, is taken to the shipper’s office. He needs stitches, but he won’t go. At least he won’t until the office manager tells him he doesn’t have a choice. He’ll get docked if he doesn’t go.

So Ziggy, one of the shippers, takes him to Emergency, and they’re sitting in the Waiting Room. All the while, he and Herman are wondering if the fat women there are giving birth.

We thought that was funny as hell. Even Herman was smiling. Then who walks through the side door but Bubbles. He’s all covered in burrs and scratches. Herman looks him up and down. He doesn’t seem so threatening with a bandage around his forehead, but he’s threatening enough.

Bubbles rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet.

“Sorry for hitting you,” Bubbles says.

Just like that, Herman’s thumb goes out.

“You’re catching,” he yells.

Bubbles doesn’t argue. He takes his place at the end of the extruder, his short little legs spread wide apart. The machine starts and out come those panels, one by one, Bubbles swinging them into stacks of twelve, slapping the pile, starting a new one.

It’s like he doesn’t care if those panels cut him or not.

Funny thing, though, Bubbles doesn’t look scared anymore. It’s like he doesn’t care if those panels cut him or not. When a blemish comes, he tossed it. When we retool for the posts, he stands there like all catchers, hands on his hips, waiting to start again. He’s the crazy one now.

I think Herman knew Bubbles was crazy all along. He’s proud of him. He never screams at Bubbles again. Crazy or not, Bubbles is one helluva catcher. Even the Caribs, like Big Lester, have to agree. So now we just call him “crazy.” and he’s okay with that, too, although he still carries a wrench.

Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist, and former advertising copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Robert’s other articles and stories at robertcormack.net

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Comments

Robert Cormack

1 month ago #9

Robert Cormack

1 month ago #8

Jerry Fletcher

1 month ago #7

Robert, this was absolutely riveting. I've been there and know these people at least their cousins and brothers. Brilliant. And so it goes.

Neil Smith

1 month ago #6

Love this. It really captures the insane mix of boredom and danger as well as the fringe people who work in jobs like this. 

Ken Boddie

1 month ago #5

Needs a new title, Rob. How about “Catcher in the Wry?” 😂🤣😂

Robert Cormack

1 month ago #4

Lisa Vanderburg

1 month ago #3

Great imagery, Robert!

Robert Cormack

1 month ago #2

Helena Jansen van Vuuren

1 month ago #1

Great read - thank you!

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