I have a friend who used to work at Gold Beach Plywood. He was absurdly intelligent man: gentle, reflective, a writer. He ran a boat patcher for the mill. If you ever look at a hunk of plywood and see a football-shaped patch pressed into the veneer, well, that’s a boat patch. Richard stamped them into wood. He stood there all day, stomping on a pedal and made holey wood less holy. It was a ten-hour-a-day job, with two ten minute breaks and a twenty-minute lunch. He talked to nobody during his time at the patcher; in fact he had to wear earplugs to protect himself from the roar of the dryers, and the pressers, and the gluers. It was a repetitive and soulbreaking task that seemingly never ended. I asked him how he did this all day, for his exceedingly low wages. He was quiet awhile, and said, “Well, sometimes you do what you have to. I have two girls and a wife who need to live, and I love them more than anything. Sometimes those are the sacrifices you have to make.”
I tried this particular career path for an eternity one summer during college, pulling dried, pen graded veneer and putting it onto carts. We were a line of a half-dozen machine-men, whose sole purposes were to note the grade (A/B/C/D) of the thin dry wood, and throw it onto the cart ten hours a day, six days a week. I made $6.10 an hour: an extra ten cents on my paycheck because I worked nights. I longed for the dryer to break, or at least for the mill to run out of wood, so we could have a moment reprieve from this soul-extracting job. I’d say goodbye to one millrat every Friday, and ask him how he’d be spending his weekend. “Going upriver and getting drunk.” I’d see him Sunday and asked how Saturday went for him. “Went upriver and got drunk.”
Recently I’ve been watching the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program, with Mike Rowe. Every week he features men and women “with ordinary jobs that keep America running.” Really, it’s a salute to these people. He literally goes a mile in their boots, greasing and cleaning and pulling, and swearing, and putting himself in appalling danger, all to show smug, flabby middle class Americans what it’s like to be blue collar. My kids like watching it because Mike Rowe is a funny host. I like watching it for that reason as well, I guess. He was in Port Orford once, where he spent a day making cedar shakes and roofing shingles, and another day in the cranberry bogs up by Langlois. He never did make it into a plywood mill.
I could easily have been there: that guy, silently pulling off the green belt for years. If you’re still doing that, you’re the most amazing people I know. I’m just a librarian now, but I get it. I know the daily struggles and how lucky I am.
Gold Beach Plywood went defunct soon after the summer I spent working there. The mill site is just a half-mile of grass on the south bank of the Rogue River. I have the very unchristian reaction of cheering whenever I pass by the site (which I admit isn’t all that frequent anymore). Then I remember my friend Richard, who depended on the place to feed his family and keep his car running. Hundreds of others like him depended on it too.
So, when my pasty white body sits at my desk, stuffing electrons through the Internet into an online repository, I sometimes try to remember them, and thank them (and Mike Rowe) for reminding me. They’re mostly good hardworking people, just trying to get to Saturday so they could go upriver and play with their kids, and maybe make themselves blind drunk so they won’t be forced to remember the monotony of the previous six days, and possibly the rest of their lifetimes.