Economy & Business

What Manual Labor Taught Me

(Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
At a chemical factory, I learned how industrial experience generates wealth for ordinary men, their nation, and the world.

Our latest issue on the American worker put me in mind of an old job. I can’t lie, this National Review posting is among the sweetest I’ve had. I can read and write almost anything that pleases me. But, I did have one other job in which my mind was even freer than it is here. Strangely, this mental and spiritual freedom, one I sometimes long to experience again, was found working in a chemical factory.

An outsider might imagine that industrial chemistry is the highly controlled application of science. They might picture the somewhat androgynous-looking workers, wearing the proper and properly cleaned protective clothing and masks, pulling down pieces of equipment, fitting them to successive drums of chemicals, and thereby filling up their enormous glass-lined tanks. Then they turn on the agitators, open a series of valves that release the second and third reactants into the tank. Maybe this is followed by a second distillation process, a little maze of slightly more delicate, but still impressively large glass tubes that carry out the final steps.

In the end, the product comes out clean and ready to pack and ship to some other enormous factory — maybe in agribusiness, in the industrial-machines business, or to a microchip maker. Either way, this thing we made is bought at a high price, and it gets out there into other products made in other factories. And sometimes the chemical factory, more or less, is just like that.

But more often than not, my short experience fit with the earthier language of Breaking Bad; chemical reactions are a cook. There are messes and bad batches. There may be horrid smells along the way. Some chemicals used at the plant where I worked smelled exactly like rotting meat, scores of thousands of gallons’ worth of it. Halfway down the road on the commute in, you could tell we’d taken delivery of that nasty stuff. Luckily, your nose would adjust and begin to tamp down the olfactory nerves for that. I would swear that my brain would somehow refocus my schnoz on the omnipresent smell that spools of old metal wire give off. Like in a kitchen, you have to wash your hands constantly. Unlike in a kitchen, you often used acetone for the first wash. We had bottles of the stuff hung up by sinks. Also like in a kitchen, experience was often more valuable than a good recipe.

Rarely, I would develop an odd rash on the skin. Just a hazard of the job. Once, I confused one valve with another and sent menthol spraying out everywhere on the floor. Someone helped me stop the gusher. It covered everything in that minty smell. But I had to clean up the mess. It was like standing in a small tub of VapoRub. The whole lower half of my body succumbed to the chill numbness of it within an hour. I walked through that odd sensation in my legs for days.

I got the job through my girlfriend’s father, now my father-in-law. He had worked there for decades. He didn’t have advanced degrees in chemistry. He had gone to a small Catholic college in the South, and to judge from the stories he tells, the students and faculty spent most of their time finding creative or daring ways to bring hooch into their dry county.

The chemical company itself had expanded from a bathtub serving chemicals to students at Cooper Union, to a plant in Westchester, N.Y., and finally into Danbury, Conn. Though it was a closely held family-owned company, it was often an important link in the middle of incredible supply chains that ran across not just the continent but the world. It had a good reputation for clean work. Things came in from Asia, went through our plant, and then went back out to Asia. In other words, there was nobody local to the Pacific Ocean that could do what we could.

And I saw up close how his experience in this kind of work generated massive wealth. My father-in-law was like a master chef who knew each type of cook backwards and forwards. The recipe might come in from someone working in lab conditions, with a Ph.D., maybe someone who was a specialist. But it would remind my father-in-law of some other reaction, and he could come up with a method of doing it at industrial scale that improved the yield or purity. Sometimes it was simple things to do with temperature or timing. The value he created went to him in raises and a great health-insurance plan — which he needed. Some of it went to the company, of course. But because chemistry is a competitive process, mostly the savings went out into the world. I’m quite serious when I say that your food, your computers, and your government’s arsenal of weapons are all cheaper or better because of little efficiencies that my father-in-law and men like him discovered in smelly places like that floor in Danbury.

This all makes it sound glorious. In some ways, even for a grunt like me, it was. I made more money than my friends did doing temp jobs in offices. The downside was that our factory was not air-conditioned. Also, the process of industrial chemistry can be absurdly crude. And young workers like myself would do the crudest work.

For months I handled the back end of production for ammonium formate: that’s ammonia mixed with formic acid. It’s used in other chemical reactions. Even though I wore a breathing mask specifically to deal with the fumes from ammonia, the stuff came out of the kettles smelling like a soup made up of cat piss. I would fill 55-gallon drums with this stuff. Then I used a hand truck to bring them one by one to a freezer. Overnight, it would turn into a 55-gallon ammonium formate ice cube.

The next morning, I would truck four of those drums to an area of the factory floor. I would fit a metal belt around one drum, pull the chain to lift it to about waist height, and turn it upside down. Then I would beat the drum with a sledgehammer to break up the 55-gallon ice cube into chunks that fell into another container I placed underneath it. Each time I did this, I would challenge myself to do it in the fewest swings possible.

Then I would take a long steel L-bracket, one that reached to the height of my chest. One end of it was crudely spear-shaped. The other was wrapped in a lot of duct tape. The duct-tape end was the “handle.” I would spear this stuff until I broke up all the big chunks. Then I would scoop out this stuff — now the consistency of a cat-piss snow cone — into an industrial centrifuge. As it spun out the excess ammonia, I would prepare shipping containers, thinner drums lined with plastic bags. Then I would scoop the snow cone out into the plastic bags. I weighed and labeled each drum. And then I would repeat the process perhaps twice more before lunch, and then two times again afterward. Over and over again. Day after day.

The process was physically taxing. The muscles in my back and shoulders and arms were all growing or atrophying in odd ways, fitting me to the work even as it misfit me to my spine and hips. But as I sat there, elbow deep in ammonia snow cone, my mind took flight. I would come up with song lyrics and melodies for a band, several bands really, in different styles. I would come up with plotlines to novels I would never write. I would tentatively sketch them out. Maybe, if I had stayed in the job permanently, these creative urges would have collapsed on themselves like a dying star, generating gravity but giving no light. Some men at the plant seemed to have long since reached the dying-star phase. They earned a good living, but at what cost to their own ambitions?

The company never talked about things like diversity. But it was, by far, the most diverse workplace I’ve ever experienced. I had ample time to discover the unflattering national stereotypes that men from different Caribbean islands had for one another. And from them I learned that the only way to win respect was working hard, and working in a way that made work for others easier. Conscientiousness counted more among workmates than being clever.

But together, we were a clever little company. A family-owned David, making its way through a field dominated by Goliaths such as Huntsman, DuPont, BASL, and Dow. I’ve been surprised by how much I miss the freedom that comes when you drop a time card into a slot that says your day is done. But I don’t miss the other side of it, where an extra ten minutes coming back from lunch costs you. I sometimes miss the freedom my mind attained when doing repetitive, physically demanding work. But life sends me a whiff of rotting meat or cat piss somewhere, and I thank Bill Buckley for starting this enterprise, where all the sledgehammers and picks I wield are metaphorical.

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