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I began my factory career in September of 1996. When I first began, I often said that I had no intention of becoming a thirty-year man… but if I did become one, there are far worse things that I could have done with my time. During those early years, there were more than 2000 people working in our facility, which had been a pillar of the community for the better part of a century. In those days, finding a decent parking space was almost as difficult as finding an open seat in the cafeteria.
At the time of my hiring, all eight floors of the massive structure were alive with activity. There was not one corner of the facility that was not being utilized for something. Everywhere that you looked, people were bustling their way from one place to another, frantically trying to keep pace with the tremendous amount of production that we were responsible for. It was hard work. Every day was a concentrated blast of activity that left me exhausted by the time I punched the clock to go home.
Despite the often grueling nature of my day to day routine, the people always made the efforts worthwhile. Many were the people who left an indelible impression upon me. First, we became friends. We worked hard together, struggled together, and always laughed together. No matter how hard we worked, we made sure to have fun while we did it. Day after day, year after year, we fought side by side in the trenches, until finally, we became family.
In those early years it was easy to laugh. There were so many of us who became close friends that the tremendous rift between upper management and production workers such as ourselves did not seem to matter much. Despite a recurrent theme of blatant disrespect, and a clear and present “us and them” mentality lorded over production workers, we still managed to work hard and have fun while we did it. However, nothing lasts forever. As the years wore on, we watched production dwindle as line after line left the facility, never to return. Where once we were the crown jewel of the corporation, our plant began to degenerate at a steady pace. While we watched our products leave, so too did we watch the labor pool steadily decline.
As the years of decline slowly passed, the facility became more and more empty. Entire floors became gutted out ruins with only the sound of air handling units to give them a semblance of life. Walking through these areas invoked the ghosts of past activity. The mind could actually see the ghostly shadows of equipment long removed, operated by faces long gone. Only the sound of near silence could break the spell before the actual voices and sounds of the past became a reality. As more and more portions of the plant took on these sepulchral qualities, the writing on the wall became more and more pronounced. The inevitable conclusion would not be a good one.
On November 5, 2015, the entire labor force was suddenly gathered together and herded into a remote warehouse that most people did not even know existed. As we all chatted nervously, shuffling from foot to foot in anticipation of what was to come, a man stepped up to the front of the crowd and called for silence. After some jostling about, he was granted a nervous quiet which allowed him to read the edict which he had come to deliver. Flanked by our plant manager, as well as various other higher-ups in the corporate hierarchy, the man read the announcement that our plant would be closing permanently in the early part of 2017. Our careers were ending. Our jobs would be sent elsewhere. It could be said that we had been running on life support for quite some time. After that man read the edict, it was obvious that the plug had been pulled. So began the slow and agonizing death of what was once the centerpiece of the organization.
Fast forward a little bit to the end of June, 2017:
Today, as I cleaned out my locker, I found a funny note that I had written to a friend who is long since removed. Yellowed with age, the note which had been tucked away for over fifteen years nearly brought tears to my eyes. It was a joke letter supposedly written by one of my fellow coworkers to another. It was merely one in a series that I had written once upon a time. These joke letters would circulate amongst our group on a regular basis, and we would laugh hysterically at each other as we read them. Part of what made our days so special was the fact that we teased each other incessantly. It was all in the name of fun, and a necessary part of who we were as friends and teammates. As I read the note, I remembered all of the joy that it brought to us. I recalled how important it was to each and every one of us that we be able to laugh with each other… and to laugh at each other in turn. No matter what we were going through either at work, or at home… we could always count on each other to make the day full of laughter.
Now, all of those friends are gone, my locker is empty, and all that I have left is a note that I had written once upon a time. Not long after reading this note, I found myself sitting alone in the very cafeteria where once no seat could be found. As I sat there alone, whiling away the last lunch break that I would ever take in that facility, I could not help but think of the isolated feeling that I had when I very first was hired. Despite hundreds of people surrounding me, I knew nobody and felt alone. If one of the strangers had gotten up from his or her seat, walked over to me and said “One day you will be the last man standing in this plant”, I would have laughed out loud at the utter absurdity of the whole thing. For some reason… I cannot seem to laugh right now. The laughter will return, it always does. But… somehow I know that it will never be the same.