Eighty-Nine Days at The Rouge

by Phill Pappas
illustration by Chad Higgenbotham

During the summer of 2004, I had an eighty-nine day contract with Ford Motor Corp. My commute from Ann Arbor to The Rouge in Dearborn, Michigan began at 5:30 am. The effects of whatever I had been drinking and smoking the night before lingered as lightly as the Russian occupation of Berlin. I would speed down I-94 to the Schaffer road exit in my red, two-door Ford Escort off of two hours of sleep. My only thoughts during the drive were to stay awake and, at all costs, get to my station on the line by 6:00 am.

When the line started moving, you’d better be there or it meant a nice chat and a write-up from a foreman and a union rep. Most mornings I was so short on time I’d have to sprint from the employee parking lot to the shuttle that took me to the Dearborn Truck Plant where we made the 2004/2005 F-150s. The shuttle was a necessary evil. The Rouge, which covers 1.5 square-miles, is a city in and of itself, and with ninety plus buildings, and a limited number of flat, open spaces, the logistics of parking demand that six thousand employees get shuttled in from a few main lots. I’d take stock of the time as the shuttle stopped, anticipating the shuttle’s door to open, and then bolt to the plant entrance. Almost always, it was 5:57 am.

After the first set of doors, I’d run up the stairs to the entrance of the corridor, skipping every other step on my way up. The corridor, bookended by heavy, steel doors, was the length of a football field and reminiscent of the long, fluorescent hallways of any major hospital. Large photographs portraying Ford executives (and employees) amidst philanthropic works hung on the whitewashed walls. The corridor led into the plant. I’d jump down another staircase and onto the main floor. As the colony prepped for its ten and a half hours of synchronized production, I’d weave through different sections of the line to my station. It was 5:59 am.

As I crossed over from the left side of line, one of my team-members spotted me and yelled, “Better get a mo’e on it, pops!” I ducked behind a gleaming, red F-150 and over to my station on Trim-Line-Two. I knew which of the twelve stations to run to based on my job from the previous day following the standard, clockwise rotation that our team observed. I threw my green MSU starter jacket on the ground next to a shelf containing an infinite number of rivets. The line started. It was 6:00 am.

The foreman passed and acknowledged my presence. I grabbed the ergonomic rivet gun that hung from the overhead track and shot five rivets into the floor of the truck. I caught my breath and allowed my red, swollen eyes to adjust to the permeating light. I was nineteen.

Danny, a thirty-three year Ford man from West Virginia, with no teeth on the left side of his mouth from thirty-six years of packing in huge wads of dip, worked opposite from me that day and laughed.

“Pops, you sho cuttin’ it close. Gonna git yo’ ass writ up again.”

Danny had taken to calling me “Pops,” because, in his words, “You work like a’ ol’ ass man.” After Danny started calling me Pops, it wasn’t too long before everybody called me Pops. Everybody just thought it was a play on my last name, Pappas. If anybody asked, “Why they call you Pops?” Danny, if within earshot, would holler out, “It because he works like a ol’ ass man,” and then he’d chuckle to himself.

“Naw, Danny, it might be close, but you don’t have to worry about me,” I said.

“Hell, Pops, I ain’t worried,” he said. “That what you think?”

“Come on, Danny. We all know if I get canned you’re gonna miss me the most.”

“Shit. The fuck I will,” he said, “I’m tryna git you fired.” He laughed.

The line moved at a speed that gave each person approximately thirty to forty-five seconds to do their job, depending on how large the task. On Trim-Line-Two, the tasks varied from installing a few rivets into the floor of the cab to snapping in the A-Bar with a couple of screws, to attaching the B-Bar, then screwing in the heating duct (which we called frog legs) into a slot just below the dash with a couple of screws, to attaching a knee bracket with six rivets on the driver’s side dash, and a few others that all involved snapping, skewing, riveting, popping, and above all moving quickly.

The most dreaded job on our team was at the start of our section. The worker had to shoot in a couple of rivets and then climb into the cab of the truck with a small stool and a circular piece of rubber, sit on the stool, and pound the rubber seal onto the edges of the not-yet-fastened moon roof. This task was a pain in the ass for many reasons—the main complaint being too many movements and not enough time.

This being a new plant, most of the rivet guns and screw guns and other tools had sensors in them that knew exactly how many rivets and screws where supposed to go into each truck, and at what torque for every vehicle. If you missed a screw, the line would stop and an alarm like a cat in heat glued to a megaphone would sound. Lights would flash. The overall effect being you would fix the problem diligently and in a couple of seconds to avoid pissing off the other workers, foremen, and costing the company tens of thousands of dollars.

The problem with the moon roof’s rubber seal was that there was no sensor attached to the piece of rubber – obviously. So if you didn’t pound that thing in correctly on your first try, within fifteen seconds, well, your ass would ride down the line in an unassembled F-150, sitting on a little fucking stool. When you’d finally pound that damn rubber thing in, you had to exit the truck (stool in hand) in the middle of someone else’s station, bewildered look and all, and sprint back to yours where you were already behind on the next truck (if the truck’s tag that hung from on high indicated that it had a moon roof – not all of them did).

Most of the people on my team hated the moon roof. I didn’t mind it too much. I was decent at it. I’d pop the four corners in then slide my hands along from the corners to the center, applying the correct amount of pressure needed to get the snug fit without complication. If you managed to do these same movements, in the same way, four times, then there weren’t any problems. This, however, seemed a harder task for some of the others and I tried to empathize with their plight.

I could jump into the cab, get the stool down, spin, slide, spin, etc., and I was done. When you’re forty-five or fifty-five years old, the word “jump” no longer exists in your lexicon. It was always a kick watching some of the older heads shuffling into the trucks, stool in hand, trying to get that piece of rubber to fit just right. Danny was by far the best to watch.

You have to understand, first and foremost, that Danny was the fucking man. He’d been working for Ford since he was a teenager, lived in West Virginia with his wife on non-overtime weekends, and lived in Detroit during the workweek. He was also the owner of a mint, canary yellow 1967 Mustang with a matching interior. That was one cool car. Danny had been at The Rouge forever. He would talk about the other, now inoperable, plants at The Rouge with venom on his breath and a gleam of wildness in his eye, like the leader of an outlaw posse reminiscing on the good ol’ days of lawlessness in Carson City.

“You don’t know how fuckin’ good you got it, pops. Over at the ol’ plant, ‘cross the way, fuckin’ shithole didn’t have no air condition’ shit, no fuckin’ heat in the winter, just hot as hell is’self all year. And dark as heel too. Couldn’t see a damn thing in there. You working blind as a bat. Just everybody smokin’ all the damn time. You don’t know how good you got it in here.”

“Damn,” I said.

“They didn’t have none of them tools to fit your body type stuff, none that. You had to bend and climb and twist to get whatever piece of whatever in its place, and at the end of the week you couldn’t feel yo’ fuckin’ arm from all that shit.”

“You couldn’t feel your arm?” I asked, laughing.

“Shit no. I’m tellin’ you, pops, fuckin’ pussy like you never woulda made it back there. You be quittin’ as soon as you had the chance, he-he-eh.”

I’d watch Danny climb into the F-150 with impressive quickness. He’d throw the stool into the cab of the truck before entering and once inside he’d flip it over and sit. He’d bitch about the moon roof the entire time. “Fuckin’ dumb moon roof, got me climbin’ in the truck and shit. Why ‘on’t they put on some other part of the line, somewhere like over on Trim-One or Three or something…”

Unfortunately, no matter how quickly Danny, myself, or a couple of the other aces on our team moved, there were five or six people who suffered from Fat-Kid Leg-Kick disorder or Molasses Knee. (FKLK disorder—common to obese types who prefer restrictive pants, and yet who still consider swinging a leg over a low fence or barrier a possibility; Molasses Knee – a disorder in both proprioception and speed.)

photo by Mark Gouldsmith

photo by Mark Gouldsmith

Because it was a new plant, the engineers, foremen, and union reps would come around and time people at various stations. As time passed, they’d work out the kinks. The line became more efficient. The day that the engineers came to time the moon roof station, I was working.

As they walked down the line in their khaki’s, white and blue button-ups, ties, and safety glasses, Danny approached me.

“Aight, Pops, these men here to time you, so don’t fuck this up.”

“I’m not gonna fuck it up, Danny.”

“You better not,” he said. “You gotta take yo’ time with this shit right now, and then they gonna move that damn moon roof somewhere else.”

The engineers walked up, and my team leader, Pete, introduced them to me.

“This is, Phill,” he said, “he’s one of my fastest.”

The engineers examined the station a bit, looked up at the track that hung above the line, and said a couple of words to each other. Danny and a couple of the other guys on my team had their eyes trained on me, wondering if I was going to sandbag enough to convince the engineers. They knew it was a subtle art.

I continued to work, not really paying attention to the fact that I had three men with stopwatches timing my every action. After shooting my four rivets, I grabbed my stool and rubber seal, and I bounced into the truck. I snapped in the four corners of the rubber into the roof and slid my hands from the corners to the center. I applied a little bit more pressure with my right hand than with my left, giving the rubber seal an uneven hold on it’s front edge. I spun around to work on the back edge and popped it easily in place. I turned to my left and right, snapping in both sides, and I feigned frustration when the front piece of rubber popped out of place. I started pounding the rubber with my fists, trying to jam it in place. After ten seconds, it popped in.

I hopped out of the cab of the truck with my stool and bolted back to the start of my station, dropping the stool by my side and grabbing my gun and four rivets in a nice smooth motion. I shot the rivets into the floor of the cab, grabbed the stool from the floor and the interior-matching, tan rubber seal off the rack, and I jumped into the truck. More frustration. Feigned defeat. The engineers timed me through four cycles, and then they had seen enough.

Danny walked up to me after a few minutes had passed, and he said, “A’ight, Pops. You did good.”

When the line started the next day, the moon roof was gone from Trim-Line-Two, and I watched some asshole on Trim-Line-One grabbing that little stool and rubber seal, shaking his head as he hopped into the cab of a truck. Danny saw me staring at the poor bastard across the way, and the right side of his mouth pulled into a grin. The left side of his face stayed frozen, enveloped tightly on the mouse-sized ball of chew he held against his gums.

A normal workweek at Ford was fifty hours, 6:00 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday. Overtime weeks included Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. We got paid time-and-a-half on Saturday, double-time on Sundays. I made $1,100 per week, after taxes, and on overtime weeks I’d make $1,800. (The money so good, I considered dropping out of college during and after every day I worked.)

On the weekends, overtime consisted of driving fully assembled trucks through the plant. You’d hop into the truck, turn on the radio, wait for the truck in front you to move forty feet, drive forty feet, put the truck in park, hop out, walk back to your starting position, get in another truck, adjust the radio, and then drive that truck forty feet. We did that for twelve hours at a time, and I never once bothered to ask why, exactly, we were doing that. For this, I was paid twenty-seven dollars per hour on Saturdays, and thirty-six dollars per hour on Sundays. It was the easiest money I’ll probably ever make in my life.

I missed one overtime Sunday, because I was too drunk to drive to work. I’d passed out in the bed I grew up in, unaware as to how I got there, my mother yelling at me to get to work.

“I can’t,” I said.

“You have to go to work.”

“I’m still drunk. I’m not going. Get the fuck out of here.”

Danny gave me shit about it the next day.

“The fuck you miss that free money for, yesterday,” he said.

“Oh, man, I was too fucked up from the night before,” I said, “couldn’t make it if I’d wanted to.”

“Stupid, Pops,” Danny said, “That’s a young man’s game you playin’.”

And, of course, he was right.

I’d leave the plant at 4:30 in the afternoon and drive straight into summertime, construction-laden rush-hour traffic. Although the plant was only about twenty-six miles from my apartment, it could take up to two-and-a-half hours to get home. I started planning ahead by keeping a nice fat bag of weed in my dash. I’d merge into the parking-lot of an interstate, smoke a bowl, turn up the Hendrix, Outkast, or Bob (whatever was in the car), and I’d chain smoke cigarettes until I got back to Ann Arbor. It was a routine that made the unnerving aspects of summertime gridlock in Michigan dissipate rather easily.

I’d pull my car into my driveway on Willard Street and make my way to the front porch. I’d lie down on one of the couches, and I’d tell myself that I was tired and I needed sleep—I was tired and did need to sleep. But, like every day prior, that nap was short lived. Some friends would inevitably show up, and we’d walk to the liquor store down the street and buy, indiscriminately. I had money, and I didn’t care.

I’d hit my bed at 3:00 am, only to be awakened two-and-a-half hours later at the behest of my shrill, analog alarm clock. It always felt like a meager five minutes had passed. I’d jump out of bed, pull on some shorts, and hustle out the door to my car.

One particular aggressively transcendental morning, while speeding down I-94 with the windows down and the stereo up, I slapped myself while I drove. I stuck my head out the window – doing anything, anything to stay awake. I nodded off, but only for a couple of seconds.

I opened my eyes and saw brake lights looming. It registered that I was about to slam into the back-end of a traffic jam at a very high speed. I pulled the wheel to the left, missing the car in front of me by a few feet, and proceeded to bypass the entire traffic jam at the aforementioned speed. Taillights melted together in the gridlock, forming a snake of glowing red steel. My arms were locked, and my hands gripped the wheel with shock and adrenaline. I passed the traffic jam, picking up a familiar sign, and I slowed down, turning onto the off ramp for Schaffer road. “Shit,” was all I could say for a couple of minutes thereafter.

I parked in the employee lot, ran to the shuttle, and made my way to the plant. I sprinted out of the bus and towards the plant entrance. I darted inside the building and up the large staircase, down the corridor with the photographs, and into the main floor of the plant, down another set of stairs and onto the line of the floor. I looked at the large digital clock that hung ominously in the center of the plant, and it read 5:55 am. I slowed my pace, walking along the yellow “safety” paths adjacent to the line, and cut right. As I walked towards Trim-Line-Two, just a couple of lines away now, I saw Danny walking towards me.

“Look who decided to show up early!” he said.

“I see you listened and got a good night sleep, huh?”

“Yuuup,” I responded. I considered explaining what, exactly, had just taken place.

“Can’t keep playin’ that young man’s game,” he said. “Gonna git you fired.”

“I’m starting to think you’re right, Danny.”

“Course, I’m right muw’fucker. You just too stupid to hear what the fuck I’m trying to say.”

As we walked to our stations, we passed by our foreman, Ken. He nodded at Danny and I, his version of good morning. I was on frog legs for the day. It was something like my fortieth day at the plant. I had forty-nine more to go.

The line started moving. It was 6:00 am.◥

Phill Pappas is the author of One Page At A Time: Getting Through College with ADHD. When he’s not traveling, Phill lives, writes, and performs in Austin, TX. Instead of working on his blog, he’s currently doing laundry.
Chad Higgenbotham is a mixed media artist originally from Mansfield, Ohio, and currently living in Austin, Texas. where he eats every breakfast taco in sight. He’s been drawing as long as he can remember. He can out drink your step dad, and sing you every song Hank Williams ever wrote.