The Coffin Banger

23 March 2014

During my grunt job era, I interviewed with a coffin factory and hired on as a metal finisher.  In case you don’t know, most coffins these days are made of .20 gauge cold-rolled sheet steel, not wood.  Oh, you can get wood coffins, but they cost like sin.  Anyway, because of metal unit’s prevalence, finishers were in great demand — especially because turnover was ferocious.

What a place this was.  It was on the north side of the city in a dingy industrial area served by a pot-holed gravel road.  The building was an old brick thing from the late 1880’s and looked every day of its age.  The shop where I worked had no air conditioning for the sweltering summer months and for the gelled winter days, there was a single gas-fired area heater located atop the south wall.  Fortunately, the toilets worked.

I understood the owner of this coffin factory got caught doing a no-no and was told to get out of managing the business.  Not one to see his baby fall into strange hands he couldn’t control, the Big Kahuna installed a shirttail relative in the corner office.  This shirttail relative , who worked in the factory, was an old witless creature who had no idea of how to run the business.  We came to know this fellow as The Big Green Thing, for he was fat and wore the same green workman’s ensemble day in and day out.  The Big Kahuna told The Big Green Thing to keep on with his regular job but told him that every once-in-a-while, he’d be summoned to the front office to affix his signature to some various documents. As to his job, The Big Green Thing would stride into the shop every other day, go to the welding bench for about two hours, fart around with metal parts, then stride out.  Never said a word to anyone.  It was like he didn’t even know we were there.  We thought The Big Green Thing had a make-work job so he could legitimately appear on the payroll. 

Anyway, as to my job.  Metal coffins consisted of several pre-stamped panels.  They were shipped in by rail and stored in a musty warehouse adjacent to the metal shop, where I hung my hat.  These panels were: One floorboard, four side panels, and two halves of the top (or, if the unit was to be a “sealer”, the top was one piece).  After normal working hours, some fellow we never saw cane in and roughed-out the next day’s supply of boxes.  For each floorboard, he cut two 2×6 slats six feet long, laid them in the bench, set a bottom panel atop the slats and *bang*, nailed them in place with an air powered nail gun.  The wooden slats let the coffin slide easily and noiselessly in in and out of the hearse — it wouldn’t do to have the box (as we in the trade called coffins) screech as metal slid over metal.  Next, he’d lay the bottom panel on the bench, position the four side panels just so, and spot weld them into place.  After that, he’d take an arc welder and weld the sides together at their midpoints.  Now you must understand that these welds were real hash jobs: When the arc was struck, the cold-rolled steel would buckle and twist from the heat and huge puckers and gaps opened.  Not only that, but his welds left behind great gobs of unsightly weld material.  But no matter, these unsightly welds would be covered by the end plates of the coffin’s handles (these parts are called “bright work”).  No one would ever see the awful workmanship.

When the day shift started, Donny would braze the visible portion of the corners together, i.e., the portions not covered by the bright work.  These were the parts visible to the viewers, and that’s where I came in.  It was my job to take a large electric grinder and sand the edges so everything was smooth as a baby’s bum and the seams lined up perfectly.  I did this for eight hours a day and became so good that I got an extra dime an hour.  

After I was done with a box, it went to Biff and Wink to have its lid affixed, be painted and have its bright work attached.  After Biff and Wink were through, it went to Nelson, who “upholstered” the box.  This upholstery looked like silk, right enough, but it was the flimsiest, cheesiest and cheapest material money could buy.  And why not, it would only be used once.  You might think a coffin is richly padded (it sure looks like it), but you’d be wrong.  A sheet of the upholstery material was simply laid on the bottom while the sides were puffed up with cotton wool covered by a sheet of the upholstery.  It was only for looks.  In truth, the body lay on the cold steel bottom panel but of course the occupant isn’t feeling anything anyway, so . . .

For those families who want to preserve the remains at all costs, the company produced a line of what we called “sealers”.  For these, the sides were welded properly — after all, this box was to be air-tight.  Then after I did my thing, Biff and Wink would spray a thick layer of automobile undercoating over all the seams so as to retain the gasses and liquids produced by a decomposing body.  Next, they glued a thick rubber gasket around the lip of the box and attached latches that would compress the gasket when closed.  Finally, they drilled a small hole in the back in which they mounted the valve from a car tire and pressure-tested the box.  If the box held its air pressure at some prescribed level for some prescribed period of time, the box passed muster and was placed in inventory, or shipped to the undertaker who ordered it.

Of course, being cheap cold-rolled steel of inferior quality, all metal boxes will eventually rust through and their contents return to the earth.  Of course you could buy a wooden box for your dearly departed, but they’re made of untreated pine and will rot through in even less time.  Now here’s an odd story: The crew in the wood shop (where they made coffins out of wood) told us they had a special order for a box made of cherry wood and outfitted with a telephone in case the occupant woke up.  I just can’t picture a man who’s had his blood replaced with embalming fluid coming to and calling home.

It wasn’t long before I began to do a lot of coughing and hacking and when I blew my nose, saw the issue was filled with black, gritty matter.  Looking around the shop one day, I realized the air was filled with metal dust and smoke from all the grinding and welding.  Not a good.  Finally, large pustules began to appear on my skin wherever clothing was tight.  The last straw came one evening when I came home to clean up.  The shower head broke the previous evening so I had to take a bath.  In showering, I couldn’t see all the crud and corruption being washed off but on this night, soaking in the tub, I a saw a gray, shiny slick form on the water and a black ring the texture of cottage cheese gather at the water line. Well, that was enough for me.  The next morning I walked in the office, asked the gal if she had my address.  When she said “yes” I told her to send my check there as I was done.  I turned, walked back into the clean fresh air, hopped in my car and went looking for my next grunt job.


The Blasted Heath

12 March 2014

In 1953, in the summer of my eleventh year, we moved from Minneapolis to Richfield.  Richfield!  Gad, what a misnomer.  Where we’d lived on the second floor of a stucco triplex, we now occupied a box-like rambler.  Where Minneapolis gave us winding streets on low hills with huge elms and oaks for shade and gentile breezes, Richfield gave us a blasted heath.  There were no trees to be seen, not a one.  The place was semi-arid with a blistering wind blasting dirt and sand into our eyes.  The streets were laid out in a monotonous and featureless grid.  Ugh.

And the sun!  Oh Christ, the sun.  Each day it blazed down on our house heating the place almost to incandescence.  Heat waves shimmered off the softened asphalt streets.  Lawn?  Ha.  It was just a brown, dry patch of hateful weeds, chiefly sandburs.

Ever seen a sandbur?  No?  Well it’s a type of grass suited to a desiccated wasteland, such as our “lawn”.  The weed’s fruiting bodies appear on the ends of low-lying runners that creep across the lawn. These fruiting bodies consist of six-odd little burrs covered in unbelievably sharp spikes that at the slightest touch, go deep in the flesh and break off.  At the very least, these burrs stick onto your pants, your socks, your sneakers . . . anything, and must be picked off with leather gloves.

I felt like I’d been exiled to Mars.

Anyway, Dad agreed the so-called “lawn” was a travesty.  “We needed to lay down sod,” he said.  He made the call and soon some yard tenders came in, uprooted all the damned sandburs, poisoned everything else and the week after, came by with a truckload of sod.  Three weeks and a lake’s worth of water later, we had a lawn.  Back in Minneapolis, the triplex had a lawn but it was tiny and could be quickly cut back with the push mower.  The mowing duty was shared by Dad, Jim Schlafer downstairs and Harland Nasvik upstairs.  Not so in Richfield; thanks to my being a strapping young lad, the job was mine.  One evening Dad came home with a gas-powered rotary mower.  He set it up then tried it out.  It roared and stank.  “What the hell’s that?” I asked, pointing.  “Your new job,” Dad replied.  I was on Devil’s Island for sure.

In any case, Ma decided we needed a shrub to dress up the front lawn.  One Saturday afternoon she and Dad came home with a thing called a Mugo Pine.  It was supposed to become a decent sized shrub at some point but what Dad hauled out of the trunk was a runt.  It was just a ball of roots topped with a little green thatch.  “Give it time,” Ma said.  Out came the shovel and a half-pint of sweat later, the Mugo Pine was planted, it’s ugly little top barely peeking above the grass.

Now you need to know Ma and I got along like two cats in a gunny sack.  Our relationship died years before and, by 1953, we spent much of our time tormenting each other.  One deadly July day the  following year, I was sitting in the oven-like house with a fan blowing on my face when Ma came in.  “Listen, buster,” she snarled.  “The lawn needs mowing.  Now get cracking.”

“Ma.  You gotta be shitting me,” I exclaimed.  “It’s a hundred degrees out there.  The sun’s at its zenith and there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Not a breath of air moving.  I’ll die!”

It was no good.  In mere moments I found myself standing outside with cotton stuffed in my ears, a hankie wrapped over my nose and goggles to keep the debris out of eyes.  I pulled the starter cord, the engine chugged to life and I was off.  With each pass I cursed Ma and the goddamned lawn.  I mowed the back yard first, working my way around the sides, saving the front yard to last.  Well, as I was making my umpteenth pass across the front yard, I saw Ma’s Mugo Pine out of the corner of my eye.  “Humm,” I said to myself, “There may be an opportunity here.”  The mower was running low on gas so I headed back to the garage for more, mulling over the possibilities for mischief and smacking my lips in anticipation.

Back out on the front yard, I restarted the mower and took up where I left off.  The Mugo Pine was but two passes away.  Then there it was, dead ahead, squat and ugly.  (In truth, the pine really was hard to see, especially through sweat-streaked goggles.)  I advanced the throttle to full power and headed straight into the little shrub.  Bang.  Thunk,  Buzz, Whir. Thunk.  A cloud of dirt, bark, wood chips and pine needles went spraying everywhere leaving naught but a tattered stump.  The deed was done.

Back in the house and rehydrated from my ordeal, I flopped on the couch in front of the fan, picked up a copy of Collier’s magazine and thumbed through.  Ma didn’t see the assassination of her Mugo Pine until the following afternoon.  But when she did, she came rolling in the front door at full boil.  “You little son-of-a-bitch,” she yelled, stamping her foot as she often did in situations like this, “What did you do to my Mugo Pine?”

“What?” I asked, feigning innocence.

Ma went on to detail the death of her beloved pine.

“Your Mugo Pine?  Is that what I hit?  Aw, Jezus, Ma!  I remember hitting something but my goggles were filthy and I couldn’t see well — I just assumed I’d hit  another dried-out dog shit.”

Ma proceeded to call me everything in the book.  Then, gritting her dentures said, “I’m going to take a nap,” and down the hall she went.  Slam went the bedroom door.

Payback’s bitch, ain’t it?