In the summer of 1983 I went to work in a sawmill. The foreman was a big, shopworn looking man who wore a farmers cap and chain smoked Marlboro cigarettes. He coughed often and was missing two fingers off his right hand, which was his smoking hand. His remaining three fingers were stained nicotine yellow, and were gnarly with callouses. You can tell a lot about a man by looking at his hands. My hands, when I started working there, were soft as a babies. He and I were the only white people working in the mill.
When I got to work at 7 A.M. the trucks would already be there, loaded down with tree trunks, the ends still oozing sap. Before the saws started up and the engines began spitting out all that carbon monoxide, the mornings were actually enjoyable with the scent of wood and country air.
The logs were taken off the trucks with a big claw and dropped onto a conveyor belt. Inside, the logs fell into a cradle in front of an 8 foot tall carbide tipped circular blade, spinning at 1800 rotations per minute, which we just called the 8-foot. The blade was held in place by a 6 inch Jesus nut and it made an extremely loud whine when it was spinning. Sitting just beside the blade in a little cage that came up to the hip was the blade operator. This operator had two levers to work with and one button. One lever made claws sink into the log and rotate it either clockwise or counterclockwise. The other lever made the spinning blade, and the attached operator off to the side in his cage, slam forward and cut the log, or retreat backwards and reset for another cut. The button was on/off. Fans blew the sawdust into piles outside the building, except for the finer particles, which the fans blew right into our eyes.
After the 8-foot cut off huge slabs of wood, a conveyor belt carried the slabs into a gangsaw, where multiple spinning blades converted the slab into some of the ugliest, roughest, 2x4 boards any carpenter has ever seen. When they came out of the gangsaw they fell down off the conveyor belt onto the floor. That's where I came in.
I had a pile of boards, an iron pike sticking out of the ground about 3 feet tall, and a pallet. I lifted the nearest end of the board, rested the middle of the board on the pike, and pushed down on my end. I swiveled the board over and sat the far end on the pallet, then lifted my end onto the pallet. They were far too heavy for me to simply carry over, one at a time, all day long. After moving one board, I did the next board. When my pallet got full, a man with a forklift came along and replaced it with an empty one. I did this for a mere 6 hours a day, which, combined with my white skin and my soft hands, made me a city boy, a tourist. Nobody liked me very much. I was too small. I was about to finish high school. I had a future, and all my fingers. There was no lunch break. There were no safety goggles or hearing protection or breathing masks. No safety inspections. No health insurance. No training. No shirts or air conditioning. Just an endless conveyor belt of boards crashing to the ground. Lift, push, swivel, lift, drop. If I fell behind, I got my ass chewed. There was no getting ahead. At the end of the day I dusted off equipment and pushed a broom. I was the only person in the building that didn't operate a machine. Just a metal pike and a broom. That's all they felt they could trust me with.
Sometimes, teeth would break off of the 8-foot. Usually they would just embed themselves into the lumber, but sometimes they would go off at an angle, whirling at a zillion miles an hour into the floor or walls, crashing and clacking around. One came to a spinning rest beside my pallet once. It was hook shaped, kind of like an ocean wave. It was hot when I picked it up. Nobody else seemed to notice or care. The saw just kept spinning. It took a lot more than one missing tooth to stop operations.
As I did my dance with the lumber the man operating the 8-foot worked in front of me. Slamming forward and back. Crank, crank, turning the log. The whine of the saw turning into a loud GYAAAWWWWW as it bit into the wood. The slap of lumber as it fell onto the concrete floor. People yelling into each others ears occasionally. I imagined what it would be like if the Jesus nut gave out and the blade was set free. Nothing would stop it. Not the tin walls. Not the trucks sitting outside. Not the ditch, or the Interstate, or the flesh of husbands and fathers.
Once, I thought it did break loose. I was lost in a haze of movement, my mind a million miles away. All of a sudden there was a loud screech and a pop. The 8-foot had came to an abrupt halt, almost throwing its operator out of his cage, the blade raking out teeth into somewhere unknown. The sound of the gangsaws and the engines seemed almost quiet, after the 8-foot stopped spinning. Everyone studied their own body for a moment, looking for holes where teeth might have passed through. The foreman came out of his office braying a loud stream of curses. We all went to look at the log the 8-foot had ground to a halt in.
It had metal rods driven into it. Whether the work of some bored shit brain teenager, or an environmental terrorist treehugger, we did not know. But someone had driven rods into the tree, almost costing us our lives. Operations stopped. The blade was replaced. I sat outside while the men worked, my ears ringing, my skin itching from sweat and sawdust. It was a very hot day. After sitting there for an hour the foreman yelled at me to go home, there would be no more use for me that day.
Supposedly most modern sawmills are nothing like the place I worked in. They are now marginally safer. If nothing else, they now scan trees for metal before sending them to the sawmill. I wouldn't know, I haven't had anything to do with the business for almost twenty years now, and I hope to never return.