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Two Hands, a Dream: Working in a Textile Plant in the Heart of Dixie

Updated on April 1, 2017
kenneth avery profile image

Kenneth has been a member of HubPages for five years. He is retired from a 23-year career in the weekly newspaper business.

The year is 1974. September to be exact. Being fired from my "first" job one year just fresh out of high school in May, 1972, I stopped by Toll-Gate Garment Corp., Hamilton, Ala., one of the many contributing industries helping to bolster this country's prosperity, to talk with a long-time buddy, "Ron," his real first name, about employment.

He called me that very evening to inform me to report for work the next morning at 7 a.m. My first reaction to this news (after I hung up) was rats! You'll understand this exclamation of disappointment if you have ever worked in a garment factory or now employed in a Mexican or other out-of-country textile plant.

To those who are scratching their heads about now, a textile plant is what the film, Norma Rae was about. Remember Sally Field standing on a table holding up a homemade sign that reads: "UNION!"

Sadly, the plant where "Ron" and I were employed was strictly non-union.

Early textile plant in the U.S.A.
Early textile plant in the U.S.A. | Source

Every Morning

you have your usual clatter, chatter and yakking mouths trying to lie and drink that unmistakable break rom coffee simultaneously. Quite a feat if you are swift. Quite a guffaw if you are clumsy. These are daily memories you can bet your house on becoming true between the hours of 6 and 7 a.m., the accepted time for work hands to get in line and clock in for work in plants.

A moment of clarity: down south "hands" is what we refer to as employees and "plants" are terms for factories. I have heard the occasional tongue slip by a vacationing northerner to our "neck of the woods," another ruralism meant to signify "homeland."

Isn't living where you are most comfortable grand? This question really had nothing to do with my hard-hitting topic of what dreams evolve from hands in plants in the south where I grew up. Oh, yes, sir. (I should have used another ruralism, yes, sireee) I saw my time in plants before embarking on a 24-year grind in the daily newspaper game.

What? You thought all of this time that I was born with a silver hub in my mouth? Not quite. I know what the annoying feeling is like to be disturbed at 5:30 a.m., Monday through Friday while having one of the best dreams possible for mortal man by a fifteen-buck General Electric clock radio set on some annoying country station where hog reports are like the Holy Grail of radio news. That is only the beginning of plant life, my friends.

This is proof of nothing good comes from outsourcing American jobs to foreign countries such as in the case of our now-depleted textiles industries.
This is proof of nothing good comes from outsourcing American jobs to foreign countries such as in the case of our now-depleted textiles industries. | Source

One can Actually

see the greased clockwork of industry turning as you park your car that the bank owns and you have it secured in the very, very back of your mind if you miss too many days from your plant job, the bank will come-a knocking and won't care if the house is a-rocking for they repo men have no heart much less a soul. All they care about is the few hundred they make on slobs like me who all but sold their souls to own a car, have a job and make real American money in an American plant.

There is a certain sound made by a timeclock that has been used way past its better days. "Thung! Thack!" That is the best I have. I am not known for my timeclock impressions. I do a better Jackie Vernon, the sad stand-up comic who appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show and that was it. But please do not ask me to Vernon anytime soon for my heart breaks each time I see him in my memories trying his hardest to be a super star and failing right before my eyes.

Maybe if I had the dough, I might hire a few good artists from Marvel Comics who are masters of sound affects in comicdom. Remember the Batman show on ABC in the late 1960's with Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as Robin? And those awful fight scenes. The "Thud!" "Whack!" "Zam!" grew old. Quickly. Even I knew at that early, stupid age that those fights were not real.

Rolls of fabric in a textile factory.
Rolls of fabric in a textile factory. | Source

Like Clockwork, you get to Your Work Area

and start the daily ritual of acting like you are a happy employee just in case the plant manager (who was nothing more than someone like you who got lucky one day by catching the plant owner in a compromising position with his secretary in the stock room and suddenly he was somebody) walks by to see his flock of blind sheep clipping and snipping the time away just to make another payment on the Chrysler Cordoba. (I hated that car).

My best plant friend, (at that time) "Ron," who is a veteran of plant life, looks and acts like he is confident about a new project "Mr. Doyle" the silver-haired plant manager who loved Vantage cigrettes and smoked even while it was not break or lunch time just to hack us common hands off who also smoked, but only in designated areas and times.

"Hey, try to get this cut out on the floor," "Ron" instructs me with the voice of a seasoned plant vet.

I take the worksheet from his hands (while "Mr. Doyle" is lighting up a Vantage near the shipping dock) and start to find the cases of rolled fabric sent to our plant from some weaving company in Mississippi for the seamstresses on the sewing floor to make into over-priced shirts for working slobs like me and "Ron" to make us feel good about our hard work, sweat down to our butt cracks, and no overtime pay on our check stubs.

I am half through with the worksheet when "Ron" suddenly wants to chat about girls. "Great," I reply as we sneak to the break room for a quick soda we purchase from off-brand condiment machines for seventy-five cents. What a deal.

"Sherry wants to break up with me," "Ron" confides in me.

"How do you know?" I respond before taking a huge gulp of the off-brand, fake orange flavored drink.

"She was just in one of those moods. You know?" he says shaking his head of curly black hair that he finds unmanageable.

No, I don't know, I think to myself, but lie to "Ron" as guys do when their pride is on the line and agree with him about this "Sherry" gal whom I secretly find very hot and very available although "Ron" believes that she is his girl.

We thought like this in the early 1970's way down south in Dixie. Don't call out Jeff Sessions' National Guard on me for saying that because even though Donald Trump is our elected President, I still have, I think, a little Freedom of Speech left. Don't I?

"Ron" starts mumbling about some other subject that I find totally uninteresting and doesn't notice as I drift off to finish finding the rolls of cloth on the worksheet that I have folded up and stuck in my left back jeans pocket.

A woman sews shirts in a typical garment plant in the early 1960's.
A woman sews shirts in a typical garment plant in the early 1960's. | Source

During our Lunch Break

I try to support "Ron" as we eat lunch at his apartment. Okay it wasn't his apartment, but his mom's place she was renting in a thing called the projects where we live. The apartments are really nice and have real linoleum floors thanks to Federal funding to H.U.D. and I do not feel like explaining what this anachronism means.

"Why don't I call her, you know, to kinda feel her out for ya'?" I tactfully ask "Ron" who is obviously still got this "Sherry" on his mind. How do I know this? "Ron" loves microwaved cheeseburgers bought in a grocery store. But on this day he only eats half of the cheeseburger on his styrofoam plate.

Guys have a special sense about them to notice such things.

"Yeah, uhhh, okay. That might work," "Ron" agrees as we walk back to his 1969 Chevelle, maroon in color, to head back to the plant. Garment plant, to be exact. And folks, that Chevelle would run like a scaled dog. (Don't you just love my ruralisms)?

I can't wait until quitting time to get home and get on my phone to call "Sherry." I know that it sounds and even looks like I am a backstabbing slob of a guy, but "Ron" does not know that he has given me a golden opportunity to get a date with "Sherry" for some up close recon on why "Ron" thinks that she is moody. No harm in taking her out to eat and conversing in harmless jibber jabber.

Dye used in textile plant to put colors in cloth.
Dye used in textile plant to put colors in cloth. | Source

The Rest of That Day

crawls by with the speed of an elderly snail on its last leg. "Ron" is getting more and more distracted by his worries about "Sherry" and that works good for me for the more he worries, the fewer the worksheets I have to work on before we go home.

"Burringggggggggg!" This is my sound of the electronic buzzer the plant owner spent a grand total of two-hundred and fifty-six American dollars on to install to signal us it was work, break, lunch, and quittng time. Sometimes we joke among ourselves (and far away from plant manager, "Mr. Doyle) about one day the plant owner giving us a new buzzer sound that tells us it is time for us to let our bowels move or kidneys to act. Kinda like a Federal prison.

"Ron" and I walk slowly to the timeclock and with every step I offer up some reassuring statements that will put down any suspicion about "Sherry" going out with me. Guys down south do this all of the time so do not give me that sensitive, over-liberal attitude about how we interact with each other and girls.

"Thung! Thack!" we clock out almost in sync and head to our cars and go our seperate ways. Halleijuah! Another day in the plant done!

Commercial sewing machine used in typical garment plants in the south.
Commercial sewing machine used in typical garment plants in the south. | Source

Upon Arriving Home

my mom is busy watching M*A*S*H on CBS when the network had a decent programming for afternoons. She speaks to me. I speak to her. Then with the style and grace of Greg Morrison, "Barney," electronics wizard, on another good CBS program: Mission: Impossible, I dial "Sherry's" number from the slip of paper "Ron" has given me. Talk about a lousy handwriting. "Ron's" writing was nasty.

Talk about sheer luck, the kind of luck only possessed by high rollers in Vegas, "Sherry" answers the phone. What luck. We talk for over and hour. I enjoy listening to her silken, teen voice over the phone, but when she strays off talking about her feelings, I laugh at something Alan "Hawkeye Pierce" Alda says to Wayne "Trapper John" Rogers while in surgery. Mother laughs too. "Sherry" hears us laughing softly, asks what is so funny and she also laughs softly when I tell her what we are laughing at.

"Sherry" agrees to go out with me that night which happened to be Friday night. My heart kicks like a young stallion just born to a poor horse rancher in Wyoming. I take extra pains with my bath and making sure that my personal hygiene is near perfect. Even the choice of cologne: Wild Country made exclusively for AVON. I read that on the label and feel great about my choice.

I look good. I feel good. I kiss my mom good night and she looks up and briefly smiles not wanting to miss any of M*A*S*H which only has ten minutes left in that episode. I am torn between staying the extra ten minutes to see how "Hawkeye" and "Trapper" make Larry "Frank Burns" Linville look foolish still in surgery or just going on to "Sherry's" place that just happens to be in the projects near the plant location where "Ron" and I toil each day to make our dough. (Jackson Browne, are you reading this)?

"Sherry" walks to my car, a 1974 Plymouth Duster, two-tone, bought new from a local lot and I have washed it until it shines without Turtle Wax being applied. Being a cool guy I have gotten out and now holding her door open for her to sit down. She is wearing a pretty green skirt and blouse and just the right color and fit. Unlike most teenage hotties, she sits first then slowly puts both legs into the car while giving me a small inviting smile. Talk about high roller luck. This is my night.

Knitting machines in some textile plants in the southland.
Knitting machines in some textile plants in the southland. | Source

Southern Definitions of Terms Used in This hub:

"Plant": factory or place where huge numbers of people work for a living.

"Hands": employees of factories, "plants."

"Dixie"" State of Alabama

Out Date Runs Very Late

into Friday night, but what can I say? It is summer and romance is evident in my Duster. I know that earlier I said that I hated the Chrysler Cordoba and I do. So much so that I didn't buy it although it was cheaper than my Duster. Guys do things like that when they are young and groping to find true love.

(Awkward pause).

"Sherry" and I hit it off fine. It is almost as if "Ron" doesn't exist. That sounds like a slob and I am sorry, but I was really making points with this red-headed beauty whose mild useage of perfume made my Duster smell like a love wagon.

Then toward the end of our date, again with the style and grace of Greg "Barney" Morrison, electronics wizard, I asked her about the moodiness that "Ron" had told me about and was she going to break up with him.

(Awkward pause).

"Sherry" kissed me on the mouth a few times, winked at me, and slid out for me to walk her to her front door. Yes, folks we did this in the deep south in the early 1970's. Get a grip. Listen to a few Frank Zappa LP's and relax.

The following Monday was both sad and happy. Sad for "Ron" and secretly happy for me. At break time (thanks to the electronic buzzer), I told him mostly a truthful account of the date I had with "Sherry," and that I followed through and asked her about her moodiness.

(Awkward pause). To give me time to slug down a few gulps of the fake orange drink from the off-brand condiment machine in our break room.

"Well, is she going to break up with me or what?" "Ron" asked while his pitiful hound dog eyes were glued to my lips for an answer.

"Well, man, yes. 'Sherry' is feeling like a break up, but she wants to remain friends with you," I reply using every dramatic pause I can get my mind around.

(Awkward pause).

"So if you were me, would you call her?" "Ron" asked and I knew that I had to answer just right to keep down his suspicion of my wanting to take "Sherry" out again.

"No, not really, man. That would surely destroy the friendly feelings that she still has for you," I replied never looking directly into his eyes.

"Okay. Cool," "Ron" replies not losing a step.

We never discussed "Sherry" for the rest of that day. Or in the days to come.

I never said that "Ron" was very smart.

Good night, Shelby, N.C.

P.S. "Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, I sure hope that you are looking down on this work for I thought of you often while writing this hub." Kenneth

© 2017 Kenneth Avery

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    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 2 months ago from United States

      Hey, Kenneth. I grew up in a textile area, bordering Georgia and Alabama. I worked for a few months in a cotton mill, between quarters of my junior college attendance, just to get some pocket change and get the feel of what many in my family experienced over the long years in which they struggled. It was quite an experience and one I shall never forget. Every night when I returned home I was so tired that I could not even take a bath. I was happy to return to college and it made me study a little bit harder to make the grade. I did. I earned four college degrees and taught school for more than twenty-five years; I will never forget those days of such hard work and the tough times so many had in that part of the country. Many had kids to become lawyers, doctors and other successful professionals. They knew what it meant to earn a living. Blessings to you and family. Thanks for the memories that always mean so much. whonu.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 2 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Cool hub and down to earth writing. I worked in a cotton mill for a few years and spent almost 30 in manufacturing and your routine sounds familiar. Work, work work! Git er done but when the day is done and Friday rolls around our paycheck hopefully will be enough to pay our bills. I am a retiree now and my time is spent taking care of grandchildren and attending to honey do lists. I now wonder how I ever had time to work a full time job.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 2 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, whonunuwho,

      I am so thankful that you and I have a textile connection through this hub.

      I should have written at the very top: "true story," for this

      was the truth--working as high as 56 hours a week, but no

      overtime.

      But that is no justification for our country to ship our jobs

      to Mexico and abroad putting thousands of hard-working

      Americans out of work then complaining about the high

      unemployment figures.

      Such politics are tagged 'hypocrite' in my book.

      My mother worked in a sewing plant to get me through

      high school where she could quit, but her health was never

      the same as when she started this hard labor.

      Thank you for the good talk.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 2 months ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, Robert,

      You jump on in here with whonunuwho and myself to talk about how it REALLY was inside these sweat shops. But

      then, we were thankful just to have a job.

      But not long after I was hired in this factory, I learned

      the truth about how ungodly wealthy the owner of this

      plant really was--and made his dough on the back of

      the workers.

      I wonder today where Sherry ended up, but friends, she

      was one more good looking redhead.

      Write me anytime, fellas.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 2 months ago

      Well, I don't know whether to call you a back-stabber or a cool dude, Kenneth. And you left us hanging, so how did you and Sherry turn out?

      I did line work for a year in a southern plant, too, and strangely enough, I just loved it. The line I worked on made water heater controls, and we were urged to learn every job on the line so the faster workers, like moi, could run down the line and help the slower workers, or the workers in slower tasks, who got bogged down. I knew every job on the line except one. I'm so short the foreman didn't want me calibrating the finished product over the hot water tables because he was afraid I would get burned.

      That year was an enlightening one as I sat and listened to women crying over their unfaithful husbands or lovers, and watched the hussies walking by looking triumphantly at the cuckolded. Yep, it was an interesting place to be. You wrote an interesting article about this subject, my friend.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 2 months ago from Southern Illinois

      I remember the movie, ' Norma Rae ' I worked in a factory making billfolds. They went on strike for higher wages, it didn't happen, people crossed the line. Today it is still union free. I remember the owner was a staunch republican. I liked your story, a look back in days of old when a car was looked on as your station in life. I remember cadies were really cool...

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 8 weeks ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Ruby Jean,

      Thank you so very much for giving such warm comments on this great hub.

      Every bit of this text IS the truth.

      I am so sorry that you had to go on the line in order to get another job.

      It was very rough in order to work so hard.

      Keep your write me to let you know what you are doing.

      Peace.

    • kenneth avery profile image
      Author

      Kenneth Avery 8 weeks ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello, MizBejabbers,

      Well, to be totally honest, Sherry and I continued to talk quite a lot and were great friends. She was so very pretty and so feminine and did not look one thing wrong.

      Put as it turns so, she ran off unknown to me and "Ron" and we did not know where she went to.

      But I left Toll-Gate after Labor Day and I had married my wife a newly bride and just got sick of working so hard without getting much money to show for it.

      "Ron" fell in love with a pretty girl named Debbie, but in 1977 when my wife and I went in July we went to Adrian Michigan and when we went home, she had had a heart attack and deceased.

      I never got to get cover over my buddy.

      But Debbie and another guy are now married with a pretty girl who is now a nice guy and all is well.

      That is how the cookie goes when you a garment plant.

      Please keep me close to see where she is writing.

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 7 weeks ago from Kuwait

      Amazing hub Kenneth! :) This hub so well explains your experience in the "plant" and your date. I just loved how you have written this with seriousness, fun and humor. You're very talented and God bless you my dear friend. :)

    • profile image

      Kenneth Avery 7 weeks ago

      To: Dearest Sakina :)

      Your comments are so warm and kind. Thanks so very much.

      May God richly bless you.

      Peace.

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