When the Machines Sing

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found that I was in a dusky wood;
For the right path, whence I had strayed, was lost.

After graduating from high school, I followed the lead of my hero - Jack Kerouac, and went on the road - hitch-hiking throughout the western states. Upon my return to the mountains I grew up in - I attempted to become a responsible member of society and went to work at a lumber mill.

saw blade My first job was pulling boards off of a chain as they came down from being cut from the huge logs that went in the giant saw. Everyone on the line was assigned their own length of board - the ones closer to the saw pulled the boards that were 8 feet, the ones in the middle the 12 and 16, and so on - up to 24 feet, and we would shift up the line taking turns at the front. The men at the front three positions had to work frantically to pull the boards off and stack them as the shorter boards at the front came off extremely fast. The worker or two at the end of the chain had to deal with the longest boards and the rejects - and as such also had a hard time of it. It was hard, fast and dangerous work of the most intensely mindless variety.

As was to be expected, the crew consisted mostly of hard, foul-mouthed men of little intelligence or education, who were exceedingly course and cruel to newcomers. One exception was the saw operator - a gentle, soft-spoken man - who spent his breaks by himself reading and feeding a stray kitten he had befriended. One day, bored by the usual pigeons that were their victims, the mob scooped up the little kitty and threw her into the saw. It was then I decided to move on.

I transferred to the night shift - and to another saw. This particular saw cut huge heavy boards, but had the reputation for being slower and breaking down more. I discovered that while it was somewhat slower, the boards were so much heavier that it was no easier; and when the saw broke down - it merely meant we were left standing around in the freezing cold nights. It reached 70 below that winter with the wind whipping down the high mountain valleys - and you could count on the saw breaking down just when it was coldest. Even in our multiple layers - we would stamp our feet and curse and pray that the saw would soon start up again.

To pull the wood off the chain you wore special gloves. Your right hand (if right-handed) wore a heavy glove used to grip the board, while your left wore one fitted with chain mail on the palm. You pulled the board off, pushed down with your weight so that you were bent deeply, and lifting in one motion slid it across the mail on the palm of your left hand hard and out up into the open air. The board would fly with a zing, and when you reached the end of the board you would grab hold tightly of the trailing end and steer it onto the top of the pile, where it landed with a thump. It was an art, and when you could master throwing a 24-foot board you almost felt like a hero. When you had a saw running at top speed, and a full crew pulling - the air would be filled with boards flying zing - thump, with forklifts running about picking up the piles - which spilled and crashed to the ground frequently.

Of course, this crew was no better than the group I left on days: if anything they were worse. You would have been hard pressed to find a worse gang of murderous cutthroats, half-breeds, mental-cases, alcoholics and assorted riffraff on the high seas with Blackbeard and his ilk. To deal with their situation, drugs and cans of cheap beer were plentiful, although the primary drink of choice among us was a speed-baller's dream: coffee spiked with ample amounts of No-Doze and whiskey. This - along with the harsh conditions - led to violent mood swings, fist (and knife) fights, thievery, and even attempted murder.

As I was the new guy (that's what they called you - "New Guy") - I was often pulled off the chain for other "special" detail. Sometimes this was walking icy catwalks high above the mill while carrying armloads of immense saw blades. Other times it was un-jamming a log that had stuck into "The Hog" (this is what the huge round spinning saws that ground unusable, large trees into sawdust were called). This was particularly dangerous work, as you had to hook your ax (called a pickeroo) into the log and pull back on it to dislodge it. Often just a small amount of pull would cause the huge tree trunk to be jerked suddenly through the saw. If you were unable to loosen your pickeroo in time - it would be pulled into the saw and pieces of the ax head would shoot back at you. If you were unable to disengage your grip - you would be pulled into the saw. A friend of mine once pulled his pickeroo back and broke his nose. One time a log I pulled on shot with a huge lurch into the saw. Luckily, I got the ax out in time, but my metal hardhat fell in. I hit the ground as a shower of shrapnel came shooting out - the biggest a chuck of twisted metal the size of your fist. Another time I refused duty when a supervisor ordered me to stand on the edge of a shaking metal cylinder they call a chipper. Pieces of wood fell into this saw that ground everything into sawdust - I refused and the red-faced boss stomped away furious and wrote me up. Among the workers were many men who had lost fingers or nearly lost arms and legs and still bore the scars. One fellow had taken a piece of wood in the side of the head when a forklift ran over a board and sent a piece flying into his skull. His head was dented in on one side, and his mental capacity was such that he was only good to run errands for the supervisors, but still he stayed on. It was an OSHA nightmare, but jobs are scarce in the mountains, and it paid well enough to keep most of us drunk the entire time we were away from work.

Oddly enough, the duty I despised most was a simple clean up job. Every night for several weeks I worked alone underneath -deep in the bowels of the mill. Although this was technically "inside" - it was open to the elements on the windswept side and only slightly less cold then the chain. I had an area probably an eighth the size of a football field, and with shovel and broom I was to clear away by hand the sawdust that rained down all around me from the saws running above and which accumulated in high drifts. Talk about a Sisyphusean task: the sawdust fell on me as fast as I could clear it. When my shift was over after 12 hours - and I exhaustedly looked at my labor - the area looked the same as it did when I started. To top it off - I was surrounded and had to work around dozens of different machines that hummed, screamed and pounded loudly and incessantly. The only light was that which filtered through the slats of the floors above - and the dials of the machinery, which combined to give a supremely eerie and almost hellish red aura. I was familiar with Gustav Dore's illustrations depicting Dante's Inferno - and half expected at any moment to see Farinata degli Uberti rise from his fiery sepulcher, the flaming spirits of the evil counselors surround me, the bloodied corpse of Bertrand de Born carrying his severed head which spoke accusingly to me of my sins, or perhaps even dreaded Count Ugolino gnawing the head of Archbishop Ruggieri in one of the gloomier corners.

Descended to my own circle of hell - slowly something happened to me psychologically. As the sawdust sparkled in the frozen half-light - not unlike the snow that fell outside - it began, in my eyes, to take on the appearance of beauty. Even more astounding - the noisy clanking gears of the machinery took on the rhythms of music, while the frequencies of the various high-decibel generators and saws began to flow into interlocking melodic tones that would fade in and out as I passed near each in turn. Strangely, my ear began to hear music where there was only noise. In the depths of my own personal hell and lonely madness - the machines sang to me.

For many years after leaving that demonic mill and its hall of shadows, I tried to describe the sounds I heard to friends, but they were unable to understand. John Cage had taught us that music could be found anywhere, but my machinery symphony seemed not to attain a public hearing. When later I arrived in Chicago and turned on the radio - I was pleasantly stunned to hear House and Techno music as it seemed to capture much of the spirit of what I had heard. It is only logical that these musical forms should have arisen in an industrial center such as this. For it is my belief that -for whatever reason - the human mind needs music, as it needs art, and it will create music in whatever society it finds itself in - with whatever tools are available. The rise of industrialization, mechanization and the assembly line meant that generations of workers have been exposed to machine noise and one result is that we (utilizing some innate survival mechanism that demands we have music in our lives) have developed the ability to hear rhythmic patterns and music in the mechanical world around us. Even white-collar workers are surrounded by machinery as they drive their autos or take subways, busses, etc... to their workplaces. I realize this is oversimplification as always, and that there are many other elements at work here, but I do find it interesting to ponder on just why the musical art form seems to be so important to the human psyche.

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