"Ken's got a job for you. I told him you would be at his office at 7AM tomorrow morning, " said my Dad, after he had just lined me up with summer employment. It was 1984, the summer after my freshman year in college. I had been home for a solid month, no jobs were in the offing, and Dad was tired of giving me money. So he called in a favor from one of his friends. Ken Gerhard, to be exact. Ken Gerhard, owner of Acme Tool and Die company.
7 AM was early, I thought. Earlier than I was used to getting up. I had not seen that ungodly hour for quite some time. Usually I would greet the world right around noon, just in time to catch The Price is Right. I scheduled my college classes to start at 12:30 to ensure quality sack time. In fact, my college roommate, Brian Stevenson, and I once had our first class at 6:00 PM on Tuesdays. We joked that we risked sleeping past Dan Rather and miss our day's opportunity for learning.
My equally unambitious pals were aghast. "Foley, you gotta be at a tool shop at 7 AM? Why even bother going to bed...........Ha, ha, ho, ho." I made some lame comment like "early to bed makes a man............" But 7AM, I must admit, did intimidate me.
I pulled into the parking lot at Acme Tool & Die the next morning. The digital clock in my car read 6:52 AM, just about the time farmers were turning into "Ag Report," then hitting the snooze button and going back to bed. Several cars were in the lot, and as I closed the car door and approached the building, other workers streamed in beside me.
"I'm glad your Dad called me," Ken said. "I've got more than three months' worth of work for you, so let's get started."
"We've just finished construction on a new addition for our building. All of the metal stamping machines will go in there, plus we now have room to park our company vehicles inside," said the tool shop owner. "What I need you to do is slap a couple coats of primer on there, then paint the entire building, both old and new sections. Each week I'll also expect you to cut the grass, in addition to some light janitorial duties. Hours are 7AM-5PM Monday thru Friday. All of your equipment is in the supply room. Good to have you on board." We agreed on my pay , signed all the relevant tax papers and such, and in minutes I was an employee of a tool and die shop. The deal was sealed with a handshake.
The weeks moved by. I split my time between applying primer to the concrete block which made up the new section of the building, painting the old section of the building, and sweeping up the shop. The painting and primer-slapping was fine, because I was outside in the sun, but I especially liked to sweep up the shop, because it gave me the chance to interact with the tool designers. I soon found a world I did not previously know about--these guys were craftsmen. They ground, cut and reshaped the smallest, most minute pieces of metal into useful products. And most of them took pride in it. They called me "college man." As I swept up the curly, silver-colored metal shavings that resulted from their work, I got to know each of them. There was Larry, a born-again Christian from southern Ohio who hated when the other guys cussed; and Ed, who ran one of the metal stamping machines. Ed had done a tour in Vietnam, and he always talked about it; Matt, a wild-man who reminded me of Bill Murray; and ol' Mike, as fine an Irishman I ever knew, who had been there forever. All in all, a pretty decent lot.
I knew my career was not going to be in the tool and die trade, but I had to admit that the experience, at least at the halfway point, was not all bad. I still hated getting up early, but one thing I did like about my work at Acme Tool & Die was that I was working hard, and I was holding up my end of the bargain. ---- But my peaceful coexistence with the tool and die trade took a turn for the worse one day. I'm referring, of course, to the day the tool and die industry was changed forever. Dan Foley's Tool and DIE day.
It was a Tuesday in mid-July. A normal Tuesday. At least that's how it started. I clocked in, grabbed a cup of coffee, spoke to a couple of the guys, and began to collect my painting supplies. Ladder, primer, pan, roller. I moved around to the back of the complex and set up the ladder next to the new building, in preparation to primer the concrete block.
After pouring the primer into the pan, I carried it up the ladder and set it on the platform. Primer. Clear liquid, pungent, industrial strength. Keeps water out of concrete block. "Slap the primer on so we don't flood out, then make it look pretty with that paint," Ken had said the day I started. Primer it was. Primer--what a great name. What a great product. I had been applying it to this concrete block for weeks now. It had become my friend. Why? Because I knew I was protecting the building--and the expensive machines inside-- from potential water damage. I pictured Ken standing in front of the new building 30 years later, after a big flood, saying, "Dan Foley really saved this building--he was the one who spent the summer of 1984 coating it with primer." Then he would name the building after me. The Dan Foley Metal Stamping and Company Vehicle Parking Area Building. And of course I would be named as a member of the Acme Tool and Die Hall of Fame and presented with an honorary pension.
Back to the primer. Tuesday. I remember it vividly. I dipped my roller into the pan. I began to apply it to the building, just as I had done many times before. I reached left and right, up and down, sideways and sideways. Things were going swimmingly. I soon reached that point, however, as all people on ladders do, when they can reach no farther--up, down, or sideways. I had to move the ladder.
I was especially lazy that day because I had been up late the night before attending a Grateful Dead Concert in Cincinnati. I was not at the peak of my game. I stood there, high on that ladder, thinking how I dreaded the repetitive exercise of grabbing the primer pan, carrying it down the steps, putting it on the ground, then moving the ladder, only to put the damn pan back on the ladder again. I did this fifty times a day. There had to be a quicker, simpler way.
There was. I hopped down to the ground and stood beneath the portable staircase. The primer pan was still perched on the platform. I grabbed the ladder, making sure my grip was solid. Gently, I lifted the ladder a few inches off the ground, keeping an eye on the primer pan perched a few feet above. I began to move slowly, very slowly, to the right. My sure grip, combined with the delicate movement, was working. The ladder was just two feet or so from where it needed to be, and most importantly, the primer was still in its pan. Just then, my right foot stepped on a crack in the concrete. My foot buckled, and I headed for the ground, the ladder following right behind me. Just as my body hit the concrete, I saw the full bucket of primer--three or four gallons of the gooey, keeper-of-water-out-of-concrete-block-liquid--hurtling toward me. It splashed all over my head, legs, arms, torso, covering me like an Alaskan duck after the Valdez oil spill disaster.
I was covered with primer from head to toe. I could do nothing more than just lay there, on the grounds of Acme Tool & Die, in silence. After the initial shock, my mind wandered. I pictured Greenpeace holding a press conference railing against the primer industry. "Look at this man, Dan Foley, dripping in primer--when will the primer industry realize that the insanity has to stop?", the Greenpeace people would say. My unfortunate accident would propel Congress to enact sweeping anti-primer regulation laws which would prevent this tragedy from ever happening again. Then I thought about how I could go the opposite way and capitalize on my misfortune. I could become the spokesperson for the primer industry. I'd attend trade shows, hardware stores, anywhere that had anything to do with primer. My message would be simple: Immerse yourself in primer-- Take a shower and never get wet. I'd make millions and I'd spend the rest of my days doing promotional tours for home-improvement chains. I'd be the next Pat Summerall. ---- I cracked my eyes open and saw three of my co-workers hovering over me, shouting, "you OK, college man?" They scooped me off the ground and carted me into the worker washroom. Soon, word spread around the shop that the college man was swimming in primer. Workers ran into the washroom and began to throw soap, solvants, cleaners of every type onto my head and body to clean me off. I appreciated their concern, but I started to get dizzy from the onslaught of cleansing products being tossed to and fro. After a while I assured them that I would be fine, and I changed into a pair of orange coveralls. But I was a mess--my hair was one piece--I looked like I had stuck my finger in a light socket; primer had caused my eyelids to fuse together so that I looked at the world through small slits, and my fingers had merged with my fingernails so that I would surely see no dirt under them for a long, long time.
The shop foreman, after hearing how it happened, could not control his laughter. "Maybe you ought to stay away from primer today, Dan. Why don't you do a little painting?" That suited me fine.
I collected my paint, roller, pan, and dropcloth, and headed outside to paint, my hair still standing on end in ten different directions. I could not bear to see the ladder--it had let me down with the primer incident. Besides, it was still laying on the ground outside of the new building, and I did not want to go get it. Instead, I realized, I could use the company forklift as my ladder. It was parked a few feet away from where I stood, and nobody else was using it, so what the heck? I hopped on board the forklift, fired up the engine, and drove it next to the unpainted building, parking it on the asphalt ground parallel to the wall. I poured paint into a pan, grabbed my roller, and stood on the forks. Reaching over the control panel, I pushed a black button which raised the forks. I was about three feet in the air, which was right where I needed to be to begin covering this section of the building with the yellow paint. My ingenuity impressed me. I had turned our forlkift into a mechanized ladder.
I went about the exercise of slapping on the pigment. The primer incident, though not forgotten, was over. I was working in the sun. The day was looking better.
Then disaster number two happened. As I was extending my roller to the top of the building at the gutter-line, I suddenly realized that my Rube Goldberg ladder was sinking. I hopped down from the fork lift, and looked at it quizzically. The fork lift had been swallowed by the asphalt! The front wheels were immersed half a foot southward into the ground! How could this happen? I was just trying to paint!
Just at that moment, Ken pulled his big green Buick into the parking lot, a few feet from the marooned fork lift. He went ballistic. "How the hell could you sink a forklift? Nobody who ever worked here, let alone a college kid, has ever sunk a forklift. What the hell?" Ken was not happy. Ken was mad. He walked to the company next door, a boat-trailer manufacturer. Moments later, after he had commandeered their huge forklift (much bigger than ours--and much more above-ground) with a huge metal chain, he roared back into the Acme Tool lot. By this time, all the Acme employees had stuck their faces out doors, against windows, anywhere, just to get a look at the red-faced tool company owner attaching the big chain to the submerged forklift. It had to make everyone else feel better about the quality of their own work. I just stood there, looking like a kid who had just been yelled at by his teacher, longing for the day when college classes would resume.
Ken attached the chain to the immobile Acme fork lift, climbed back onto the large lift and roared into gear, slowly pulling the mass of yellow metal back onto sea level. All of the Acme workers were silently cracking up, careful, however, not to let Ken know much they enjoyed the scene before them. ---- Ken drove the forklift back to the boat manufacturer, stalked back to Norwood, and did not say a word to me the rest of the day (or that summer, or my life, for that matter). My foreman approached me with a sympathetic yet quizzical look on his face. "You've had one hell of a day. Why not real quietly just cut the grass?"
On this day I could do nothing simple and nothing quiet. As I was cutting the grass on the beautifully landscaped Acme Tool and Die Company grounds, I pondered my dreadful day. Nothing else could go wrong---well, except for what was about to happen next. The back wheels fell off the lawnmower, allowing the mower blade to dig a nice round hole in the newly-laid sod. It looked like one of those crop circles you see in National Enquirer somewhere in rural England that they blame on UFO's. There went the City Beautification award.
I abandoned the lawnmower right where the wheels fell off, sort of a monument to the worst 8-hour shift in the history of the modern labor movement. I shuffled slowly off the grounds of Acme Tool and Die, not even bothering to clock out for fear that I'd get my fingers caught in the time stamp.