In my youth, I worked many different jobs. I refereed basketball, umped baseball, caddied, swept up packing peanuts on a factory floor, assembled plastic push brooms on an assembly line, cleaned underneath a cafeteria salad bar, organized the meat locker, and cleaned up industrial soap spills under a conveyer belt in a soap factory. I even worked on an industrial laser. These jobs are all filled with memorable experiences and people. But nothing compared to my experience of working in a printing press manufacturing plant where I learned one of the best lessons for life.
After my freshman year in college, my father got me a job working in the warehouse of the printing-press factory that employed him. I needed a job during the summer break and luckily the company needed extra help in the warehouse. I had worked retail in high school at a sporting goods store and in the cafeteria during my freshman year stocking the milk container and organizing the meat locker—the odors lingering in my clothes every night—so spending my summer months in a barely air-conditioned environment did not frighten me.
I carpooled with my dad on that first day and when we got to work, he walked me to the warehouse, which sat in the center of the factory floor. The company was small at the time so almost everyone knew everyone else, from the carpeted front office to the concrete factory floor. My dad introduced me to people along the way.
The factory thrived in an industrial haze of harsh lighting and cigarette smoke—almost everyone smoked. We walked through the labyrinthine maze of departments until my dad introduced me to Henry Payne. Henry had worked with the company for so long that he had accumulated an entire month of vacation time each year (which he took during the month of July.) He sat bent over a small press, assembling a heavy rotor when my dad called to him, “Hi, Henry. When you get a chance I’d like to introduce you to my son, Rob.”
Henry quickly finished installing the rotor, straightened up, wiped his hands, and came over to meet me. His head was encircled in a halo of cigarette smoke, his glasses firmly fixed on his wrinkled face, his tight curly hair salted with grey, his shiny brown eyes crinkled in a smile, and his calloused hands extended for a shake. “Good to know you,” he said.
My dad turned to me, “Here is a man you can learn from, Rob.”
“Thanks, Mr. Bergman,” Henry responded. To me he said, “Have a good one, I’ll see ya around.” We shook hands again and I said, “Thanks, I hope so.” Then my dad walked me to my boss’s office to introduce me and start my first day.
My first month with the company wore me down physically but not mentally. I lifted parts; I stacked parts; I counted parts; I delivered parts; and slowly I became bored in the routine. After two weeks of work, I was delivering parts to the small press area and saw Henry and said, “Hi.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth and pointed a finger at me, “Come ’ere for a minute. I want to talk to ya.” Henry could be intimidating. His age and height towered above me.
While working “blue collar,” I felt like I was better than the people on the floor. Here I was at a summer job, just making a couple extra bucks to help pay for school. These people didn’t go to school, most of them barely graduated high school. I knew stuff. I felt high and mighty. I was better. I didn’t come to make friends, I came to work. So I said, “Sorry, Henry. Not now. I have more deliveries to make,” and piloted my cart down the aisle. He called at my back, “Come see me at break.” I raised my hand behind me and waved but kept moving.
Break came and I put my feet up and took a quick nap. I did not go to see Henry.
The end of the day came and I scuttled out the door avoiding Henry’s gaze.
The next morning, I walked past Henry’s berth and he stared me down. He grabbed my arm and said, “Boy, I want to talk to you now. Get over here.”
I resisted his pull and said, “C’mon Henry, I have to get clocked in and some parts out.”
“You got time to sit for a minute, now sit,” and he pointed to a red rolling stool next to his chair. He sat slightly above me and looked squarely down at me. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and pointed at me again. “I wanted to talk to you about your dad.”
“Oh hell,” I thought, “I knew it; people were going to gripe about my dad. I don’t want to hear this.” He smiled as if he could read my thoughts through my eyes, and the harsh halogen lights flashed off his glasses.
“You probably don’t know this,” he proceeded, “but your dad really is a great man. I’ve worked for some mean and awful bosses, but your dad has always had my respect. Mostly because he works hard; we can see that out here. Those people in the office think we don’t know what the hell is going on. They ignore us and think anyone could do our job.
But your dad knows the value of the working man.
When he started here, he got to know all of us, and he worked with us, he didn’t see us as ‘his’ employees. He saw us as all parts of a whole—like the presses we make.” He put a big paw on the machine and sat up, straightening his back. “If all parts don’t run, the press don’t work. Your dad sees this and I’m glad he has you working here. You get to see what a great man your dad is. Many sons never get to see that. I wanted you to know that I respect your dad.”
I sat up straight and said, “Okay, thanks,” a little shocked. Then I got up to leave. Henry said, “Come on by tomorrow if you get a chance, let’s talk some more.” Then I clocked in late.
At the end of the day on the ride home, I told my dad what Henry said. My dad smirked, “He is a sharp man.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But you know what makes what Henry said important?” asked my dad.
“He didn’t have to say anything. That’s what makes what he said a really nice gesture, he didn’t have to say it.”
“Yeah, I never thought of it that way.” I don’t think we talked the rest of the way home.
I returned to work the next day and found Henry during break and sat and listened. Smoke curled from his nostrils and he sat back in his chair just looking at me. Finally he said, “I’ve been watching you, walking around here, you do your work good; but you don’t care. Do you think you’re better than all of this?” He waved his hand around, smoke curled from his nose and he blew it out.
“Truthfully,” I said, “Yeah, I kind of do.”
“Good,” he said, “But not ‘good’ that you think you’re better, but good that your dad is making you work here. This work is hard, dull, and you don’t have to think. Look at these people. Most don’t care, they sleep walk through this place. Now don’t get me wrong, they work hard but they could be doing better. Many of us can’t, we have to work with our hands, manually you see. But I knew you didn’t. You do this for school money and that’s important. We got guys here your age who just want money, not an education. That’s the key, boy, you don’t want to work with your hands all your life. Use your head, you’re smarter than this place. But you need to understand, like your dad understands, this is important too, but not important for you.” He poked me in the chest with his tar-stained finger for emphasis, “You can do better for you.”
The alarm sounded ending break. I got up and headed back to the warehouse feeling stupid. I wasn’t better than the people working here, breaking their backs every day to bring home a check to their families. I worked hard too but my life wouldn’t be here, this job was part-time. I needed to respect their lives, not just their work.
Weeks went by. It was the last day of June, and out of embarrassment I had been avoiding Henry. He exposed my soul and I felt ashamed. I found it hard to face him when he finally tracked me down during the afternoon break. I sat in the warehouse lounging in a busted old desk chair when he came and sat down next to me. He lit a smoke and said, “You know these things are killing me. I’m glad to see you don’t smoke.” We sat in silence for a minute or so. “Well, I go on vacation tomorrow and you’ll probably be gone when I get back but I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said all those things to you.”
I said, “No Henry, you were right, I was a little ashamed.”
“Yeah, well don’t worry about it. You’re a good boy. I already told your dad that. I just wanted to tell you that this is summer work and that’s fine, but
once you graduate, I never want to see you back here to work.”
I looked at him, a little shocked, “Why?” I asked.
“This place can kill you. You get a degree and go be a professional something, don’t come back here.”
“Funny.” I said, “That’s exactly what my dad told me.”
“Yeah, well he speaks true. I told you he was a good man.”
Henry got up and we shook hands. “Have a great vacation,” I said as he walked away. He waved behind his head as he sauntered out of the warehouse.
Over the next four years, I went back to work in the warehouse three times and sometimes I’d stop by to see my dad on a Friday afternoon when I came home for the weekend. Each time, I would stop by to see Henry and he would ask how school was going and I told him I decided to be a teacher. He loved that.
After I had graduated from college, I taught in Kansas City for a few years. One day, my dad called and told me that Henry had died. I had not thought of Henry for some time. He taught me some life lessons that I’ve never forgotten. Henry deserves to be remembered; he changed me in ways he never knew. He was one of the wisest men I ever knew and he gave me something I can never forget. I thank him for his time, his care, and his thoughtfulness.
Life is a lesson to be learned and we have many teachers along the way; those teachers challenge our norms, expose our true selves, and deliver wisdom to us while we fumble through our daily lives.
Read more of Rob Bergman's reflections in our school blog, called Voices, keyword search "Bergman."