Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Liz Williams who not only has a new book out but also edited this entire collection called an unfinished coloring book. an unfinished coloring book is available from all your favorite retailers as well as The Cameron Journal.
I drifted here. I drifted there. I grew up in New Jersey but I never stayed anywhere too long after my wife left me while I was in Vietnam. I went over there, two tours, 25th infantry, April 10, 1965 to June 14, 1966 and then I went right back from September 11, 1966 to October 5, 1967. I was at war and she was bedding down a guy who was 4F, bone spurs or some shit like that. I meanwhile was 1A, prime fighting stock. We were only married to avoid the draft anyway, but then they started drafting married guys and I was in it. I didn’t mind. Saw some horrible shit over there though.
I drifted into Denver in early 1968. I had left California because shit was getting weird. I was tired of dodging hippies, war protestors, and the lot. I was working at a car factory but that place was fucked up. Everyone drank on the job and no one cared if they actually did their job. I’m not like that. I like to do a good job. The job was nice though. I was in paint but then they moved me over to door seals. So then I was gluing the rubber door seals on all the doors. I liked being in the paint shop better, though. It was fun. You just got a gun with paint and every car body that came in you just sprayed the whole thing down with whatever color was supposed to go on it. I miss the paint shop but I don’t miss the fuckwads that worked there. Those folks had issues. That’s why I left. That was a GM plant too. Good cars mostly, you’d be surprised how many times they had to fix cars that were new. Wrong body pieces and all sorts of stuff. It was weird.
Anyway, I tried out Wyoming for awhile. I liked the wide open spaces but Wyoming didn’t fit me. So I decided to try out Denver. Took me a bit to get down there on account of the snow but I finally rolled into town about February. I tried my best not to get my car stuck in the snow. I got me a Pontiac GTO, I love that car. It just flies, just flies. Anyway, I finally rolled into Denver. I started to look around for a job. I was sleeping in this motel off Colfax. There were some great bars along there. I hung out there for awhile but I needed a job pretty soon. Motels ain’t cheap you know and I gotta eat. I like to eat. That’s when I met David. David was a cool guy. He was out of California like me and he knew a place that always needed guys who could work. I met David for coffee the next morning. He told me where the diner was on a street called Colfax. I found him sitting in the back of the place against a painted brick wall. The place looked real modern, you know with those shaped lights like how they have them. We ordered food and coffee and David pulled out a city map.
“So just take this road here, out here and turn right. There’s nothing out there so just keep going along this here until you see the big white sign that says, “Front Range Chemical Facility.”
“How long is it?” I wanted to know what kind of drive I was signing up for.
“It’s about an hour, but worth it, they start you out at $7 and you can get up to $9. Healthcare too.”
“That’s damn good money, what do they do out there.”
“That’s sort of a secret. If you get hired, they’ll tell you. I will tell you that it’s real exciting.”
“Secret? Come on man, it can’t be that important.”
“Nah.” David leaned in towards me. “They make you sign stuff. You have to promise not to tell anyone what you actually do. Most folks don’t even ask anymore. When you say you work out at Front Range Chemical, they know not to ask any more questions.”
I leaned back and took a sip of coffee. “Alright, alright. I’ll take a cruise out there.”
I finished my coffee out of the thick cup. I gave the waitress a solid up and down. She was young, cute, and kept the coffee cup filled. I appreciate that in a woman.
“Yeah, so just cruise on out there, it’s pretty country too. There’s a bar out there called Rocky Flats. Most everyone that works out at Front Range Chemical stop off there for a drink after work because it’s a drive to get home.”
We finished our breakfast and I looked out towards the busy street outside.
“Those women working?”
“Yeah, but if you need company I can give you some numbers.”
“Yeah, maybe, I’ll call you later.”
“Alright man, call me after you head out there.”
I put a few bucks on the table and walked out to my car. I pulled out a city map and traced my route. I turned onto Colfax and started the long drive out to this place. I passed under the Valley Highway and started my drive. The signs for Colfax Ave gave way to signs for US 40. I passed neighborhoods first and some turn offs for different buildings. The strip malls reminded me of Cali a little bit.The city dropped away too and revealed the rocky desert surface. The mountains grew as I kept driving towards them. Finally I reached my turn off. I made the right turn and laid down the gas along the windy road. I passed a defunct mining operation and I wove my way through the hills. I finally passed the bar he mentioned. I knew I must be on the right route and kept driving. I saw the sign but I was going too fast to make the turn and I stopped short. I looked around the deserted road and decided to just back up to make the turn. I pulled up to the guard shack and came to a stop. I cranked down the window. The guard walked out and spit on the ground.
“Don’t got one. I heard you guys were hiring and I’m looking for a job.”
“Aight, go here, take a left and go to building 4, that’s HR, if there’s any openings then they’ll help you out with that. What’s your name?”
“Michael. Everyone calls me Mike.”
“Alright Mike, let me make you a visitor’s badge.” The guard disappeared and scrawled my name on a visitor’s badge with a small logo on it.
“Gladys Chemical, that the company here?”
“Yeah, that’s us, building 4, see you in a bit.”
“OK.” I cranked the window back up and guided my car over to the left. A small “4” showed on a building and I pulled up near it. I stepped out of the car and tucked in my t-shirt. I swiped my hair back again and walked up to the glass and metal door. The name of the place was painted on and beneath that it said, “Human Resources.”
I walked in and looked around for a moment until I saw a desk with a girl sitting at it. The Gladys Chemical logo was plastered on the wall behind it.
“Hi, I heard you guys were hiring.”
She clasped her hands. “We are, um, what do you do?”
“This and that, I’ve worked in an auto factory doing paint, worked in machine in the past. I weld. If it can be welded I can weld it together.”
“Alright, let me look through our current positions. You can fill out this application while I do that.” She handed me a clipboard with a thin, plastic ballpoint pen attached.
I walked over to the metal and cloth chairs and sat down. I filled out the application and watched her look at some papers and walk around the building. She re-appeared and waited for me to finish filling out the application. I signed the bottom and walked back to the counter.
“Here you go.”
“Thanks. If you wait a few moments I’ll look over this and talk to my supervisor. We have a few positions open. Are you a veteran?”
“Yes, yes I am.” She smiled back at me.
I finished the application and I left it back at the desk. She took the clipboard from me and looked it over. She disappeared into another office for several minutes.
“Mr. Lindsey will see you now.”
I stood up and walked into the office. The man sat behind a large wooden desk. The carpet was thicker than the floor out in the office and I looked down at it for a moment before extending my hand.
“Mr. Lindsey is it?”
“That’s right, and it looks like you’re Michael?”
“Michael Campbell, that’s right.”
“Alright.” He shook my hand over the desk. The secretary closed the door behind her with a smile.
“It looks like you’ve got plenty of work experience. And it looks like you’d be a good fit. Why do you want to work here?”
“Well, I’m just new to the area and met a guy who said you guys always need people so I figured I’d try it out.”
“I see, well, we do need a competent welder, are you very accurate?”
“Accurate enough for cars, and you have to be accurate, quality control don’t tolerate bad welds, especially on frames.”
“Good, good, we run from 8 am to 6 pm, is that a problem?”
“Are you married?”
“No sir, but I might have to ask your secretary out.”
He smiled at that remark. “Very good then, alright, you can start tomorrow in the welding shop. Come back to this office tomorrow morning at 8 and I’ll introduce you to the welding foreman.”
“Thank you sir.” I stood up and extended my hand again. He gave it a firm shake and I let myself out of the office. I stopped at the desk.
“You wouldn’t know of any closer motels would you? I drove out from Denver. Seems a bit far.”
The secretary smiled. “There’s a phonebook over by that telephone, if you’d like to look before you leave.”
“I was hoping for a personal recommendation.”
“Most of our workers live in Arvada, it’s the nearest town. You’ll find something there.”
“Alright. You want to go out for a drink tonight after I get a little closer?” I leaned over the desk and rested my arms on it while trying to look her in the eyes. I could see that under that suit, she had a nice body. A body I’d like to see more of.
“I don’t get off until 5. But I’m seeing someone right now.”
I backed away from the desk. “Alright, well, I had to ask, see you tomorrow.” I walked out of the building and I could feel her watching me go. I walked back out to my car. I heard a horn sound and a few men walk out with their lunch pails. I drove out of the gate and turned in my badge and started my journey back to Denver. I spent the rest of the day looking for a new motel. I found one near that Arvada place she talked about. The town was cute. There was a little hamburger stand and a small downtown area. There was a couple bars off the main street and some train tracks ran right through town. Denver stood off at a distance with thin roads leading towards the city. I looked around the town as I drove through it and I thought it would do. I found a little motel and checked in. Since I hadn’t had any luck with that little secretary I decided to drive on over to a little bar next to the Army Navy surplus shop and have a beer before getting ready for my first day of work at whatever this chemical place did. I picked up a hamburger from the little shop and enjoyed my beer.
The drive the next morning was much easier and shorter. I cruised right out to the plant and arrived just about 8. The man at the gate gave me another visitor’s badge and I walked into the HR office, lunch box in hand, ready to see what the welding shop was like.
Mr. Lindsey walked out to the front room and waved at me. “Michael, there you are. You actually showed up, some guys don’t even come back.” That secretary was already standing there with a camera. He motioned over to his secretary.
“We need your picture for your official badge. We’ll have it for you at the end of the day.”
“Alright.” I smoothed my hair down and stood up straight. She took my picture in front of a white wall behind her desk and smiled at me. The flash popped and I shook off my stiff posture.
“Let’s walk over to the welding building and we’ll get you started. Good to have you aboard.” I followed him deeper into the complex, over to building 17, and he opened the small door and showed me a massive welding shop. Men were covered in thick aprons and had their welding helmets on working on various small pieces of metal. Mr. Lindsey tapped a man on the shoulder.
“Halsey, Halsey, I got that new guy I told you about.”
The man lifted his hood and looked over his shoulder. “Yeah?” He put down his tools.
“Halsey, I’m the foreman here,” he said. “You know gas tungsten?”
“I’m familiar, we used gas metal on cars but I’ve used gas tungsten before mostly on aluminum.”
“Alright, did he sign the paperwork yet?”
“No, you should take him to sign it and give him the safety briefing.”
“Powell, wrap this up. I gotta go do paperwork.”
Halsey waved me towards him. Mr. Lindsey shook my hand “Thanks, welcome, Halsey’s the foreman in the welding shop, so if you have any problems just let him know.”
Halsey led me into his small office. The place was crowded with papers and books. His desk was covered in files. I sat down in one of the chairs.
“Alright, let’s look here, let’s see, new employees.” He dug through some files and found a stapled packet of paperwork and opened a file in my name. He put a sticker on the top and wrote my name.
“I used to have a secretary to do this shit.”
“What happened to her?”
“Quit, that happens a lot around here. No one has been hired to replace her.”
“What about that girl over at HR?”
“Don’t get me started, they should have had you do this before they took you over here.”
He put a thick stack of paper in front of me.
“They tell you what we do here?”
“No, everyone acts like it’s some big secret or something.”
It is,” Halsey said flatly. “I need you to sign this agreement that you will keep your work here to yourself and to keep any information you learn about this facility and what we do here to yourself. If you’re caught talking about it, you can get federal time for it and no one wants federal time.”
I sat back for a minute. “What do you guys do here?”
“Sign that and I’ll tell you.”
I looked over the paper and it stated about what he said but in more legal language.
“OK.” I signed the bottom of the paper and gave it back to him.
“Thanks.” He signed the other side. “You know about shop safety?”
I nodded my head. “Yeah, GM harped on that pretty hard, so did the union.”
“Good, wear your protective equipment at all times when you’re on the floor, you see someone doing something stupid, you tell me. Our work needs to be accurate and I don’t mean good enough, I mean it has to be perfect otherwise it gets sawed off and you start over.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “OK, fine, not a problem.”
“Yeah, no bullshit, when we fuck up people die, right here too.”
“Jesus Christ, what are we making here?”
Halsey leaned forward. “We make the cores that go in tactical nuclear weapons.”
I didn’t know what to say at first. I hadn’t really thought about how they made the bomb, just that we did make them. “Don’t they do that in some secret place?”
Halsey laughed and revealed some missing teeth in his bottom row. “Yeah, and we’re part of that secret place.”
Halsey stood up and opened the office door. “You’ll start with me, I’ll show you the basics of what goes where and how to put it together and then I’ll set you off on your own tomorrow.”
I followed him out to his work bench and he pulled off a project. He pointed over at a rack of safety clothes and pulled on a helmet and apron and joined him at his bench. “Like this, along these lines here.” I followed his pattern and he wasn’t joking about accurate. I hadn’t seen that nice a weld on a Cadillac.
Lunch rolled around and the horn sounded. The whole shop put down their tools and started out of the place. Halsey had me setup at a bench working on some pieces. I followed everyone out and walked over to my car to get my lunch. I saw that most of the guys sat at some picnic benches around the back of the building. I sat down with my lunch and picked out my food and looked around the otherwise desolate area. Halsey sat down and introduced me around.
“This is the new guy, Mike Campbell. That’s Harvard, we call him that because he worked there once, that’s Prinz, Mexican but we like him. Then there’s Fredman, Phillips, Moore, and Saxon, in our little group.”
I nodded and shook hands all around.
“You want to stop by the bar on the way home?” Harvard asked.
“I was planning on it anyway, so sure.” We ate our sandwiches and I stood up to stretch.The horn sounded and we all trooped back into work. The rest of the afternoon, I carefully welded on the bench and had my work checked by the foreman. He seemed pleased but I was ready for the shift to end. Harvard touched my shoulder as I started to walk out.
“You know where the bar is?”
“Yeah, it’s that little place on the road back to town?”
“Yeah, that’s the place. Can’t miss it.” I kept walking to the car and looked forward to a nice cold beer.
I started the car up and drove out of the parking lot. I drove down the long stretch of road towards the car. The parking lot was already pretty full by the time I pulled in. I parked out back and walked into the crowded bar. I found the bar and ordered a beer. She handed me a yellow can marked “Coors.” I had never heard of it before but it was alright. I took a look around the bar. I found the guys from my shop and joined them at a table. Saxon took a big swig of his beer and lit another cigarette.
“You hear that they are planning doubles next week?”
“Good money,” Prinz said with a smile.
“Yeah, true, but long days pisses off my wife,” Saxon replied.
“My wife likes money too much,” Prinz said with a laugh.
I paid partial attention to the conversation. I hated doubles but money is money. I was looking for anyone single in the bar. I was especially looking for that pretty secretary I saw on my first day. I didn’t see her. I guess she really was seeing someone. You can’t fault a guy for trying, right?
The guys from my shop filtered out to go home to their wives. I stayed a while longer. I played pool and shot some darts until the bar started to empty out. I decided to make my way to my new apartment myself. I slid into the seat of my car and set out on the dark road to Arvada.
The work was alright. Each guy had a pile of parts to weld and after a few days it became pretty routine. Halsey checked my work often but soon he saw that I was competent. I could tell some of the other guys weren’t experienced. They were making some simple mistakes. Halsey spent more time walking around making sure our group did our job than he spent welding his own parts.
I avoided all that during working hours. I just tried to keep my head down and weld quality parts that wouldn’t get sent back by quality control. I noticed, at the end of my first month that many of the parts got sent back and soon, my bench was half and half. Half new projects and half ones that needed to be fixed for various problems.
I kept the same routine. Work all day, hang out at the bar after work for a few drinks and go home. But after a few months I started to notice that there were some new faces around the shop. It was good work and it paid alright. Harvard explained it all to me one night at the bar.
I finished my beer and got us two more. I was starting to like Coors.
“You were talking about why they hire so many new guys?”
“Yeah,” Harvard said, taking his beer from me.
“Basically, Dow can’t keep people. The job is in the middle of nowhere, everyone has to commute forty five minutes to an hour just to get here and then there’s the whole matter of just working with people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.”
“You think the pay would keep people.”
“Nah, our group is OK because Halsey is a standup guy, but not all the facilities are like that.”
“You work elsewhere in the plant?”
“Yeah, I bounced around when I first got hired until I settled in at the welding shop. I just don’t think they don’t get how to make this stuff, everyone is doing stuff and the pressure is on to make more and more of it even though what we do isn’t fast. Things happen, guys get hurt and they quit or they just can’t put up with the bullshit and quit. Either way, they quit.”
I took a long swig from my beer. “So why do you stay?”
“Halsey, that and the money. My wife likes the check so she puts up with rest of it.”
“You mentioned that.”
Harvard rested his elbows on the table and stared off into space. I interrupted his gaze.
“Lose you there?”
“Yeah, thinking about a Dodgers game.”
“Since they were in Brooklyn.”
“Yeah, they were the team at the GM plant I was at.”
“Now that’s a good job.”
“If you’re at a decent plant.”
Harvard nodded his head and drank some more beer. “I hear that. That why you left?”
“Yeah, that place was insane, people drinking on the job, tons of problems, ran out of parts all the time and people just did dumb shit. Wrong front ends on certain cars, no weather stripping, it was fucked up.”
Harvard drained his beer. “I think I’m going to go home and fuck the wife.”
I held my beer up. “Get it.”
Harvard smirked as he threw down some cash. “We got three kids for a reason.”
I finished my beer as he walked out of the bar and looked around. The other guys were long gone. Just a few people stood around. Even one of the pool tables was open. I walked over and started to shoot some pool. No one came to bet me. I played two breaks before I decided to make the drive back to town. Harvard was right. The drive was long. Longer in the dark.
I managed to book some major overtime and by midsummer my checks were getting pretty fat.I moved out of the motel and into a real apartment. I even bought some furniture: the lady at the store helped me pick it out. I got a TV and started to hang around the little downtown on weekends. Denver was pretty close by. I could get in the car and cruise into the city and see what was happening. The city had seen better days. Lots of brick buildings, most of them empty and lots of empty streets, especially once you got away from the state capitol. The gold dome was pretty neat. I stared at it for awhile trying to figure out how to get up there and scrape some of it off and head for Mexico.
The ten hour days were wearing everyone out but August set in and I saw a poster on the way into the shop announcing a Safety Ball. The days without an accident had gotten up there, we’d gone a couple months without one and somebody decided it was time to celebrate that. Halsey made a point of talking about it.
“Mike! You coming to the safety ball?” Halsey sat down with us at lunch outside on the benches. The wind whipped around us but it didn’t stop us from eating.
“I guess. Don’t have a suit though.”
“Yeah, you should get one. You’re one of the reasons our safety days are so high, we got decent workers like you and it’s nice to eat free company food and drink free company beer for all that overtime you’ve been putting in.” He bit into his sandwich. “Bring your wives, get dressed up, it’s a good time.”
The guys nodded. I thought about the prospect of shopping. This is where having a wife is nice. She gets to do this stuff for you. We finished work. I decided to skip the bar and find a Sears or JCPenney to buy a suit before the big safety ball. I stopped by the office for a phone book and looked up some local stores. I found a mall that looked promising and decided that was my best bet.
I set the GTO on the road again and started for the big mall. I drove through the suburbs of the city until I found the Villa Italia mall. The outside was white with tall white columns. I pulled into the big parking lot outside the JCPenney store and started in for the men’s section. The store was not terribly busy. The big lights reflected off the white walls. It looked bright and friendly. I found the men’s section and started to look at the suits on the plastic models.
“Can I help you?” I looked up and down the pretty sales assistant.
“Yeah, I have a work event. Need a suit for it. It’s one of those things.”
“Of course.” She turned away from me. Her hair fell around her shoulders in effortless waves. It bounced when she moved.
“This is our best seller. It’s simple and easy to wear.”
“This is $45 for the jacket and slacks. The shirt is $5 and the tie is $1.50. For two dollars more, you can get a French cuff style shirt and we can select some cufflinks. The suit is made from dacron, it’s a very nice fabric.” She held out the suit towards me. I reached out and touched it.
“Alright, I guess I should try it on.”
“Of course. Do you know your size?”
“Let’s measure you then!” She smiled and took out her tape measure. She wrapped that little tape around my chest, along my shoulders and around my neck. She measured my legs as well. She selected a suit from the rack and showed me to one of the men’s fitting rooms.
I tried the suit on and it looked about right. I didn’t look like a welding man. I looked like a smart office guy. I carefully removed the clothes.
“I’ll take it, no cuffs though, just the regular shirt. I guess I need shoes too.”
She smiled as she took out her pad to write it up. “Let’s get you rung up and I’ll walk you over to men’s shoes. Are you sure I can’t talk you into some French cuffs? They are in this season.” She started towards the counter. I leaned against the counter and looked at the display of jewelry in the glass case. Pairs of cufflinks were perched in boxes.
“Well, some of those cuff links look cool.”
“Here, let me show you one of the shirts.” She put the suit on the rack and walked to the shirt section for a moment. She returned a moment later with the shirt and took out a smart pair of silver cufflinks. “See? That goes on your wrist. If your work has these regularly you can rewear them often or if you’re going out with your wife.”
“I’m not married but you’ve talked me into. I’ll go with the French cuffs.”
“You’ll look really nice with them. Cash or charge today?”
“I’m new to town, it’s cash today.”
“Do you want a credit application anyway?”
“No ma’am, I don’t really use credit. I keep things cash.”
“Alright, with the suit, French cuff shirt, tie, and cufflinks your total today is $58.13.”
I counted out the bills from my wallet. She took my money and gave me the change. I pocketed the change and she packed up my new clothes.
“Do you want to leave this here while you shop for shoes and socks?”
“That’d be convenient.”
“Of course, not a problem. I’ll put it aside, just come pick it up when you’re ready to leave. Name?”
“Alright. Let’s walk you over to men’s shoes.” I followed her over to the shoe department. She introduced me to the man, who fitted me with a pair of black patent leather shoes. She stayed on my mind while I got the shoes and socks to go with them. I paid for the shoes and hurried back to menswear to pick up my suit. She was still there.
“Ready to go?” she asked when she saw me walking over.
“I’ll get your suit.” She disappeared into the back and came back with my suit neatly packed up and a bag with my shirt, tie, and cufflinks.
“Here you are Mike. It was a pleasure serving you tonight.”
I took the clothes from her. “When do you get off here?”
“Got plans tonight?” I asked.
“Maybe. I put my number on your ticket.”
“Alright then. I’ll give you a call.” I smiled at her.
I walked out of the store and back to my car. I laid the bag and the suit out in the trunk of the car. I shut it and made my way back to Arvada.
She did come for that drink and she stayed the night after in my new place. I woke up the next morning to go to work and she woke up with me. I kissed her long and hard as I slid into the GTO to head out to the plant.
Halsey reminded us of the safety ball that Saturday at lunch.
“Yeah, I got my suit last night, met a real pretty girl too.”
“The single life…” Harvard let his voice drift off.
I turned towards him. “You miss it?”
“Yeah, you know, sometimes.”
“You ever, you know, step out.”
“Nah.” Harvard took a long drink of his water. “Not worth it.”
Halsey smiled. “Good man. You’re lucky.”
Harvard shrugged his shoulders. “Grass ain’t always greener.”
“That don’t stop you from taking that Playboy subscription.”
“Don’t hurt to look!” Harvard said, stretching his shoulders back.
The horn sounded and we all trooped back in to work. I kept welding my parts and fixing the bad ones. I noticed that Halsey was bringing in some new faces again. I tapped Prinz on the shoulder.
“New guys again?”
“Yeah, you taking overtime tonight?”
“Yeah, gotta pay for that suit.”
Prinz nodded, put down his hood and kept welding. I worked late that night and eventually got out of the shop and drove back to Arvada. I called my pretty sales girl.
“I caught you.” I leaned against the chair and stubbed out a cigarette.
“The other night was great.”
“You were good too, I liked it.”
“Listen, my job has a safety ball on Saturday night, you know that, that’s why I bought that suit.”
“I thought I’d invite you to it. Dress pretty though.”
“Sure, pick me up?”
“Alright, I’ll do that.”
“OK. You better take down my address.”
I scrambled around for a pen and paper. I found a pen and an envelope.
“Alright, pick you up at six.”
“Good night, Nancy.”
“Good night Mike.”
I replaced the black receiver on the cradle and leaned back in my chair. I felt excited now.
They had us working overtime for the rest of the week so I didn’t get out of work on Friday until almost eight. I drove home and flopped into bed. I woke up on Saturday morning with plenty of body aches from a week of ten and twelve hour shifts. I got moving so I could get my hair cut. I took a shower and washed off the grime. I cashed my check and got my hair cut in the little downtown area. I walked around for a little bit and watched a couple trains go by before heading back to get dressed.
I put on the suit and I looked real clean and fresh. I combed my hair to the side. I don’t think I’d looked as fresh and clean as when I left boot.
I drove to Nancy’s apartment and picked her up. She looked real pretty in a long dress and a little purse. Her hair was done up and she sat down in the car just like a lady. I closed the door and we drove into Denver to the big hotel for this party.
I pulled the car up to the entrance of the hotel. The facade looked modern with an interesting concrete screen in front of the drive. I opted to skip the valet and parked it myself after dropping Nancy off at the door. We followed the signs into the ballroom. Gladys Chemical signs hung around with a big sign that read, “90 days of Safety!” on the back wall. Balloons and bunting in the company colors made the place feel festive. Nancy hung on my arm.
“You didn’t say you worked at Front Range Chemical.”
“Uh, yeah, I do. I weld stuff.”
“Oh, I didn’t know they had welders at a place that makes scrubbing bubbles!”
“Oh sure, of course.”
“I love that stuff!”
“Let’s get one!” Nancy said starting for the bar.
Nancy floated across the floor to the bar and I followed along. She ordered a highball and I got a simple whiskey. Music from the band filled the air and added to the festive mood. We were about half way through our drinks when I spotted Harvard and Prinz. I held up my glass to wave them over.
Harvard and Prinz walked over, wives in tow.
“Halsey here yet?” Prinz asked.
“I haven’t seen him. We just got here, got a drink.”
Harvard and Prinz introduced their wives. Nancy shook their hands. I was impressed. She was good at this. They got their drinks and soon a waiter passed by with some food on a big tray. Nancy removed two of the little snacks, one for me and one for her. We had just bitten into the food when I saw Halsey walk in with his wife. I waved him over.
“Did you guys find the welding shop table?”
“No,” I said, swallowing.
“Yeah, each department gets a table or tables, come on.” Halsey looked around the room. Each table had a small sign I hadn’t noticed before. He pointed. “There it is, Welding.” We walked over to the table and Nancy sat down as I pushed her chair in. She set her pretty hand bag on the table.
The party was soon in full swing. I took Nancy out to the dance floor and we danced two dances before the formal dinner started and the bosses started into some boring speeches I tried not to pay attention to. The food was alright and the booze was free. Nancy was having a good time and I liked that. I liked everything about her. I liked how she talked and how she walked. I liked how she dressed and I liked how she was, as a person I mean. I hadn’t met someone like her before. She wasn’t like my ex-wife. She was warm and outgoing.
The dinner came to a close around nine thirty, I think. I could tell it was late because Halsey was starting to yawn. The music started to die down and I walked out to get the car. I whistled as I crossed the big parking lot to find my car. I drove around to the front of the hotel where Nancy stood with the others. I opened the car for her and we started driving out of downtown Denver. I slung the car around the tight curves of Speer Boulevard.
“Do you want to stay the night or go home?” I asked her as I shifted into third.
“I have to be up tomorrow. There’s a sale on shirts in casual wear,” she said flicking her cigarette ash out the window.
“I can always stay with you.”
“I think I’d like that.”
I drove back to her apartment and parked outside. We walked up the metal stairs to her second floor apartment. She unlocked the door. I kissed her as she bent down to work the key. She giggled.
“Alright, alright,” she said as the door gave way. Her apartment was decorated simply. She let her bag fall on a chair and she dashed into the bathroom. I took off my jacket and loosed my tie. She reappeared in the living room in her slip and nothing else. I took out my cufflinks and put them in my pocket for safe keeping.
I like how she curled up next to me, nice and safe. I smoked a cigarette and let the smoke driftup towards the ceiling. I stubbed it out and finally fell asleep, Nancy lying up against my flesh, warming my side.
When I woke up, Nancy was already gone but there was a note.
“Had to work, please lock behind you, key is under the mat. Had a great time, call me. XO, Nancy.”
I threw on my clothes and grabbed my jacket. I locked the door shut tight and drove back to my place. I had worked most Saturdays for the past couple months so I was looking forward to a day of actual relaxing and possibly a nap.
I bought beer and some cigarettes and waited to call Nancy in the evening. By Monday I was ready to get back to my welding at work. Two days off in a row was nice and the party was a nice way to take a break from the speed we’d been working at for awhile. However, when I arrived at the Welding Shop, Halsey waved me over to his office.
“Nah, listen, they need some guys in building 72 so I actually wanted to talk to you about changing jobs.”
“What’s the job?”
“Close the door.”
I closed the office door. “It’s the plutonium fabrication building. that’s where the real magic happens, that’s where they actually make the cores that go in our parts.”
“It’s $1.50 per hour more than here in welding and seeing how you’re actually competent, they are desperate for decent workers over there.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about working with the real stuff. But the money was attractive. $1.50 wasn’t bad either.
“Ain’t that the stuff that makes it, you know, explode, the bomb I mean.”
“It is, that’s why they have to have guys who know what the hell they’re doing.”
“Yeah, OK, I’ll do it.”
“Great, I’ll let the plant manager know.”
I walked out to the shop and started in on some flawed parts. By the next day Halsey was walking me over to building 72. The place was not well lit at all. I noticed right away that the building was filled with these long glass enclosures with holes in the side.
“This is Jimmy, he’ll be your new foreman. It was nice working with you, Mike.”
“See you, Halsey, say hi to the guys for me.”
Halsey held up a hand to acknowledge me.
Jimmy held out his hand towards me. “Mike, is it?”
“Halsey says you’re a good worker, says he hates to lose you.”
“Yeah, Always work hard.”
Jimmy took out a little square piece of plastic and stuck it to my collar. “You’ll need one of these, we wear them at all times.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a dosimeter badge, it tells us if any radiation has infiltrated the air at unsafe levels. If this turns yellow, it means you’ve been exposed and we need to shut down the facility and do a cleanup.”
“It’s all apart of the training you’ll be going through. We even have a glove box for you to practice in.”
“Is that what those big things are called?” I said pointing at the long boxes.
“Yes, also there’s no smoking on the floor, we smoke outside.” Jimmy led me through the building past the men with their arms stuck inside those glove boxes. They stood on stools as they worked. He led me into a room where he put on a training film. They had filmed the entire process of what they did and what each job was. He gave me a pad to take notes in. I took sparse notes on the process. It was complicated, more complicated than welding. By the time I was done watching his movies it was about lunch time. I decided to eat lunch with the welding shop instead of these new guys I hadn’t met yet. I wouldn’t meet my first real co-worker for about another week. Jimmy was right. They had a training glove box. It was hard to work with. The glovers were thick and rubbery. I sat for hours getting practice at holding things and pouring liquids and working with fake sand meant to work like plutonium. There was a regulation for everything. How everything happened had to be precise. I didn’t realize that the stuff would burn at room temperature either. Everything had to be done a certain way. I thought GM was anal retentive about how to do things, this was even more complicated than building a car.
It took me about two weeks before I completed all the training steps required for my first day on the line with the real material. By my second week I had gotten handy with those blue rubbery gloves. I had perfected pulling my hands out without pulling the glove out of the box which could cause a radiation release. I started to wonder if the extra $1.50 was worth the trouble and the constant threat of turning the whole place into Nagasaki.
After the two weeks of training, I started my first day on the line. Jimmy led me over to my new station at the glove boxes. My chair was already set up and the gloves were at the ready. He tapped my new coworker on the shoulder. He removed his hands from the glove box.
“Frank, meet Mike, he’s going to be working next to you.”
Frank nodded at me.
“Hi. They train you?”
“I think so. Just did two weeks on the practice box.”
“Good, that’s more than the last guy.”
Jimmy smiled. “Show him the ropes, they liked him over in welding.”
Frank nodded his head and put his arms back in the glove box. “This is the part of the process where we pour the plutonium into the molds. See the molds there in the box?”
I put my arms into the box and looked through the clear top for the stack of molds.
“Yeah, I got them here.”
“Alright, we usually just pass things to each other within the box, once it goes in it can’t come out, so if you need something just ask.”
I started working. Working within the box was like working with a very dangerous chemistry set. I carefully poured my first mold and then added the additive to make it set in the mold. I found a pile of rags nearby and wiped off the excess to form a perfect button. The material was about the size of half an orange but that small amount could lay waste to the whole place.
It was sweaty work, the gloves didn’t breathe and your hands started to feel like those jungles in Nam after forty five minutes. It was an assembly line so everyone took their break together, lunch too. I didn’t know anybody yet so my first day I just ate on my own. After a couple days, Frank got brave and decided to sit down for lunch.
“No one’s still talking to you, huh?” he said, opening his lunch pail.
“Yeah, not a friendly bunch,” I replied.
“That’s because no one stays around long, guys move on, it’s hot work and stressful.”
“Yeah, what’s up with the heat?”
“The A/C doesn’t work too well, never has really, they need to do something about it. Would make it easier since your hands are in those gloves, might as well be wearing big thick nylons.”
I took out my own pack and pulled one out.
“I always try to smoke two at lunch, that way I can last until break.”
We smoked in silence until the horn sounded and we all marched back in and took our places at the glove boxes.
After a few days I started to get real handy with those gloves and I kept pouring the mixture into those forms real regular. I got good at passing things around the glove boxes and some of my co-workers on the line even started talking to me. It was hot work. I hadn’t sweat that much since Vietnam but my check was getting fatter and that was good. Making the stuff was a slow methodical process and overtime was a regular thing you could get if you wanted it. I picked up Frank’s job, too: if he couldn’t stay I could switch between our boxes and do both jobs pretty well. Cleanup was the toughest part of the day. Everything used that couldn’t be used again, like those rags, had to be passed to the end of the box and put in a special part of the box where it could be sealed off from the rest of the line and then removed for waste storage. From what I could tell, they just stored it out back in big barrels. It didn’t seem real safe considering what we were dealing with but the bosses knew best anyway so I just focused on working on my buttons. I was happy to work at it until one day when everything just went wrong.
It was on a Thursday. I had plans with Nancy that weekend. I was liking her company and I thought that maybe it was time to get serious, with a girl like her, you don’t let those ones get away. I was starting to see a future with her. I wanted that future and she made me want to settle down from my drifting ways. I was liking Colorado life. All that fresh air and sunshine. It was like California without the Hare Krishnas.
I was working late and Frank had stayed so we were working together. I had wiped off another button and sent it on for packaging at the next station down the glove box. It was late summer and it was hot. The A/C wasn’t keeping up and the building was metal to start with. The last thing I remember was taking out my hand to wipe off my face so I could finish the button I was working on when I saw one of the guys jump off his chair and away from his station. I never heard an alarm but someone shouted fire. I looked to see where the fire was and then I realized that the fire was inside the glove boxes. I could see smoke smoke start to fill the long boxes. I pulled my hands out of the glove box and ran towards the fire. The glove boxes were full of smoke. One of the guys was already on the floor, grabbing his face. Two guys drug him away from the line. Jimmy screamed “Get the extinguishers!” We mustered at the fire fighting station. We helped each other into our fire suits and we returned to the glove boxes with our extinguishers. We turned them on the flames sprouting from inside the line of boxes and tried to put out the fire but the fire raged on.
Water hoses were added to the fight and we used everything we had to stop the flames. The room was becoming contaminated with nuclear material. Different guys fell from the heat and exhaustion. I knew from training that it would be on everything, now that the glove boxes had been broken. I tried not to think about that part. We worked on the fire in shifts. We couldn’t go outside to get air and take a break. We just took turns holding the hoses. I had never seen fire burn green before. I had never felt that heat before. I imagine that’s what being in a nuclear blast would be like if you could live to tell the story. At some point the ceiling started to give way and Jimmy directed the water to the ceiling.
“The building has to fucking stay sealed!” he shouted at us. After what seemed like hours, the fire finally started to die down and after some more cleanup effort, the fire was out. Everything was either waterlogged or black. Our suits had dosimeter badges like we always wore and they were bright yellow. We had all gotten a nasty dose of radiation. The cleanup for us was intense.
By this time, some government men had come by to help with the aftermath and they put us in these showers and scrubbed us with big brushes, ass naked. They wore special suits like we had. It’s never fun getting scrubbed by two men in space suits. I thought showering with guys in the army was bad enough, somehow this was worse. They tested each of us for radiation before they let us leave. We were given some thin clothes to wear because our clothes were ruined. I was lucky, my jeans passed so I only had to take a t-shirt. Some of the other guys phoned home to get clothes. They scrubbed my boots and they passed too so I was able to leave with some dignity.
When I was finally allowed to leave, I walked out into the dark and windy Colorado night. The parking lot lights moved with the wind. The parking lot was empty, just a few cars remained. I gimp-walked over to the GTO and slid into the seat. Couldn’t start it at first. I was hot, tired, and I hurt all over. Everyone else had left. They probably made everyone leave considering we about blew the whole place up. I started for the bar. I needed a goddamn drink. I called Nancy from the bar and told her about the accident without giving her too many details. She met me at the bar near my apartment after she got off from the store. I was on my fifth beer by that time.
“Oh baby, are you alright?” she said clinging to my shoulders.
“Yeah, I’m alright, I’m alright. it was just a fire.”
“Who knew making cleaning products could be so dangerous?” she said sitting down next to me at the bar.
“Industrial accidents happen. Not often, but they happen.”
“I’m just glad you’re OK.” She rubbed my arm again and then ordered a drink of her own. I smoked my last cigarette from the pack.
“Thanks for coming. It means a lot to me.”
“Of course, I don’t want anything happening to you.”
“I don’t want anything happening to me either.”
Nancy smiled, in that sweet way I liked. “Let’s finish this drink and then let’s go back to your place and relax.”
“Alright. I’d like that.”
Nancy and I got back to my place. I was a bit sloshed. I needed to clear my head and Nancy helped me with that. I didn’t have to go to work the next day and I just stayed home. I watched some TV and stared at the wall for a bit. For the first time since Nam, I was scared. Somehow, that fire was worse than the gooks and the jungles. Nancy called me after she got off work.
“How are you feeling tonight?”
“Good, I guess.”
“I think I’m gonna quit.”
“Don’t think I can go through that again.”
“That must have been some fire, you seem really shaken by it.”
“Yeah, I haven’t even drank today.”
“Do you want me to bring some beer over?”
“Yeah. That’d be nice.”
Nancy showed up with beer, true to her word. She dressed real pretty for work and I got to enjoy the view. I appreciated it. I opened one right away and drank about half of the bottle.
“You don’t seem OK.”
“I don’t know.”
Nancy put her hand on my shoulder and I reached up for it. I pulled her into me and we cuddled in silence on the couch. I finished the beer and broke the embrace to get another.
“Was it a bad fire? The news said it was a bad fire.”
“Yeah, the whole place is toast. Wait, it was in the news?”
Nancy shook her head. “It was. You guys don’t make scrubbing bubbles, do you?”
“No, we sure as hell don’t.”
“They said it could have poisoned everyone.” Nancy’s voice edged with concern.
“Yeah, it could have, but we stopped it,” I said downing more beer.
“I’m glad you stopped it.”
Nancy stayed over again. I got drunk trying to get those images out of my head. I never thought I’d see something worse than the jungles but that fire was worse. I’d take a rice paddy again over that shit any day.
On Monday I drove out to work and walked into the office and said I was quitting and picked up my final cheque. That Mr. Lindsey didn’t even try to stop me. He just handed me my cheque and shook my hand. I left my badge on the counter and drove out of that place about as fast as I could. I didn’t want to see Front Range Chemical ever again.
I stayed in the area after that. Nancy and I eventually got married. She gave me a reason to stop drifting and settle down. We got a little house in Arvada and raised two good kids. I did end up going out to the plant again but it was different. In the 70s, they started protesting out there. The fire had gotten the word out about what they actually did there. All those hippies I left behind in California started protesting out there and I decided to join them. They blocked railroad tracks by laying on them. They even surrounded the place by holding each others’ hands around the place. They were strange but good people. They really had beliefs about things. I soon realized that maybe I didn’t understand them. They weren’t all the same and not the same as the kids who spit on us coming back from Nam. We didn’t need war. I had seen war. It’s grisly. Your buddies get their legs and arms blown off. You just hope that you get to go back safe. I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t leave any body parts in Nam. That place was always in the news until they finally closed it in ‘91 after nearly restarting the civil war out there. Turns out I was right: they never did fix the A/C and no one ever told me that plutonium burns at room temperatures. All those rags we used were just fires waiting to happen. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, no one had a fucking clue how to make that stuff.
I still think about that fire. I think about all that radiation we all got. But then I have a lot of time to think, these days. My days are spent in doctor’s offices and chemotherapy appointments anyway. I heard there’s a lawsuit happening but they can’t find anyone to sue. The government is fucking around with any kind of help or settlement for everyone who worked there. Plant’s gone too, all cleaned up now. Just a nature preserve. They hauled all the waste off to Nevada or New Mexico or something like that. I still can’t believe they just buried it out back. We all got a nasty dose every day we worked there. I’ll never forget that fire.