It’s still dark outside when I pull into the parking lot of the bullet factory, the chirping of finches and sparrows still a cup of coffee and stale donut off. There is the familiar three a.m. haze drifting through my head as I stumble through my sleeping house and into a pair of steel-toed boots and greasy ball cap. I’ve been at this job for nearly eight years now, progressing through the various stages of the ammunition manufacturing process: Assembler. Material Handler. Nickel Plater. Supervisor Trainee.
It’s a ritualistic trek from my truck to the turnstile gate each morning. I prepare for the day ahead, never a shortage of things to contemplate these days given my greenness to the world of management. Who will have called in sick and who can I call to fill their spot? Why was production in the tank yesterday and what’s the plan to keep it from recurring? Is supervision really for me? The last question weighs heavy.
When I was a nickel plater life was so much simpler. I could turn work off at the time clock each night. My routine didn’t vary much one way or another. Clock in and stow my lunchbox and water bottle in my locker. Pull on my safety glasses and stuff foam earplugs in. Check product inventory levels and the day’s priorities. Millions of parts, stored in white buckets and stacked in rows waited for me. I’d take my pick and load them into stainless steel washers and crank on the hot water. Add chemicals and let the parts tumble in a steaming white froth. The PH and nickel level checked and balanced. Beakers filled, dyes and solutions swirled, decoding complex chemical equations to chart on a graph for the management to monitor. I transferred the wet parts from the washers into van-sized dryers that smell faintly of burning plastic.
The automated hoist is a machine that costs more than I’ll likely make in the next thirty years. It picks and sets cylindrical baskets full of parts through a series of acid, alkaline, and rinse tanks. Each basket snaps and sometimes sparks as it is electrified and settled into place, submerged in a heated nickel solution. The solution is green and heavy and rusts the steel support beams nearby. I try not to think what it might be doing to my lungs.
While the line rolls along I pinball around through the plating building. Washing more primers. More anvils. Drying them. Lubricating and weighing and stacking them. Loading them for transport to the next stage of production. Preventative maintenance needs done—bearings cry out and belts squeal. I snap the lips of a grease gun onto the zerks and pump high-temperature grease like it’s going out of style. Load a basket. Unload another. The routine keeps up until I’m breaked for fifteen minutes. I call home to check on the kids, eat something, and try to think about anything outside of the factory. The day unfolds in a whirl constant movement, the kind of work my grandfather’s grandfather would appreciate.
When I finally load the final basket of the day and total up my production it will read in the tens of millions. An amount that I still have a hard time wrapping my head around. I sign and date the sheet, drop it on the boss man’s desk. The sheet will be streaked with grease smudges and the entire paper will hold a green tint from the nickel solution. I clean my area and write up pass down notes for the next shift: keep an eye on the acid pumps, check saddle #3 in the nickel tank, stay out of the Fritos in my locker. My hands burn from the chemicals when I wash them in the break room, the skin drying to a rough scale no amount of lotion seems to heal.
But this was before.
I haven’t plated any cases for almost two months now. Instead my alarm clock chimes earlier in the morning and as I pass through the house, I look at my chemical speckled hat sadly, a new polo shirt and company cell phone clipped to my belt. I still wear my steel-toed boots each day, though they spend the majority of the working hours parked under a paper-littered desk. I haven’t been in this current position long enough to know whether or not management is right for me. It’s different than anything I’ve ever known. The calluses I once wore so proudly on my hands are smoothing, the lines across my palms no longer dirty or rough. What has stayed the same is the steady metallic heartbeat of the factory. Where men and women punch in each day and churn out bullets by the millions. Where we make the means of protection—and destruction—of life.