The air is filled with smell of diesel fuel and the bitter stench of stick welders. Even the stark rays of the fluorescent lights aren’t strong enough to clear the haze and the factory air is greasy and thick. Matching cadmium yellow lines, crumbling round the edges and crusty from paint layered over the years, mark the aisles and the designated working areas. The high bay is enormous. It comes by its size designation with being the tallest building on the lot at three stories high. It’s longer than several football fields. If you’re going to build locomotives you can’t go anywhere but big.
The screech of metal grinders and the buzz of compression tools is regularly punctuated by the warning siren as the cranes move up and down the huge bay carrying the under frames of locomotives. Those frames are heavy enough to leave a foot deep trench in the concrete floor if dropped. The cranes are enormous and though they run on wheels they are anchored to the building by weighty steel girders that follow the length of the walls. The factory works three shifts and with the exception of summer shut down and Christmas holidays it is a 24 hour world of production, metallic stench and the noises of progress and machinery. It’s not exactly the place one would expect to find wildlife. But as often is the case where you find people and their workings, there too you will find the animal world living off the avails.
There is a pond out behind the factory lying amidst the testing track for the light armored vehicles made next door. Each year it becomes the home of nesting ducks and Canadian geese that don’t seem to mind the LAVs racing round the track. Raccoons regularly visit the outdoor luncheon area where the workers save them the trouble of pawing through the garbage by tossing bits of sandwiches and cookies. The raccoons sit back on their haunches and catch the bread in their paws like trained circus performers. Many of the locomotive parts travel from south of the border and an eye must be kept out for black widows and other nasty crawlies.
All through the summer and part way through the fall the corrugated steel walls lock in the heat of the day. Even with giant fans positioned strategically the plant is like an oven, drawing a breath can make you break a sweat. As soon as the sun goes down the large doors that access the yard are opened up to let the heat out. They’re left open until the morning comes and the sun bakes the building again.
Despite the presence of people and the constant noise of production, the high bay is an attractive shelter to all sorts of avian travelers. Some even take the opportunity to make it their regular home, roosting high in the rafters and finding their meals in the garbage cans that regularly dot the factory floor. The bird population ebbs and flows with the seasons. For the most part the workers try to ignore the inside wild life. There are a variety of bird species that inhabit the factory but the most disruptive have to be the current flock of pigeons that are wintering in the rafters. At the top of the building, if not the food chain, the pigeons seem to be doing their best to make life miserable for those flightless creatures that go about their business below. The floor and anything that is anchored or moves over it have become fair game in the toilet bowl fiesta. Heated words rise up as welders, electricians and pipe fitters alike dance through a game with unknown rules and standards. Not only do you have to watch where you place your hands and feet, messes drop randomly from above to splatter on heads, shirts, tool boxes and blueprints… anything below the flight path. Complaints to the foremen and upper management have produced absolutely zero results.
The builders of locomotives aren’t your regular production line workers. Men of experience, they are the practical application of engineers’ plans and blueprints. The white collars look down on those grease covered grunts thinking that anyone can do the job. Upper management is confused as to the reason that production has slowed lately, never making a connection to the loss of the old timers that they’re slowly replacing with junior and therefore less expensive workers. Locomotives aren’t built on an assembly line like cars and on time delivery will never work for these mammoth constructs. These senior workers are the guys that make the blueprint theory a reality. Each carries their own notebook, some decades old, which hold the keys to the knowledge that actually makes those fancy blueprints work. If you tell these men that something has to be done, they’ll do it, whatever it takes. Given no logical instruction or recourse they will create a solution of their own.
Gus used to be a farmer. His whole family farmed. His ancestry is Dutch and Belgian and his family immigrated here years ago to work the land. Gus grew up working hard, knowing the satisfaction of a job well done and the rhythm of the labourer’s day. He could have retired already. He could have taken the buy-out a couple of years ago. Rumor has it, the buy-out was over $70,000 but Gus isn’t made that way. He’s a spare man, not built big but strong in the way the day is strong, built to last, built to endure. He does his job and then he goes home. Gus doesn’t know how not to work. His generation is a working generation and to not work would be like not breathing to him.
Gus used to farm but that was a long time ago. If you look around you right now chances are you won’t see one thing that doesn’t owe something to some type of farmer but still it’s hard to make a living farming anymore. Farmers are a hardy lot, used to making something from nothing more than the dirt beneath their feet. Gus may have left the farm behind to walk the factory floor but it didn’t change who he is. To say Gus is a handy man is to underestimate Gus. He has offered to cut down the 150 foot of dead pine that shadows the back of our yard. He wants to cart it away, saw it into planks and build a shed out of it. He could, as this is a man who has his environment well in hand.
In the high bay the pigeon population has reached a number than makes it not only difficult to work but dangerous as well. Unsanitary globs of bird droppings mark the floor and the under frames. It’s dirty and slippery underfoot and underhand. Complaints have been made and there’s some talk of sweeping piles of it up (there is that much) and depositing it on one of the desks in the administrative offices to see how they like working in bird shit. Gus isn’t much on talking about getting something done. Necessity is the mother of invention and Gus has always been a member of that family.
Like most large factories the tools in the high bay are powered by compressed air. Using compressed air, an adapter, a valve and a copper tube Gus made his own solution. It was a simple concept; the adapter attaching the valve to the air hose and in turn the valve controlling the force of air running through the copper tubing. All that remained then was to find ammunition. Nuts and bolts abound in a place that creates the machineries of transportation. Using a selection of sizes Gus has began to invade the rafters above. The compressed air, normally used to power the tools of a massive industry provide more than enough power to send the nuts and bolt racing up to hit the ceiling. So far he hasn’t hit anything but he’s been able to create quite a stir up in steel firmament. There’s been some squawking and feathers flying and a bit of general unrest in the feathered ranks above. It’s not a long term solution but it is a start. Perhaps the birds will look for more peaceful pastures. Perhaps someone higher up the factory food chain will take a little more notice. Perhaps someone else will get beaned by one of the nuts and bolts falling from the ceiling. Either way things are on the move in the high bay; that’s just the way it is there.
The greasy air fills up with the sound of grinders and the stench of the welders and the business of building giants. The locomotives continue to roll past the high bay doors and out into the world. Last week there was a fork lift collision further down the bay. Management keeps reorganizing the workers. Someone forgot to remove the cardboard from the inside of a cab and something, a welding spark most likely, set the whole thing on fire. One of the junior workers forgot to drain the air from a tank after an air test, a possibly fatal mistake that’s happened more than once lately. Gossip abounds, faces change and the job gets done. The pigeons fly, maybe a little more cautiously. Engineers design and the blue collars make it work; filling in the gaps, smoothing out the creases and rewriting the plans. The siren wails, the crane rolls and the high bay rises up shadowing the lot and the buildings all around.