Summer Jobs, 1961 & 1962
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[Last updated May 12, 2020]

Chapter 9: Summer Jobs,  1961 & 1962

Laurens, South Carolina, Summer of 1961

During the summer of 1961, between my senior year at MIT and my first year of graduate school I had a summer job at the Laurens Mill in Laurens, SC.  It was part of the Deering Millikin family empire which was, I believe, strong and healthy at that time.  Sometime in the next 20 years the foreign competition, especially from Japan, and, I suspect, failure to adapt to the changing technology related to computers, the textile part of  Deering Miliken empire declined.

It was an interesting summer and I suspect it had a significant influence on me.  It was the only time in my life when I was part of a manufacturing concern with all the related aspects of hourly workers, buying raw materials, selling finished goods, and, most importantly, actually using machines to produce a finished product.  I was offered a job there after getting out of the army in 1963 and I often wonder how that would have worked out.

I drove from our home in Atlanta to Laurens in the old Plymouth my Uncle Harry had given me the previous summer.  On the way there I spent hours repeating “I will remember names”.  It worked I found that the first few days in my new job I was able to remember names better than I ever had before or had since.

My contact at the Laurens Mill was a woman named Reba Cobb.  She had arranged for me to rent a room in a house in town and looked after me the entire time I was in Laurens.  She stayed in contact with me through the time I was looking for a job in 1965 and I respected her and appreciated how well she dealt with me.

At that time Laurens was a fairly small town, maybe 4000 people,  My room was on the second floor of a house near the center of town.  My landlady had a daughter around 15 and a disabled husband.  We got along well and I helped her on occasion.  She would sometimes have me help take her husband out to the car and drive him, and her, around as an outing for him.  I don’t think he was able to speak, probably the result of a stroke.  She made it clear that I was to have no contact with the daughter and I don’t think the daughter and I exchanged more than a few words all summer.  I liked my room and felt comfortable in the situation.

My job was in the Technical Department of a fairly large textile mill.  The mill ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the workers worked three shifts.  I think there were probably at least 200 workers on each shift. I worked the day shift, but for some reason I think I did work a few night shifts. 

The mill had several large open floors full of large machines.  Most of the machines were a little smaller than a VW bug car.  Each floor had machines for different parts of the manufacturing process.  The mill took in raw cotton, wool and other fibers and processed it all the way through finished woven cloth.  By the time I left I knew the names of all the major processes.   The first stage was to break up the bundles of raw fiber and prepare them for the next stage.  This was a particularly violent process was dangerous.  The men who ran it had to feed the raw product into it very carefully, using strength and timing.

The processes after this eventually created threads which were wrapped on wooden spindles.  After that the weaving processes, giant looms, used the thread from the spindles to make cloth.  A particular cloth would use a particular combination of threads. The threads differed in color, content ( wool, cotton, rayon etc. ), and various other specifications ( weight, and other measures I don’t recall).  The cloth produced came out on large rolls, a large tube  probably about 12 feet long. 

The mill offered employees a free cut of cloth if they would use it to make a piece of clothing and bring it in for examination.  One day a woman I knew proudly told us that the skirt she was wearing was made from some free sample cloth from the mill.  I was behind her later in the day when she was walking down the hall and met one of the senior Mill managers.  She probably told him about the skirt, or he may have just recognized the cloth.  In any case he looked at the skirt, reached down and grabbed the hem, and then lifted it up to examine the cloth, exposing her slip.  This was very upsetting and embarrassing to her.   Worse, he looked closely at the cloth and said “This is wrong, you have it backward, the inside surface of the cloth should be on the outside.  When he put her skirt down she went, crying, into the ladies room.

There were about ten of us in the technical department and we worked in a room with glass windows looking out into the halls on two sides.  I was the only summer employee.  Most people in the factory had been there for years and many of the hourly workers were 2nd or 3rd generations working in the mill. I got along well with the other workers in my department and I don’t recall any problem about me being a presumably smart kid in graduate school at M.I.T. while some of the others had only high school degree.  We knew I didn’t know anything and I treated them with the respect they deserved.  Some were highly skilled in their work.  One of the senior people in the department had very good eyes and could sometimes spot problems with threads, or cloth, by just looking at it with his eyes.  Others used magnifying glasses or microscopes.  I remember noticing that the man with the good eyes was also the umpire at the local baseball game.

One of the engineers in the mill was a German named Manfred Schmidt.  He was single and lived on a lake outside of town.  He occasionally invited me and others out to his house for beer and bar-b-que, or just to hang out.  He had a motor boat and I think he also took us out in a larger boat on a lake within driving distance of Lauren.  I got along well with him.

Though I think I was given a number of assignments intended to orient me to the work done in the mill, the main one I was given, and remember, was very interesting, and educational to me.  When I finished it I had a good basic understanding of all the major processes of the mill.  I believe I used this knowledge to write a term paper in my first semester of graduate school.  I am going to describe this assignment with enough detail to communicate why it was such a good way for me to learn about the production process.

There were a number of different types of machines in the mill.   Each type was used for a particular part of the process.   There would sometimes be 10 or 20 identical machines grouped together in an area on the mill floor.  Different job orders required different settings on the machines.  Depending on what was being processed the machines of a particular type might be set up so that some of them were processing one order, with appropriate settings, while nearby identical machines were processing a different order, using different settings.  

This was true for each stage of the process, with groups of identical machines located near each other and set up to handle particular production orders.  Hourly workers were in charge of these machines.  Men often specialized in a particular machine, though I assume some workers knew how to work with more than one type of machine.  There were also foremen on the floor who would be checking on and working with the men who ran the machines. 

When a new order came through the paper would give the machinists the information they needed to set up their machines.  It would also specify what would be fed into the machines.  The machinist knew what to do to each machine to meet the desired specifications.

One of the main things that would be changed for a new order was some of the gears that controlled things like the speed of the machine, the tension or pressures, used and whatever else gears could be used to control on that machine.   The machinists knew which gears to change.  However, it turned out that much of the knowledge of what gears to change for particular orders was in the minds of the workers and was not documented in any organized way.  Because of the redundancy of the machines and the workers who ran them this was not a problem.  There was, it seems, always a few people on each shift who knew which gears to change to meet particular specifications.

My job was to start with the machines at the beginning of the production process and prepare paper documentation about the gears, and other settings, that were changed in each type of machine.  The first step was to identify which gears were normally changed and where they were located in the machine.  The next step was to document the set of gears that could be used in each position ( there could be two or more gears that could be used in a particular position).    The final step was, to the extent possible, to document how the particular gears related to the typical specifications given with a new product order. 

Each gear was custom made for a particular type of machine.  The gear was identified by where in the machine it was used and the number of teeth on that gear wheel.  There were other settings on the machine for each production result but these were easy to document.  I was primarily focused on the gears. 

After I finished documenting the setups for one type of machine I would move on to the next part of the production process and do the same thing for the machines used there.

In order to do this I had be able to find the gear in the machine, to count the teeth on each gear for that position, and to learn something about when each gear would be used.  Keep in mind that, especially early on, I knew nothing about what and how each machine worked.  I did not even know what function they served.   To learn this I needed to talk to the men who were running the machines.   These were, in general, hard working busy men who were doing their job and did not have a lot of time to sit around and chat.  I needed their cooperation.  I needed them to feel at least a little positive about helping me.  I needed their trust.

I also often needed them to stop a machine that was part of a production process and show me the gears inside and the available replacements.  I often had to crawl under the machines with one of the men in the same way they had to crawl under to replace gears that were accessed in this way.   Some of these workers had very little education and were not particularly articulate.  Some were not good at explaining the machine or what they did with it. 

In some cases the men did not know the number of teeth on a particular gear. They knew how to find the needed gear, and its name, but the fact that it had say 12 teeth, of 15, was not important to them.  They knew its name, how to identify it, and what to do with it.  I recall that on occasion I would be under a machine with a worker counting the teeth of a particular gear.

It turned out that my interaction with the men who helped me on a particular type of machine was as important, or more important, than the understanding the technical details I was trying to document.  Just because a foreman ordered a worker to help me did not mean that the interaction would go smoothly.  I felt I did well at this part of the job.  The men learned that I was just trying to make written records of the knowledge they had and were proud of.  I was not there to judge them in any way, I just needed their help.  I even needed them to realize that I might be better helped by one of the other workers and to suggest this when appropriate.  Whatever education and technical skill I had was irrelevant.  What mattered was that I needed their help and was willing listen and learn.

There was some resistance, especially at the start, to this smartass college kid trying to understand their work.  However, once they saw that I was more than willing to crawl under a machine, get greasy, and was able to ask reasonable questions and, with some effort, understand the answers, they treated me well.   I enjoyed my interactions with these men.  I don’t think I ever became good friends with any of them but I did get to know a lot of men and we would exchange greetings when we occasionally met later, usually in the plant, but sometimes in town or at an event like a baseball game.   This assignment was by far my favorite part of my summer job.  I was there for less than three months and I think this setting documentation assignment probably took about 75%of my work hours that summer.

Though all of the workers handling the machines in the early part of the production process were male, once I got to the processes that used wooden spinning bobbins ( making thread and weaving cloth) many of the workers were female.  My memory is that it was much easier to get them to tell me what I needed than it had been with the men.  However this may also be related to the fact that the things that were changed in the setup of these machines were more accessible, not as heavy, and, usually, not potentially dangerous. 

In addition to my work at the Deering Miliken textile mill I also had a social life and was involved in the day to day life in the town of Laurens  

Shortly after I got to Laurens I meet the Episcopal priest who served in a small church in town.  He was married and had one or two infant children.  He was assigned to Laurens as a kind of missionary from the Episcopal church.  It was his first assignment after he was ordained and he expected to be there about two years before being reassigned.  He and I got along well and enjoyed discussing religion and philosophy, and life in general.  He was only a few years older than me and I was particularly interested in his knowledge of the humanities, which was much broader than mine.   I think I was one of the few people in town he felt he could be fairly open and honest with in discussing his religious beliefs and doubts.  There were not a lot of college graduates in Laurens and most of the residents, regardless of education, leaned toward the fundamentalist side of Christianity.  I learned that at least some Episcopal priests had much broader perspectives on religion than I would have expected in any Christian minister.

I met, dated, and became good friends with a young woman my age, Sara Stephens.  She had just graduated from, I think, Georgia Weslyan college.  She had majored in music and, maybe, religion.  Her father owned and ran a dry cleaning business in Laurens, together with one of her brothers, and was a fairly successful businessman by Laurens standards.  They lived in nice large house and I was a frequent guest there.  They had a good size trampoline in the back yard and her brothers and I enjoyed springing on it.  My memory is that we would go 10 or 15 feet in the air.  Perhaps it was not so high, but it seemed that to me.  I got to where I could do flips and enjoy myself without feeling I was being foolishly dangerous. 

I believe they were Baptists and I did not know they drank liquor at all until I had been around for weeks and one night Mr. Stephens opened a cabinet in the dining room and offered me a drink, which I accepted.  It did not happen often.

Sara came to visit me for a weekend in Cambridge during my first year of graduate school and also came to visit me in Washington, D.C. the following summer when I was working there.  I liked Sara and we got along well.  I suspect she would have liked for us to get more serious and it was a possibility.  However she was a fairly committed Christian and I recall that she said she had only read one complete book in her life.  That book was “In His Steps”.  I read it.  It was book about being a good Christian.  I found it hard to believe she had not read more because she was intelligent and reasonably aware of various aspects of our culture and the world in general.

Laurens had a baseball team that competed with other teams. This may have been something like a minor league team.  I believe the players were adults from the area but seemed to me to be better athletes than I would expect of just a local team.  I recall that I went to a number of games that summer and there may have been one every week or so.  It was a popular activity in Laurens and I often saw people I knew from the mill, Sara’s family, and others I had met in town.  It was at these game that my tech department associate with the good eyes was the home base umpire.  I enjoyed this participation in the community.   It was a new kind of experience for me.

One Saturday night  I drove an hour or so to a quarter mile dirt track and watched the car races there.  It was like something out of a movie… a kind of down and dirty southern experience, filled with redneck behavior, drinking, and loud sounds and voices.  In particular I remember during one of the many races (I think they were usually about 15 minutes long) an older woman (50’s ?) beside me was particularly vocal,  yelling things like “Push the goddam mother-fucker into the wall” and “bust his ass”.  I had never heard such language in public, and certainly not from a woman.  When I looked over at her after one of these yells she said something like “That’s my boy driving the green ford with number 2 on it”.  I loved it all.

Greenville, South Carolina was around 90 minutes away and I went there a few times. I dated a girl that Madge and I had known in Monterey and Madge had kept up with.  I think her name was Nancy.  We got along well and I think it could have turned into a romance except (who knows?) I was so inexperienced and shy that I was afraid to do anything more than kiss her goodnight.  She and I drove to see Madge one weekend.  Madge was working at a summer camp in North Carolina.  I remember the paper mill town we went  through to get there ( a very strong smell) and the Indian reservation/ tourist site near her camp, but I cannot remember the names of the towns.

A mile or so out of town, up a dirt road and on top of a hill was a rather low class bar called Ma Lisle’s.  It had a juke box, neon lights, and the main room was roughly a 25 foot square with a bar along most of one wall.  It seemed to me that the typical patron was a young southern man (sometimes with a date)  out to drink with his buddies.  I don’t remember any fights or particularly drunk people.  I do remember that I went out of my way to avoid any kind of confrontation with any of the other patrons.  Some of them did look like a fairly rough crowd – hunters, stock car racers and the like.

I usually went there with other young men I worked with and I liked it a lot.  I got to be good friends, across the bar, with the owner, Ma Lisle, and would sometimes drop in on Saturday afternoon and shoot the bull with her.  She was a short plumpish woman, probably in her 40’s,  with a rough southern drawl, and an earthy sense of humor.  I had particularly admired a beer promotion statue on a shelf behind the bar.  It was a rotund, burley, plastic elf about 30 inches high holding a small barrel of labeled beer (Budwieser?).  When I went to spend some time saying goodbye to Ma she gave me the statue as a gift.   I took it out to the cabin on Church Lake in Tampa and it was there, and much appreciated by me for several years before being stolen in one of the occasional break-ins of the cabin.

Why so much about Laurens?  Well, …  in many ways this was a very important transition experience for me.  It was my first full time job other than working for my uncle while living with my grandmother.  It was the first time I lived by myself as an adult ( I turned 22 that summer) and the first time as an adult that  I was a complete stranger in a community.  It was the first time I was responsible for all of my own meals.  I was more free than I had ever been and I was exploring the world from a new perspective.  I don’t recall any especially important transition events, but I do recall that I was happy, felt good about being able to look after myself, and felt I was doing work (the machine setting documentation assignment) that might actually be of some lasting value to my employer. It was a kind part of becoming an adult. Looking back I realize that, perhaps for the best, I certainly did not push the edges of living in a safe envelope.  I did not do anything risky, dangerous, or even naughty.

Studying NASA,  Summer of 1962

[ to be written  May 12, 2020]