George Thomas, 2/27/2012
Current Occupation: Retired.
Former Occupation: I worked at many jobs. I even did some teaching, but most of my income earning life was as a machinist.
Contact Information: Born in Dayton, Ohio, I came West in my 30s. Hold an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Founded (edited for 2 years) the Willow Springs Magazine in 1977 and for six years published and edited George & Mertie’s Place: a literary microzine. [Find his poetry on Amazon.]
At work during the fourth winter after my last divorce, I thought a lot about Sartre’s book, Nausea, which I was rereading. Also, I was rereading a book by Jack Kerouac. The Subterraneans. And I was considering how much of my craziness has been exactly like Jack’s craziness in The Subterraneans. Holed up in my small town, except when I go into the larger city to work, I sometimes believe I’m quite changed, but I’m not sure. One day I say I won’t do something, the next I’m doing it. Not changed at all. What does it mean to be reformed?
I pick up a 4″ X 4″ block of aluminum from a box beside my CNC mill and push it against the vise stop. The vise is located on dowel pins and is bolted to the machine table. Everything is repeatable. I close the vise jaws until the chunk of metal is securely held, slide closed the sliding doors of the machine and push START on the control panel beneath the monitor which juts from the side of the CNC beside the doors. The spindle whines into a high-pitched keening while descending toward the table. The mill table jerks into position under the end mill, and the high-speed cutter settles into place and begins to eat away at the form of the aluminum block. A light blue coolant sprays the cutting process. Flung by the spindle’s centrifugal force, blue mist explodes against the plastic windows of the machine doors, blinding me to my work, but I’m certain that in accordance to the motions of the table which moves the aluminum block into and around the cutter, the piece of aluminum will take the shape it is destined, by program rote, to take.
American industry, what it does…. Behind the doors, the simple aluminum block is being shaped into a complex image which is stored electronically in the computer, an image created by the electrochemical synapses of a human designer to fit with other images in another machine that will be assembled in the factory of the company that purchased this part from us et al.
My father is a tool designer, still working in his Seventies. When I tell him he ought to have enough money to retire by now, he replies, “How much is enough?”
He fears he will live as long as Grandmother who is 99. When I brood how he can afford to travel around, cruise in the Caribbean, gamble in Las Vegas, golf, spend, I am defeated. It’s as if he lavished love on his needs all his life while I am left to fend for myself in an increasingly hostile world. Many will call it self-pity. I know I have struggled.
My father is secretly proud of the money he earns. His self-worth is bound up in the blue paycheck he brings home in the white envelope each Friday. If you took that check away from him, he would shrink into a puddle of sweat, the story of the US. He can hide in the bowels of his labor like a jinni in a brass bottle. His working hours are his houris. His miraculous blueprints shape the world. On the seventh day, he cuts the lawn or works at his golf game. He’s all-American.
He only rests when I try to read him one of my poems, then he falls asleep. He says he doesn’t understand my writing and drifts off in a state of deep puzzlement. What is this to me? I don’t understand my writing anymore than he does. I don’t even know why I continue, what with failure and divorces and…well…everything. He’s ashamed of me and bewildered by my continuing distance. He remembers me as a kid, tells me he spent more time with my half-brother because “I didn’t want him to turn out like you.” He repeats this without a glimmer of understanding.
Running my CNC, sometimes the motion of my hand, the sound of my voice is my father’s motion, his voice. I think I have become him, phantasmagorically recreating his blueprints, his mental and logical images of the world of machines, my shaped world that he shapes with his tool designs. I have wrestled with the work he has given me to do all my life, sworn off it more than once, but here I am, still cutting metal. A machine operator. How many women did I fuck, how many bars did I sit in all night after work trying to fuck and kill his work out of my body?
I write poetry in the mornings and pay my compliments to father’s world on the evening shift. The Parisian life of Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway is always blackened with machine shop oil for me. I was and am too American to escape to a Paris of my own and live the bohemian life. Like any two-fisted, bar-hopping American blue collar man, I’m going down to defeat. I don’t know, at times, whether I’m machine or spirit.
The machine stops, the end mill rises. The table flies forward so I can take out my finished part. With an air hose I blow coolant from the shaped, shiny metal which I’ve taken from the machine, chilling the part and my fingers. Careful not to slice my fingers with its sharp edges. However, I often cut myself—a machinist’s, a butcher’s lot in life, blue collar pain, masochism-o every day.
Currently, I have two cuts and a burn mark on my right hand. The burn mark on the middle finger knuckle came from the broiler coil of my stove. I was broiling up a mess of pork chops for my lunches. Didn’t hurt at first but the smell of burned flesh intrigued me. I lifted the knuckle to my nose to get a closer whiff. I thought of all the victim/people I have known who hurt themselves on purpose, burn the belly, the hairy chest or boobies with cigarettes, slice small bleeding lines in the fat of their arms, “mortify the flesh”, as the saying goes. I’m surprised how many flagellants still exist, only they don’t know they’re practicing a medieval religious exercise. They know only that they’re evil and under the care of the devil/doctor and must torture the evil out of themselves and of everyone they can bring under their influence.
I say, “Watch out for them and their offspring. They will inject evil into your arms. They’ll introduce you to the devil.” That’s what I say. They’ve been raised by aliens, have let the aliens convince them that life and pleasure are evil. They listen to the profiteers in the earth, the pat answers of a robber’s son. They watch Jimmy swagger. They harken to the sweetshop confections of Oral Rubber Junior who offers the little grown children candy to come into the backroom with him. These are they who preach to the Innocents that life is evil, that they are sinners in order to pry the shekels from their bloody fingers in exchange for a razorblade .
My earthly father seems to have gone up to heaven somewhere out of reach. In recent months, I’ve been trying to communicate with him via letter for he dwells far distant in the East—or should I say “to him” as the communication is one way— “communicate to him” certain painful information about my childhood, but he keeps retreating into a silence like death. I wonder whether I should imagine that he is ashamed of something? Like his own childhood which he doesn’t want to talk about? “It’s too painful,” he puts me off with. I wonder if we’ll still be non-communicative when he dies. I wonder if it’s all my responsibility to create a real relationship with my father in the East. Is he is even capable of having an intimate relationship with a man, his son?
Interestingly, as he disappears I’m noticing that so also is any hope I had of there being a personal God in the Universe. Dad fell silent and so also did God. That double loss is unnerving me because my struggle to find some sort of God for my Universe continues to be hard fought and almost certainly imperative to my survival from my various compulsions, like drinking, fucking, eating, life. I remember Pincher Martin from Golding’s novel who came into life with his “hands, his mouth and his fly open.” Yes, I’m addicted to life. For many years, I had been an atheist. Then there was some hope of God. Now this.
The dilemma with my father probably contributes to the force with which I was struck—as if by coincidence—by a fragment of a declarative sentence from the dust jacket of Sartre’s book: “…Roquentin [the main character] records in diary form his sudden, nauseating apprehension of the nature of human existence—that man is alone in a godless universe and can expect no comfort from anything outside himself, and yet within himself has only a void.”
Much of Sartre’s book puzzles me, but the dust jacket phrase continually recurs in my machine shop meditations. When I personally experience Roquentin’s condition, like in the morning a few days ago when I went to Margaret’s TV “Body Electric”, I really need to find a woman and curl up in her arms and never get out of bed. Which may explain in some convoluted way all my past and current craziness. However, thoughts elude me, feelings shift, and they never last—the feeling or the woman. The very next day or week, I forget that life is what I think it is and go on about my business, working. The void shrinks and I forget it’s there. Every day is a new day, a new human condition.
“Poor little Leo, poor Little Leo, you suffer, men suffer so, you’re all alone in the world I’ll take care of you, I would very much like to take care of you all your days my angel.” Leo—Kerouac’s persona in The Subterraneans—imagines his mother in the sky, bending over him, whispering comfort to him, but his fictional/real mother had “impenetrable eyes and moveless lips and round cheekbones and glasses that glinted and hid the major part of her expression.” Poor Leo, poor Jack—did he realize? Did he not realize the cold distance of the mother he describes compared to the words he wishes to put in her “moveless” lips?
Jack Kerouac, he experienced, without confronting, the incestuous void, travelled his road within the great, outer nothingness, driven by the immense inner void. His awareness was a flickering Jackspot of consciousness trapped between unknown and unknowing. Which is why he could say of himself in The Subterraneans, ” ‘O blood of my soul,’ I thought, ‘and the Good Lord or whatever’s put me here to suffer and groan and on top of that be guilty and gives me flesh and blood that is so painful….’ ”
I sit at my workbench and with a whirlagig deburring tool, I peel the aluminum detritus from the machined edges of the finished part. Satisfied to feel the smooth cut of the tool, I run the whirlagig around the edges of a large diameter hole. On the workbench beside me is a large wooden box. I put the finished burr free part in the box, stacking it neatly with others just like it or as nearly like it as a machine can make it, stacking it so I can later count the parts easily and tally my production figures.
I’m thinking Kerouac is father to the man, Sartre. I am thinking, “Should I listen to Letterman tonight or to the new age music station?” I’d rather listen to a Blazers basketball game, but something in the shop interferes with that particular frequency. A feather of fear, touch of a thought of ghosts in the next room tickles my tummy. I look up, around. No windows in the shop, dark anyway outside. Machines hide the others on this shift. Each of us tends a machinegod, subservient to it, giving it metals from the earth to eat, giving it oil to quaff, rubbing it down, cleaning it with solvents, shoveling out its metal excrement. I am the machine’s, I work at the machine’s whim, at its pace. I feel my aloneness in the midst of my machine’s terrific clattering and clanging and roaring.
What is human here but me?