He was old, pushing maybe sixty, with white thinning hair, a German-stoic face and a nose that'd been punched out more from age than anger. He dressed in Dickies, dark blue with a matching shirt, and he committed minor annoyances like always vacuuming his workstation after he'd finished a job even if it was only a couple of hours into the day.
I'd been the woodworking foreman for maybe a year.
Eccentric. By gosh, the man was born eccentric. So you're probably wondering why some old man was working a dusty, low-paying production job, doing those same motions over and over again in a never-fast-enough rhythm. I know I wondered. Most likely he got fired from his last job because he was a grump, a German-faced old-man grump that didn't talk to anyone and vacuumed his workstation a couple of hours into the day whether it needed it or not.
I wouldn't have hired him in the first place, but then, it wasn't my workshop, and Jim, the owner, he had a soft heart. Of course, Jim didn't have to deal with these deadbeats he dragged in. I did.
"Neil," I said. "Stop your damn vacuuming and get on the next job."
"All right boss."
He always said the words just fine, but then he'd finished vacuuming another few seconds, just to show me something, I don't know what, before he put it away.
His hands were gnarly. Not like all curled up or anything, but old and slow. He'd never meet quota, I could see that the first day. I talked to Jim about it, but Jim said what he'd always said, "Give him a chance," so that's what I did. Gave him a chance. Not that I wanted to.
I was looking forward to it, honestly. I don't like firing people usually, but I was looking forward to this one.
I heard Neil talking to Jim a few days in. Neil was telling him some fool thing about using a flap sander on the edges instead of a six-by-forty-eight. Said it'd be faster. Jim told him, no, you couldn't get enough pressure on a flap sander, but Neil insisted that it'd work, so Jim bought one, probably just to show him and, of course, it didn't work, just like we knew it wouldn't.
I figured he'd last another week, tops. I'd been all over him, telling him to pick it up or get out, but he just sat there plugging along at a speed my grandmother probably could have matched.
He caught Jim's ear again the next day and said we ought to be attaching the vacuums right onto the sanders to pick up the dust as we worked and I had to turn my back and walk like I hadn't heard it because that'd been exactly what Jim had been preaching until he gave up maybe six months ago, because no one wanted to take the time to do it. But then Neil says it and Jim says, yeah, that's right, like he'd forgotten about it, which he probably had, and all of a sudden he's calling me over and I've got to start attaching the vacuums to the sanders again. Shoot. The man needed to mind his own business.
And then a couple days later, Neil starts talking about automating the drilling machines with hydraulic pistons and Jim's saying, no we can't afford that, so Neil says alright, let's use air. Jim says what do you know about air pistons? And Neil starts into how he'd automated an entire line at his last job and before I know it, Jim's bought all these hoses and pistons with money that he said he didn't have when it came time to give me a raise and Neil's tinkering and screwing and welding and we all know it ain't going to work except that it does.
I worked there another year but then I lost heart. See that was the first time I'd been a foreman, the first time ever. And as Jim's factory got bigger and bigger, I got smaller and smaller until I was nothing, just a cog in the wheel.
I quit to find another place where maybe they needed me, where maybe I could show them how to use six-by-forty-eight's and tell them why a flap sander won't work like you'd think it might.
And if I do, I'll be sure to hook the vacuums right up to those machines. You know I will.
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