It’s been 16 years, but if I close my eyes and it’s quiet, I can still conjure the noise.
Metal cutting through metal, over and over again. And crappy ’90s alt-rock and overplayed ’70s hits in the background.
For some people my age, the soundtrack to the summer of 1997 might have been the Notorious BIG, or Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” For me, it was the shriek and the thud of the saw at Cardinal Systems Inc., maker of in-ground swimming pools in Schuylkill Haven, PA.
Cardinal Systems wasn’t my first choice for summer work, but after my first job (selling knives) fizzled out, I needed a fallback. So I answered an ad looking for college students seeking summer work. The next day, Cardinal Systems put me in the “coping” department.
Really, that’s the name. “Coping” refers to the aluminum borders that cover the edge of a pool. I am in no way suggesting it also refers to “people trying to hang on as they work 8-hour days building pools in which they’ll never be able to afford to swim.”
Company’s promotional brochures for customers, which I occasionally found scattered around the factory, bore slogans like “A piece of heaven” and “Your happiness is our cardinal rule.” I mean no disrespect when I say that I hope those slogans turned out to be more accurate for the customers than for the workers.
I spent day after day taking fragile metal pieces from a welder, using a grinder to file down their rough edges, and then painting them white. When the welder didn’t have anything for me to work on, I’d take smaller pieces of coping from a seemingly bottomless box, paint them white, and then pack them, Tetris-like, into boxes a few hundred at a time. Then I’d pile those boxes along the wall behind me, only to find that them gone the next morning. It was like a punishment out of Greek mythology.
Other times, I’d cut pieces of metal for that enormous pile of coping. I’d feed long, inch-thick pieces of aluminum through that terrifying, screaming saw that cut them into smaller bits. Pieces of hot metal would fly off, burning holes in my T-shirts. My barber found a piece in my hair.
Years later, when I saw the Lord of the Rings movies, the screaming of the Nazgul — the tall, hooded wraiths that haunted Frodo through all three movies — would remind me of saw.
And under its noise churned the sounds of Allentown’s WZZO-FM, playing what seemed like the same 10 songs by Tonic, The Verve Pipe, Matchbox 20, and Supertramp all summer. (Echoes of Supertramp’s “You Win, I Lose” haunt me almost as much as the sound of the saw.)
WZZO’s dreck was all I had to occupy my mind. Ordinarily I’m a prolific daydreamer when I’m bored, but letting my mind wander at Cardinal could have meant breaking some expensive piece of machinery, or losing a finger.
It was a lonely job, too — at least at first. I was an intruder among the full-time workers, who seemed to look for reasons to be suspicious of me. (“ ‘Coombe’ — that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?”)
But eventually, I became part of the crew. I even returned to work there the following summer, spending a week on the louder, noisier, manlier first floor of the factory. That year I did nothing but cut grooves into a giant crate of oily pipes, working alongside a silent, cranky fellow who had exactly one exchange with me:
Him: “To help pass the time, I pretend we’re making guns.”
Me: “I guess … but these kind of look like flutes.”
Him: “NO! GUNS!”
That exchange stayed with me, but nothing like the sound of that saw.
It’s a horrible sound — but in a way, it’s a good one, because it reminds me how fortunate I am that I never have to go back.