Thursday, May 20, 2004


I went to Emmetsburg to make two presentations for the Senior Fun & Wellness Day coordinated by Iowa Lakes Community College, Northwest Aging Association, and Palo Alto County Health Systems. Session #1, at 10:30 a.m., was titled "The Story of Curlew:Home." I used the opportunity to talk about how I came to write my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm. I was speaking to an audience of twenty-four, as large an audience as I have had in front of me in quite some time. The classroom was full.

These senior citizens had just come from hearing the keynote address, a fellow billed as a "motivational speaker."

"That was too noisy," one of the women said as she entered the room. Yeah, I'd heard him at quite a distance. "I promise you I won't be that loud," I said. Although, I have to admit, people don't usually have to turn up their hearing aids when I'm speaking either.

I told my story and read swatches of my memoir. Before I read from the piece about butchering chickens, I asked them how much they wanted to hear about butchering chickens. One woman right up front answered for the whole group of them. She said, "We've all butchered chickens, you can't shock us." So I read about killing the chickens:

I was only ten or eleven years old when the task of killing the chickens fell to me. The oldest child will be your natural-born killer, loaded as he is with the most the soonest in the way of responsibility; too much too early has a way of bending you. I was, at that age, too young to empathize with the plight of chickens yet old enough that it felt real good to be important. You could have asked me to do damn near anything....

My mother's method was different, learned from her mother, as I learned it from mine. It is elegant in its simplicity. You take hold of the chicken by its legs. You put the head and neck of the chicken on the ground. You put a broom stick on the chicken's neck, behind the head. You set your right foot on the broom stick to the right side of the chicken's head and your left foot on the broom stick to the left side of the chicken's head. And then - remember you've got the chicken's legs in your hands - you pull the legs of the chicken up until its head is separated from the rest of it.

I could kill four chickens in the time it takes to tell you how to kill one.

"We castrated pigs, too," I said. "But I'm just going to read to you from the end of that essay."

We were men - or were fast becoming men - in a world we had to wrestle a living from. We were poised between the way it used to be and the way it was gonna be, doing our best, our jaws clenched tight as the world hit us again and again.

We could do what had to be done, but we didn't want to stay at castrating pigs more than a few hours. There is only so much blood and manure you can take at any one time. Only so much scream of pigs. Only so much knowledge of pain.

You can tell when you've got an audience with you. There's very little coughing, no fidgeting, everywhere you look there are eyes looking into yours. It's like the whole room is holding its breath. That's the kind of audience I had for the whole hour. When I finished - "Something had ended, something new was begun" - I got a warm round of applause. And I sold a few books.

The audience for Session #2 at 12:30 p.m. was considerably smaller, but just as attentive. I told them about my Vagabond project, about the talk you hear, the people you meet, including Ivan Burgess, whom you know as the inimitable writer of the ECHO ECHO, seen here on Tuesdays:

After his father died, Ivan's mother took in washing and ironing to support the large brood. To earn a little income for the family, a couple of Ivan's older brothers would go up town every morning to do whatever needed doing. One brother would clean out a farmer's chicken house for him; he'd get paid with a big container of milk that the cream had been skimmed off of; he'd bring that home and it would be milk for the children. "My mother would fix a meal," Ivan remembered, "and then she'd step back from the table while we ate. If there was anything left over when we were done, then she would eat."

"In those years we were probably the poorest people in Smith Center," Ivan said.

Their house was near the train tracks and there was a hydrant out in the yard. Hoboes got in the habit, when they got off the train, they'd come into the yard to drink from the hydrant. One day the big container of skim milk disappeared from the house. Ivan's older brother went marching off towards the Hobo Hotel farther west along the tracks, a circle of stones where the hoboes stayed when in Smith Center, where they sat and talked, cooked their meals, slept. Ivan went tagging along behind his brother. His brother marched right into the Hobo Hotel, he walked up to the jug of skim milk that was sitting there plain as sin, picked it up and headed towards home. None of the hoboes said a word. They knew they'd crossed the line. You don't take from poor people. You don't take from people what they can't afford to give.

About the time he was in the seventh grade, Ivan spent a lot of time in the Hobo Hotel with those men. "They were ordinary people looking for work," Ivan said. "In those days the train going west through town was carrying men looking for work to the west. The train going east would be carrying men looking for work to the east. I was never afraid. Those were hard times. Those were good men. A kid couldn't do that today."

"I sat with them all one evening," Ivan remembered. "When I got up to go, one of the fellows said, 'Kid, come here.' He said, 'Kid, if you are ever riding the rails and pass through Denver, help them fill the refrigerated cars with ice. It's hard work, kid, but when you get done they'll buy you the biggest breakfast you've ever had.' That fellow didn't have anything, but he gave me the best thing he had. He gave me everything he could."

At the end of the Vagabond presentation, one of the fellows in the audience asked how I could see red-tailed hawks everywhere. He was teasing me. Obviously he had read Curlew:Home, in which the red-tailed hawk becomes something of a poet's icon and an omen of good fortune; the birds grace the book with their surprising frequency. And he had noticed.

"When my wife and I are traveling," the fellow said, "one of us will say 'There's a red-tailed hawk.' The other one will know what we're talking about."

Yeah, they'd be talking about me.

I stopped briefly after that to see my friend and grade school classmate (and the one who provides room and board when I'm in Emmetsburg - puts me up and puts up with me), Sally Jordan. Sally was putting her plants back out on the patio. She had put them out once before, but had to bring them back in the house when temperatures were forecast to get below freezing. We talked, and I had some ice tea, but I couldn't stay long. I had a long drive home ahead of me, almost seven hours.


April 20, 2004, cont'd

We've been touring Sky Jack in Emmetsburg. Sky Jack makes highlifts, about twenty-three of them a day. Plant Manager Fritz Eggel is my tour guide.

Sky Jack builds 15' and 19' models in the Emmetsburg plant. The product has a "tilt sensor" that keeps it from elevating if the base is tilted more than a certain amount form side to side or front to back. The proper operation of the tilt sensor is checked too, before a machine passes inspection.

The folks doing final inspection and testing are familiar with operations throughout the plant so they know when something is not right.

At the very end of the line I saw a woman with a little paint brush in hand examining each machine that came out of the inspection tower for any dings in the paint. She touched up any imperfections she found. This, folks, is attention to detail. You want the finished machine to be perfect when it goes to the customer.

How does Sky Jack communicate a customer's expectations to workers on the floor? A shop work order follows each machine through the plant, specifying options. Some customers will want a full gate at the end of the platform, instead of a chain across the opening. Some will want a flashing light to give their lift higher visibility. Some may order hinged railings that can be folded down onto the platform to create a lower profile, as when the lift might have to be moved under low-hanging piping or ductwork.

A plug-in for a 110-volt outlet is now standard on Sky Jack machines. Some manufacturers still require that you specify this feature as an option. Equipment that requires electricity can be plugged right into the outlet on the Sky Jack platform, even when it's 19' in the air.

"Another option is special colors," Fritz said. "The cusotmer might want us to match their corporate colors."

"Our company colors are orange and grey," Fritz said. "Orange because it stands out, it's noticeable. Orange and grey have been our colors for at least twenty-five years. If you see a lift that's orange and grey, you know right away it's a Sky Jack product."

"You see Sky Jacks everywhere now," he said. "They're in shopping malls, they're in the movies. It used to be special to see one. Now it's 'Oh, there's another Sky Jack.' The people here have a sense of pride in what we build."

Sky Jack has a sales force across the country calling on cusotmers. The primary customer for their lifts is the equipment rental industry, such businesses as United Rentals and RSC, as well as independent rental shops.

Sky Jack's lifts have a reputation as a better quality product, more "robust" than some of its competitors, Fritz said. "Customers think ours are more solidly built."

They have a reputation for lasting a long time, too, he said. "The typical life time of such a lift is five years. We saw some Sky Jack machines get sent back to be reconditioned when they were thirteen years old."

Why do lifts have such short lifetimes? "Machines get beat to hell," Fritz said. "Worn out or damaged tothe point you can't repair them. Railings get bent. The machines get dented. A lot of damage gets done to them in the course of being used."

The Sky Jack lift stands on solid rubber tires. "These will wear out quicker depending on where you use them," Fritz said. "Rough concrete wears the tires down more quickly. Airport tarmacks are especially hard on them. Tires also get messed up when used for dry-walling and concrete work."

The harshest use that a Sky Jack lift has been put to, in Fritz's knowledge, "was in a steel mill, re-lining the coke ovens. It was a hot, dirty environment, tough on the wheels. When your wheels start getting cut up and they're losing chunks, you've got to replace them. The wheels are what you're resting on."

Sky Jack in Emmetsburg is in "the aerial industry." The aerial industry has replaced scaffolding, Fritz said. "There has been an evolution in the construction industry. Lifts are safer and faster than scaffolding."

Lifts are also being used in more factories. "Some industrial buildings have twenty-eight foot side walls," Fritz said. "They have huge open spans. No one wants anyone on a ladder any more."

The design of lift equipment has to meet ANSI specifications (American National Standards Institute). "You can't build a lift that doesn't meet those standards," Fritz said.

I asked how Sky Jack was able to evaluate the work of its employees doing so many parts of the job independently. "There is a supervisor and a lead-hand in assembly," Fritz said. "Work at each station should take about twenty-three minutes. Can the person do the job in twenty-three minutes? Can they do it at the level of quality that's required?"

Nobody is more important than anybody else, Fritz said. "It takes everybody to make a lift. It has to flow all the way through the plant. All the jobs have to be done for the finished machine to come off the end of the line."

Sky Jack hires for appropriate experience and provides on-the-job training. Work instructions specify how any particular part of the job needs to be done.

"If you take care of these guys, they'll take care of you," Fritz said. "People have to help each other out when they're done with their own work, and they do."

Fritz was born and raised in Canada. How did he get to Sky Jack in Emmetsburg?

"It was an opportunity, something different for me," he said. "I was in the Guelph [Ontario] plant of Sky Jack. An opportunity came up down here, I came down and took a look, I said Okay. I've been here five years, going on six."

The Guelph plant is larger, Fritz said, and runs a wider variety of products. "The narrower product range here makes it easier to focus on what we have to do."

"Culturally, Canada and the United States are so similar," he said. "The biggest adjustment was moving from a larger community to a small one."


MAY 19, 1998

A cool, blue sky this morning. It was a hot day yesterday - for May - and will be a warm one again today. El Nino? A natural cycle of some other kind? Whatever the case, I like to say: "If it's not 30 degrees below zero, you won't hear me complain too much."

I head north on Highway E. The smell of pigs is strong in the morning air. On this scale - one farmer's hog shed - it smells like money to an Iowa farm boy. From one of those hog factories, with 10,000 head under one roof, it smells like greed.

On the radio we're told government officials fear that whatever is destroying amphibians world-wide may also affect humankind. Duh.


MAY 20, 1998
Clay Pameter takes his garbage out to the curb in front of the C&D Bar. He turns and waves. One of the Stellmachers stands talking in front of the lumberyard. He and his brother were much younger men when we moved into Fairwater. So was Clay Pameter.

Another raccoon is sprawled dead on the road north of town.

Once again the horse is grazing at the north end of its pasture. I don't know what that means.

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