The Scale Room
Now in his twenty-Seventh year, GEORGE VUKELICH is a veteran of World War II and a graduate of the Universitv of Wisconsin and the tcademy of Radio Arts of Toronto. He has had some poetry published and has done radio scripts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Ford Theatre. He is currently on the staff of Station WKOW -CBS in Madison, Wisconsin.
by GEORGE VUKELICH
THE skinny personnel man left me with the chunky man in the long white coat. “This is your foreman,”the personnel man said and he gave the foreman some papers and walked away.
“Call me Al,”the foreman said studying out the papers. “I’ll take you down to Supply and we’ll get you fixed up. You got anything at all of your own?”
I didn’t know exactly what he meant. “I’ve got work clothes,”I said. “Safety shoes.”
He wrote something on the papers. “Okay,”he said, “I’ll get you fixed up.”
I followed him out of the green office into the hotsmelling cement stair well with the greasy black pipe railings.
“It gets pretty sloppy in the kill,” he said as we clattered down the steps. “Water and stuff. You need rubber boots and a rubber apron for sure.” “How much do they cost?”
“Oh, seven, eight bucks. Boots and apron.” We were back on the first floor.
“I only have two bucks on me,”I said and stopped.
“That’s okay. You just sign for the stuff, and the company will take it out of your first check.”He pushed in on a wide steel door stenciled SUPPLY ROOM. There was a small one-armed man behind the counter reading the morning paper.
“Fingers,”Al said as the one-armed man looked up, “I got a new man here. Can you fix him up?”
“Sure, Al.”The supply man folded his paper and pushed it down the counter. “For the kill?”
Yeah,”Al said. “Find him a good pair of boots though. I don’t want him getting wet feet.”
The one-armed man reached down and slung up a knee-long pair of shiny black boots on the worn metal counter. The boots smelled like new army raincoats, “Try these on for size,”he said, shoving the boots at me. “Better take off your shoes first. You wear the boots without shoes.”
“What color a [iron do you want?” the supply man asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, untying my street shoes. “What’s the difference?”
“Price mostly,”the supply man smiled, and bent himself over a paper pad on the counter, holding it firm with his elbow stump in order to write with his right hand. “Black, brown, yellow, and olive drab. Brown’s the cheapest.”
Al nodded at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Brown.”
He threw a tight brown rubber square on the counter top. “You want me to give him some knives?” he asked the foreman.
“No, he won’t need no knives,”Al said. “He’s gonna push hogs for John.”
The supply man asked for my name and the foreman pushed a piece of paper across the counter. “Take it off this,”he said. “You’ll never spell it Otherwise.”
The supply man squinted and half uttered my name. “That’s bohunk, ain’t it?”
“That’s right,” the foreman said.
The supply man smiled. ”Cocko ti,” he said to me.
I finished pulling on my left boot and stood up working my toes in the stiff cold rubber casing and I wondered how many people there were in this place who could say “How are you?” in Croatian.
“Dobro,” I said.
“Give him a cap too and you can go back to your newspaper,”Al said.
“Size seven and a half,”I said.
The Supply man got out a white cap with a black visor and shoved his paper pad at me. “Sign it any place on the bottom. Put your locker number down too.” I took his Eversharp and wrote my name. As he gave me the duplicate carbon he grinned at the foreman. “Say hello to the Dago for me, Al.”
“Come on,” Al said as I swept up my stuff. “Let’s go up where the working people are.”
The foreman made me a hog-pusher right off the bat but it was a full four weeks before my body accepted the job. By that time the hog kill was into the busy season because the farmers sold out their pigs for the winter months and the company ran in a night shift and hired all the men it could get and that’s when Big Wayne came to work in the cooler gang with the Dago.
The hogs had just started into the resin bath up the line on our first night and Old John and the Dago and I were sitting on the greasy wooden bench in the scale room when Al came back with the big blond boy. “This is Wayne, Dago,”he said. “He’s your new man for the coolers.”
“Hello,” the big boy said and he put out his right hand before he saw the hook that encased the Dago’s wrist. He stood there awkwardly.
“Where’s your gloves?” the Dago snapped. “You’ll freeze your goddam hands off in the coolers,”
The big boy looked at Al.
“The supply room was out of his size. I’ll get him some.”
The big boy lowered his hands because Old John and I were staring at them. The hands were big.
“I’ll be okay,” he said. “ I’m used to a lot of cold anyway.”
Dago was struggling his one heavy black mitt onto his left hand and he stopped and looked up at the new man.
“Your ass,”he said.
They stood facing each other until Al finally said again that he would find Wayne some gloves, and then Jumbo came in and everybody started in on him as usual.
Jumbo was not too smart and he talked through his nose and though he was thirty years old he had always lived with his mother who was a widow and drank up all of Jumbo’s pay checks. It was a standing joke how she waited by the Number One gate on Fridays and he signed over the pay envelope to her and then she would go off to the Railroad Tap to have it cashed.
He would be in the coolers until his strength gave out. He was like a little boy with his strength. Dago had to watch over him constantly or the jokers on lard pulling would have Jumbo ramming his fists into the cement block walls to show what a punch he had.
“You cooler gang?” he asked Wayne now, surveying out Wayne’s brawn.
“Me too,” Jumbo said and shoved out his hand. “Shake.”
Wayne took the hand and it was obvious that Jumbo was intending to impress him with that nut-cracking grip. Their hands were locked waisthigh only momentarily. In a flash Wayne had spun Jumbo around, the dummy’s arm bent tightly into the small of his shoulder blades. As he arched backward to relieve the pain pressure on his arm, Wayne gently and firmly crashed him onto the wet steel floor mat under the scales. I think Jumbo’s scream was more surprise than anything else. Wayne flung his arm free.
“Whattaya, tough guy?” Dago said evenly.
Wayne was wiping his hand on his overalled thighs and working his fingers. “ Your ass,” he said to Dago.
The hogs started coming into the scale room then and Old John and I went to work and our new night gang walked slowly down the steaming gambrelways into their coolers.
THE scale room was in between the hog kill itself and the coolers. I p at the other end of the sprawling, clattering, sharpening, cutting water-floored building the hogs came into the shackling pens day and night and were lifted screaming onto the gambrelways into the kill. Heads down and hanging in close ranks, they looped and circled and came around the big plant on the continuous overhead track into scald baths and resin baths and wash baths past the waiting men with axes and saws and the razor knives. The hogs were burned and stripped and gutted and emptied out and washed and cleaned and all their cutaway parts dropped down metal chutes in the floor to bins below where they were processed into soaps and fertilizers and meat products and hundreds of things.
They say that the company used every part of the pig except the squeal and that there were company scientists working on that so that the foremen could save their own voices in the hell noises of the kill.
The automatic overhead track became manual at the scale room and my job was to push the hogs into the room by hand onto the overhead scale; and when there were ten, Old John would click a knob on the electric scale and the scale would record the weight and number of hogs and then clear itself for the next weighing. Old John also punched out the figures on an adding machine set in a waterproof pedestal. Then I would push the entire ten onto the automatic track for the coolers and they would click and clatter away into the misty passageways bound for the Dago’s gang, and they would be routed to the proper coolers to set and harden before the next day when the meat cutters began on them.
The average weight for ten hogs was around fifteen or sixteen hundred pounds and the big trick was to move them out fast so the ones coming in didn’t pile up in a bunch at the end of the automatic track.
On the night shift we were to come in at three and work straight through until about seven for a halfhour dinner break.
The stick men took it easy in the kill because there were new men on the line and the hogs came in so slowly that Old John stuck his head out a couple of times and looked down the line to see if there had been a breakdown somewhere.
“Petersen said they got five thousand on day shift,”Old John said. “We’ll be lucky to get thirtyfive hundred out tonight.”I chewed my gum and didn’t say anything. John looked worried.
“Lots of bad cuts coming through,”he said pointing to the carcasses split in two up the backbone dangling loose from the clotheshangerlike gambrels. I worked the pieces of them carefully onto the scale rail and he filled his mouth from the Copenhagen box in his adding machine drawer. “Bad cuts,”he snuffed. “Lots of new men.”
He clicked the scale knob and punched on his adding machine and I pushed all the bad cuts onto the cooler track.
They stopped killing at six-fifteen and forty-five minutes later I pushed the last two hogs onto the scale rail and let them hang and Old John worked his adding machine and I took off my apron and washed off the blood and hosed down my boots.
The cooler gang along with Al was waiting when Old John checked his figures.
“Eighteen hundred sixty-two,”he said solemnly. “Eighteen hundred sixty-two.”
“You bastard,” Dago said, “I bet that breaks your heart.”
“We’ll get thirty-five hundred,” Al said. “They’re gonna kill thirty-five hundred tonight.” He looked at Dago and over at Wayne who was washing down his bools with our hose. “I couldn’t get any gloves for him,”he said to Dago. “How’s he doing?”
“Ask him,” Dago said. “They’re not my hands freezing.”
“It’s okay. I been in colder places,” Wayne said.
Dago wasn’t smiling as he nudged me with his cold hook and we walked out to the locker room to get our lunches.
THAT bastard,” Dago said with the crumbs falling from his lips. “Got his big goddam hands into everything already.”
“Who?” I said.
“That Wayne. Four bolognas he ate already. I ought to kick Jumbo’s head in.”
Jumbo looked up from the locker-room floor. “I didn’t do nothing.”
“You showed him where the bologna was. You ate one in front of him. What the hell did you expect him to do, watch you eat?”
Jumbo munched on Ids hard-boiled egg. “I told him not to eat any,”he said.
Pig Wayne came around the corner of the steel aisle then and opened his locker and took out his lunch. “That’s right, Shorty,” he said to the Dago as he sat down. “Jumbo told me not to eat any sausage,” he smiled, “and then he ate one.”
Dago was burning. He was touchy about his height and he was touchy about Jumbo’s intelligence and he was especially touchy about this new man. “I don’t want any trouble with the front office,”Dago said. “They start getting big short counts in their meat packs and the first guys they’ll hit is the cooler gang. They’ll have so many guards walking through this place, you’ll think it’s the First National Bank.”
“I don’t think they miss a few little sausages,” Wayne said.
“Listen, smart boy,” Dago snapped. “You been on this job four hours and already you swallowed down four bologna rings. That’s a pretty good average. I wouldn’t exactly call that a few little sausages.”
Wayne unwrapped a, sandwich and began to chew. “I left enough for you, Shorty. Us big men need to eat big meals.”
“I’m telling you now so you get it straight.”
“I got it straight,”Wayne smiled. “Straight from the horse’s mouth.”
I didn’t know what was going to happen for a minute and finally to my relief nothing happened and I started chewing again. We ate without talking and balled up our lunch bags and started in to smoke. Jumbo was humming a polka tune. Wayne got up and closed his locker. “I don’t want to be hard-nosed, Shorty,”he said. “I just don’t like being horsed around, that’s all.”
“Nobody’s horsing you around,” Dago said.
“That’s right,” Wayne said. “Nobody is. I wouldn’t know the guy who owns this place if I saw him. But one thing I know is that he ain’t working in the hog kill or in the coolers.”
Dago dragged on his cigarette and didn’t say anyt hing.
“Do you own this place, Jumbo?” Wayne asked suddenly.
“No,” Jumbo said, “no, I don’t own this place.”
Jumbo stared and blinked slowly around at Dago and couldn’t speak.
The Dago threw down his cigarette and closed up his locker and started back by himself up to the hog kill.
Wayne sat down again and shook another cigarette from his plastic pack. “Stop me if I’m wrong,” he said, “but I thought. Al was our foreman.”
“Al is the fore man,” Jumbo said nodding his head.
“What the hell is Shorty bucking for, then?” Wayne said and his question was directed at me.
“He’s sort of in charge of things in the coolers,” I said. “Al can’t be all over every minute.”
“Well, that Shorty is sure all over, only he’s not gonna be all over me.”
I shrugged and field-stripped my cigarette and Wayne stared at me. “You been in the infantry, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said and got to my feet.
“Korea?” Wayne asked.
“The old war,” I said, “Europe.”
Wayne nodded. “I was Korea myself. We almost starved in Korea. Maybe that s why I’m so hungry all the time.” He dragged on his cigarette. “Goddam Shorty reminds me of the army; Watch the Hook, we used to say. He couldn’t pull this crap in the army.”
I didn’t tell Wayne that the Dago had been with the 32nd Red Arrow against the Japs at Buna in '42 and that he had two hands up until then. I slammed my locker door shut and spun the combination lock.
“We go by working people,” Jumbo said. Wayne snapped him a salute.
“Yes, sir, general,” he said.
“General Jumbo,” Jumbo smiled.
“Dumbo Jumbo,” Wayne said.
Jumbo saluted us gravely and we walked slowly in behind him as he marched back up into the hog kill.
IT WAS nine-thirty before I saw the Dago again. He came out of the Number Two cooler with a pail hanging from his hook and he dumped it on the blood-slick floor under the scale rail. It was salt.
“Thanks,” I said spreading it with my boot. “It was getting pretty slippery.”
Dago set the pail in the corner and started pushing hogs in to me. “Won seen Wayne?" he asked.
“Not since supper,”I said. “I thought he was working on the cooler gang.”
Dago scowled. “You and me both,” he said.
He swung his hook into the hanging belly of a hog and spun it viciously. “He took off about eight o’clock for the infirmary. Said his hands hurt him.”He shifted the gum in his mouth. “That’s not all that’s gonna hurt him when he gets hack.”
Old John shuffled over and stood listening.
“You and Jumbo been alone back there?” I asked.
“You goddamned right we been alone,” Dago said.
Old John shook his head. “That’s Big Wayne, huh?”
“Big Wind,” Dago said. “I’ll give him something to blow about. Bastard doesn’t deserve hands.” He pulled in the number ten hog and picked up his pail. John clicked his scale knob, and after I pushed the pigs onto the cooler track, Dago entered the streaming passageway, shuffling slowly behind the hogs on the gambrelways.
When we hit the twelve-minute break for a smoke Al came back to quick-check the totals with Old John.
Dago and Jumbo came out of the coolers and took off their gloves, their faces tight and red with cold. Jumbo’s nose was running and Dago told him to blow it in our paper towels on the wall rack.
“Where’s Wayne?” Al asked.
“In the John,”Dago said.
“How’s he doing?” Al asked.
“Peachy,” Dago said. “He’s doing peachy. Got a great pair of hands.”
Dago poked me in the ribs with the hook and we walked out to get our smokes. “Two more sausages he ate,”Dago said as we sloshed along the deserted line.
“That’s a lot of bologna,” I said.
“He’s gonna screw it up for everybody,” Dago said as we entered the John.
Wayne came out of a stall tying on his apron.
“I told you you weren’t supposed to bring your apron in here,” Dago said and he was angry.
“You’re always telling me something, Shorty,” W ayne said. “Are you the latrine orderly or something?”
“They’re not my rides,” Dago said.
“They’re not mine either,” Wayne said. “You know where you can stick the rules.” He started out the door.
“You gonna wash your dirty hands?” Dago snapped.
Wayne stopped. “You gonna make me?” he asked firmly and then went out through the door.
We washed our hands in silence. Dago didn’t say anything for the rest of the break and we walked back through the moving line again without speaking.
After the break, Dago opened the steel doors and I switched the overhead track into the front cooler and Dago came out carrying another salt pail on his hook for me. Then he tilled up the empty pail with boiling hot water and disappeared back into the gambrelways.
Jumbo and Wayne could push hogs right from the scale room now, and I wandered over to the wide doorway and stood surveying the empty smoking cooler room. Dago motioned to the corner and there behind the pinned-back steel door was the water pail with a bologna ring in it. I took off my gloves and broke off a piece of the sausage. It was hot, cooked-tasting, and juicy. I nodded to Dago and he jerked his head over at Old John. I wandered hack to the scales and Old John shuffled over to size up the cooler too. He stepped aside next to Dago as Wayne and Jumbo pushed in a load and Wayne saw him and the pail. The bulge in Old John’s mouth was too big to be tobacco.
Wayne stooped and fished out the sausage in his big hand, “I’ll be goddamned,”Wayne said.
Dago swung his hook and clipped the bologna ring cleanly out of Wayne’s grasp. “Keep your goddamned filthy hands to yourself,”Dago said.
Wayne brought up his fists and moved on the Dago.
“When I leave one for you it’ll be in the john bowl,” Dago said.
Wayne lunged at him then, but at that moment Jumbo cracked Wayne from the side with his great forearm and the blond head flung back and the left temple slammed into the steel door and Big Wayne crashed onto the slime floor. Jumbo and Old John looked like they wanted to run. Dago bent down over Wayne and felt with his good hand and then looked up at me. “Help me move him,”ho said. “John, don’t let them hogs pile up.”
John scurried away.
“Jumbo,”Dago said dumping the hot-water pail, “fill this with salt and bring it back.”
“Come on, move,” Dago said. “Salt!”
He picked up the remainder of the bologna ring and slipped it inside Wayne’s heavy shirt. He told me to button it in and I did, and then we dragged Wayne’s body out of the cooler entrance and onto the steel matting under the hanging hogs. There were at least thirteen pigs jammed up on the scale rail already and John was waving frantically. Dago rolled Wayne’s head to the left with his foot and then he kicked over the heavy wooden bench and began to yell. Uprighting the bench immediately, he broke out into the hog kill screaming for Al and for a doctor and for help.
They had pulled Wayne off to one side and were looking at him when Jumbo came back with the salt. “I got salt,” he said. Al looked at him and at the blood-slick floor.
Dago sprinkled the pail under the hogs and we pushed them off together. They were piling up like a log jam and Dago screamed for Jumbo.
“What’s wrong with Wayne?" Jumbo asked,
“He’s dead,”Dago said.
“Dead?” Jumbo stopped and stared at the long body. “Dead?”
“Come on, get these hogs out of here,” Dago screamed again. “Wayne had an accident.”
The doctors had the body taken away and some men from the front office came to ask us questions while the last of the hogs tracked in off the line, and then two city police detectives arrived and talked to us in the locker room until after midnight. Al came in with a slip of paper and gave it to the detectives. One of them worked Wayne’s combination and opened the locker and looked through his street clothes.
We just sat there until we were aware of Jumbo slumped in the corner — sleeping. The detectives looked at him and at Al. The foreman ran his finger in a tight circular motion around his ear.
“This place could do it to anybody,” one of the detectives said.
“ Tomorrow he will probably want to know where Wayne is,” Al said.
“That’s a dumb question all right,” the detective said. Then he said that was all and we could go home. The Dago shook Jumbo awake.
“Huh,” Jumbo said.
“We can go home now,” Dago said.
“I dream,” Jumbo said. “Big Wayne and me going work good together.”
Dago stared at him and dropped his hand from Jumbo’s shoulder.
“Big Wayne and me,” Jumbo said. “Good cooler gang.”He got to his feet and punched Dago’s arm. “We going work good with you, Wayne and me.” He scooped up his lunch bucket and Dago watched him dully. In Dago’s eyes I could see the long, long smoking cooler rooms and the endless, endless tracks of warm hanging bodies coming in from the screaming hog kill.
“General Jumbo,” Jumbo said and I saw Dago was looking into my eyes for something.
I buttoned up my mackinaw and fell in beside Dago and then the two of us walked slowly in behind Jumbo as he marched proud and swinging down past the time clocks.