I’ve worked a lot of factory jobs in my life, from the rock crushing job in England, to making gas tanks, to cooking steel. One summer I was working at a heat treating factory that tempered steel for tool and die purposes.
I had a couple of minor accidents that summer that are stories in their own right, but the thing I want to talk about today is how I broke my finger, and how that’s really a blessing. By all laws of probability I should be the proud owner of a single finger and thumb on my right hand. I should be a cautionary tale, perhaps one of those people who goes around to schools and talks about the dangers of not paying attention at your summer job. I’d be typing with two fingers right now if I wasn’t one very lucky young man.
It was late, and we were working on a special job, cooking the steel up to 1800 degrees then letting it cool all night so the steel would crystallize into an incredible hardness. Because of the time factor, it’s the last job you do for the day, and you just leave the oven door open a crack as you shut everything down so it slowly cools until morning.
Well, it was almost midnight, and we were careless, and as we were shutting the factory systems down at the end of our shift we switched off the pneumatic system that ran the oven doors. It would have been ten or fifteen minutes to switch it back on and rebuild the pressure, and we all wanted to go home, so one of my coworkers said, “Nah, don’t worry about it. Happens all the time. I’ll just use the forklift to lift the oven door, and you put in a metal prop to keep the door open.” So he does, and the bottom of the oven door lifts up to reveal a white-orange line of indescribable heat, the kind that vaporizes moisture off of you faster than you can sweat, leaving you feeling gritty and shriveled.
I approached with the metal pole, trying to get it under the lip of the door, and my canvas gauntlet catches on fire. “Raise the f—ing door higher!” I yelled.
“No, no!” He calls back. “Don’t put it under the door. There’s a protrusion!” Sure enough, higher up the door a metal boss stands out, ready to take my prop.
“Oh!” I said in understanding, transferring the pole to my other hand and looking at my burning gauntlet. I could not have been more stupid: My right hand now stood on top of the metal pole with the boss perhaps six inches above it. The oven door slipped off the forklift’s tips, and that metal boss came down on my fingers with all the weight of the steel door behind it. A coherent thought went through my mind in a calm, clear voice: “I’ll never be able to touchtype again.” Then I started my Jesus dance. “Oh, Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”
I whipped off my glove, twirling around on the concrete floor in a drunken, whirling dervish. My two coworkers ran to my glove, convinced it now held the fingers I had sheared off. “It’s broken!” I hissed.
The forklift driver was furious. “Broken! Broken? F— you, broken! You don’t have a right to those fingers! That’s a one in a million shot! Do you know what you just did to my heart?” I told him to shut up in no uncertain terms, and went to the bathroom to examine the damage.
My right ring finger was broken between the knuckles, but otherwise my hand wasn’t too bad. The boss had come down at exactly the right angle not to tear anything, just crush it. “Do you want to go to the hospital?” He asked me.
I thought about it: I have some experience with hospital waiting rooms from a baseball bat to the forehead, a hockey puck behind the ear, and a checking practice that hyperextended my knee. Going to the hospital would see me wait several hours to have my fingers tapped together to form a splint, then I’d be given a pain killer. I could do all that at home. “No, no. It’s fine.” I said.
The next morning I’m telling all this to my father, who shook his head. “So you didn’t go to the hospital?”
“Then you can’t get workman’s comp. Go to work.” So, that’s what I did. I drove the forklift –without a license, thanks very much—for a couple of days, and did light duties until I was confident my finger wouldn’t cause too much problem. If you run your fingers down my right ring finger today you can feel the bone between those two knuckles actually forms the letter Z now, but other than that I’m fine.