Responsibilities

Bearing the weight of the world on 18-year-old shoulders seems an impossible and maybe inexcusable assignment. Luckily, it’s one rarely demanded.

At the same age, most will acknowledge, the 18-year-olds know . . . everything. Just ask them. While I’ve long passed the teens, I’m equally confident I held precisely such a position. In fact, I’m as confident of that one fact today as I was about virtually everything else back then.

At that point in life, a career in roofing was taking off. Line-up, square-off and then distribute four large-head nails more or less equally and horizontally across a 36-inch strip of asphalt. Preferably at points on the shingle to be later covered and made watertight by the next course of shingles.

A bad winter cold – or, maybe, it was just the winter part – drove me from the rooftop and into a factory for equally stimulating but lower-paid production line work.

I joined a small-sized factory that had a crew of fewer than 50 line workers. I doubt we ever saw management men or office girls, as all were then known, on the factory floor. Maybe the line supervisors did, but not we peasants and worker-bees.

Standing next to a 650-degree oven with a conveyor belt (chain, really), I assembled asbestos brake pads to metal brake shoes for automobiles. Fitted within a more or less oval metal band that acted as a vise, one would twist a thumbscrew to tighten the band which then pressed the pads to the shoes. The oven baked the works, adhering pad to shoe with some kind of adhesive.

A few minutes after the assembly went into the oven, it came out, rolled down a series of stainless steel rollers and back to me, the “operator.” Shoes with now-affixed pads were freed from their gripping restraint and stacked in metal milk crate-looking containers.

What happened before all this got to me, and what happened afterward was unknown. At least by the highly skilled operator.

Even though at the time I knew everything, I’m today not sure there was a full appreciation, never mind cognizance, of the responsibilities I had been assigned.

In the one case, about the worst that could happen would be a leaky roof that might cause interior damage to someone’s home. In the other case, well, maybe it meant the difference between being able to stop a car, or not.

In the years since the roofing and brake-relining careers, I’m not convinced the responsibilities became greater, more significant or had wider spread.

But recognition for ownership of the responsibilities did.

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