'Scouring Train'

I had a lot of different jobs, many of them for short stretches. The worst conditions I worked in were at a mill in New England where my father graded wool for decades. His job was a learned skill, a trade, but the wool scouring operation required other kinds of work. The summer I was 18 years old, I learned what hard, mind-numbing work can be. I didn't last long in that job. Later, I was fortunate enough to spend most of my career in air-conditioned offices with amiable colleagues in government agencies, federal and state, working on heritage and education programs. In Lowell, Mass., the American Textile History Museum for a time had a scouring train on display, a nasty piece of business when it was turned on. For Labor Day 2018, I submit the following. The poem appears in my book What Is the City? (2006), which is out of print -- used copies are available on the web. 

 

Scouring Train

No adjective for the heat.

My olive-green T-shirt blackens

Before work starts on the scouring train

In the cellar of this mill.

I'm the keeper of the vats,

Three linked in a fifty-foot machine,

My train between two more.

A chute drops raw wool

Into harsh detergent soup,

Bubbling the shit out of it,

Then a big claw rakes acrid slop

From vat one to the next

Until the whole mess hits the dryers.

Like an underground sentry,

I march up and down a yard-wide walk,

Using a hoe to unclog grates

Beneath each vat where steaming 

Liquid strains into a waste-way.

There are regular red alerts --

When a section plugs, muck flows over,

And scalding soapy stew boils up,

I run down to scoop out crap.

The stink of cooked sheep dung, bleach, oil, and sweat

Makes me plan to burn my jeans at home.

With no fans, no relief,

And the sight of my twenty-year-man teacher,

I know there's no tomorrow. 

 

This is a modern version of a scouring train in a wool factory, but it's the same general cleaning method. Web photo courtesy of textilecourse.blogspot.com   

This is a modern version of a scouring train in a wool factory, but it's the same general cleaning method. Web photo courtesy of textilecourse.blogspot.com