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My Caterpillar story

Caterpillar framed the lives of everybody in the Peoria area in the 1970s, when I was a teen-ager. Most of us were aimless and ambition-depleted, perhaps because we figured the surest path to nice new cars and houses in the ‘burbs was a job on the line at Cat. People went to college, I guess, if their parents had gone to college, but most of us figured Cat would provide. We were in for a hell of a wake-up call.

An uncle of mine worked as a foreman for a Cat supplier, a production-machining company out in Metamora. He hired his eldest son first, then another of my cousins, and then me. I ran a radial drill for a year and a half, cutting big and small holes in these parts called brake anchors. There’s nothing on Earth like the sound of a hardened steel drill bit as wide as a hammer handle snapping in two because you’ve let it get too dull or haven’t poured enough coolant on it. The tip welds itself right into the steel you’re boring. The “CRACK” when the steel gives way is positively bone-chilling the first time you hear it.

A guy across the line from me had a small drill bit explode right next to his hand, and cut his finger right down to the bone. He went to the hospital, got it sewn back together, and was back on the job the next day. It was tough, dirty work that paid $6.50 an hour, but we put up with it because Caterpillar hired people to run radial drills, too, but Cat paid twice as much with benefits out the wazoo. I don’t know if I even had health coverage or paid vacations. I was 20 years old and it didn’t occur to me to ask. The machine shop was a path to Cat, and that was enough.

Everything went away in the spring of 1982. We all got laid off, even my uncle’s eldest son, with zero chance of getting our jobs back. My mom worked in personnel at the Morton parts plant; her prime duty was giving people their walking papers. White-collar folks who kept their jobs took pay cuts or freezes.

My dad worked for Keystone, the wire miller, and got laid off for five months that year; when he came back he had to take the worst job in the factory and stayed there for a decade before he could get back to his regular job in the testing department.

Everybody my age was out of a job that summer. I ended up going to Abilene, Texas, and getting a job as a floor sweeper for the city at $4.25 an hour. After that I was an assistant manager of a place called Hot Dog Castle. Then my mom bribed me to return to Peoria; she’d pay off my car if I went to college full time.

That was the summer of ’83 and of course there were no Cat jobs anymore to tempt me with visions of easy rewards for unskilled labor. I went into journalism mostly because I had always enjoyed reading stories. I was not deterred by the fact that I’d never actually written one (such is the fearlessness of youth).

In the spring of ’87, journalism degree in hand, I applied for a job with the public affairs division at Cat. It was nothing like working on the college newspaper, which was pure fun 40 hours a week. It was about helping Cat tell its stories in ways most friendly to the company’s bottom line. Didn’t get that job, which was just as well: I got a newspaper job and stayed in that industry till this day.

I ended up back in Peoria again from ’93 to ’99, working at the Journal Star, but the dawning Internet age made me think I’d be happier in Silicon Valley, where all the fun was happening. I’ve been here since then.

Truth be told, I didn’t give 10 seconds thought to Caterpillar between the summer of 1999 and two weeks ago. I heard rumblings of how the corporate culture had become so much more cut-throat over the years, but I figured it was mostly the old-timers longing for the good old days because memories blotted out all the stuff they griped about 20 years earlier.

Things are as bad for newspapers today as they were for Cat in 1982, though this time I’m gainfully employed (for now). The plan is that those at Cat who still have jobs will stop in here to find all the coolest links about their employer in one central location. If enough do, I can make a living at it if the newspaper goes belly-up.

That’s the thing about growing up in Peoria: you never get that Caterpillar yellow totally out of your blood.

4 comments | Permalink | Tags:
Tom Mangan posted at 11:20 am December 22nd, 2008 |