I was working as a checker on the loading dock of Grant Tire and Rubber Company in the fall around 1979. The Grant plant manufactured tires for the cars and trucks of America. All of the laborers, like me, were members of the United Rubber Workers Union (URW). Checkers were responsible for delivering skids full of automobile tires to the chocked, tire pile end located in an eighteen wheeler trailer. If the trailer was just started in the loading process, then the checker would drive his or her forklift into the trailer, upto the front of the trailer and drop the skid full of tires for unloading. If the trailer was already in the process of being loaded, the checker would drive the forklift upto the pile of tires and drop the skid of tires at the front of the pile for unloading. The checker was also responsible for keeping tabs on what tires (number and size) were loaded in the trailer so a proper invoice could be prepared. The checker had a partner, the loader. The loader would do the physical job of unloading the tires from the skids and throwing the tires onto the pile in the truck. The standard method for loading tires on the truck was called “lacing.” Checkers and loaders had different jobs and pursuant to the Union contract a union worker could do one job or the other on a shift, but not both.
On this second shift, sweatshirt evening, I had been paired with my nemesis in the plant, the General, a black male in his mid-thirties, who followed me home every night at 11:00 p.m. He packed a pistol of some type which after hours he tucked into the front of his pants. He explained to me quite simply that one evening, I wouldn’t know when, he was going to put a “cap in my honkey ass.” I told him I wasn’t worried about it and that I wasn’t changing my path home for him. He knew where he could find me walking after 11:00 p.m. every night.
It was stressful; I must admit. The General was never alone, and he followed me night after night and threatened me everyday. I was offered rides by friends, advised to complain to management, advised to complain to my shop steward, advised to call the cops, none of which I did. I simply punched the time clock at 11:00 p.m. at the end of the shift and made the long walk home wondering if I would see tomorrow.
In the fall of 1980, I was scheduled to enter the Lutheran Theological Seminary as a first year student. The men in the plant nicknamed me Preacher. I was always fascinated by religion and God. I began life as a Roman Catholic, tried Daoism as a “stoner” in high school, informed a hospital that I was a Druid when I hurt myself landscaping, but then converted to Lutheranism after I observed a shimmering silver object on the lawn beside the library at my college. I was strolling down the path between classes contemplating the direction of my life. “Should I become Lutheran” I was asking myself. I saw the shimmering metal object in the grass, walked over and picked it up. It was a religious medal. It read: “I am a Lutheran.” And I decided I was.
I tell you this, because although I was stressed on my walk home, I was not afraid. I believed that God would look after me. Thus, my normal survival sense of paranoia was either not as sharp as it always had been, or I believed that I did not have to fear the General. I believed then that ultimately I did not have to fear the General. I believe he hated me and meant me harm; I just believed it wouldn’t happen.
The General had hated me from the first day we had met. I was a suburban, college educated, white boy entering a theological seminary working in the plant. The plant was his dirty, physically demanding stopping point in life. It was not a transition point for the General, as it was for me. Open hostility erupted between us when I refused to do his work on the loading dock. That evening we were both working as checkers. The checker from first shift left his dock area, at the change of shift the General’s dock area, a mess, broken skids everywhere. The General ordered me to clean his work area. I told him, “No” and informed him he was not the dock supervisor.
The Union rules nor the protocol of long time survival in the plant allowed me to respond to his order with a “Yes” (if he had only asked). He called me biased and reported me as a racist to the the second shift shop steward, Lonnie, and warehouse management. Lonnie was a “brother” so when I was dragged into the warehouse supervisor’s office for being a bigot, I was alone defending my self against management and the allegations that I was a racist.
Any past I had apart from the plant didn’t matter. Any black friends I had didn’t matter. When I left that meeting with my shop steward and management and returned to work on the floor, I was a confirmed racist in the eyes of every man in the plant; it was a basic “black and white” world. Of course, these allegations made me popular with some whites whose I assistance I refused.
“You know, white boy, we gonna fuck you up.” “You best watch where you be walking, you honkey- assed Preacher mother fucker; you gonna get your ass kicked.” “The word is you hate niggers, Preacher; maybe this nigger will beat your white ass.” “You think because you went to college, you better than us; ain’t no dead Preacher man better than any live man.” Words of hatred, scowls and sneers day in day out, punch in, punch out, walk to work, walk home. This was my plant life.
As I pulled into the trailer and dropped a skid of tires at the pile for the General to unload, he paused and stared at me. He said, “Preacher, do you like roast beef?” I looked at him quizzically, skeptically, amazed. Our eyes met. I answered, “Yep, I like roast beef.” He said, “My wife makes a great roast beef. Want some?” He extended his hand in my direction. His dirty hand held a half eaten, mangled half a roast beef sandwich. I wasn’t hungry and was about to answer “no” when I received a divine spark, “Oh, my God. If I turn the sandwich down, it’s because I won’t bite from the same sandwich as a black man. He is expecting that, but if I bite into and eat the sandwich and share it; then what?”
I slowly reached over and took the half sandwich from his hand. I bit directly into where his teeth marks were and chewed on a piece of the sandwich. He looked at me amazed. I said, “You’re right your wife does make a good roast beef.” And she did; the sandwich was delicious. I went to hand the sandwich back to him. He said, “Finish it.” And I did, the sandwich was delicious.
The General and I became friends from that day forward, and my plant life quickly changed. I wondered then and wonder now if that night on that loading dock, I had learned the true meaning of “breaking bread.”