I’m a Kid Again

Shortly after I came aboard, Carlos, a forester, and I journeyed north in a “company car,” a plush Detroit sedan, to tour, largely for my benefit, the mill in Española. 

Before arriving at the mill, we stopped for lunch at Anthony’s, an Española restaurant.  It is there that I beheld my first fajita.  A Tex-Mex invention, the fajita is a mélange of thinly sliced beef flank, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spices delivered to a table sizzling, sputtering, and smoking on a metal platter, and then loaded by the diner into the fold of a flour tortilla.  In my many years of sampling Denver’s Mexican restaurants I’d never encountered one. 

On this occasion, fajitas was Carlos’s selection; I went with my usual cheese enchiladas; the forester, enchiladas de pollo.  As I commenced to eating, I watched Carlos fork a generous helping of the savory mixture into a tortilla and then deftly clasp the package as he delivered it to his mouth.  The load, however, was a bit too generous: upon Carlos’s initial bite at one end of the cradling tortilla, a large dollop of the mixture blossomed out of the other―the forester and I looking on with discreet alarm―threatening to plummet to a plate and spatter the vice-president’s dress shirt and tie.  However, experienced fajitaista that Carlos no doubt was, he quickly and cleanly snapped up the wayward dollop with his mouth, consuming it before the possibility of any indignity, and continued his discussion of the cost/benefit of recycled sawdust. 

The Española mill, the company’s largest, stood on a barren, arroyo-slashed plateau at the base of the snow-capped Jemez Mountains, nearly hidden from Highway 84 and just south of the settlement of Hernandez, the moonlit subject of a famous 1941 Ansel Adams photograph.  The mill was a classic picture of American industry, albeit on a modest scale: large sheds; horizontal pipes briefly challenging the skyline before tapering down into huge metal bins and funnels; mountains of neatly-stacked logs; elegant temples of sawdust; neat, tight bundles of freshly-milled lumber; idling logging trucks and 18-wheeled flatbed trucks; scurrying forklifts. 

Escorted through the mill by its manager, a fellow whose extroversion bordered on the annoying, I was once again the goggled-eyed kid my proud father, a layout designer for a medical-industry magazine, led on a tour of the magazine’s printing plant in Rutherford, New Jersey.  As with the printing plant, the mill’s automation fascinated me.  I watched a huge ponderosa pine log “de-bark” as it passed through a giant, slowly-revolving toothed ring.  In a shed where the initial milling occurred, I watched a “sawyer” (now no longer just a character in one of my Twain novels) seated behind a plexiglass window, bundled against the chill, and busily at work.  His hands―and, for all I knew, his feet―on a mess of levers, he flipped and sliced, with the ease of a seasoned backyard chef grilling franks, one raw log after another, preparing them for their final expression as lumber.  Elsewhere, I watched the completely milled lumber, now requiring only drying, roll steadily past an employee who, after eyeballing each piece, stamped a grade on it in ink.  Much of this was obviously monotonous work, but work that likely paid a good wage for largely impoverished northern New Mexico.  (That said, I was certain no union represented any workers at the mill.) 

From the grading station, I was escorted to the mill office, where I met the office manager, the only female I saw at the mill, and the lone IBM 38 computer terminal and keyboard, which communicated by a modem and telephone line with the computer in Albuquerque.  On the terminal display, in the familiar glowing green letters and numbers, I saw the inventory application that was now solely under my care.  At 37, I was no longer doing “manly” work like that I had done in the tire factory and mine; still, my work now was as specialized and skilled as that of a sawyer, and of that I was proud.