Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Truly Badass Tattoo

Everybody and their brother has a tattoo nowadays.  In certain circles, those without a tat are considered the outsiders and outliers while everyone else is busy expressing their individuality and being badass.  To these posers, I'd like to tell a story of what badass really means: 

As a summer job during my college days in the 1980's, my Dad happened to sit on the Board of Directors for a company that manufactured hair care products in Minneapolis.  As such, my brother and I both landed summer gigs at the shampoo factory - his being a job on the production line, and mine being manual labor on the receiving dock. 

Life on the receiving dock was a tough one, as we took in all of the raw materials that would ultimately be used to manufacture, bottle, and ship the finished goods.  It was a lot of lifting, stacking, carrying, and rolling, and it was the hardest manual labor I have done in my life.  The worst part was moving 55 gallon drums of chemicals, which, at their weight of 450 lbs. basically could only be moved by a rolling technique - one would stand next to the barrel at the right hip, jam the right foot where the barrel met the floor, then reach across the top of the barrel to the other side to attempt to heave it onto its side in one swift motion.  With the drum on its side, it was now easy to roll in a hand-over-hand motion, even despite its massive weight.  The challenge, though, was in that first heave, as a bad technique could get one significantly hurt and/or get a barrel of sometimes caustic material lying on its side on the floor. 

Every night my brother and I would drive home exhausted and thankful that this was but a summer job.  However, the people we worked beside every day did this for their livelihood.  There was no back to the carefree days of college come September.  There would just be back to the line, or back to the dock.  All day.  Every day.  Forever. 

The guys at the dock tolerated me, and that was about it.  They knew how I landed the job, and they didn't suffer much from the college kid.  They expected me to work my butt off, and I did my best to meet their expectations.  But despite my youth and strength, my inexperience made me less productive than others, and that simply wasn't tolerated very well.  Especially from Jerry, the dock manager. 

Jerry was in his late 50's or early 60's.  He stood maybe five foot three inches, and had to weigh maybe 135 pounds.  However, his stature was the only thing about him which was small.  When a truck came into the dock, Jerry would be barking out orders, and ultimately find himself somewhere in the middle of the task throwing boxes around like a man twice his size.  He had worked there forever, and had the attitude to show for it.  This was as far as his career was going to take him, and I often felt that was the reason he was ornery as he was.

Perhaps another reason for his dour mood was the lack of respect given to him by his men.  Jerry had a very Jewish surname that some on the crew "anglo-ized" and hence refused to call him by his real name.  Done under the pretext of good-natured fun, I always viewed it as insulting and refused to join in when the others, even when Jerry stated he didn't mind.  For me it just wasn't right, and was disrespectful. 

Late one hot Friday in the middle of summer Jerry and I were alone on the dock handling one last semi, as a couple of guys were on vacation, and others had punched out early to get a jump on the weekend.  We waded into the hot truck; slinging boxes, hauling pallets, and me trying to keep up with an old man who was nearly three times my age and half my size.  That's when I happened to see Jerry's tattoo showing from the bare arm of his never-rolled-up sleeve.  It looked pretty much like this. 

I knew exactly what it was, and immediately a huge lump rose in my throat.  This frail man, putting on a manual labor clinic as he had for decades, had spent time in a Nazi concentration camp. 

Who knows what kind of horrors he suffered, what he endured, what he saw, and who he lost?  I stood there flustered, wanting to say something, but unable to voice anything.  What do you say to one who has suffered so greatly?  I'm sorry?  That seemed woefully inefficient.  I was rendered speechless, and completely taken aback. 

A curt "Get moving or we'll be here all weekend," in a slight German accent snapped me out of it and got me moving, and moving harder and faster than I have ever worked.  I figured I could offer Jerry nothing for the suffering he endured, but maybe if I worked my butt off over the next hour or so we'd finish the semi off and could clock out early for the weekend.  It was about the only thing I could control - the only positive contribution I could make in this man's life. 

After that day, I never minded Jerry's foul moods.  They were acceptable to me, and if he viewed me as just a know-nothing college kid, that was just fine.  I had no problem with it.  What I did have problem with, though, were the jokes and remarks about Jerry by his crew when he wasn't there.  These guys knew Jerry only as their older, smaller, and agitated boss.  They had no clue about who was or what he had been through. 

But for me that tattoo, and those numbers and what they represented, belied just how badass the man wearing them truly was.


  1. Nice post. I found the site from a comment you left on Joe Posnanski's blog. I think you ARE a talented writer. Keep it up; I plan on reading more.



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