A long time ago I worked in a particular textile mill up in South Carolina. On occasion I would have to move gigantic rolls of cloth weighing half-a-ton or more. I’d do this using a tugger, which was essentially a several-hundred-pound motor in a metal box, with a hitch on the back (to which you’d attach what ever needed to be tugged) and a lever on the front for steering and propulsion. It was pretty simple: to move forward, you pull the lever forward and twist the handle, somewhat like revving a motorcycle. To put on the brake, simply release the lever and let it snap back into its upright resting position. Simple enough, right?
And here’s an image of the kind of trolley that the roll of cloth was on. We called them “A-Frames.” Imagine those, but loaded with at least half-a-ton of cloth. Note that the axle sticks out a bit from the rest of the frame–that’s going to be relevant in a little bit.
So, ten years ago today, I was maneuvering one of these A-frames, full of cloth, around with a tugger. I was backing up with it, pulling it towards me to get in into the correct position near an inspection station. I got it where I wanted it and let go of the lever–which, if you’ll recall from two paragraphs ago, was supposed to be the brake.
The lever snapped into its upright resting position, but the several-hundred-pound tugger, tugging with it the A-frame-full-of-at-least-half-a-ton-of-cloth, kept coming at me. Fast. Without screeching, meaning the brake had failed.
I backed up, hoping the whole contraption would come to a halt. It didn’t. The handle of the tugger slammed into my chest, which hurt badly enough by itself, and pinned me against another A-frame full of cloth behind me. Actually, to be more precise, it pinned me against the axle of another A-frame full of cloth.
So a metal axle was carving into my back, just inside my left shoulder-blade, while the handle of the tugger pressed against my chest with at least half-a-ton of help behind it. You know how people say they saw their lives flash before their eyes? I don’t specifically remember that happening, but I do remember wondering whether my obituary would mention getting impaled in a textile mill.
I managed to wiggle out, took a few steps, and collapsed to the ground. Stars came flooding in from the periphery of my vision, and that’s all I saw for about a minute.
I remember getting up a few minutes later and watching a few people rush around and change the “red tags” on every tugger. Each machine in the plant was supposed to be inspected three times a day, with the time and date noted on the red tags. When I inspected the rest of the machines two days later, I found several red tags that hadn’t been changed in over a year.
When I got home and inspected myself, I had bruises on my chest and for the next week, it hurt to inhale. I found a hand mirror to examine my back–it too was bruised, and the outline of the axle was tattooed just inside the left shoulder blade. It resembled the Red Hot Chili Peppers logo, a chaos symbol without the arrows–which would’ve been awesome if it were 1989 and the band hadn’t already sucked for the better part of a decade. The “tattoo” faded over the next couple of years.
That day, I decided to become a teacher. I was enrolled in secondary education courses by January 2000 and working in a classroom by August 2001.
So, but for the slip of the brake on a tugger, I might’ve gone on to a lucrative career in textiles, rather than teaching. I’m better off for it, though I’d have appreciated a sign from God that didn’t involve nearly getting shish-kabobed.
I also resolved to ask out the picture-perfect girl I’d had a crush on for some time, whom I have in these pages pseudonymified “Ingrid Bergman.” Within a week I was having dinner at her place, but by the time I got into the classroom she was engaged to someone else. It took me a long, long time to realize I was better off for that, too.