I’m lucky to still have fingers

To understand this story…

…it is necessary to know how they used to make commercial grade wood fruit box at scale when orchards packed fruit into wood boxes. This isn’t your grandpa’s finely crafted box that he made in his wood shop behind the house. It requires a team of people cutting down wood into millions of slats and ends that would then be assembled with a nailing machine. This process was repeated until there was a sufficient number of pieces to make X number of boxes. (An apple box needs 2 ends (duh) and let’s say 2 pieces for the bottoms, and 2 pieces per side for the side panels. So if you have an order of 10,000 to fill, well you can do the math. Some specialty boxes had different pieces and even lids but the details don’t really matter for this story.) Finally, they were assembled into a box by a machine. During its heyday, factories would have full crews operating at every stage of this process with a dozen or so of these machines running 10+ hours per day to put out the million+ crates that the orchards required.

My grandpa had started a wood box business in the 1960s back when the orchards of central Washington packed all their fruit into wood boxes. He had actually made a decent living at it until the fruit packing sheds switched to cardboard. Yet, he had somehow kept it alive through two iterations into the 80s and 90s when my dad, after marrying and buying a house, decided to take over the running of the shop full-time while my grandpa remained to help navigate the business side. My grandpa’s little shop in central Washington was one of the few remaining factories in possibly the whole world that was still producing fruit boxes at any meaningful scale even then, let alone into the 2020s when he refused to let the business die. He was still doing orders until his passing in 2022 at the age of 89.

My first job

I remember as a young child, my dad would sometimes have me go with him to work during summers off from school, “the shop” as we referred to it amongst the family, and I would ride my bicycle around or play on the piles of wood or accompany my grandpa on the forklift when he would bring in fresh pallets of wood for the workers. (I later learned that my dad did this to give my mother a well-deserved reprieve from the responsibilities of being a full-time housekeeper. Kudos to ya, dad.) There was something about that environment that I enjoyed, and going to work with my dad and grandpa somehow seemed fun even at that age.

I do want to mention one of the workers, a family friend, who undoubtedly played no small part in making those days as fun as they were: Teresa. She would bring me little goodies and leave them in my own little cubby that included Air Heads and playing cards and jacks, and once even a set of oil pastels. She would even play with me during her breaks. She proved to me that people can be generous and keep a positive attitude under difficult circumstances, and that making a little kid happy was more important in life than the bottom line of the business.

When I was 9, my grandpa had the idea of having my brother and me do some work for him to earn some pocket change. We were avid gamers, and the only time we ever got new video games was when my parents (and even occasionally grandparents) were kind enough to gift one to us. Doing a little bit of work would provide us with a way to pay for our own new games. So, we spent about three weeks sorting through a pile of rotten wood that had been gifted to my grandpa, trying to salvage what we could that was still usable as box “shook.” We each earned a fair amount, I think $500 between the two of us, which was more than enough to fund our video game adventures for the next school year.

When the following summer came, the opportunity again presented itself to work, and we jumped at the chance to earn more coin. The shop had received a sizeable order and my dad was running a full crew. A fully-manned crew would include a chopsaw operator cutting the pieces to length, then two people feeding those pieces into a four-bladed bandsaw that would resaw those pieces into three or four, and one last pass through the bandsaw to rip them to the correct width. This time we were put to work on the factory line, my brother feeding wood to the operator at the beginning and me taking it from the operator at the end of the line and stacking it on a pallet that was then transferred to the assembler. Normally the operators had to do both the cutting and the stacking, but when you’re working to this scale every second counts and so having two kids helping with something as simple as setting the wood in place was somehow worth the few dollars an hour we were being paid. At the end of the summer, my brother and I both received our payouts. I don’t remember how much it was, but at the age of 10 it was quite a chunk of change. Money was no longer an issue; the only limits as to the video games I could buy were what my father deemed tolerable.

That same year, my dad sat the family down to tell us that the family business was barely producing enough for the family to survive. At the age of 42 he had to change careers and went to work as a plumber. My grandpa refused to acknowledge the business’s financial shortcomings and promised he would restore the shop to its former glory. (As an aside, my grandpa had inherited a sizeable amount of money from a family friend, so he personally was set between that and living on the dividends from a few investments. It’s another story for another day why my grandpa was willing to throw money at me to get me to work for him while my father was drowning financially.) What I was not aware of at the time was that I was crucial to his plans to maintain his legacy.

My second job

The first summer after my dad changed careers, I was once again asked by my grandpa to help him work at the shop. Even without his direct involvement in the business, my dad agreed that it was better for me to work for my grandpa than to stay home playing video games all summer. Besides, going to work for the day would more than “earn” me enough privileges to play all the video games I wanted when I got home. My grandpa was now running the crew, but he was only able to employ his two longest-running employees (and now me) and so the operation had to be done in pieces. I was the “tail” of each step, taking the work the saw operators had done and stacking it on pallets. I remember it taking six weeks to complete the order, but when it was done I remember looking at the pallets of boxes being loaded onto the truck and feeling proud of a job well done. To drive home this point, my grandpa sat me down and told me we had finished the order way ahead of time due in no small part to my work ethic that he commended, and he would reward me with a $1000 check. This was $500 more than the wages he had originally promised. It was weird getting a paystub at the age of 11, but my eyes lit up at the sight of all those zeroes.

 The following summer, my grandpa once again asked me to work with him. However this time it would just be him and me as there was not enough work to employ even one person. My job was still more of the same, being at the tail end of whatever saw was running to stack the product coming off the line. I remember this job being rather quick, maybe not even two weeks long, and my grandpa tearfully telling me that he would love to work with me for longer but that was all he had.

My third job, and why I’m lucky to still have fingers

The summer that sticks out most prominently in my mind is the summer of 2005. I was 13 years old, and getting ready for 8th grade. My grandpa asked me to work with him again, but this time he was going to teach me how to run the saws. After 4 years of being on the tail end, it felt awesome to actually be the man of the hour. I learned how to chop the lumber to the proper length using the chop saw. I learned how to make dado cuts in the ends using the tablesaw so that the boxes would have a handle. I learned how to use the staple gun to connect two pieces into one end. I learned how to use the big sander and the bandsaw, though since these were both two-man jobs I was still relegated to the end while my grandpa did the operating. I felt like I was no longer a boy but a man. My dad even commented once on how much muscle tone I was visibly developing.

My dad used to tell me that maintaining a healthy level of fear and respect for the machines was key to minimizing injuries. He himself pinched off the tip of his left middle finger trying to clear a jam in a machine in an unsafe way. Aside from a few splinters here and there, I miraculously never received a major injury the entire time I worked for my grandpa. Ironically, it was when I was 26, an “adult” with over a decade of work experience, that I was finally cocky enough to use the tablesaw without safeguards “just to make a quick cut” and got hurt. I ran the tip of my left and, because I didn’t learn my lesson the first time, my right middle fingers into a tablesaw blade doing personal projects and got damn lucky both times, walking away with only minor scarring.

Hooray for child labor!

I continued to work for my grandpa during summers and school breaks, even during the year and a half I lost to World of Warcraft. In fact, I needed the money to buy the equipment necessary to play the game. When I was 16 I qualified for early college through Washington state’s running start program, and this freed up even more time for me to work. My grandpa’s business would ebb and flow, so sometimes he would have actual crews. It always upset me that even after I had slogged through the dead years with my grandpa that he would always relegate me to the “lowest” position in the line. But whatever… By that point I was starting to lose interest in video games anyways, and even turning my attention towards taking up being a field missionary for my then religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the time it was nice to have some money, as I saw through my brother’s experience how difficult the transition to adult life can be.

It was only in hindsight as an adult that I finally realized how truly messed up it was to have a 13-year-old child doing a job that should have been a well-paying job for an adult. (Ironically, my dad once told me that whenever he employed people, he always paid them minimum wage plus a dollar and said, “What you see is what you get, this isn’t a place to build a career.”) With recent legislation passing in Arkansas now making it “easier to employ children,” I can only point to my own story and say, “What the fuck America?”

2 responses to “I’m lucky to still have fingers”

  1. What a great story about the “last days” of the wooden box industry. Such great memories, too, of working with your dad and grandpa, even though it was a very dangerous environment for a child.
    Don’t you wish you had video of the various saws in operation, and of those incredible nailing machines?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jordan Johnson Avatar
      Jordan Johnson

      Ha! I see what you did there. And yes, I was just mentioning this to my coworker that I wish I had made an effort to document the lives of my grandparents before I lost the chance!


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