Randall Zaphtig took his daughter Penelope by the hand and led her from the car. They were on a long roadtrip from his ex-wife’s (Penelope’s mother) funeral back to his home in Oklahoma. He had decided not to fly, thinking that the drive would give him time to get reacquainted with his daughter before introducing her to his new wife – her new mother – for the first time. The trip was turning out to be quiet and even more awkward than he had been afraid it would be. He was prepared for tears, but not for the withdrawn, silent, robot-like waif that his daughter had become.
On a whim, Randall left the Interstate at the New Calebtown exit. He turned off almost by habit – he had lived in New Calebtown for his first three years out of school and had worked in the Caleb Brother’s hat factory there as a production engineer.
For some reason, unknown even to him, he had a strong desire to show her the factory he had once worked in. He drove to the plant parking lot by reflex memory but when they both climbed out of the car he saw that the building was no more. All that was left was the cracked parking lot, with mean looking weeds starting to poke up through the fault lines in the asphalt.
Still he took Penelope’s hand and together they walked across to the broken lines of concrete footings that outlined where the factory used to be. Looking down at the parking lot next to that he saw peeling, faded, yet still visible orange lines stenciled in and over the almost invisible now yellow parking demarcations and a strong, long forgotten memory came flooding back, causing him to stumble a little.
The orange lines were from the forklift rodeo. The men in the shipping department took great pride in their ability to move undamaged product out of the door quickly and a great part of that was their ability to drive their forklifts. These were country boys and men, farmers, that had grown up driving trucks and farm equipment not long after they had shed their diapers. Industrial and agricultural machines were in their blood – hydraulic fluid, lubricating grease, and diesel fuel moved under their skin. Driving a forklift at the plant was nothing more than a further fulfilling of their destiny.
The highpoint of their year was the forklift rodeo. There were local, county, and finally State competitions and it was a sad year when somebody from Caleb Brother’s did not place high in the State Finals. A handful had won the competition over the decades and their trophies were displayed proudly in a glass case at the entrance to the office row.
A young hotshot out of college – Randall was expected to referee the factory rodeo. The orange lines were painted on the lot to the exact specifications of the annual contest. They were supplemented by piles of wooden pallets in strategically placed locations to form an obstacle course the contestants were expected to navigate with the heavy trucks, moving forward and backward, fast and slow, picking up, moving and dropping loads according to strict rules and regulations.
Randall had to stand on the dock over the aisle where a contestant would enter with a pallet on his forks, drop the pallet, back out, then turn around, re-inter and retrieve the pallet. He had a checksheet where he would note the proper use of the horn, back-up signal, and whether the driver would turn his head and look for oncoming traffic. He would note the angle of the forks when picking up or lowering, and the height of the forks when moving naked.
There were dozens of details that had to be adhered to and Randall used his checklist to grade the contestants. They would argue later over over whether their heads had turned or if they had looked closely enough or moved too fast backing out. In order to be victorious in the contests, there had to be practice and Randall was assigned to help out with this an hour a day for the month leading up to the Rodeo.
He hated standing out there for hours in the heat watching those men riding the smoke-belching machines, making little tick marks on his forms, and having to argue over every little detail. The men would rib him, especially teasing him endlessly over the fact that he couldn’t do what they did every day. It was humiliating.
Now, decades later, he wondered what happened to those men when the plant closed down. They all had families – sometimes three generations had worked there. Men like that had few options. There wasn’t anything else in New Calebtown for them. Randall had no idea how their families could survive.
He was pulled out of his sad reverie by his daughter. She had been walking along the cracks in the pavement and looking at the harsh spiny nettles that were fighting their way up. A few of them were blooming and she had carefully pulled the flowers off of the sharp stems.
“Here, Daddy, for you,” Penelope said, handing him the bunch of surprisingly colorful blossoms. He held them to his face and was surprised at how sweet they smelled.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said to his little girl, “We’ve still got a ways to go.”