In the late afternoon of the twentieth century, after Vietnam and before Anita Hill, in the Appalachian highlands of rural West Virginia, it was senior year, and Madonna and the Police filled the airwaves: “Like a Virgin,” “King of Pain.”
Every noon, I drove the six miles from East Fairmont High School to the little machine shop tucked on a winding back road. I’d park in the gravel lot and let the car battery run the radio while I ate my brown-bagged tuna sandwich and stared out the windshield. My classmates at East Fairmont were dissecting little dead animals and solving for y.
I was done with all that; I was impatient; I had all the credits I needed to graduate. I took morning classes so the state wouldn’t charge me with truancy, and then I left for work.
“I machine artificial hip joints for 3M,” I would say when people asked.
It was tedious, it was eight hours every weekday, it was just the whir of machines for company, the other workers attending silently to their own stations. But at least it wasn’t McDonald’s or Dairy Queen; I didn’t have to wait on people from high school. And it beat minimum wage by a couple of dollars an hour. Sixteen years old, forty hours a week: I felt lucky.
The titanium hip joints were pocked with small regular holes; they looked like halves of silver Wiffle balls. Titanium: strong and light, sleek and durable, a perfect metal for aerospace engineering or replacing the worn interiors of human bodies. I’d imagine the gloved hands of surgeons inserting the shining silver balls into the dark slick privacies of the pelvis.
In the shop, the machines were huge teal cubes, large and clean, twice as tall as I was, with hot moving steel parts at their hearts where I put my hands to lock down and then remove the half-balls. The machines all had red warning labels that showed how you could die or lose a limb.