Excerpt from the book PATHWAYS. One of my pathways of life led into the textile mills of South Carolina. This excerpt is about my first shift working in the weave room of the White Plant in Fort Mill, SC at the tender age of fourteen.


If you are into “titles”, my first “position” with Springs was as a spare hand. A spare hand was, in modern parlance, a daily “at-will” employee. I would go in and wait at a specified work bench until the second hand came to us and sent us to do a certain job or if there were not a job, send us back home. I never got sent home even though after many year-long, eight-hour shifts, I wish they had.

There was an almost military type of hierarchy in the weave room and, I am sure, the cotton mill itself. The plant manager was the general; many “white shirts” in ties were the staff officers; the room managers the lieutenants or captains; and the second hands were the sergeants. Within the “enlisted” ranks there was a peaking order: weavers and loom fixers and over haulers at the top; warpers, battery fillers, oilers, blow-off hands, sweepers, and doffers at the bottom. Spare hands? If the mill had been a caste system, we would have been “the great ignored”…until we screwed up!

My second hand was Coley Spinx.(Sp?) At the time I believed that if I needed to look up the word “intimidating” in the dictionary, a picture of Coley would accompany the definition. A friend of my father’s, the former World War Two Marine had Popeye-sized forearms that sported the requisite Marine Corp Eagle, Globe and Anchor tattoos that all Marines are so proud of. Built like a rain barrel, with arms and legs to match, it was easy to visualize him in his fatigues and wearing a jaunty but useless “tin hat.” With a half-smoked cigar jammed in his teeth, I imagined him defending his squad with a fifty-caliber machine gun clutched in one ham-sized fist and a bazooka in the other. You should probably remember that this was the fertile mind of a fourteen-year-old growing up in a period when kids still “played” war games. I am still in awe of old Marines…and young ones, too.

Fourteen sounds young to be working in a cotton mill…it is, but we did, in fact, have child labor laws in the summer of 1964 – just not like those of today. It had not been that many years removed from ten-year-olds or younger spending ten or twelve hours doing the mind-numbing and body-breaking labor in our industrial plants. As I studied the Industrial Age or prepared lesson plans to teach it, I could not help but contrast the mills of the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century with the first mill where I worked. Springs provided their employees with a well-lighted and clean (if any cotton mill can be called clean) working environment that had large restrooms and a cafeteria that produced full course meals, if desired, and if you had the time to eat one. I would find out later working in other mills that these amenities would be the exception and not the rule.

An ill at ease, nay scared, fourteen-year-old “Donnie” awaited his fate in his now sweat-soaked tee shirt and jeans. Eight hours later, the tee and jeans would still be sweat-soaked and anything but clean. Lint, rust, oil, grease, and general dirt combined with the blood from a first hour on the job accident and eight hours of sweat made my clothes look like I had spent the day in a coal mine before being dragged home behind a horse with a terrible case of diarrhea. Come to think of it, my clothes smelled the same way and my body wasn’t in much better shape. I knew what I was going to buy with my first paycheck. A radio? A movie and a meal for my girlfriend? A vacation to Disneyland? Come on… I was only fourteen, had no girl friend and was making minimum wage which I think was a buck twenty-five an hour or about seven bucks an hour in today’s money. No, tee shirts in any color other than white and several pairs of pants made from the lightest cotton duck I could find would be my first purchases. While jeans were fine in the fields where the air tended to dry them and contact with briars required them, the eight hours of constant sweating and an unhealthy intake of salt tablets had left me galled from waist to knees. Baby powder and lighter, softer trousers seemed to be a ticket for the destination known as “on-the-job” comfort.

If you enjoyed this story from PATHWAYS, you may download or purchase it or Don’s other books at the following links:
Inspirational true stories in WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING by Don Miller #1.99 on #Kindle

“STUPID MAN TRICKS” explained in Don Miller’s FLOPPY PARTS $.99 on Kindle

“Baby Boomer History” in Don Miller’s PATHWAYS $3.49 on Kindle

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