William Trent Pancoast’s novels include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His short stories, essays, and editorials have appeared in Fried Chicken and Coffee, Night Train, The Mountain Call, Solidarity magazine, and US News & World Report. Pancoast retired from the auto industry in 2007 after thirty years as a die maker and union newspaper editor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio.
Bill is a WCH Contributor who has allowed us to post this, novel in installments. We expect to bring you a chapter a week.
Wildcat is available at Amazon in paperback for $6 and $0.99 for Kindle.
“Most novelists haven’t been anywhere near an auto plant, let alone worked in one, but Bill Pancoast has. Wildcat takes us inside a spontaneous strike at an Ohio stamping plant in theVietnam era, showing how righteous anger, insane hijinks, and bloodshed can break out when workers decide to do something–anything–about brutal and boring working conditions.”–Christopher Phelps, Associate professor,American Studies,University of Nottingham
A Profane Man
Milt Jeffers was born profane. His mother had told him, his father had told him, his teachers had told him what a miserable, profane being he was, and he had always laughed. He ignored his parents as he stole from them and had his way. He laughed at his teachers as they were forced, by his overwhelming evidence of intelligence—he could pass any test they threw at him and argue his position with great skill—to give him all A’s and B’s. By the time Milt Jeffers was thirteen, he knew that he was rotten to the core, and it did not bother him. At age sixteen he was already a successful used car salesman, pushing nearly sixty units a year at the car lot near the high school.
His mother had known from his birth that the son who came into being with such an easy labor, who slid into this world as if charmed, was evil. By the time he was a teenager, his mother had had her fill of Milt’s incorrigible ways. He would not accept guidance in any form and had taken to smoking and drinking at an early age. And for his mother, it was these two vices that came to represent his overall profanity and which she finally seized upon as the main reasons for his condemnation. She hated it when he sat in the living room smoking Camel cigarettes and drinking his dad’s Stroh’s beer. Sat there like he had a right, even though he knew how much she hated it, and maybe hated him, too.
Just before his seventeenth birthday Milt Jeffers’ mother had told him, “I have decided that you will have to move out of this house if you keep smoking and drinking.” They had been alone in the kitchen, she preparing the daily supper for the family and Milt getting ready to leave for his job selling cars. He walked on past her to the back door, started out, then turned back to her and said, “Well, fuck you, then.” And he went on out the door. It was this remembrance of profanity to his mother that he was thinking about when the phone in his office at the union hall rang on this day after Thanksgiving in 1970.
“Asshole. You stole my turkeys.” It was the plant manager.
“You stupid fucker. I told you I needed a job for my brother-in-law. And next week I’ll need one for my cousin. You’re lucky all I did was steal your damn turkeys.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. How many dumbfuck, hillbilly relatives you got? I thought they all already worked here.”
Milt chuckled. This plant manager he could get along with just fine. All Milt really needed to do was keep the plant running smooth enough not to interrupt the guy’s drinking schedule, and he could help himself to anything he wanted. Not like that last fool who was so ambitious he went by the book on everything. “Be over here in an hour,” John Dunham, the plant manager of GM’s biggest stamping plant, maybe the biggest stamping plant in the world, said to Milt Jeffers and hung up.
Milt’s thoughts turned back to his mother. It had never been anything personal, and he knew she knew that. Gradually she had come to see through his evil, especially with the coming of his three children, the only grandchildren she had. And now, as she became more confused all the time with the artery problem or whatever was making her confused and forgetful, his mother more and more sought solace in the love that Milt’s three beautiful and loving children bestowed plentifully upon her.
Milt had graduated from high school and prospered as a used car salesman at the car lot. But then he got caught jumping titles for the second time, and the boss showed him the door. Milt couldn’t blame him; he might lose his dealer’s license if the dealership ever got caught jumping a title. One of his customers got him a job at the GM plant.
He would have quit the day he hired in if his wife had not been pregnant. About the only thing he had ever done right in his profane, miserable life was take care of his children. So he stayed, going through the mind-numbing ritual of running a stamping press day after day.
It didn’t take him long to recognize that power was just lying around to be usurped, and things were just lying around waiting to be stolen, at the plant. His committeeman got fired three months after Milt was hired, and he ran for the job. The union had been voted in earlier that year, and no one had a real power base built up in that short period of time, so Milt had no trouble getting elected. Being a committeeman in a union was a lot like selling cars. Most people, you just told them what they wanted to hear and everything would be okay. “Yes sir, that transmission is just like new. That old lady never once kicked this baby into passing gear. Listen to it when we leave the stop sign here at the corner. Hear that whine? That’s new gears you hear there, boy. New gears!” And at the shop, “Don’t you worry about your foreman. When I’m done with that stupid motherfucker, he’ll kiss your ass for doing your job!” And sure enough, Milt Jeffers delivered. Foremen dreaded him–Milt Jeffers would fuck them up. He had gotten so many foremen fired through the years that if Milt Jeffers said the sky were pink, a foreman would grin and nod and shuffle his feet all at the same time. He had served as committeeman, shop committeeman, and for the last three years as shop chairman. He was the top dog, the union equivalent of plant manager, except he had to be elected every three years by the five thousand men in the plant. The union head honcho had to be smarter and better than the plant manager. At age thirty-two, Milt Jeffers was the youngest shop chairman in any General Motors plant.
It was a sunny, unseasonable day in Ohio, the temperature approaching fifty as Milt and Jimmy nudged the Cadillac through the picket line. Jimmy was always with him, a smart guy who played lackey, who had enough smarts to serve his master but never ever consider being master. Jimmy was gopher and diplomat all rolled into one. He could run for pizza and beer or represent his master at the localUnited Waymeeting with equal ease. Born in Vulcan,West Virginia, “just a ways south of Matewan” he used to tell people who wondered where Vulcan was. Never mind that nobody knew where Matewan was either. Jimmy’s claim to fame was that Cotton Top Mounts, the guy who started the Hatfield-McCoy feud, was Jimmy’s fourth cousin on his mother’s side and that his great grandmother’s maiden name was Mounts. Jimmy wasn’t afraid of anything. That was really why Milt Jeffers had chosen him. Jimmy would get to drinking moonshine now and then and didn’t have enough sense to go home and go to sleep. Oh no. He would ask for the baddest motherfucker in the bar. Most times folks let Jimmy have his night to be king and had a good time with it, watching him shout at whole barrooms full of grown men that he was going to kick their sorry asses. But once they had been out at the Roundup, the little hillbilly bar down the road from the plant, and a new guy was there–he said he guessed he was the baddest motherfucker anywhere. Well, Jimmy and he went out to the parking lot, and a big group of guys had already formed. Jimmy gave up nearly a hundred pounds to this guy, a fellow hillbilly come up north trying to find work, and Jimmy said, “Just remember, motherfucker, this ain’t over till one of us is dead.” Then he took his shirt off and pulled out this big damn skinnin’ knife and started dancing around slashing with that thing like a crazy man. That big, old fellow stood there frowning at Jimmy, covering up his innards with his huge hands just in case Jimmy took a swipe at his vitals, for what seemed like a long time but was probably only ten seconds, and then started backing real slow out of the circle. “Fucker’s crazy,” he muttered a few times until he made it to the safety of his car.
A week after that, Jimmy became a skilled tradesman. And after Jimmy had stumbled up and down the press lines with a screw driver and hammer for a full week, Milt pulled him off the line, marched him up to the plant manager’s office, opened the door without knocking, and said, “Jimmy’s coming with me and will be my assistant till I come back and tell you different. He’ll be on the clock twelve hours a day just like me.” That was all it took. Wherever Milt was, Jimmy was there. Whenever Milt was in a meeting, Jimmy was, too. As long as Milt was chairman, Jimmy would never hit another lick. Today Jimmy would be running for pizza and beer for the pickets.
“Boys, I’m proud of you,” Milt Jeffers said as the pickets pressed up against his car. “And Walter Reuther would have been proud of you. I’ll be buying the pizza and beer today to honor Walter’s memory.” The group snickered and grunted at this news. “Be ready to work the weekend,” Milt said and sped off down the ramp. He stopped at the bottom, where the four plant security guards were stationed to keep an eye on the pickets. They didn’t question the chairman for driving on to the plant grounds; the one standing agreement Milt had with the plant manager was that, no matter what, both of them would have access to the plant. Milt stopped, buzzed the window down, and the young men walked over to see what he wanted. “How was the holiday? Your families all well? You boys get enough turkey to eat?”
“Sure did, Milt. How about you?”
Milt didn’t answer but knitted his brows together in mock concentration and said, “Hadn’t you guys better be gathering up the rest of them turkeys before they start stinking?” And he motioned to the shrubbery along the brick face of the building where here and there could be seen the white plastic butt of a turkey. He pulled away and glanced in the rearview mirror. Already the guards were starting to search the bushes for the leftover turkeys. “Them’s good turkeys back there,” Jimmy said. “Folks down home was all glad to get the turkeys you gave me on Wednesday. They all said to tell you thanks.”
“Glad to help…folks around here got it too easy today, Jimmy,” Milt said as he wheeled the big car into his reserved parking place next to the plant manager’s.
John Dunham got to be a plant manager because his father-in-law was a vice-president for General Motors. And it just so happened that the old man was here for the holidays and sitting with John when Milt and Jimmy walked into the plant manager’s office.
“Jimmy, get the keys for that company Caddy out front and go on and get the pizza and beer.”
“Ah Jeez. You can’t do that,” John said resignedly. “You’re on fucking strike and you want to have that little freak driving around town in a company car?”
Milt laughed. “Ain’t it great? General Motors is a wonderful company to treat its employees so well.”
“No fucking way,” John said, getting mad now.
His father-in-law held up a hand to silence him. “Hell, let him take it. I’ll be responsible.” Then Harold asked, “Where do you keep the booze?” The main reason Harold had come over to the plant with John was to get away from the women and kids and have a drink or two.
John pointed to the cabinet, and the old man quickly produced a bottle of vodka and three glasses. “John tells me you like a snort now and then,” Harold said and started pouring. What the hell, Milt told himself. He could outdrink either of these birds if that’s how they wanted to settle the strike. They tossed the first one down.
“What’s it going to take?” Harold said importantly.
Milt was properly impressed by Harold’s position and sat assessing the man. Finally, Milt laughed. “It’s real simple—pay us for yesterday and today, and we’ll be back to work tomorrow.”
The old man sputtered and choked on his drink. When he had recovered, he snorted, “Are you nuts? Nobody in Detroit will ever buy that.”
“We’re not in Detroit,” Milt said simply.
John poured more drinks. Ahh…the first drink of the day was always the best. He leaned back in his chair, barely listening to the heated conversation.
“You got any ice,” Harold asked his son-in-law.
“Nah, we get it from the cafeteria…but they’re closed.”
“Come on,” Milt hollered and got up. “Let’s run down to the corner and get some.”
“Go ahead,” John said. “I’ve got a little paperwork to get ready…we should be able to get this little disagreement cleared up in short order.”
Harold downed his vodka and followed Milt. As they climbed into his Caddy, Harold was impressed. “Hell, you drive a nicer one than I have right now.” In a few minutes they had pulled into the Roundup. There were a couple dozen cars there, mostly autoworkers waiting their turn for picket duty or having a few beers after their picket shift.
“Ain’t scared of hillbillies, are you?”
Harold scoffed. “Hell, man. I don’t guess they could be any meaner than a crazy Jap atIwo Jima.” Harold had been a Marine Captain when they took the barren pile of rock and wasn’t scared of much of anything except his wife Mabel.
They sat down at the bar and Milt hollered, “Lookee here, boys. We got a GM vice-president here with us. That’s how important we are!”
Several of the guys gathered around, and momentarily, a pint of clear liquid was used to pour drinks for Milt and Harold. “Better have beer chasers with this stuff,” Milt told the girl behind the bar. Harold hadn’t had moonshine for so long that he had forgotten how devastating to the human brain it could be. He downed the shot and poured half a beer after it. It hit him immediately. He relaxed onto the bar stool and felt very good. The world was suddenly a great place. This stupid hillbilly sitting next to him in ruralOhiowas a good guy. Everybody was good people. He found a fellow Marine and they talked animatedly aboutIwo Jimaand other battles. They sat for an hour drinking shots.
“When’s the last time you had a blowjob, Harold?” Milt asked the vice-president of General Motors. It took Harold a minute, but then he fuzzily recalled the convention inLas Vegaswhere he had bought himself one. He just nodded through his developing stupor. A blowjob would be a good thing. His glass was full of the shine again, and when Milt called, “Let’s go,” a few minutes later, Harold drained it.
By the time Harold reached the car, Milt had the back door open. Waiting in the backseat was a woman they had seen earlier in the bar. Harold slid on into the car and the door shut behind him. It didn’t take Margie long to get Harold’s pants down. She was busy when Milt tapped on the window, and she motioned him away..
Milt popped open the door, sighted the instant camera, and clicked. Harold didn’t even notice. Hell, he was getting a blowjob! Milt got two more pictures for insurance.
When they got back to the plant, Harold was slouching lazily against the door in the front seat. Milt had to stop for pizza and beer when Harold saw the food the pickets had. Milt set him on a camp stool and got him a beer and slice of pizza. He got the Polaroid camera out of the glove box and framed Harold and the pickets against the General Motors sign by the highway, with the plant in the background. Harold held up his can of beer when he saw the flash go off, and Milt snapped another.
When they finally made it back to the office, John was irate. They had been gone for nearly two hours, and his wife and mother-in-law were looking for the men. Milt guided Harold into the office and put him in a chair. The shine had really fucked him up, and he leaned against the wall for a few seconds before burping and passing out.
“You rotten son of a bitch,” John said slowly to the shop chairman.
“Hell, I didn’t know he was a drunk, too.” Milt shuffled the Polaroids like playing cards on the conference table.
“What have you got there?” John asked.
“Strike settlement,” Milt answered and slid a couple of the pictures across the table.
John looked in amazement at the pictures. In the first was framed Harold’s head and body with Margie smiling up at the camera from Harold’s lap. The second showed him having a beer with the strikers in front of the plant. John shook his head sadly. “What’ll it take?”
“Holidaypay for Thursday and Friday. Work one hundred per cent overtime this weekend. And the jobs for my relatives…oh, and Margie’s son needs a job.”
“Who’s Margie?” John asked.
Milt flipped over an ace and slapped it onto the table. There was Margie, busy doing what she needed to do to get her son a job at the General Motors plant.