The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: In this piece you discuss the struggle between staying in a comfortable setting with a secure job (home), and going somewhere uncertain but with much more scope and opportunity (college). How did you work through this tension to present it in the piece?
Amy Collini: It was a challenge to write because I knew I wanted to limit myself to the length of a flash essay; this meant compressing the narrative as tightly as I could. Ultimately, I found that contrasting the disparate elements between the two environments—the overheated and filthy factory against the quiet order of the university campus—worked better than talking about my decision process.
RR: Looking back on your adolescence, how do your feelings towards your hometown now compare to what they were when you left?
AC: Toledo is, if not quite dying, withered; it once thrived as a hub of manufacturing (my father’s plant alone employed 10,000 people at its height). But as in many cities around the country, those manufacturing jobs are long gone. As a young adult I felt proud of my hometown—it felt so big to me!—but now I feel saddened when I see how it’s declined. When I learned that the plant was demolished in 2007, I felt a deep sadness; the plant was an enormous part of my childhood and family history. I am still sad when I realize I will never see it again.
RR: You mention in the piece that the line had seemed like a mythical place. How did the reality of seeing it change how you felt about it?
AC: Seeing the assembly line shocked me. I had grown up hearing it mentioned in my home every day, and I don’t think I ever truly understood that it existed as a physical manifestation of something. The line literally fed our family, clothed us and housed us. I also knew that it injured people and killed them, and that its shutdown for any reason was extremely rare and costly. Therefore, when I saw how small it was—maybe six inches in width, if my memory serves me correctly—I was dumbfounded. Seeing the reality of the plant made me aware of two things: my father made great physical sacrifices to work there, and I would never be able to make those same sacrifices.
RR: Before reading this essay we had never heard of “the line.” Can you speak to what it was like growing up near it?
AC: My father worked the line—plant slang for jobs involving the actual assembly of automobiles—for many years before he was elected union steward of his large department. This afforded him the opportunity to get off the line and also work at +a job that was more intellectually rewarding. Automobile assembly is brutal work that destroys the body and dulls the mind; without exception, everyone who works the line eventually (usually sooner rather than later) succumbs to repetitive use injuries. My younger sister took a job at the plant for three years, beginning when she was twenty, using it to pay her way through college and then get out; in that short time she suffered shoulder injuries, had a heatstroke and was burned by a furnace. My stepmother, an otherwise healthy woman who’s put in thirty years at various Toledo area Jeep plants, has experienced multiple rotator cuff injuries and suffers permanent shoulder damage. Today, she has difficulty picking up and carrying her grandchildren because of it. I was, and remain, proud of the work my father and other employees did. As a child I told anyone who would listen that when I grew up, “I want to make Jeeps like Daddy makes.” When I was maybe ten, my mother scolded me after I’d said this yet again and told me that I should go to college; in a knowing way, she said I didn’t really want to end up at the plant. She introduced me to the shame she felt over being married to a factory worker. Like so much in life, that single comment was a mixed bag. It was the first time I became aware that others viewed my father as an uneducated, working-class man, and it broke my heart. Yet it also planted the seed that I could expect more from life than factory work.
RR: The end of your essay indicates that you do not regret choosing college over working at the line. Were there ever any moments of doubt along the way?
AC:No, there were no doubts, not even when I struggled to buy books and pay for groceries in college (at forty, I’m still paying off student loans—and I still have no regrets). I had heard countless times while I was growing up, from both of my parents, that there were many people who had started working at the plant with intentions to stay for a year or two and then became trapped by the combination of exceptional pay and lack of marketable skills for any other job. By the time they realized they were miserable and wanted out, they couldn’t leave. Even though I was extremely proud of my father and loved his entertaining daily stories from work, those words of warning left an impression on me. I’ve always felt I made the right decision.