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My Profile
Management Side

Working with the bullgang

My initial experience with the paper industry began in a small one-machine operation at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (Dierks Paper Company)

As a 19-year-old boy, I was not successful in obtaining employment that paid a high wage. Whereas, I worked various jobs for the minimum wage of $1.15/hr.

My good friend with whom I attended school had secured a job with the paper mill for $1.89/hr, and I was envious. Desperately, I applied for employment at the two paper mills in Pine Bluff, Arkansas hoping to gain a similar job and salary. With every visit, I was rejected because they did not need any help at the time of the interview. All the while, I became more and more frustrated while asking Charles H. what sort of job he was doing at the mill to deserve such a salary.

Charles, who was working on the "bullgang", told me that he and his fellow workers were in the process of digging holes on the mill grounds in search for a gas leak for the week. He explained, they would dig in the vicinity of the gas main pipe joint and when reaching the main, allow the fitter to repack the joint. Afterwards, they would fill the hole and go on to another like digging assignment.

I felt should they be satisfied with Charles' work output, they would be elated with mine. I knew of Charles and his work capabilities for I had worked with him as teenager in the hay fields and other types of farm work. I knew I could work circles around his output and any other of his likes in that mill.

Therefore, I inquired about the starting time that the bullgang worked and where at the mill they convened for their daily assignments.

On November 11, 1962 at 8:00 AM, I started work with the bullgang. Just as Charles had told me, we were assigned the duty of digging a hole located by our boss for where he believed another gas leak was seeping through.

Since I already knew Charles and another bullgang member, Aubrey, no one took notice that a new employee had come aboard. It was assumed that the mill had hired me. They were wrong! I simply wanted to demonstrate to the bosses that I was a good man for any task as assigned.

After we gathered our picks and shovels and marched to the area to dig the hole, I was the first to shove the spade into the ground and did not look up for anything other than the area I would throw my next shovelful of dirt.

As I worked with relentless haste and persistence, I overheard the maintenance boss (Jeff Malone) ask our supervisor, " Who is that dynamo?" And, "Where did you get him?" Mr. Fred Alexander replied, "I don't know, he showed up this morning"! Adding, "I thought you may have hired him."

I felt mighty good that they had recognized me. But knew that I may have upset them by intruding into their mill. So, I said nothing and worked at a more rapid pace that fell a little short of what a backhoe could accomplish.

When I got out of the hole to allow the pipe fitter into the area, the boss approached me and said, " Boy, what is your name and where did you come from?" With a disbelieving audience as my witness, I responded, "Bill Chavis, sir...I ain't been hired yet but I'm gonna be". I did not know with whom I was talking. But, later learned that he was the curious Paper Mill Manager who approved all entry-level employees into his mill.

He let out a holler that would awake the dead and using profanities that won't be repeated. "You've entered into our mill and began work without a physical or signing the appropriate employment forms!" Adding, "You're a crazy S.O.B. who cannot work here!"

I replied, "Sir, I've tried repeatedly to convince the personnel man to hire me and he would not do it...I thought I would work for you as a personal favor until you could hire me." "Sir, I need a job badly." He discharged me anyway demanding I leave the mill site I worked a short while. Everybody was laughing as I was embarrassed.

As I walked away heading to the parking area of my vehicle, I heard Mr. Plumlee (mill manager) whistle for me to stop. I thought of ignoring him and keep walking but did not. He asked me, "Son, do you know where Dr. Luck's office is located on Linden Street"? I replied "yes sir, I do". He then told me to go take a physical and if I pass to come back to work.

That mill was accustomed to keeping 12 men on the bullgang as their manpower budget dictated. However, in November 1962 they made a special allowance to carry 13 to which I've been forever grateful to J.C. Plumlee whose heart was softer than his demeanor.

He and I became close friends many years later when I became Supt. of Number 3 machine start up in Wallula, Washington and he with Drytex fabrics. He never failed to remind me either of the story I wrote above. He was right, nonetheless, as the inspiration in my career to be all you can be as one with a 6th grade education.

Bill Chavis is a well known retired papermaker and contributing writer to Paperitalo Publications.


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