Written on the occasion of the closing
of the Angle Plant
of the J.P. Stevens Co., Rocky Mount,
Because the looms roared
while they rolled out thousands of yards of cloth, they invented new languages.
There were languages of touch, the pat on the back, the squeeze of
the upper arm, the hand on the shoulder.
There was the language of the shrug, the up-turned palms, the comic
silent movie routines. And there was the language of light.
With the flashlights they used to peer into the looms, the light they
held on whatever needed fixing, they devised a semaphore that shot messages
through the room’s thunder.
Where did these ingenious,
language-inventing people come from? Farms mostly. In
1929, when the mill opened—it was June of that year—they came in for “public”
work. Their word for any employment
off the farm. They brought their
getting-by savvy with them. On
the farm, if a reaper belt broke and you needed a piece of leather to fix
it, the tongue from an old work boot would suffice. If you wanted to tell a joke or flirt
or praise God or gossip in a room where words were useless, you remembered
you were carrying a flashlight.
You tell me that it
is not an act of genius to make yourself understood with light.
You tell me that it is not an honorable life to raise four children
and send them all to college on a mill worker's pay.
You tell me that it
is not an act of triumph for men and women who have spent their lives in the
same locality to see their nation’s space vehicles gently splash into the
ocean thanks to parachutes they helped weave.
You can tell me that
economic realities and market forces must be obeyed. You can tell me that only a fool believes that here at the
end of the twentieth century that a company can think about anything but the
bottom line. You can tell me
What I will tell you is that
in June 1999, after 70 years of life, those clever, mute, eloquent languages
died. And the real shame is how
quickly they will be forgotten.