The loud clang of turning spools and the hiss of blasting air guns filled the afternoon air. There was a dull throbbing pain in my back and right shoulder from carrying my air gun all day; I was stiff, tired, and physically drained. As I began my next roll of wire, I glanced quickly at the clock that hung on the far wall of the building. It was 3:50 P.M. I sighed thankfully. In ten minutes I could leave Funk Valley for another day.
Funk Valley was a wire factory situated on the west side of my small hometown. From the outside the building looked deserted. Half of its windows were broken; its paint was faded and peeling. It seemed the next strong wind would surely tumble its weather-worn walls. Although it didn’t look like much, Funk Valley carried on quite a business. It had a contract with the government to make concertina barbed wire for Vietnam. A person could make good money at Funk Valley; and when I accepted my job there fresh out of high school five months before, the money had been the thing that really appealed to me.
As I was finishing my last roll of wire, out of the corner of my eye I saw our foreman, Art, approaching me with his daily tally sheet. We were paid according to the number of rolls of wire we put out. At the end of each day Art came to get our totals.
“How many will that be, Yates?” Art shouted above the noise of my machine and air gun.
“Thirty-nine,” I replied without turning around.
A brief pause followed and then Art shouted again, “Only 39?”
“Yeah. Only 39.”
Art didn’t say anything for a moment, but I knew he was still standing behind me even though my back was toward him. He was counting the number of coils on my roll of wire.
“There are 72 coils on this one, Yates.” He tried to appear surprised, but he knew exactly how many coils my roll of wire would have even before he counted.
“I thought 72 coils is a government requirement,” I replied coldly.
A smile flickered across Art’s lips, but it didn’t disguise the irritation that showed on his face. “When there’s a government inspector here, then we put 72 coils on. One hasn’t been in today.”
I didn’t comment. I finished my roll of wire, pulled it off the spool onto the floor, turned off my machine, picked up my tools, and began cleaning up around my area.
“Look, Yates,” Art began again. “If you want to make good money, you have to put out more rolls of wire. You can’t do that and still put 72 coils on each roll. You haven’t got time. Cut your coils down to 55 and you can walk out of here with seven or eight dollars more a day. You make more money, I make more money, and we’re all happy. Do you see my point?”
I stared at him for a moment without saying anything. Art had quite a setup, I thought to myself. As long as the inspector wasn’t around, no one ever knew if there were 72 or 55 coils per roll. The wire was loaded on trucks at Funk Valley and taken to the coast. There it was loaded onto boats and shipped to Vietnam. The first person to open it was some soldier in a rice paddy. He didn’t count the number of coils per roll. He just sent for more wire when he ran out, and Funk Valley received more orders.
There were a lot of things I wanted to say to Art as I stood there that afternoon, but I didn’t. Instead, I forced my lips to smile and replied sarcastically, “Yeah, Art. I see your point.”
Without saying another word I turned around and headed toward the washroom to clean up before going home. I knew Art was angry even though he tried not to show it. I was beginning to grate on him because I was the only one in the whole plant who ignored his orders and continued to put 72 coils on each roll.
Each succeeding day followed more or less the same pattern. I continued to put 72 coils on each roll of wire I made, and every day or so Art would come around and present me with his money-making secret. I refused to give in. Although he became angry at times, I knew I was safe. He couldn’t fire me for being honest.
Now, five years later, there aren’t a lot of fond memories that come to my mind when I reminisce about my nine months at Funk Valley. They were difficult times for me. It was difficult to put out the same amount of wire as someone else and earn less money. There were times I picked up my weekly check when I wondered if it was all really worth it.
I can see now that it was, because I received something at Funk Valley that I couldn’t have obtained any other place. I used to wonder what I really bought with those eight dollars I gave up every day. Now I think I know. I bought the satisfaction of being able to look Art in the eye and say, “Yes, Art, there are 72 coils on that roll.” I bought the chance of getting up each morning, looking at myself in the mirror, and saying, “There are a lot of things you aren’t, but you are honest.” I bought the opportunity of living with myself without feeling regret. And above all, I bought peace of mind and a clear conscience.
If I had taken that money, I would have spent it long ago; but as it is, I invested it in something that will last forever. How could I ever regret having made an investment like that?