We Are the Workers
"In our ears the din in our eyes the glare we are the munitions workers . . « carrying the torch behind the battle line"
SOMEWHERE in Ontario there is a shining new town just a year old, with white sidewalks and little sodded lawns. A tall white flagpole stands in a tiny square and the British flag waves gaily in the clean Canadian sky-gaily, despite the fact it is dirty and ragged. You see, it was blitzed from a flagpole in England one grey winter morning, but they rescued it from the rubble and ashes and blasted sills. Now it beams triumphantly like an old face after a hard battle, and knowing this, we raise our hands to salute it as we pass:
We are a munitions plant, a huge sprawling village of low white buildings, modern as the World’s Fair, older than Marco Polo. It was Marco, you remember, who found gunpowder in China and brought it back to his world—to the sorrow and destruction of the human race ever since.
If you work here, you rise up "when it is still night,” like the thrifty woman in the Bible, and grope along the dark streets to the car line. You think to yourself, "I am the only one moving in the world, all the rest are asleep, the city fathers, the debutantes, the sheltered ones.” But down the dark way you see another figure moving in the shadows, someone like yourself, with her lunch in a greasy bag, picking her way among the puddles,
going to work. Another and another looms up and by the time you reach the car line they are coming from every direction, old and young, gay and sober, the grouches and the cheerful ones (surprisingly lovely, some of the girls), the misfits and failures, the shabby and oppressed, all finding in this munitions work a new way of life.
At the end of the car line we are met by buses and taken to "the plant.” We line up two abreast (sometimes the line is two blocks long) and wait our turn. Up the buses come, are quickly loaded and driven off into the darkness, their red lights bobbing down the road like crimson flares to light the way for all who follow them. Hundreds and hundreds of us,
laughing, talking, telling what we had for breakfast, how long we slept.
And deep down in your heart you enjoy it and are queerly satisfied to have a part in this gigantic struggle that embraces all mankind in its deadly grip.
“To Earn Our Peace”
IT ALL began months ago for me. I had felt it coming on for a long time, a rising tide inside of myself that seemed to grow stronger every day I lived and would not be denied. I must do more about the war, I must work for it with my two hands and feet and back. I wanted to sweat and toil and suffer and help win it, so when I am very old I can feel satisfied in my own heart that I helped a little bit to earn our peace.
When I heard of someone being killed, I felt as if I had taken a part in the death; at least I had done nothing to ward it off. "I’m not helping to save them,” I told myself, "—the helpless and forsaken, the destitute and homeless, the wandering lost children of the world.”
I was restless and unhappy too, and felt that I was missing something.
I spoke of it to my friends and they reminded me that I was doing much—writing articles, poetry, lecturing, buying bonds, cheering people up, sewing for the Red Cross. But I’d look at my hands, useless and idle, and it wasn’t enough. And then one day it was all over. I knew that I’d have to work with my two hands, that I must get them rough and sore and calloused before I’d be satisfied . . . Well, that was the beginning and one day I was on a street car, headed for the employment office of a war plant.
I found scores of women there, standing in halls, filling the rooms; they were friendly and glad to talk. The application went in and after establishing that I was of British blood and a native of Canada by right of birth, I was accepted.
The next day we took the oath of service, holding a hand high—“I do solemnly swear to serve my country to the best of my ability and strength, to work and pray for victory, to keep silent in regard to my work, so help me God.”
Then we were fingerprinted, photographed, measured, weighed, questioned, solemnly warned, tabulated, numbered and before we knew it, we were members of His Majesty’s forces, serving behind the lines, but just as necessary as planes and guns and watchers in the night.
At the entrance of the plant stands an armed guard who politely wishes to see your pass. You are then waved through a little door to “clock in,” which you do, setting your time card in its place on the rack with hundreds of others.
Now you are in the “danger zone.” It scares you a bit at first. You have visions of being hurled through space in the wake of an explosion, but you soon forget it and handle your dangerous stuff with all the nonchalance of a country woman setting a batch of bread.
There are huge “change houses” where you take off your street clothes, right down to the last two garments, and after washing your hands and face are inspected by two women who sit on each side of a barrier. If you are found without spot or blemish—carrying no contraband goods, chocolate bars, chewing gum, cigarettes, matches, loose metal articles—you answer the “all clear” challenge and pass over to the “clean side,” or into the plant proper.
Some of the women resent this minute inspection but great care is necessary because the smallest bit. of dirt in the fuses might make them useless, make them fail at a critical moment. The management admits that perhaps it is leaning over backward in safety regulations but it’s better to be safe than sorry. No silk or rayon is allowed, no combs, bobby pins or metallic objects permitted in this explosion area because of the danger from sparks. The air is filled with explosive dust in spite of the air-conditioning.
Once past the barrier you don a clean white uniform, trimmed with black, grey or red, according to your work. A white turban completes the outfit. These uniforms are very smart and many of the girls look better in them than they do in their street clothes. You are also provided with good shoes. These have wooden pegs, are hand-sewn of good elk and very comfortable.
Going through another door you enter a long corridor or “cleanway” that leads to your shop. These halls are painted a glistening ivory and have fine hardwood floors and hundreds of lights. They look for all the world like the scrubbed decks of a ship. Each hall is seventeen hundred feet long, a nice walk in itself, and there are thirteen miles of halls or cleanways in this one plant.
The shops are numbered and there are thirty-five to fifty people in each. The working conditions are good. The rooms are air-conditioned, clean as the parlor at home, with pale green walls and ivory ceilings. The benches are covered with green battleship linoleum and look very much like pool tables. You sit on stools—no long standing .at this job.
All tables and machines are grounded, thirty feet down under the quiet earth, and every door has a copper plate on it that is grounded and will draw all the static electricity out of a worker. You are required to touch these plates as you enter or leave your shop, always. Lights are sealed and there are no electric outlets. There are no windows—light is all artificial.
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These are the kind of shops in which we work, whether we’re working on gunpowder, shells, rings, shellacking, papering, vibrating, assembling, breaking down, measuring, weighing . . .
AROUND the benches works a • varied group—a soldier of the last war who was turned down for this one and came here to do his bit. A little Irish girl whose husband is overseas. A young Bulgarian boy whose mother had her home blown to bits in the last war. A bitter, middleaged woman whose life has gone awry.
We work in unity and cheerfulness and a strange loyalty has grown up between us which flares up suddenly if any of us are snubbed or laughed at by some other company or shop.
We take our shifts as they come, day or night. The night hours drag on leaden feet, we talk and laugh and sing everything we ever heard of— old favorites, new hits, hymns, battle songs. Sometimes there is just one worker singing softly to himself, sometimes two or three, and then suddenly we will all burst forth joyously, as if responding to a common chord.
I remember one dreary night when a boy was singing. He started “Land of Hope and Glory,” and in a second everyone in the shop was singing, loudly, tunefully, as if it had been rehearsed. “—Mother of the Free, How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee.” The little Bulgarian was leading, his head thrown back, his hand raised like a choirmaster. “—Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set, God Who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet .
Up to the white ceiling the song floated and down the glistening cleanways. The little supervisor had a smile on her face, she looked as if she would have liked to join in too, but for dignity’s sake she must only look on.
And now I know that however long life may last for me, every dreary dawn will be lighter and more beautiful by the shining memory of two score weary munitions workers singing, “Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free.” And behind it all and through it all, like an accompaniment, the click of steel on steel, the whine of the presses, the hammers breaking down the blue molds, the sound of levellers tamping the powder into the shiny brass rings.
Of singing there is no end, and whistling. There is an old codger here whose face shows the unmistakable signs of the hard road he’s come. When Tom is getting over a little spree, which happens now and then, he is very repentful and sings all night long, “When He cometh, when He cometh to make up His jewels.” It seems to be the only song he knows; probably he learned it in Sunday school in the far-away past and it stays with him now and moves
* Quotation from “Land of Hope and Glory’’ by courtesy of Boosey and Hawkes, Canada, Ltd.
him to heaven knows what tender recollections.
John is an Englishman; you’d know that if you met him in China or Zanzibar. His eyes are clear blue, his cheeks clear pink. He’s always clean, yes sir, clean as a whistle; in a powder plant that’s saying a lot, and he stays that way all day or night. The rest of us look like chimney sweeps an hour after we get in, but not John. He sits on his high stool, “breaking down,” and never so much as a smudge mars the clean pink of his ruddy complexion.”
He’s polite to a fare-you-well and I honestly believe if there was an explosion and we all went out through the roof en masse, old John would murmur “excuse me” on his way to kingdom come.
“Magnificent . . . Terrible”
THERE IS a huge canteen where we crowd like hungry wolves at noon hour, or on night shift at about two a.m. The seating capacity is fifteen hundred and we wait on ourselves cafeteria style. The food is unexpectedly good, hot and delicious, and served by a smiling line of women, mostly Scots, who hand it out to us as if they liked their job.
We are a goodly company any way you take us—miners from Timmins and Val d’Or, roustabouts from Montreal and Quebec, cowpunchers from Alberta, dust bowl farmers, waitresses, clerks, shopkeepers, middle-aged women glad to earn a few extra dollars to tide them along, the destitute and the oppressed. One woman boasted to me that her husband, also working here, is the champion steer-roper of Oklahoma and he’s making fuses now. She’s proud as Punch of him and says that some day they’re going back to buy a ranch.
Looking across the canteen at two a.m. is like looking at a slice of life, a generous throbbing slice, raw, magnificent, terrible. You’ll find every sort of woman here — saints, sinners, refugees, school teachers, office workers, their white hands stained with gunpowder or yellow as saffron from tetryl. Some of their faces have broken out into festering sores from the acid fumes that drift in the air like poison gas.
There is beauty and devotion here too. Going home on the bus one bleak grey dawn after two weeks on the night shift, I flopped wearily into a seat, almost ready to call the whole thing off out of sheer exhaustion.
I glanced at a woman beside me, her face was strangely happy and filled with peace. I said to her, “How can you look so happy, aren’t you fagged out?”
“I am happy,” she said, “the happiest I’ve been for a long time. I am going home to get my breakfast, then I’m going downtown and get my little boy a new suit of clothes and a new cap and he’ll start to Sunday School tomorrow.” She added in an exultant tone, “and he’ll be dressed just as good as the rest.” Her face shone in the dim light of the bus, like a shabby Madonna hold-
ing her most precious treasure to her sheltering heart. “He’s eight and this will be his first new suit—really new, you know, from a store. He’s a swell kid.” She patted the thin purse in her lap and I felt good too, that I was permitted to share her joy.
Last Christmas Eve we were given a banquet, by groups or shops, about three hundred to a group. The food was beautiful and bountiful. Turkey (they cooked three hundred), dressing, potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, and I truly believe the best plum pudding I ever sank my teeth into. It was perfect, the crowning point of the meal.
Most of the girls had dressed up for the party; some had flowers and ribbons in their bright curls, giving a festive air to our three a.m. meal. We sang carols, told jokes, toasted each other in tea and coffee, gave our bosses and supervisors little presents.
From table to table a manager went, giving a little speech. His face radiated good will as he wished us a Merry Christmas and a “busy new year,” adding quietly, “It will be necessary.”
It isn’t easy to work through the night, but it’s a lot easier when someone comes along and tells us that the management is pleased with production, that we have developed such a speed in a few months as to amaze everyone in charge of the work, and that we are truly fighting behind the lines.
“The Little People”
IF ANYONE had ever told me that I could ride across the city of Toronto sitting bolt upright in a streetcar and sleep every bit of the way, I’d have said they were crazy.
But that’s exactly what I do, every morning of my life, coming off the night shift. After driving in from the country by bus, I board a streetcar and proceed to fall asleep and have an hour’s rest, which is all to the good, and so do dozens like me.
The conductors — and Toronto streetcar conductors are in a class by themselves for sheer goodness and mercy—have most of us spotted and if we sleep too long they come along and give us a gentle shake and ask if we are sure we haven’t passed our stop. We wake in sleepy jerks, feeling greatly refreshed and get off at the right place. But sometimes the young tired girls fall into a sort of trance and have been known to ride miles beyond their corner.
Perhaps we are munitions workers, tough . . . selfish . . . working for the money that’s in it.
But that isn’t all. For two years now we’ve worked with feverish haste and infinite care, we’ve sweated and sworn and vowed we’d quit (but we haven’t). We sit behind benches and stand beside lathes. The infernal din of the throbbing machines is in our ears day and night, the whine of presses, the grumbling ear-shaking noises of the vibrator drive through every nerve and cell of our bodies, until at dawn we creep exhausted and grey-faced to the waiting buses and go home. Too tired to eat or wash or speak, we crawl into bed and lie
almost unconscious until the alarm goes off to start another day or night.
Somehow we seem to be part of a vast cavalcade moving on to some fixed destiny, something bigger and stronger than ourselves, but in which everyone must play a part. We are the Grapes of Wrath, minus the jalopy, we are the Crusaders marching toward Jerusalem, we are all the Sir Galahads of the world, seeking the Holy Grail.
For we are the little people of the earth, the workers, the muckers, the trail breakers. We have discovered continents, founded empires, built bridges. We’ve spanned the rivers of the world, laid the foundations of freedom, built the pyramids, our weapons the spade and mattock, the pick and shovel and the plow.
And now we stand once more, wielders of war tools. The ring of steel on steel is in our ears, the blue glare of the welding torch in our eyes.
And when they tell us that in the blitz of London they had to stop the guns because there were no more shells, we set our teeth and go at it harder than ever, knowing that Hitler and his slave labor must never get the drop on us again.
For we know that we’re fighting for our country just as truly as if we stood on the cliffs of Dover or roared down to drop an egg on a loaded barge waiting to cross the Channel to England. We know we’re part of the fight from Leningrad to Somaliland, from the Aleutian Islands to Australia.
There’s a war on, a life and death grapple with all the fiendish powers of darkness, a war of hate and greed and fear, a war to conquer the earth by murder and suicide and treachery.
There’s a war on in which little children are the tender targets, where the old and feeble are easy victims, where youth and love and happiness are trembling at the stake. A war against the things that Christ died for, a war where God is mocked and goodness and mercy are heaped with scorn.
Churchill gave munitions workers a special place in one of his broadcasts. The King in his Christmas message said, “I am thinking of all those women and girls who at the call of duty have left their homes to join the services or work in factory, hospital or field.”
We are the warriors of His Majesty’s forces who fight along the home front, working day and night.
A little puff of powder burning out,
A sharp command—the scuff of hurrying feet,
A red cut on a hand ... a powder burn,
And still the work goes on, the hammers beat
Their ancient litany of toil and tears
Like a great chorus singing down the years.
A million workers strong and brave and fine
Carrying the torch behind the battle line.