PUNCHING OUT: ONE YEAR IN A CLOSING AUTO PLANT by Paul Clemens; Doubleday, 2011

In mid-January, TV funnyman Stephen Colbert joined an ages-old tradition with a shot at Detroit.

“What if we turned Detroit into a bombing range?” Colbert pondered.  “Would anybody notice?”

As one who has spent most of his life in these environs, thanks.

Punching Out is a tale of a factory turned into…well, what looks like a bombing range.

In Michigan, we know the scenario all too well: We drive down avenues that were made whole by factories taller than airplane hangars on massive plots of land. The factory compounds stretched for blocks, flanked by smoking power plants and behind them, clattering rail yards.

These plants were the guts of our state’s economic engine, the auto industry, and we tolerated the 3 p.m. traffic jams, the first shift letting out. Come 11 p.m. the area bars would fill up as the second shift let out, while the lights in the plants remained on for the third shift. And, yes, at 7 a.m., the bars would fill again.

On summer nights, residents in factory neighborhoods would hear the clatter of the plants through open windows, the stamping plants delivering an icy whoosh of water cooling freshly shaped fenders and doors.

Punching Out is a first person chronicle of the end of those days for one factory, in which author Paul Clemens turns two years of his life over to the dismantling of the Budd Company stamping plant on Detroit’s east side.

Budd Company was once part of a network of suppliers to the Detroit Three, formerly known as the Big Three—Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. At two million square feet, sitting on 86 acres, Budd kicked out brake drums, car and truck body parts and, during World War II, bazooka casings and other munitions.

Clemens visits Budd religiously from the time the plant owners announce its closing in 2006 to its final days in 2008, when the last million-pound press is taken apart, set on a flatbed and shipped off for Mexico.

The characters who take the plant down drive the narrative, a cast of men who run the lifestyle gauntlet; they include responsible union leaders, 3rd generation factory rats, ruffians, and roustabouts who would be at home in any Tom Waits song. Some are contract hires who make up itinerant crews that travel the Rust Belt dismantling factories like the four-man unit known as the Arkansas Boys, who spent lunch hours at the nearby Texas Bar. Only weeks into the tearing down, one had already gotten $1,000 worth of tattoos to pass his off-hours.

There’s Local 306 union rep Ray Dishman, the baritone-voiced, 50-something fellow who was the steadfast guide for the newly unemployed workers and looking at the end of his own employment.

There’s Eddie Ray Stanford, a Budd guard since the 70s. Stanford, a Tennessee native, was confused by folks who didn’t speak his language, which he described as “American,” and while a big man, “possessed a Gleason-like grace.”

And Dave Scarlin, a 65-year-old, silver-haired gent who started working security at Budd in 1966 and carried a gun around with him as he patrolled the plant after its closing, fearing neighborhood looters.

Along the way, Clemens gives us apt descriptions with a touch for the rustic; before the wrecking crews arrive, the plant’s interior is cloaked in an “oily mist, like industrial dew.” His poetic touch graces the book, giving it a greasy elegance.

The plant is taken apart page by page, as Clemens, whose day job is as a public information officer for Wayne State University, begins to spend more and more time at Budd. As he does so, he forms his own analysis of the whys and what’s of the end of a plant. He picks through the detritus of the shuttered plant, pulling out planning sheets that extended into a future that Budd employees would never see. A poster in the cafeteria boasted “Natural work groups; the power to secure our future,” showing a groups of clasped hands as in all working together.

“Seeing such corporate claptrap in a closed plant was a little like looking at a deceased person’s to-do list,” Clemens writes. “What’s the point, you wonder, when it’s all bound to end anyway?”

He’s right of course, and he weighs the union sentiments from all sides.

Many of the workers who come in to take down Budd to ship it to places more labor-friendly are from the right-to-work South, who blame the unions for the end of a manufacturing era.

One truck driver from Texas, waiting for a load of equipment to haul south to Houston, where it would be shipped to Brazil, notes that he feels sorry for Detroit, but “a union will bring a company down real quick.”

The Budd holdovers tightly grasp their “Buy American” ethos, their American-built pickup trucks and, eventually, their unemployment checks.

Punching Out is a blue-collar narrative of the end of an era, capturing with humor and thoughtfulness a scene that continues to play out in the Midwest every month. A factory, once the home to a comfortable middle-class living, now empty and moving its contents to cheap labor countries so that we can buy our goods at a reasonable price.

Die-hard optimists who maintain Detroit is coming back are simply wrong, and that’s ok. The city will always be a serrated edge, full of industrial-powered noise and wrecking crews taking down the old. Punching Out not only delivers a look at the demise of a piece of the city, but provides a stimulating narrative of the end of a way of life without ever falling prey to the maudlin or the sentimental. Detroit will always be Detroit, and even as overly optimistic PR folks spin yet another misguided rebirth propaganda campaign, they can’t steal the scarred soul of the place.

-Miller

AMAZON

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