The BugShop: "Stripping Forms"

This page last modified- 11/3/01

This is a story that I'll admit I like to tell.  I like it because it just lends itself so well to what I call "textual coloring".  And let me say that it is 90% true.  Ok, 85%.  At least 80%.  But the human mind has a way of embellishing experiences re-told over the years, and this one is no exception.  We'll leave it at that.  And part of me fears that it may be lost if I don't write it down.  So after ten plus years of rehearsing in front of family and friends, I'll hammer out the final text version.

My financial philosophy in my college years was very supply-sided.  That is, curtailing spending was seldom considered, if at all.  If ends didn't meet, the simple solution was find more money.  And at a time where transportation costs were non-negotiable (had to have wheels), and enjoying the nightclub scene with my friends and newfound legal status were priorities, finding work became a passion.  I prided myself on being able to talk my way into jobs.  One Christmas season, in between semesters at college, things were particularly desperate.  I had sold all of my text books back to the University bookstore and garnered barely enough cash to fill the tank in my VW Beetle and make the 240 mile trip home.  And friends were calling about going "out" 3-4 nights a week.  Something had to be done.

A friend suggested that I go to a temporary job agency several miles from mom and dad's house.  I did, cheerfully filled out the application and by time I got back home, there was a message that they had called saying they had a job for me.  I was amazed. I returned the call and got the details.

The girl on the other end of the phone said the job was at North Rubber Company, it was for only one 8 hour day, but it paid $7 an hour, a decent wage for that time.  I asked her what I would be doing there exactly.

"Stripping forms" she replied.

"What does that mean? Can you tell me more?" I asked.

"I don't know, that is all it says on the job request" she said.

She went on to tell me that I had to be at their office at 6:30am to pick up the paperwork and at that time they would give me directions to the North place.  6:30am was no easy task for a college student who to date had maintained a record of never taking a class that started before 10:30. But $7 an hour was $7 an hour, and the weekend was only 2 days away.  I drove to the temp agency office at 6:30 and thought the place was closed.  There wasn't a car in the parking lot.  I proceeded inside to find a waiting room literally full of people.  People you could kind of tell by looking at them that they didn't own cars.  Maybe a bus had come by or something.  I went up to the window and got my paperwork and directions.  I asked again what I would be doing and was told "stripping forms". 


North Rubber company was about 15 minutes away, in a very large industrial area.  The North site alone was big enough to get lost in, but following the directions I found building R-15, parked my car and went inside.  I entered a tiny office and introduced myself and handed over the paperwork.  "You'll be working on that line with Tim" the guy said staring at the paperwork and pointing to a big window with that glass with the diagonal thin wires criss-crossing inside of it.  "Lunch is at noon, you get half an hour, stop by here when you leave and I'll sign your time card" he said without ever taking his eyes off the paperwork.

Visible through the glass was some impressive machinery.  I floated through the door and took in the sight.  The building was the size of a small airplane hanger, well lit, open end to end.  Filling the floor of it was a huge machine, a dull, steady growl came from it, and pairs of yellow hands moved slowly along the side I was on.  Lots of yellow hands, moving up and down at one point, and disappearing behind metal shields and re-appearing at another places.  It reminded me of something out of “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” .

This machine made rubber gloves.  Pretty much like the yellow Playtex kitchen kind, but sort of an "upscale" version of them.  The hands were ceramic forms that got dipped in a vat of yellow liquid latex while pointing down.  They went along a long chain linked belt, they swung outward, went through some kind of dryer, then just around the end, they went into a chamber that blew some fuzzy lint-looking stuff on them (an inside lining, they were inside-out on the forms).  Then around the back of the machine they pointed down again and dipped into a vat of some kind of clear solution.  Back pointing outward again, through another dryer chamber, around the other end, and past Tim.

Tim was the sole human required to keep this huge, automated glove making machine going.  He sat on a barstool in front of the hands as they went by.  As the hands came by him, he reached up, grabbed the rubber at the wrist end of the glove and peeled them off.  One at a time.

"I guess I now know what 'stripping forms' is" I thought to myself.

I sauntered up to the booth and up onto the platform.  Before I could introduce myself, Tim, a guy about my age, said "you from the temp agency?".  I said yes and introduced myself.  Tim never missed a glove.  He hooked another barstool next to him with a foot, slid it over and said "have a seat".  As he pulled each glove off, he held them under a large, shiny steel pipe about 5 inches in diameter that hung down from the ceiling next to the booth.  With a loud slurping sound, the glove instantly got sucked away up the tube. "I'll hand them to you, you put them up the pipe" he said, adjusting the placement of my stool next to the pipe.

It seemed odd that with all this automation that they needed a real person to yank the gloves off the forms and "feed" the big metal tube.  "Where the heck did they go after that?" I thought.  Tim and I started chatting, turned out he knew some people who I went to high school with.  We talked for a bit, he kept busily peeling the gloves off and handing them to me, I held them under the pipe and with a slurpy, wet-sounding "flflflflooooOP!" and they just vanished.  Our conversation fell into silence after a while as the “small talk buffer” had pretty much been emptied.  I felt as if I had already seen a thousand pairs of yellow hands pass when I looked at my watch.  It was 8:32.  This was going to be along day.  "flflflflooooOP!".......   "flflflflooooOP!" ...... "flflflflooooOP!"

Getting pretty bored, the incessant engineer in my head took over. "Man, I wonder what kind of blower they have at the other end of this pipe to pull this kind of a vacuum?".  I gazed up and followed the shiny tube up about  10 feet with my eyes.  From there it headed toward the back of the building, and came down through the roof of a small, self enclosed room I hadn't noticed before.  The wall of this room facing us had a window with more of that thick glass with the diagonal wires in it. Through it, I could see 2-3 women, sitting at a long table with a light bulb in front of them.  I watched one snatch a glove from a bin (the apparent end of the line for the gloves I was submitting), grab it by the wrist end and slip it over the light bulb.  When she did, the glove instantly inflated like a real life, glowing yellow hand and she stared at it for a second or two, moving her head from one side to the other to see all sides of the glove.  Then she yanked it off, flung it into a box and grabbed another.  "Oh.  Quality control." I thought.

But I was very impressed with the force with which this big fat glove tube could suck the slightly wet gloves up and over to that room.  "I wonder if the tube could suck two gloves at once?" I thought.  Tim was concentrating on his work and wasn't really watching me.  I held one glove, waited for the next one, and held them both under the tube.  "flflflflooooOP!".  The sound was almost the same, and the pair vanished with the same authority as a single.  "Hmmmm, lets see what three does..." There was a little more of a growl to the "flflflflooooOP!" this time, but not much.  With four it made a bit more of a groan, with five Tim quickly glanced over his shoulder and looked at me (I just grinned).  And six made a sound like you had better not try seven.  "Ok, six is the limit" I thought.  It was now 9:12.

I got curious about just how many of these gloves this machine could make in an hour and could almost see a sixth grade math text book with the exercise spelled out: "A pair of the ceramic forms takes 4 minutes and 20 seconds to go completely around the machine.  How many pairs of gloves are made in an hour?".  I had noticed that one of the ceramic pairs had a discolored ring finger on the upper form, and watched it pass by, again and again after its glove was removed.  At one point, I actually timed it by watching a big clock that hung on the wall over near the office where I had come in.  It took exactly 2 minutes and 5 seconds for a hand to make the complete circuit.  I tried to do the math in my head to compute hourly production, but I got frustrated and gave up.

Somehow I made it to around 12:00 feeding the shiny pipe without loosing my mind.  Tim didn't seem to interested in chit chat, and neither was I really.  Suddenly, from outside, I heard a loud, low whistle.  "Lunch" said Tim. "We each get a half hour.  Now do you think you could do this for that long all by yourself?" he asked.  I was delighted at the thought of doing something different.  "Oh sure!" I said eagerly.  Tim stood up and bumped his stool back with his legs, but kept working the gloves going past.  He grabbed a small roll of white adhesive tape, the kind they use in hospitals, and handed it to me. 

"You'll need to wrap you knuckles.  I'll send the gloves up.  Go ahead, wrap them up." he said. 

I noticed earlier that he had tape on the outer 2 knuckles of each finger on both his hands. As I hastily peeled some tape off the roll and started wrapping my knuckles, I asked him "why do I need to do this?".  He pointed with his elbow to the end of the machine, "did you see that dip vat just around the other side?" he asked? 

"Yeah." I answered. 

"Its a chlorine-based catalyst solution.  Even though the gloves are rinsed afterwards, they still have a lot of chemical on them.  Don't tape you knuckles and you will be down to bone in 15 minutes.  The stuff just crumbles you skin"

I hastily taped up my knuckles as best I could as I was getting a vibe from Tim that I wasting his lunch time.  He quickened his pace a bit, peeling off the gloves, working to the right a bit, toward the steadily advancing pairs of yellow hands.  Then he suddenly stepped aside, slid the stool back in place and said "go ahead.".

I hopped up on the stool for my debut as a "form stripper”. The hands passing in front of me were bare as Tim had "worked up the line a bit".  I eagerly leaned right and grasped the base of the next glove on the upper hand.  I was really surprised how light and loose the rubber felt, I expected something much harder.  I started pulling the glove back quickly, peeling it back over the hand.  But as it rolled to the widest part of the form (where the first finger knuckles start), it got suddenly harder and I lost my grip on the wet rubber.  With that "wwwhhHAAPP!" snapping sound that only a latex glove can make, the white ceramic hand authoritatively re-possessed the part of the glove that I had stripped away.  Undaunted, I quickly grabbed it again and pulled hard, freeing the glove over the knuckles.  I grabbed the lower hand, this time holding tight and pulling a little harder as the glove rolled up over the ceramic knuckles.   A perfect peel.  I right-handed the glove to the shiny tube with a grin.

"You've got it." Tim said, over my shoulder, having watched to make sure I could do it.  He stayed there another few seconds as I snatched another few pairs from the mega-glove monster machine.  "Ok?  I'll be back in thirty, you know the drill, have fun."  As he sauntered off the platform, I called to him, 


"Yeah?" he answered.

"What if something happens?" I asked.

"What do you mean something happens?" he retorted.

"Like I get caught in the machine or some other emergency." I said.

"Oh, right there." he replied, pointing to a huge red button to my left that I had somehow missed in my morning examination of the machine. "Hit that, and the whole process will shut down" he said.  "But you don't want to do that", he said.  He paused for a minute and watched as I yanked a couple more pairs, then strode off.

It was like keeping pace with a jogging buddy.  The pairs of hands moved slowly past you, one on top, one on the bottom, and you peeled the gloves off of them as they went buy. Top, bottom.  Top, bottom. They came from the right, and moved to the left.  If you were good, by the time the hands passed directly in front of you, you had already stripped them.  You were working to the right of center then.  But slow down and get behind just a bit, and your worked moved to the left.  You could work a little quickly then and "catch up".  Pretty simple, and I was doing pretty good.  Grab, peel, hold tight and pull hard to get over the knuckles, whip it to your right and hold it near the magic tube, "fffllOOOPP!" it went, next one.  Keep pace you'll be fine. Seven bucks an hour, lunch is in about 30 minutes.

I realized I apparently hadn't taken the time to tape my knuckles right when I began to feel pain on the outer knuckles after about 5 minutes.  As you used your fingernails and fingertips to grab that very first edge of the rubber, your outermost knuckles scraped hard on the coarse ceramic forms.  They were like sandpaper.  I had concentrated on my middle knuckles when I hastily taped them, and the tape on a couple of my outer knuckles had slipped off altogether.  Eyeing the roll of tape on my old stool, I wondered if I could get some off and quickly re-do my hands, but as those hands just kept coming, I figured I had better just bear it.

What happened next was probably a combination of the increasing pain in my hands, my mind drifting off and not concentrating and my stomach suddenly feeling really.  My grip slipped on one of the gloves and it snapped back on the hand.  But not really concentrating on what I was doing, and just following the rhythm, my hands just left it and dropped down to its mate below and stripped it off.  I was probably almost 2 pairs beyond that little incident, before my mind even snapped to and realized what had actually happened.  My head jerked left, and I saw a lone yellow hand fading away amid many pairs of white hands.  It wasn't quite out of reach yet, but I would have had to get off my stool to even get my hands on it, and I was afraid I might miss others, get caught on the machine, set off some alarm, who knows what..

...and my mind made a split second decision to just let it go and keep pace with what was passing in front of me.

First order of business was to get back in focus on the task at hand (pun intended) and get back in synch.  My heart beat increased a bit, but with a little concentration, I quickly got back into the rhythm.  Now about that one I missed.  It probably took a good minute or so for it to really sink in what was going to happen.  This machine was an endless, moving loop.  That missed glove was just going to make its way through the whole process again.  It was going to get dipped in the vat of liquid yellow latex.  It was going to get some more fuzzy stuff blown on it.  It was going to round the bend and make its way back up the line.  It was going to go through the dryers, and the chemical dip, and the rinser-off-er, and then it was going to come past me again.

And a safe bet was that it was probably going to be a bit harder to pull off the form too.

Oh boy. OK, calm down.  Let’s see, in something less than 2 minutes and 5 seconds, I should be seeing that little error in my ways come around the bend.  I checked the clock on the wall, and started worrying.  “Would I even see it?”  “Will it really look different?”  And the big question, “And exactly how hard will it be to pull that one off?”.  One of my knuckles was starting to bleed a bit.  The second hand on the clock started making its second sweep of the face.  My heartbeat quickened as I struggled to watch both the clock and the yellow hands coming around the bend from the right.

Then I saw it.

It was impossible to miss as I had folded over a bit of the bottom, it had a little “cuff” on it now.  I worked a bit faster as it approached to gain a little “headroom” before I got my hands on it.  “I can do this” I thought, “I’ll peel it off, then everything will be just fine”.  I leaned right in anticipation as I finished the pair of gloves just in front of my little problem.  I grabbed the visibly thicker “cuff” at the bottom, but the combination of a rolled-over edge and a double dip in the old yellow-tub-of-latex made it considerably harder to even get the peel started.  I struggled a bit, and finally got one fingertip under as it was passing in front of me.  I got another finger under and started to pull, but I immediately lost my grip.  I was panicking, the evil hand was now slightly to my left.  “Oh man, if I struggle with this any longer, I’ll never catch up and probably miss another one”…

So I gave up on it and let it go.

I resumed pace with the “one dippers” following orderly behind.  And thought about my predicament now.   “Ok.  Now this puppy will get a third dip” I thought.  And further analysis concluded that if it had been hard to get off with a double dip, it would be all but impossible to peel off with three dips.  “So what then?” I thought.  Suprisingly I was calm.  “No big deal, I’m sure it has happened before”.  But the real question in my mind was whether I should even bother to try an peel it off.  I couldn’t get a 2 dip off, 3 will be out of the question right?  And if I mess up, I’ll just miss another glove and things will get worse.

I looked at the clock….

Mr. Thick Glove came rolling around the bend precisely on schedule.  The cuff was even wider now, and the space between the fingers was noticeably smaller.  Right up to the last minute, I had decided not to bother with it, but as it passed in front of me I couldn’t resist.  I tried to get a fingertip under the edge, but there was now way that was happening.  “Ok, I tried” I thought.  Another one of my knuckles was starting to bleed.  “Ok, let’s play this little adventure out” I thought.  I calculated that if Tim came back on time, that would be in about 17 minutes.  At 2 minutes 5 seconds a dip, that hand is going to get about eight more dunks in the yellow vat, plus 8 more applications of fuzzy stuff in-between those.  That all in addition to the 3 dunks it already has accumulated so far. If the fingers are fading at 3 layers, it is all but certain that at 11 dips total, no human is going to strip that thing off.

At four dips, the hand was getting quite chubby, the fingers shortening as the gaps between them was closing off.

At 6 dips it was becoming a swollen yellow appendage, only a tiny bit of space between the index and middle finger.

8 rounds on the old machine, and this hand was now a yellow blob, the thumb now slowly melting into the palm. 

At 9 passes, I was seriously beginning to wonder if the thing was going to actually snag on some part of the machinery around the back as it had gotten so big.  I had this vision of this big yellow mutant hand dipping into the yellow vat, displacing so much fluid now that it spilled over the side and made puddles of rubber on the floor.  For some reason, this was getting real funny.  I chuckled to myself.

10 layers and what was once an gentle mannequin-esque hand now looked like a yellow latex planet with its own gravitational field.  I had to cleverly navigate around it to get its twin off the adjacent form. 

11 dips and I was nearly howling with laughter, patting the wet yellow orb as it passed saying quietly “My you’re getting large Mr. Glove, what exactly are you eating along the backside of this machine!?”

Moments after it passed, I was jarred back into reality by a voice approaching behind me.

“How’s it going!?” Tim asked, walking to the platform with a McDonalds cup in his hand.

“…Uuuhh, fine.  No problems…..” I stammered.

“Well you got half an hour now, there is a McDonalds just outside the west gate on Rivers Ave.” Tim said.

“Great.  I am starving!” I said excitedly and hurriedly jumped off the stool.  I glanced down the line and saw the yellow bowling pin making its way along amid two rows of white hands……..

“I’ll be back in thirty” I said and scampered down off the platform.

If ever a guardian angel popped up on my shoulder and lectured me on ethics and right and wrong, this would have been it.  The multiple personalities in my head raged at one another like a TV show courtroom drama.  “You are really going to walk out of here!?!?!?” one said.  “No, in just a minute, I’m going to do an about face and go tell Tim that I messed up” claimed another.  One voice spoke up “you know you could just leave and not come back.  I’m sure we could find some other work tomorrow… its only a days pay after all…”.  The exit door was coming up fast, it was time to fish or cut bait.  I swung a glance at the clock, it had been about a minute and ten seconds since mega-hand passed the stool.  Suddenly, as if a subconscious entity intervened, I took a hard left through a door that I was passing.  Into the mens room.  I went into a stall, closed the door, latched it, and sat down.  Then I stared at my watch and watched the seconds on the digital display count down.  As the numbers rolled right past where they were when I sat down, I knew the fat glove had passed in front of Tim just seconds before.

Suddenly there was a harsh clack of electrical machinery and the steady drone of the machine wound down to deafening silence.  I could hear my own pulse.  I had subliminally put myself in a trap, there was no way to leave the men’s room without being seen now.  Perhaps this is what the guardian angel had had in mind all along.  I slowly got up off the toilet seat.

I tried to open the door to the bathroom as quietly as I could. I walked out and look up at the still, silent machine.  At first I didn’t see Tim on the stool.  Then as I walked closer, I saw him, just beyond the platform, on a narrow scaffolding, bent over one of the hands.  As my foot stepped on the platform it made a sound, he turned and looked at me.  He had a utility knife and was whittling big chunks of rubber off the hand and letting them drop to the floor.

“I guess one got past” he said, trying to sound unperturbed.

“Yeah.” I replied, “Forgot to tell you about that one, I was coming back to let you know.  Sorry.”

Tim didn’t seem all that pissed of.  “25 minutes left” he said, “better get your lunch while you can..”  I took this as “Leave, you moron”.

A bolted for the door and passed the supervisor coming out of the office, putting his glasses on, looking concerned about the silence in the building.

I got my lunch, came back in time, and finished the rest of the days work.  I apologized to Tim again, but he seemed like he didn’t want to talk about it, or anything for that matter. I had really wanted to ask Tim if that had ever happened before, if he got yelled at by the supervisor and how long it took him get the machine going again.  I surveyed the floor along the near side of the machine and was pretty sure that I saw some big dusty chunks of cut rubber down there.  I thought about how when the machine was shut down some pairs of hand must have been stopped in the vat, some in the fuzzy stuff chamber, some in the rinse.  I figured that once the 11 layer glove was removed and the machine restarted, the first few dozen gloves that came off must have been less than perfect.  I looked in the quality control room and saw the ladies chatting with each other, and no one seemed to be inspecting gloves.

I spent the rest of the afternoon feeding the silver tube.

I got my time card signed, hopped into my yellow VW Beetle (no joke) and headed to the Temporary Job Agency office.  All I could think about  was that glove going by just getting fatter and fatter.  It was getting funny again.  I wondered if you let it go around enough times if it would actually take over the hand next to it……