IMAGE: United Sheet Metal Company building near Charter Way in Stockton, California. Circa 1960s.
Once I got the basics at school, the best place for me to learn English was at the workplace. I had plenty language immersion there. I did it while picking almonds in Lodi, in northern California, and later at H.H. Robertson Company, in the Port of Stockton, in late summer of 1963. But I learned the most at United Sheet Metal Company, an industrial shop on Biegle Street, not far from Charter way in the south side of town.
It was total immersion, there’s no doubt. I was the only Mexican at the place. I really learned the language there. Didn’t have a choice, had to learn it to be able to talk to the other guys. They were playful, though, I remember well. They taught me a lot of words, like partridge, French hens, pear tree, and turtle dove. Didn’t know those were words in a song until much later. Funny guys. They were playful, all right.
I learned swear words too, mainly from a guy named Joe Sismanovich. He really liked to swear. He was born in Yugoslavia, but had been in California for a while. He lived in Stockton, not far from the sheet metal plant. Joe ran the machine that turned sheets of rolled metal into spiral pipes. Once he cut them into six-foot or longer pieces, I would load them onto a metal cart and take them to the yard. Before doing that, I had to place an empty cart next to the machine, take the load to the yard and hurry back. If I took too long, he would yell at me and swear.
I think he was still learning to run the machine and that’s why he had so many problems with it. I don’t think he was very patient either. He let thing get the best of him. When Joe wasn’t bothered by problems, he was a lot of fun. He taught me a few Slovenian words, but I no longer remember any of them. I think he also swore at me in that language, but if he did, it didn’t matter. Words don’t mean a thing if you don’t understand them.
Joe was a good guy; he was just temperamental. Maybe a lot of Yugoslavians are that way, you know, passionate, just like us Mexicans. When Joe wasn’t angry, he was a really nice. He laughed a lot. I remember his laugh well. He would open his mouth wide and his eyes would glitter and almost disappear. I would laugh too. I liked looking at him and seeing his huge grin and his baldhead.
It was good working there at the sheet metal plant. It was union work too and I made good money there, $3.25 an hour as a production worker. Journeymen made over five dollars an hour. That was a lot of money then. Every week, when I cashed my check at the Save-Mart grocery store on East Main in Stockton, near Okieville, someone there would always question whether the check was mine. They couldn’t believe that I made that much money.
The same thing happened when I filed my income taxes in early 1965. A lady at a Mexican pharmacy and tax service in Stockton’s skid row filed the return for me. She kept asking me: “Are you sure you made this much?” She thought the W-2 belonged to someone else. I had earned over six thousand dollars in 1964.
I was lucky; I made good money and learned English at the same time at United Sheet Metal. I also picked up a lot of words and phrases from the guys at the plant. Some good ones, some bad ones. One of the apprentices, Al Gard, was often yelling “Yabba dabba doo,” as he worked. That wasn’t a new phrase for me, since I had heard it many times before when I watched “The Flintstones” on TV. But it stuck with me forever and ever thanks to Al’s constant repetition of it.
I stayed with the company until I joined the Air Force in August of 1965. I had to volunteer in the armed forces. It was either the Air Force or get drafted by the Army to go fight in Vietnam.
I ran into Al Gard after I left the military, sometime in 1980. He owned an upscale hair salon in Stockton then. The first thing I said to him when I saw him was: “Yabba dabba doo.”
He laughed. I just had to say it. It was good seeing each other again.