"You can just write that. Bad."
Gary Albright was sitting on his back porch, his cap pulled down over his eyes, wearing his yellow Mack Truck T-shirit and talking about how the recession had hit his town.
Albright was one of the first of about 1,100 workers laid of from the Mack Truck plant here in less than three months. Mack is the biggest employer in this small industrial town in western Maryland, a town a bit too far away from Washington to benefit from the jobs there.
When Mack started to lay off hundreds of workers in May, Hagerstown immediately felt the impact. As Albright put it, "The whole town of Hagerstown, and the whole county of Washington County, thrives on the working man at Mack Truck."
Hagerstown is an old industrial city in an unlikely setting, surrounded by hills and woods and dairy farms. Mack provides the most visible community tie in the metropolitan area that rambles from a strip of motels on the highway to an aging downtown area and out to the large plants near the airport.
The town is the industrial hub of the area and the only major employment center in a 25-mile radius, with a population of 300,000 in that area and 85,000 in a five-mile radius. A tradtional "blue-collar, old-industrial town," in the words of David Foltz, research analyst in the Hagerstown unemployment office, it has been hit hard by recession.
What has happened in Hagerstown mirrors the pace of the recession nationally. The first to suffer its effects were those whose livelihoods were tied to the automobile or construction industries, including workers at Mack Truck, drivers for trucking firms, construction workers and others. But now the ripples are spreading to retail stores and other areas.
Not very business in Hagerstown is in a slump, but enough are so that as applicant walking into a plant is likely to meet a laid-off worker walking out.
At the unemployment office, there are twice as many people claiming benefits now than at this time last year.
"I've been laid off three times in the past two years," said a worker recently laid off by Pangborn, a company that makes equipment for finishing automobile engine parts. "When I got the call from Pangborn [offering the job], I thought I was in paradise," said the young man, who had worked in the office reading blueprints.
Five and a half months later it was paradise lost, and he was in the unemployment office filling out applications, looking for a similar job: "If nothing works, then I'll take anything I can get, like working in a filling station. Got any jobs down your way?"
Some workers are going as far as Rockville, Gaithersburg, Washington or Alexandria to look for jobs. Getting out of the area is about the only alternative when business is bad in Hagerstown.
One former Mack employe found a job -- but in Alexandria, nearly two hours away by car.
Few people are willing to do that, at least not initially. Married workers such as Albright are in more of a bind than "single men who can pick up and relocate," he said.
For workers laid off by Mack -- by many accounts the best major employer in the area in terms of pay and benefits -- harder than finding another job is finding one that pays close to what they have been earning. "A lot of industry knows that we're hunting in Hagerstown), so they're offering the minimum to start," Albright said.
In spite of high unemployment, however, the town has accepted the economic slowdown with something approaching equanimity. For one thing, it has happened before. And for another, the effect of being laid off for many of the workers is cushioned by generous supplemental benefits negotiated by their union.
Before Mack Truck came to Hagerstown, the majority employer was Fairchild aircraft industries. At the height of its activities, Fairchild employed 10,000 people at its Hagerstown plant, working mainly on government defense contracts. When those contracts ran out at the end of the 1950s, Hagerstown was pushed into a slump worse than any since the Depression, as employment at Fairchild dropped to less than 2,500.
As a result of that experience, Hagerstown began to look for new employers, and planners moved to diversify jobs across different industries. Diversification helped to cushion the impact of recession this time around, but it did not spare the town altogether.
Ironically, it now is Fairchild that is the relatively bright spot for town. A major government contract has meant a slight rise in jobs there in the past couple of years.
Now, even that has leveled off, and Fairchild's work force is holding steady. The extra work that Fairchild has requires such specialized skills that few, if any, of those standing in line at the unemployment office can benefit.
There is reluctance among other firms to take on Mack Truck employes. They believe that if an when Mack starts hiring again, its former workers will go back.
Many of the Mack workers draw union-neogtiated supplementary benefits, which augment unemployement compensation to provide pay equal to 95 percent of their normal paycheck.
"I would be a fool to go out and get a job anywhere else," said Richard Brenner, laid off from Mack on July 13. The layoff temporarily dashed his hopes of buying a house for himself, his wife and young child, but even so, he is not interested in taking a low-paying job as long as he has the prospect of returning to Mack.
Workers not protected by union contracts, or too junior to have earned supplementary benefits, are in worse shape and more active in their job hunting.
There are degrees, too, in the extent to which businesses other than Mack have been affected, but because of the size of the layoffs and the extend to which Mack workers are spread throughout the community, most have felt some impact.
"If a person's being honest, he has to be worried," said Walter freeman, assistant manager of Bell's clothing store in Valley Mall, the area's major shopping center.
Many shops broke with their sales early. Other have continued theirs for longer than usual in an attempt to drum up business.
Larry Naples, owner of a vacuum cleaner sales and repair shop in a mall close to the Mack plant, told of a drastic plunge in sales in March. Since then, they have bumped along the floor so that "I haven't made $1,000 in the past four months together." And, Naples added, "When I'm not making any money, nobody's making any money."
One local banker said the Hagerstown country club was "humming and buzzing just like usual." But according to Jack Costa, plant manager of Mack Trucks, it may be buzzing with talk dominated by stories of relatives and friends losing their jobs or watching their businesses lose money.
There is general acceptance in Hagerstown that things will look up only when Mack Truck starts hiring again, which most people believe will happen sooner of later.
"We had 1,100 people laid off in 1975," said David Smith, president of the United Auto Workers union local at Mack. "These things have happened before, and Mack has rebounded."
"I think the majority think the outlook is real good," said Bettie Vanderlyn, manager of the Bull Dog Federal Credit Union. "I, too, think it's going to get back on its feet. It's too big to go under."
Costa is the person most cautious about Mack's prospects. He refused to hold out any hope of an upturn this year. "We're hoping [the layoffs] have plateaued, but that's just a hope, not a prognostication," he said.
"We're not talking about making a profit, just trying to stay alive."
Costa said he is distressed by the layoffs and watching his plant slow down. "It tears up the people involved and those watching," he said.
"I'm used to coming here around the clock and seeing people going all the time," he said. It still seems normal during weekday shifts, but late at night or on the weekends when shifts have been eliminated, the plant seems "sort of hollow . . . spectral," he said.
The test for Hagerstown will come in the fall, when most workers and others expect employment to begin pickup up. If it does not, the equanimity may fade. Even a worker like Brenner, who said that he does not feel too bad now adds, "Gimme a couple of months."
For many of the workers and shopkeepers, the recession and the layoffs are just something to ride out until relief comes. The election is the hope to which almost everyone in Hagerstown seems to cling, although hardly anyone can say why.
"Everybody says because it's election year, everything will get better," said Robin Baker. Baker and her husband have both been laid off by an air freight shipping company.
"Around November something will happen," Brenner predicted. "I honestly believe that."
"With the election coming up, you'd certainly think a peanut farmer would do something," Albright said. He does not blame President Carter for his troubles, he said, but does not look at any of the candidates with enthusiasm.
"Have you ever been in a position where you don't like Jimmy Carter, but you don't want to vote for Ronald Reagan?" he asked. "There ain't no way I'd say I'd support the Republican party, but then again, the Democrats don't have a lot to offer."
Many people shared his view, according to random interviews, although some were more critical of the government's policies. As Costa put it, "I hate to see a disease [inflation] where the cure is worse."
Albright passes the time looking for a job, in spite of the income he can draw from employment and supplemental benefits. "I'm not a sitter, and I'm not a drawer," he explained.
Others do not feel as bad about talking unemployment benefits: "I paid into this rascal long enough; i figured it was time I got something out," said one young laid-off worker standing in the unemployment line.
There is a surprising lack of bitterness among those feeling the brunt of recession. Few laid-off workers blame their company.
"It's the times that dictate it. You can't blame that on Mack Truck," said Smith.
"If they're not selling trucks, they're not selling trucks," was Albright's comment.
Nor is he bitter about those who still are working. "The man that's been there 10 or 15 years has been through his layoffs," he said.
In the meantime, "I lay down at night, and when I can't sleep, I think -- here I've got two little boys and I've got no job. I've got a gut feeling of insecurity," he said.
"What's tomorrow? What six months? What's a year from now?"