NEWARK, Del. - John Cobb watched from his forklift yesterday as Joe the plant manager - "I don't know his last name" - followed the last Dodge Durango on Chrysler's assembly line here, minutes before the decades-old plant shut its doors for good.

Workers bolted hoses onto the Durango's engine, and Joe shook their hands. Guys shot screws into sun visors and got the same treatment. A small crew even popped a Champagne bottle for a "small toast" after the SUV passed their post.

Workers cried, snapped pictures and buzzed as word spread of a short-term loan to U.S. automakers out of Washington. And then, when the shift ended on this rain-soaked winter afternoon, they said goodbye.

"It's kind of surreal," said Cobb, 46, after walking off the plant with a sandwich cooler and a coworker's old coffee pot under his arm. "Like it's not happening."

Cobb is among 1,000 Chrysler employees who lost their jobs when the cash-starved company owned by wealthy private investors closed the Korean War-era complex that produced the Durango and the Aspen.

With 23 years under his belt at Chrysler and a wife and three children at home in Middletown, Del., Cobb described life as a new breed of unionized auto worker. For him and others, job security is increasingly a matter of chance, with wages dwindling and fate akin to a toss at the craps table.

Cobb's story, told from inside the steamy cab of his Dodge Ram pickup truck, was different from one told a few miles away and a few minutes earlier in the puddle-pocked union parking lot where 81-year-old Amos B. McCluney Jr. represents 3,000 Chrysler retirees from four states.

Cobb is being cut out well before retirement, with hopes of hanging on long enough for an uncertain transfer to another Chrysler plant in the months ahead.

McCluney, a Korean War veteran who joined this plant soon after it stopped making Army tanks in the 1950s, is part of the Old Guard, who made it through with a middle-class life and dream intact.

As the shift wound down at the plant, McCluney sat in the vacant union lot and his soon-to-be-empty office telling stories of struggle and triumph during the decades he has worked with braggadocio as a union representative.

He survived recession after recession and made it to retirement after putting all three children into college.

But in the same breath this proud old widower in a Santa Claus tie and red vest lamented that the union protections he and others earned for Chrysler workers are fast becoming a thing of the past.

McCluney long ago ditched his cowboy hat and El Producto cigars for a modest black Stetson, cleaner lungs and a less insurgent style in the name of compromise with management.

But watching the men and women behind him struggle, he said, he wondered about how much has been lost already. He said more is on the line than just jobs as the Big Three try to stay alive.

"When the middle class goes," said McCluney, surrounded by cardboard boxes in a union office soon to be empty, "you've got two classes of people: the poor and the very rich."

The way things have unraveled for members of Local 1183 and UAW shops across the country in recent years makes it feel a bit like the 1950s, when McCluney got his first Chrysler job on a Detroit assembly line at age 23.

McCluney in 1951 was in combat for the Army in Korea while the Chrysler plant here was churning out tanks. As a reservist in 1955, he followed an Army buddy to Detroit for a job on a Chrysler assembly line.

A year later he was laid off along with thousands across the Motor City during what McCluney described as a sudden economic downturn that felt like today's.

A newlywed, he held odd jobs until, in 1959, Chrysler made good on a promise to transfer him and others to the Delaware plant, which Chrysler had converted from tank to car production in 1956.

"It was pretty rough when we came down here in '59," said McCluney. Racial tensions made something as simple as finding a home difficult, he said. Of 900 line workers who transferred in from Detroit in 1957, he noted, 300 were black. It was uncharted terrain.

In those days, employer-paid benefits were scarce. Workers paid $6 a month for health insurance and $4 a month for sick time and accident insurance.

Thus began the union movement, with strikes and hard-nosed bargaining that won more generous pay packages.

But no sooner were the victories coming than than automation began killing jobs.

By 1989, the workforce here, which had been 5,000 in the 1950s, had dwindled to 3,000 he said. Things only got worse as manufacturing moved overseas.

But McCluney and his contemporaries had longevity.

Standing in his office with signed photos from Bill Clinton and faded head shots of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the layoffs weighed on McCluney.

"It's dreadful," he said, leaning onto his fists on his desk. "You look back at what you've done. You look back at the people who prospered. All of this is gone now."

McCluney retired in 1991 after 35 years but has represented retirees ever since.

For Cobb, such a trajectory seems farfetched at best.

Cobb wonders how he can replace his $23-an-hour job, considering that his only other training is in an outmoded sector - the old-style printing business.

"My personal foreman gave me a letter of reference," Cobb said. But it's unclear how far that will get him in this economy.

"I could have taken the sure thing, the buyout," said Cobb. Instead, hoping to hold on for seven years until he reaches retirement age, he opted for a transfer to another plant somewhere else in the country.

But specifics on when and where a new job may come up are few. About 130 plant employees are rumored to have applied for transfers, but no one knows if any will come through, especially amid speculation of a merger between Chrysler L.L.C. and General Motors Corp.

"I checked the box for Illinois and for Indiana," Cobb said, hoping he lands in either state. But even if he gets a transfer, the move will be a jolt to his family.

Will they leave their oldest daughter behind to finish her final year of high school next year? Will they sell their house? And if the job doesn't come through, will he find decent work and benefits? His wife is a $10-an-hour full-time temp with no benefits.

"I hope I made the right decision."

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854 2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.