It is always possible that one day I might have a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment, and feel sorry for the Skyhook incident . . . but probably not in this century.
This piece originally ran in the Arkansas Free Press (originally Little Rock Free Press) in 2007.
The Night of the Skyhook and other Adventures: Finding ways not to go insane in the modern American workplace
How can you tell that God is a Union Man? You have to belong to the Union to get into the Shop.
I tell this joke to people every year around Labor Day. And every year I try to write the traditional “working class” sort of articles. This year I thought I’d try something different to celebrate the upcoming Labor Day. I thought I might show you how much fun we had - or didn’t, as the case may be.
Though union membership is on the decline in this country, many workers still find ways to band together to thwart bad management. In 1988, I learned that lesson firsthand.
I was working at Mexican Original, in Fayetteville, and had just transferred into the warehouse. One of my jobs on the night shift was to take the metal trash dumpster out to the compacter each night.
I had just gotten my forklift “license” that week, and I was eager to leap aboard the beast. Now, in 1988, on battery powered forklifts, all we had to do was watch a film, and take a test - and the answers were supplied to us.
No actual time in the driver’s seat.
This would prove to be a distinct disadvantage.
I climbed aboard my faithful steed, and scooped the dumpster up on my forks - so far, so good. Driving forward, I raised the dumpster up, and headed out of the warehouse, and collided right with the corner of the wall by the office.
Several large bricks - the size of cinder blocks - came out of the wall. I slumped in the seat, all the blood draining from my body.
What was I going to do now? Depending upon his mood, my supervisor could shake his head and tell me to be more careful, write me up, or even suspend me.
I was up the proverbial creek, and I had just run over my paddle. Luck was on my side, though, in a most unexpected way.
The maintenance crew - which I got along well with - put their heads together, and thought up a plan that was breathtaking in its audacity.
As luck would have it, the storage area for small motors was along the path I traveled with the forklift on my route to disaster. Getting down on their hands and knees, the maintenance crew proceeded to smear machine oil on the floor.
Following that, the forklift was driven through the oil several times. When my supervisor arrived the next morning, the maintenance lead “explained” that they had been working on motors all night, and that they hadn’t cleaned up after themselves.
The forklift had lost traction in all the grease on the ground. It was entirely their fault, it was explained. I don’t think my supervisor ever truly believed the story, but what was he going to do?
Call them all liars?
It was one of the single most decent things I’ve ever experienced in a factory setting.
Though I try to be a nice guy most of the time, when I am very bored my sense of humor can get a little off. The Great Skyhook Caper was the result of such extreme boredom.
One night - again at Mexican Original - I was working in the warehouse, and a fellow from a temporary agency was assigned to help me. His idea of “helping” seemed to consist of ducking out for a cigarette every time I actually needed him.
Finally, after a few hours of playing Hide and Seek, he sauntered into the warehouse after another break.
“I’m going on break,” I told him. At the office door, I paused and looked back at him, very intently. “Don’t let anyone check out the Skyhook. It hasn’t been repaired yet.”
I had no idea what a Skyhook would look like, if such a thing were to actually exist. It just sounded good.
“Okay,” he said, already bored.
I went to the loading office to relax. After pouring myself a cup of coffee, I turned to the night shift lead, “Hey,” I said, “call the warehouse and tell the guy you need the Skyhook.”
“What the hell is a Skyhook?”
“Beats me,” I said.
He laughed and picked up his phone. After introducing himself, he told the poor fellow on the other end of the line that he needed the “Skyhook.”
His voice rose. “What do you mean, you can’t give it out? I need it! Page Richard and get me the damn thing.” He slammed the phone down.
Thirty seconds later I heard my name over the plant intercom system. I called the warehouse and asked what was up. The dock needs the Skyhook, he told me.
I put an irritated tone into my voice. “No, they don’t. They haven’t even been trained on it. Under no circumstances are you to give the Skyhook out to anybody. I’ll be back in a while. I’ve got some crap to take care of in the front offices.”
I poured myself another cup of coffee.
After another few minutes, the dock lead reached for the phone again. “What about the Skyhook?”
I don’t know what was said, but what happened next I will always remember. Gripping the phone, the lead yelled into the receiver, “Goddamn it, I’ve got a man down back here! I need that Skyhook!”
He slammed the phone down.
A man down? I wish I had thought of that one.
Now came a voice over the intercom that I could almost swear was tinged with panic. Calling the warehouse, I calmed him down, and said I would go out to the dock and see what the problem was.
When I returned to the warehouse, he ran over. “Was anybody hurt?”
“No, “ I said. “They always blow things out of proportion back there.”
I went on a Nature Hike a few weeks ago. Not the sort with flowering shade trees, and lovely plants - though there were lots of weeds growing about. That Sunday I took a walk around outside the old Mexican Original Plant on Huntsville Road, where I spent 13 wonderful years.
13 years! What the hell was I thinking?
The truth is, most people I know who worked at M.O. only saw it as a sort of pit stop until something else came along. But then you get used to paying bills on time, and having health insurance, and working 40+ hours a week can sap the energy you thought you'd have looking for another job. Before you know it, you've spent 13 years working in a building that should have been torn down years before you began working there.
Not all the memories are bad. I remember hot nights in the early 1980s, when plant manager Bill Parker would join some of us in the parking lot for a few beers after work.
I remember one of my co-workers in the warehouse bringing his bow and arrows to work, and we had archery practice in the warehouse, firing arrows into sacks of flour. Sorry, Taco Bell.
We took ‘em out again when we were done.
Walking around the outside of the building - where I haven't been since I quit in 1993 - was like walking around a ghost town. The rusting corn towers, the empty truck bays, the stacks of wooden pallets left behind to rot. This was the flagship plant, the "original" Mexican Original. Now it just sits there, with all of its ghosts.
In the early 1990s, Tyson (which had taken over M.O.) stopped the policy of promoting from within, and decreed that supervisors must have college degrees. This was very bad for morale - I hope they have reversed themselves since then.
By this point I was working in the warehouse parts cage, handing out parts - bearings, sockets, etc. - to folks. A batch of bright young supervisor trainees had just come in, looking for all the world like Boy and Girl Scouts in their neat new uniforms. A grim joke was told behind their backs:
"Grocery sackers one week, Tyson supervisors the next."
As I stood at the parts window, talking/gossiping with maintenance folks, a young supervisor pushed himself to the window, and demanded the instructions to the tape gun.
The tape gun is just a larger version of the small tape dispensers you buy at the grocery store.
:"What?" I asked, unable to believe my ears. He might as well have asked for instructions on buttoning a shirt.
"I need the instruction manual for the tape gun," he said impatiently. Obviously he was dealing with yet another stupid hourly employee.
The maintenance guys backed away, so he wouldn't see them smirking.
"Well," I said. "We don't have any on hand right now. But I'll call the manufacturer and see if they'll fax us a copy. In the meantime," and I smiled brightly, "I have some crayons in the office. I'll be glad to draw you some instructions."
He turned on his heel and left.
And now it's all just empty. That just seems so strange to me. All that life - the people, the machines, the forklifts, the gossip, the relationships - is all gone. I'm not trying to make Mexican Original seem more romantic than it really was; in a lot of ways, it really sucked. But you don't spend 13 years somewhere without feeling a little odd when you realize that Life has packed up and gone away, leaving just this old husk behind.
I've never been sorry I left Mexican Original. And the truth is, I've been able to write a few articles over the years about my experiences there. So in a sense, I'm still drawing a paycheck. Hey, I didn't sign a non-disclosure form . . .
Before Mexican Original, I worked at the Campbell Soup plant in Fayetteville in the 1970s, where I served as union steward for a time.
Whatever I had imagined it might be like - I had belonged the United States Steelworkers’ Union in Pennsylvania - the job of union steward at Campbell Soup was mainly that of a social director.
I collected money for flowers when people died. I organized coffees when folks got married. I got to sit next to the supervisor when folks got written up - where I was expected to keep my mouth shut.
Until, one day, I realized something amazing. Though union handbooks were floating around the plant, very few people - including management - had actually taken the time to read the damn things.
I started making things up, just to see how far I could go. I had everyone in the department convinced, for example, that no one from management could talk to them unless I was present. At plant safety meetings, I wanted to talk about actual safety issues.
People were cutting fingers off on bandsaws (which cut chicken breasts in half), and our safety committee was concerned with urging folks to watch TV specials on workplace safety in America. How do you spell misplaced priorities?
I became known as a “troublemaker,” and was voted out at the next election.
This last story happened to someone else, but it serves to illustrate a universal maxim:
Don’t piss off the cook.
We’ve all had the pleasure of dining in the restaurant that’s open 24 hours a day - the kind of place that offers everything on the menu, any time of the day. That’s great.
Hamburgers for breakfast. Steak and eggs for supper. Modern American convenience. Well, except for one small detail. It really isn’t convenient for the cooks, who often have a tendency to have all the breakfast ingredients out in the morning, lunch ingredients out in the afternoon, etc.
The cooks I have spoken to over the years really hate the whole “anything you want, 24 hours a day” notion.
One young man recounted a story to me about a time when a man came in during the supper rush and ordered pancakes. Cursing, in the midst of cooking burgers, steaks, and other dinner items, he grabs the batter and makes room on the griddle for the offending pancakes.
A few burgers later, he notices that the pancakes are taking what seems like forever to cook. He fusses with them, but they just sort of sit there. The night manager comes in and prods him, saying the customer is getting impatient.
The cook points to the stove in exasperation.
Finally, the pancakes are done, and the plate goes out to the customer. The cook goes back to the dinner rush.
A few minutes later, the night manager comes back in, and says, “The customer says these are the worst pancakes he’s ever eaten in his life.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” the cook sputters. He grabs a fork and bites into a pancake - and spits it out immediately. What on earth? These are the worst pancakes in the world.
At that instant both their eyes fall on the batter container. In his rush to make the pancakes, the cook had grabbed not pancake batter, but fish batter.
The manager laughed. “Just make some more,” he said.
Remember this story the next time you think it’s so “convenient” to order breakfast at nine o’clock at night.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a science fiction novel, “Freedom Run,” and “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Arkansas Free Press - August, 2007