Tonight, I was supposed to read an excerpt from a short story I wrote for an anthology about my hometown. I participated in the first anthology as well. The profits go to our local library. It was quite thrilling that we sold enough copies of the first book to be able to fund the classes for a second anthology. This anthology focused on stories about local businesses and school memories. If you read yesterday’s post then you know my MCS is in full swing. I feel as if the whole world is tilted.
Sitting on my front porch, I had composed a blog post in my head, but my body kept saying no way is all that going to get typed. I practiced my awareness exercises to be open as to what to do. After all I am on day 269 out of 365 of my New Year’s Resolution — I didn’t want to muck it up now by missing a post. I turned on the computer and there was a request from Deb (here’s the link to her blog) to read the story that I was supposed to present tonight. Thank you Deb for that perfect request at the perfect time.
(The anthology will be in print in November.)
You’re Don’s Girl
In 1965, my dad and grandpa both worked at the Fulton plant. Some called it The Plant, others, The Chocolate Works and some, Nestlés. The one thing everyone agreed on was that it smelled great when it rained. It smelled like houses all over town were baking brownies or chocolate chip cookies. When I was little they had a children’s Christmas party at the plant. My dad had just been made foreman and he took Mom, my brother and me on a tour of the factory. All I remember is standing in front of the chocolate chip line as row upon row of morsels came off the belt to be packaged. My dad snuck me a handful. I don’t remember what present I got at the party, but I have always remembered those delicious morsels.
My dad passed away the following Christmas and my grandpa six months later, so there would be no more tours of the Nestlé plant for me.
Or so I thought.
A few years out of college, I was hired in the quality control lab of Nestlé Foods as the junior lab technician. Basically, I was assigned to assist each of the five senior lab technicians one day a week. Mondays required a trip to the warehouse in Oswego to sample the incoming raw materials. Tuesdays were spent collecting and sampling products from the morsel and cocoa lines. Wednesdays, I got to check the candy bars being wrapped in brightly colored paper in Building 30. Thursdays were dedicated to checking the ten-pound blocks of coating chocolate that were ultimately sold to other chocolate makers at small chocolate stores and specialty shops. Fridays, I walked the perimeter of every interior room and the exterior of all the buildings, looking for any uninvited creepy crawlies or fuzzy wuzzies. This meant I needed to be familiar with the entire plant.
So it was no surprise that, in my first few minutes in the lab on my first day of work, the Assistant Quality Control Manager and I were off to meet all of the division managers and tour some of the plant. The assistant manager was not originally from Fulton and he was relatively new to this facility. Over the years, the factory had been added onto many times. Each section or room was called a building and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the numbering system. Building 54 was on the opposite side of the plant and on the other side of the road from Building 30, but we managed to not get lost.
However, by the time we finished the tour, we were both a little shocked. I can still remember walking into the first office. “I’d like you to meet Colleen O’Brien, our new Jr. Tech in Q.C,” said the assistant manager. I extended my hand, but, before I could speak…my hand was enveloped in a warm handshake. I was greeted with a beaming smile, but not with the words I expected. Not: “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” or “Where did you work before?” or “How’s your first day going so far?” No, the words I heard were: “You’re Don’s girl.” Not a question, but a statement. I have to admit I was a little stunned. My dad had passed eighteen years before and, after that much time, few spoke of him outside of the family.
When I met the division managers, I was to hear stories about my dad and how much he was missed. It seemed a shock to my new boss from QC that I was known and accepted to the Nestlé family before I even walked in the door. I realized after I had time to reflect, that these men would have been foremen when my dad was, and if he had lived, he would have probably been sitting in one of those offices. These were the men who had known my dad when he was my age; the men he bowled with and had a beer with. These were the men who would call my mom when she was pregnant with my brother and ask if she had just gotten out of bed and if she had just had a bout of morning sickness. And they would have been the men who laughed at my dad because, at the same moment my mom had the morning sickness, so did my dad.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I would find out that my dad almost hadn’t been made foreman. This position would potentially pit my dad against his dad. My grandfather was not only a union man, but he also helped to start the union. My dad, on the other hand, always said he was “his own man” and the bosses must have agreed because they gave him the promotion. Many years later, my brother and I would also find ourselves on the opposite side of the fence: I was salaried and he was a union employee, working in the coating department just like my dad when he started.
Though the factory had been built in the 1900s, it wasn’t the building that retained the history of the first Nestlé plant in the United States; it was the people of Fulton. Many generations worked at the plant. Although the factory closed many years ago, it is still common to meet someone and, at the mention that I worked in the lab, hear: “My uncle worked in roasting.” or “Aunt Barb worked in the company store.” or “My cousin worked in molding.”
I soon settled into the routine of my job, that is, if you could count problem solving all day as a routine. We sampled all the finished products around 9:00 a.m. and products off the line throughout the day. Children often asked me, “How do you get a job where they pay you to eat chocolate?” I had to agree the morsels were yummy and the burgundy coating sublime, but the roasted cocoa beans were a tad bitter and the whey powder beyond revolting.
Another part of my job involved a separate company called Westreco, which was directly across the hall from my desk. Westreco was where research and development was done and the nearness of them to my desk was both a joy and a curse. If an existing product was being modified, I would often find three bars of chocolate left on my desk to do a taste test called a blind triangle. Two of the chocolate bars were identical and one different. Maybe the cocoa butter content had been tweaked or a new type of a raw material was being tested. My job, along with other testers, was to pick out the different one. If, statistically, few people chose the correct single “different” bar, then the change to the product could be made. If all three bars tasted the same or the wrong one was chosen, the chocolate bar would be left as it was, instead of becoming “new and improved.” I was very good at this test – well actually, I was very, very good at this test: I was in the top two of taste testers. And this is where the guys from Westreco made their error, when they decided to play a practical joke.
With newly developed products, there would be only one chocolate bar left to sample on my desk, with a sheet of paper to fill out my opinion on things like taste and texture. One day, I came back from my rounds in the plant to find a lone candy bar and an evaluation form waiting for my “expert” opinion. I sat down to begin the “tortuous” task of being paid to eat chocolate. I took one bite and I knew. I pushed my chair back from the desk and marched across the hall to inform the Westreco team that I knew. I “tossed” the candy bar at the guys’ heads and told them their secret wasn’t safe with me.
I knew this wasn’t some new chocolate bar they had developed, but a melted-down candy bar from one of our famous competitors which had been remolded in a Nestlé’s candy bar mold. The room was absolutely silent as they tried to look innocent. After a few minutes, they were to amazed that with one bite I could “name that chocolate bar” – and the need to know how I knew was stronger than the need to keep the joke going. Well, at least to keep the joke from me. Curious to see how many other people would know this was a prank, I agreed to play along. I found it amusing that no one else knew it was a joke and that they really thought we had created a new chocolate line.
During my four years at the plant, I held three positions and never had two days that were close to the same. One of my favorite days was when I was in charge of making sure the chocolate bars were wrapped in the special paper that held the winning wrappers for the national sweepstakes being held by the company. I had always wondered who got to make sure that the hundred-thousand-dollar or new-car or trip-to-Europe wrappers actually made it around the candy bar. That day, it was me.
I felt bad for the ladies who were on the line packing the bars. It was tough enough to pull multiple bars off the line, slide them over and into the machine at a very rapid pace. Think of the “I Love Lucy” skit, only it seemed a lot faster. Then, add to that the foremen, division manager, auditors for the sweepstakes and, of course, me hovering around their machines. But really, my job as weight inspector on the lines was already done. The line operator had already sampled the weight of the bars before they were molded and cooled. I had then checked the bars after they passed through the coolers and just before they were to be wrapped. The reason for this is that the FDA would reject candy bars that had an “unreasonably light weight.” When people bought a 1.5 ounce candy bar, they expected to get a 1.5 ounce candy bar. But I didn’t think a person would really care if they got a light weight candy bar wrapped in a $100,000 dollar wrapper.
The only thing that spread faster at Nestlés than the smell of chocolate around town was a bit of “news” around the plant. One day I was called into my obviously agitated general foreman’s office. Wondering what I had done wrong, I was relieved when he said: “I figured you would know. Have I been fired? I walked in this morning and people are all saying I’ve been fired.”
I started to laugh, which was not the response he was expecting. “No, you’re not fired. One of the ladies saw you come out of the plant manager’s office and thought you looked sad. She told one of the other ladies and soon it was around the plant that you had been fired.”
Soon, I too would be on the receiving end of the plant hotline. A woman I did not know came up to me and congratulated me on being pregnant. I nicely informed her that I was not pregnant. She said, “Yes, you are. I heard in the plant.” I chose not to argue. When I went home that day, I got an angry call from my mom. “Don’t you think my own daughter should be the one to tell me that she is pregnant? And that I shouldn’t have to find out about it in a bowling alley?” I later found out that someone from Nestlés had seen me come out of a doctor’s office and I looked happy. Many months later, when I was indeed pregnant, I went and found the woman who had previously congratulated me. “I wanted to let you know I am pregnant so that you can have the fun of telling everyone.”
With full conviction, she responded: “You’re not pregnant, dear. I would have heard it in the plant.”
I was dumbfounded at this. I tried to convince her otherwise, but gave up in the face of her certainty. I could only smile when, a few hours later, the same woman came up to me in the main break room and congratulated me because someone at the factory had just told her I was pregnant.
In all careers, as in all lives, our days are made of many moments strung together. At the chocolate works, there were just such moments, like when the guys in the bean room hid behind the bean pallets and hissed like a snake to try to scare me. This was one of the first places my dad had worked when he had been hired, and I wondered if he played pranks on the QC Techs, too. There were moments when the guys swiped my small metal detector paddle out of my lab coat pocket and played keep away with it. There was the moment when I was transferred out of QC and I met my new foremen for the first time when we were opponents on the Nestlé’s Golf League. And, of course, the morning after, when I walked into my new department and the word had already spread that the new weight inspector beat the foreman, not only handicap, but scratch, in their golf match.
One of the most surreal moments I had in the lab was when I was asked to go collect Nestlé Tollhouse Morsels© directly off the line. The chocolate morsels I selected were going to be used in a TV commercial. As I collected the sample of morsels from the conveyor belt, for a moment I was transported back in time. I stood there watching the morsels coming down in neat rows and I wasn’t a twenty-four-year-old employee of Nestlés; I was five and I was with my dad, sneaking a bit of chocolate to taste. I was – and still am – Don’s girl.