Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pie Pressure

The first time I went to Isle Royale National Park, I was on the run. It was not the law that was after me, it was life. I was twenty-two years old and already questioning the path my life seemed to be charging down. I was the sole personnel department for a fruit pie company with just under a thousand employees. My days consisted of nearly round the clock refereeing. It was a giant food fight in a way. Pie line workers vying for position on dough covered Colburn® machines that pumped out two pies per second if everything was running smoothly. I ran three shifts with product managers calling for more production at daily meetings, pressured foremen speeding up the pie lines, and the Chief Steward of the Union pressuring the company to slow them down.
I can still hear the many voices in my head over three decades later. "On Monday we need an additional fifty people. We’re cranking up the cream pie and apple dumpling lines." "We have word the third shift freezer supervisor has a pie route and is filling orders late at night when no one is looking." "Someone left the corn syrup spigot opened all night and the bakery is carpeted three inches deep in corn syrup." "Karl has been drinking again and all the pecan pies are burnt." "You can take this job and shove it, I’m going deer hunting." "We’re three guys short on Sunday’s loading crew in the freezer." "Someone stole two freezer suits, you might want to see who just bought a new snowmobile." "There’s a car parked in the boss’s reserved parking space." "Did you hire this guy? He’s a convicted felon." "The Hi-Lo drivers need to be retested, we just had one drive through the back wall of the freezer." Libby® just sent us four railcars full of pumpkin mix. The bad news is, it’s in 8 oz. cans instead of 30# tins." "Someone is putting their pocket change in the pies on second shift." "The eight hour college boys are all sneaking out early when the six hour girls leave." "Herb swore at the packaging line again. They are all headed for your office." "You can’t promote him for doing a good job, he doesn’t have the seniority." "Your new hire just had an epileptic fit in the bakery and fell in the strawberries."
I was beginning to have flashbacks. Not from all the action I saw in the Marines in Hawaii but from my high school days working for an Airstream dealer. Many of our customers were auto executives with high stress, good paying jobs. I remember they all died at about 50. Was this my destiny—to work 18 hours a day for 30 years and one day be found face down in the banana cream pie filling?
Fate stepped in. Top management all left for the Olympic games in Munich, Germany. That left one engineer in charge who considered people as mere machines to be turned on and off daily. He wasn’t going to have much time to drive the train so he decided to reorganize the whole personnel department while he had the chance. Being the youngest member of the management team seemed to mean I was insubordinate if I had any constructive criticism. Had they reviewed my application they would have known better than to push me too far. They would have seen: Male, Caucasian, IRISH.
After two days of not making any personnel changes the cow pie (always thought that would be a big seller) hit the fan. I went home, grabbed my backpack, drove late into the night across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and caught the last boat to Isle Royale. They had squads of people out looking for me because they found out playing personnel manager wasn’t as fun as it looked. But it was too late. I was already immersed in the solitude of a northwoods wilderness paradise with no boats leaving for several days. They contacted my mother who said, "Well, his backpack is gone. That’s not a good sign."
Did I go back? Yes, eventually. I gave proper notice. In fact, I worked several months until a new labor contract was hammered out. I left the status and financial security of a corporate career to pursue life at a much slower pace. To paraphrase Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a wood. I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference."
I’m not suggesting everyone should run off and catch the last boat to Isle Royale National Park—but it worked for me.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

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