Temple Green and Revenge, Part I

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Temple Green and Revenge, Creative Nonfiction

February 19, 2017

Today I saw Temple Green, a color that carried me back, not pleasantly, to 1984 and 85.

I have written before about the company that I worked for those two years: Temple Eastex, a forest products corporation that owned a half-million acres of timberland in East Texas, which it used to feed its manufacturing facilities that produced corrugated fiberboard, particleboard, oriented strand board, and gypsum wallboard, among other things. The company later merged into Temple-Inland, and recently was absorbed by International Paper. But at the time I worked in its particleboard division in its most far-flung outpost, in Thompson, Georgia, it had a definite Texas attitude. Imagine a management team of pint-sized cowboys who imagined themselves as John Wayne and sported metaphorical over-sized Stetsons and spurs.

Today, driving from Houston, Texas toward my home in Arkansas, I drove through Diboll, the hometown of Temple-Eastex, and I caught a glimpse of one of their buildings, distinctive from its color.

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In 1984 I got my first job out of college working as a quality control supervisor. The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a drab yellow-green color specially mixed for the company:  Temple green. The plant was laid out like a long assembly line, with tall silos and fifty foot piles of yellow pine shavings at one end, the warehouse and loading dock at the other. In between the shavings were ground to particle size, dried, treated with urea-formaldehyde resin, formed into mats eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long, pressed and sawed. High pressure blowlines four feet in diameter sprouted out of the roof of the building and moved the wood furnish from the silos to the dryers to the blenders. Fine particles of wood floated through the air and dusted the cars in the parking lot and formed windrows on the ground that looked like cream colored snow.

A week into the job I was called upstairs to the plant manager’s office, where he stood by the window looking down at the conveyor belt that shuttled the long mats into the press.  The man’s name was Larry, and I was struck by the way his Southern accent sounded affected, the Hollywood version of the way people in the South talk. His boss, John, the division manager, was a short man from Texas who wore Brooks Brothers shirts and spat tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup packed with tissue. They said I had two “problems” in my department–two technicians whose main crime proved to be that they were black, union troublemakers. The division manager told me that it was my job to run those two out of the company. I was twenty-three years old and I thought that I could do it.

I left the office with every intention of running those two off, even though I had no idea what sort of employees they were. In college I had learned something about making particleboard, but nothing about managing people. I didn’t think it would be so hard.  I planned to be fair and I assumed that everyone cared about the quality of their work.  I put pressure on Lloyd and Waldo. Both men were in their thirties, which seemed very old to me at the time, and they looked even older because the wood dust turned their black hair white. Every mistake they made I reacted with the company’s established disciplinary process:  verbal warning, written warning, three days off without pay, termination. But I learned that I was doing a bad thing when Lloyd responded to a written warning by filing a grievance against me.

Waldo represented Lloyd when the grievance was heard before the division manager. The man who ordered me to fire Lloyd, who had promised to back me up all the way to arbitration, spat tobacco juice into his cup and said: “Lloyd, Terry’s just a young guy trying to make an impression, a little too gung ho. I think we can convince him to back off on this warning and remove it from your record.” I backed off Waldo and Lloyd, and the pressure switched to me.

I met with the plant manager, Larry, once a week to discuss Lloyd and Waldo. One day he explained why the division manager hadn’t backed me up. The union contract was due to expire soon, and the company couldn’t afford to make the men martyrs by going to arbitration. I remembered the first or second day I worked for Temple, when he’d given me a copy of the union contract and said: “I hope we don’t have to work with this long, but you’d better know it pretty well.” When the contract expired, the employees would have a chance to vote on whether or not they wished to be represented by the union, and I realized that the move to fire Lloyd and Waldo was a move to weaken the union. Larry said that I should try to catch them in gross negligence, an offense not protected by the contract, and he offered fatherly suggestions on ways to trap the men. Other days he threatened to fire me if he didn’t see results before the union vote.  It was sort of like good cop/bad cop. I never knew what to expect when I went upstairs to his office.

When my parents asked about Temple, I told them how bad the situation was in much the same way I’d told them I would probably fail physics in college. I was afraid of disappointing them, and I didn’t want them to be surprised. I’d decided that there was something wrong with me, that I didn’t understand personnel management any better than I did physics. My father talked to me about DayBrite, about what it felt like to work at a thankless job, and how being fired was the best thing that ever happened to him.  “There’s plenty of work that you can do well,” he said, “without having to work for assholes.”

 

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On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial, January 1, 2017

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I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just a few feet from the engraved words that marked the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. stood to give his “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time of the speech, August 28, 1963, I was three and a half months shy of three years old. To the best of my memory, I was unaware of race; however, for a child raised in Mississippi, the seeds were planted and the awareness would soon bloom.

That night on the national mall the temperature was in the low 40s and it felt like rain was coming. The Mall was busy and the Memorial crowded, but it was large enough to accommodate a few hundred people at any given time and allow each group to celebrate the memorial in a personal way. Some people wandered the steps and the interior of the memorial in reflective silence, while others posed for selfies and group shots with Lincoln or the Washington Monument. Tour guides, both professional and amateur, pointed out features and answered questions. Overall, most of the tourists shared a light mood appropriate for a national holiday and the first day of the new year, traditionally a day of hope and the dream of a fresh start. Traffic moved briskly on Constitution Avenue and pedestrians disappeared into the darkness, heading toward the one of the war memorials: Vietnam on the left, Korea on the right, and WWII straight ahead, at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, in line with the base of the Washington Monument.

I was traveling with a group of sixty university students and eight faculty, an eclectic mix of communication, business, and English majors. Each group had come to D.C. to focus on specific aspects of our disciplines; for the English students, the focus was on exploring the forms of narrative as expressed through semiotics, historic documents, monuments, memorials, buildings, and political bodies.

I had  been asked to speak to the students about Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, an intimidating task in the best of situations, but standing a few feet away from where he stood to deliver it, for me, bordered on the surreal. It didn’t help that I only had seven minutes for each of the three groups. I’d pulled the speech up on my phone earlier in the day and read it again. I’d made a few notes about the persuasive strategies, the use of rhythm and repetition, and the historical context–the things I usually talked about in composition classes where I focused on King’s rhetoric.

For almost two months following the 2016 presidential election I had been mired in a state of despondency bordering on desolation, an emotion flavored with grief and mourning and a whole lot of anger, often misdirected. It was, and still is, hard to capture exactly what I feel about the outcome. However, my fears about the coming administration took on a physical texture standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King had spoken to a quarter of a million supporters about the atrocities of segregation. Suddenly, the hope that I had felt under the outgoing president, often battered but always surviving, dissipated and now the nation’s capacity for social injustice felt primed and ready to flow.

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When it was my turn to begin, I climbed a couple of steps above the landing where King had stood, and I told my students about my “personal connection” to Dr. King. My father-in-law, Rady Carl Crocker, had been a manager for Lowensteins’s department store in Downtown Memphis, and he had been working the day that King was assassinated. He told me about the aftermath, locking the doors of the store during the riot that ensued, and standing between the inner and outer glass doors while the riot flowed down main street. The glass doors on the sidewalk were cracked, but not broken in, and he made it safely home late that evening. He’d repeated the story to me without judgement, like he was recalling a trip to the store.

I went on to tell the students about how once, while working with Rady in his garage, I’d found three metal plaques that he’d removed from the doors of Lowensteins following the law that outlawed segregation: “Colored Men,” Colored Women,” “White Ladies Lounge.” Made out of a heavy bronze metal, four inches wide and a couple of feet long, the signs were substantial, tangible symbols of the promise that had been made to African Americans by the Emancipation Proclamation and, as King noted in his speech, a hundred years later had yet to be fulfilled. I talked to my students about what it felt like to hold one of these signs in my hands, and I pointed out that it is probably difficult for them to really understand the degree of discrimination that King was speaking about: black only motels, blacks in Mississippi unable to vote and blacks in New York with no reason to vote, and children “stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘for whites only.’” When I talk about King’s speech in my classes, I place those signs in the hands of my students to let them hold a tangible symbol of hatred and fear.

Even though I grew up in Mississippi during the 1960s and 70s, I have no memory of separate water fountains and restrooms, but through the fifth grade I went to a school with four black children in my grade, and in sixth the city of Tupelo consolidated the entire grade–black and white–into a single building near the edge of the dividing line between the black and white sides of town. We were together from then on out, black and white, going to 7th and 8th on the white side of town, ninth at the former black high school named after George Washington Carver, and back to the white side for high school. During all those years there was little racial trouble that I remember. We went to classes together, played sports together, worked at Burger King and shared a prom upon graduation. Several of those guys I considered friends, though the friendships were strictly daytime-school friendships.

Our senior year was marked by an invasion of the Ku Klux Klan into our city. It lasted several weeks and was marked by weekend rallies, complete with cross-burnings, marches, and opposing marches by black protesters that overlapped and resulted in tense word wars but no real violence that I was aware of. One Saturday night, out of curiosity, a guy I worked with at Burger King closed the store and cleaned the broiler, and then drove out to the site of a rally at about 2 a.m. As we drove through the motel parking lot–ironically the same motel that would host the high school graduation dance in a few weeks–the sight of men standing in the shadows holding shotguns was enough to make us clear out of there fast. Another Saturday, I leaned out of the drive-thru window of Burger King and watched a Klan motorcade of about thirty pickups flying Confederate flags and wooden crosses, the occupants wearing full hood and robe regalia, force motorists off the main street as they sped through the main street of Tupelo from north to south ignoring redlights and oncoming traffic. That senior year ended benignly enough, with the Klan leaving Tupelo and our class president, Steve Ray, delivering a commencement address about bridging the gaps of race. It is a speech I wish I could hear again, because I’m sure most of it was lost on me in the moment. The night ended with blacks and whites on the floor together at the graduation dance.

I didn’t talk about all of those things on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but I thought about them. Rather I talked about the context of the speech–what had brought King and the marchers to Washington D.C., about the figurative language and rhythm and repetition that King was famous for, and about the conflict within the audience about whether to engage in “this marvelous new militancy that has engulfed the black community,” or, because so many of them had “come here out of great trials and tribulations. . . . fresh from narrow jail cells. . . . battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. . . . the veterans of creative suffering,” to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

As I read King’s words, I thought about my first job out of college, in 1984, where I worked as a production supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia. Sometimes on the midnight shift, when the plant was running smoothly and peace seemed possible, I would sit in the dim light of the press control booth with Alphonso smith, the black press operator a few years older than me, and watch the lights on the control panel flash and glow green and red and orange and listen to the hum of the assembly line and the hiss of the steam press  as it scissored closed and began to transform mats of wood particles and glue into particleboard. Alphonso and I shared a similar history of growing up in the South, only he had probably gotten the worst of it, growing up black in a small Georgia town and graduating to a job driving a forklift in a particleboard mill and working up the ranks to press operator, while I had gone from high school to college to a supervisory position in the same mill in a little over five years. I thought about what Alphonso said more than once on those long nights, about how one day he thought that black kids and white kids would play together and it wouldn’t be any big deal.

I thought about Alphonso and his hopes and predictions as I read King’s closing words:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

When I finished talking to my students on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it was hard to gauge what they were thinking. College students play their cards close to the vest, especially when reacting to a professor speaking with passion and high emotion. I get the sense it makes them uncomfortable. Most of them wandered off to the next station, where a professor was planted to discuss some other aspect of the Lincoln Memorial. I stood there feeling the moment, feeling the surge of adrenalin that comes from speaking in public, wondering–as I always do–how my words had come off and editing my speech in my head, adding and clarifying, second guessing.

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It was then that I noticed one of my students, a black English major named Delilah, a girl with a sharp mind and a keen sense of humor and the capacity to understand and appreciate irony, sarcasm, and jokes. She was kneeling over the words of Martin Luther King Jr., taking a selfie of her hand tracing the letters that spelled out “I Have A Dream.” I have no reason to believe that my words changed anything for Delilah, but it did give me a bit of hope as I thought about the next four years. I asked permission to take her picture with my  camera and she let me. Then we walked off into the dark of the mall toward the Korean War Memorial to catch up with the rest of our group.

 

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The Tools We Work With, Part IV

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One day the plant manager called me upstairs to his office to discuss why I hadn’t managed to fire Waldo and Lloyd yet. I said something like they were doing their jobs well, which they were. Both were smart men, especially when it came to race, and it probably hadn’t been too hard to figure out they’d had bull’s-eyes painted on their backs. Knowing someone is trying to fire you can be a powerful motivator.

temple 5 temple 2Larry looked at me through sleepy-looking eyes. He had a soft drawl that sometimes made the threats hard to pick up on. “Here’s what you do,” he said, and he went on to lay out a plan. As Quality Control technicians, Waldo and Lloyd were tasked with making rounds of the plan every two hours to record various machine settings. One setting was on a wax tank at the top of a catwalk forty feet above the plant floor. The wax was weighed out and then dumped into the urea-formaldehyde resin and mixed together before being sprayed onto the wood particles to be pressed into a board. The wax settings hadn’t been changed in the year I worked at the plant, and Larry and I and probably everyone in the plant knew that the technicians strolled past the ladder to the cat walk on their way to the milling side of the plant every two hours, checking off the box on their report and never even looking up at the ceiling.

“You wait ‘til Waldo makes his first round,” he said, “then you go up there and change the setting by about forty pounds. After he makes his second round, take his clipboard and fire him for falsifying his report.”

He kind of laughed about it, making it out to be a joke, but as I left the office I passed his secretary, a woman in her thirties, hunched over her typewriter, and she gave me a look that told me she had heard Larry’s plan, but I couldn’t read what she thought about it.

I’m ashamed to say that I thought about Larry’s plan too. Far longer than I should have.

After a year as the Quality Control Supervisor, a year that passed without firing Waldo or Lloyd, I was moved from the quality control department to production foreman on the swing shift. The plant manager said it was a lateral promotion, but lateral only meant a demotion where I didn’t lose any pay. Two weeks before the union contract vote, the company flew in an Atlanta lawyer who specialized in labor relations for a meeting. I sat in the conference room with the other supervisors and foremen.  We smoked and talked, nervous and unsure what to do with our hardhats, so we kept them on our heads. Management meetings were always awkward because being called upstairs was worse than being called to the principal’s office. The lawyer stood in front of the company logo fixed to the wall, six T’s joined at the base so they formed sort of a wheel with spokes–cut out of the first load of particleboard that came off our press.

The lawyer told us what we could legally promise to our employees about the way the company would deal with them after the union was voted out–nothing. We listened politely, asked one or two questions, and then the lawyer was driven back to the airport. With the lawyer gone the plant manager told us to talk to each member of our crew privately, to promise them a year-end bonus if they elected to deal directly with the company, and to find out how each person planned to vote. I didn’t say anything to my crew.

The employees voted out the union and suddenly Temple was a harmonious company. Except for one black man on my crew named Keith, who openly admitted that he was one of the few employees who had voted to keep the union. Keith was branded a troublemaker, and Larry put pressure on me to run him off.

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At night, with the machinery running and the lights and sounds, the mill was a living thing. It had a power of its own. In order to make good particleboard, the whole mill had to be in sync, from the person loading shavings into the silos with a front end loader, through the milling and drying and blending, all the way to the press, the saws, and the forklift driver who stacked the bundles of board. There were over three hundred electric motors, timing switches, sensors, and twelve operators and technicians.  Sometimes the mill got into a groove, and the machinery would run for hours and sometimes days at a time without the operators making a single adjustment. Other times it ran like hell and we spent whole shifts rigging, bypassing, and patching together equipment. I watched other supervisors to learn the management techniques I missed in college. I decided that a good supervisor should stand behind his crew, discipline them if necessary, but defend them as well, because finally you were defending yourself.

I lost that job one morning after a graveyard shift that I’d spent fighting one equipment failure after another. At seven in the morning Larry walked into my office, a rare event which only meant trouble. He took off his hardhat and smoothed his hair into place, sat down on the bench beside my desk. His face was framed on one side by the production schedule tacked to the wall, and on the other by a photocopied cartoon, the kind that circulate through company offices. He said, “We need to discuss the Keith problem and what you plan to do about him.” The cartoon seemed appropriate for the situation–a frog was being swallowed headfirst by a snake, but it was choking the snake, holding its throat closed with both hands.

Keith had had some run-ins with another shift foreman before he came to my crew. But I liked Keith. I liked his work because he tried hard. One night he and I were talking and he called me “Boat.” It slipped out, and he was worried that he’d said something wrong. When I pressed him about the name, he told me that the hourly employees began to call me Boat after I’d taken a canoe to the company picnic the year before. I liked the nickname–it made me feel accepted–and I told Keith to spread the word that it was okay to call me that.

I explained to the plant manager that Keith was a good worker, loyal. I refused to fire him. We were at an impasse. I gave my notice and Larry let me go.

A week later I saw Waldo at K-Mart, flexing a fishing rod in the sporting goods department. He had heard that I was quitting and I told him it was true. Waldo looked at me and flexed the rod he was holding, trying it out. He said, “You’re a goddamn fool.  You had a good job and lost it because you weren’t tough enough on your men.” I agreed with him, but I was angered, and surprised. Two years ago I had tried to fire Waldo, and now I wanted some appreciation from him, some acknowledgement that I had finally developed principles. But Waldo understood better than I how that company worked. As I turned to leave he said, “If it had been me. If I’d had that good job? I’d have wasted anybody who got in my way.”

The Tools We Work With, Part III: Particleboard

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My first job out of college I was hired as a quality control supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia. The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a dirty pale green color specially mixed for the company: Temple green. The plant was laid out like a long assembly line, with tall silos and fifty foot piles of yellow pine shavings at one end, the warehouse and loading dock at the other. In between the shavings were ground to particle size, dried, treated with urea-formaldehyde resin, formed into mats eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long, pressed and sawed. High pressure blow-lines four feet in diameter sprouted out of the roof of the building and moved the wood furnish from the silos to the dryers to the blenders. Fine particles of wood floated through the air and dusted the cars in the parking lot and formed windrows on the ground that looked like cream colored snow.

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The company was based in Texas, but the particleboard division had mills in Alabama and New Hampshire as well. In college I had studied forest products and had worked for another particleboard company through cooperative education. The man who supervised my co-op job had told me that I could expect to work sixty to seventy hours a week in management, and that dedication to the company, good intentions, and hard work would ensure promotion. That sounded right and I was willing to make any sacrifice for the company. But everything I thought about how big business operated turned out to be wrong.

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A week into the job I was called upstairs to the plant manager’s office, where he stood by the window looking down at the conveyor belt that shuttled the long mats into the press. The man’s name was Larry, and I was struck by the way his Southern accent sounded affected, the Hollywood version of the way people in the South talk. His boss, the division manager, was a short man from Texas who wore Brooks Brothers shirts and spat tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup packed with tissue. They said I had two “problems” in my department–two technicians whose main crime proved to be that they were black, union troublemakers. The division manager told me that it was my job to run those two out of the company. I was twenty-three years old and I thought that I could do it.

I left the office with every intention of running those two off, even though I had no idea what sort of employees they were. In college I had learned something about making particleboard, but nothing about managing people. I didn’t think it would be so hard. I planned to be fair and I assumed that everyone cared about the quality of their work. I put pressure on Lloyd and Waldo. Both men were in their thirties, which seemed very old to me at the time, and they looked even older because the wood dust turned their black hair white. Every mistake they made I reacted with the company’s established disciplinary process: verbal warning, written warning, three days off without pay, termination. But I learned that I was doing a bad thing when Lloyd responded to a written warning by filing a grievance against me.

Waldo represented Lloyd when the grievance was heard before the division manager. The man who ordered me to fire Lloyd, who had promised to back me up all the way to arbitration, spat tobacco juice into his cup and said: “Lloyd, Terry’s just a young guy trying to make an impression, a little too gung ho. I think we can convince him to back off on this warning and remove it from your record.” I backed off Waldo and Lloyd, and the pressure switched to me.

I met with the plant manager, Larry, once a week to discuss Lloyd and Waldo.  One day he explained why the division manager hadn’t backed me up. The union contract was due to expire soon, and the company couldn’t afford to make the men martyrs by going to arbitration. I remembered the first or second day I worked for Temple, when he’d given me a copy of the union contract and said: “I hope we don’t have to work with this long, but you’d better know it pretty well.” When the contract expired, the employees would have a chance to vote on whether or not they wished to be represented by the union, and I realized that the move to fire Lloyd and Waldo was a move to weaken the union. Larry said that I should try to catch them in gross negligence, an offense not protected by the contract, and he offered fatherly suggestions on ways to trap the men. Other days he threatened to fire me if he didn’t see results before the union vote. It was sort of like good cop/bad cop. I never knew what to expect when I went upstairs to his office.

When my parents asked about Temple, I told them how bad the situation was in much the same way I’d told them I would probably fail physics in college. I was afraid of disappointing them, and I didn’t want them to be surprised. I’d decided that there was something wrong with me, that I didn’t understand personnel management any better than I did physics. My father talked to me about DayBrite, about what it felt like to work at a thankless job, and how being fired was the best thing that ever happened to him.  “There’s plenty of work that you can do well,” he said, “without having to work for assholes.”

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