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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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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