Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yes, that's a frozen frog in your frozen veggies

When I talked with my parents a few days ago, my dad excitedly said that they still wanted to get some sweet corn from the local Birds Eye factory, which is 10 miles from Janesville. This is a big deal - the sweet corn months are like a fifth season in southern Minnesota.

Birds Eye sweet corn really is in a class by itself. If I took a blind taste test, I'd pick out the Birds Eye corn every time, and then ask for some butter and salt.

But I also can't ever eat any Birds Eye product - from the sweet corn to the frozen veggies - without thinking back to three summers. In 1991, 1992 and 1993, I spent my summer months clocking in at the Birds Eye in Waseca, working a variety of jobs in the factory. I put in time on the dreaded cob select and packaged Cool Whip containers. I worked on pea select. I stood on a loading dock and shoveled frozen corn cobs for 12 backbreaking hours. I did all of this while angry middle-aged women in hardhats and hairnets glared and lectured. It's tough work. Often miserable. Occasionally dangerous. Anyone who can do it full-time and not just in between school sessions has a better work ethic than I do and deserves thanks and decent pay.

As a friend said the other night, and is a phrase my mom repeated over the years, it's the type of work that leads you to say, "I need to go to college so I never have to do this again."

My first Birds Eye shift came a few weeks after the end of my sophomore year of high school. I'd applied for a gig there and was told I'd be "on call," meaning I was at the company's mercy. If they called, you reported for duty. Immediately. At about 9 p.m., as I played tennis with my cousin, my mom rolled up in the family car. That's odd, we thought.

"Birds Eye called!" she yelled as if announcing we'd just won the lottery. "You need to get there right away!"

I should have faked an illness. Or a rotator cuff injury. Matt looked at me in shock. He was losing so part of him was probably happy. But I felt like a death-row inmate who's just been told the governor turned down his final request for clemency. Over the years, the phrase "you might have to get a summer job at Birds Eye" had been used as a threat. Now it was reality.

About an hour later, I stood in a meeting room as the Birds Eye secretary assigned me the basic tools: a hairnet, a blue hardhat, a pair of gloves and some Abdul-Jabbar goggles. They felt like shackles, only more demeaning. My first shift ran for 12 hours and was on the cob select. There's no hidden meaning in those words. The job entails standing the entire shift, watching thousands of pieces of corn roll past on a conveyor belt. Your job? Pick out - select, if you will - the bad ones.

There goes one! Grab it! Jesus, you missed it! Get that one! For every bad one I did find, I'm sure three got by. Hopefully my eagle-eyed co-workers caught those. About eight hours into the shift, I stepped back from the conveyor belt. The entire machine was moving in the opposite direction. Strange. But wait, it's changed again. Why is the conveyor belt now motionless while I'm floating sideways? It was simply a side effect from standing at a conveyor belt for that long.

That first summer I rotated between cob select, pea select and Cool Whip packaging. I developed a system with my cousin, where he would hang up after one ring, then call right back. That way I knew it was him, and not the Birds Eye receptionist, waiting to condemn me for another night. But usually my need for money overwhelmed everything else and I'd take her calls, hear the assignment and trudge to the plant.

Why me, I'd whine to myself on the 10-minute drive. I never should have given up that paper route in the seventh grade.

One night I lost control of my car and drove into the ditch. After saying thanks to the car gods that I didn't flip or drift over into the other lane, I sort of secretly hoped that the accident might get me out of work that night. There were no cell phones so I just had to wait for a car to drive by. A few minutes later a friendly man in a truck stopped.

After asking if I was all right, his next words were, "You headed to the plant?" The plant? Birds Eye? Jesus, how did he know? Did I already smell of processed corn?

"Yeah, Birds Eye."

"So am I! I can pull your car out and give you a lift into town." Ah, what luck.

So much for my plans. The good Samaritan pulled the car out, made sure I retrieved the hairnet and hat and gave me a lift. I was only late by a few minutes. My parents collected the car from the side of the road and I collected corn cobs for the next 12 hours. If I wanted to get out of work, I was going to have to do better than a minor car accident.

The next two years I worked full-time during the summer. Five days a week, no longer on call. No phone chicanery could save me. Shortly after my arrival each day, I checked the giant sign posted inside and outside the factory. The sign trumpeted how many accident-free days the plant had enjoyed. Inside, they also listed the record for most consecutive days without an accident, which was Ripken-like in its length and I'm sure has yet to be surpassed (don't ask me to remember the exact number; exposure to cob fumes over the years affected longterm memory). Whenever I'd see "Zero Days since the last accident," my stomach dropped a little. Was it a minor incident or something severe? Did someone get cut? Or did they lose a finger? And what job were they on and would I be on it that night?

The factory produced more bullies than an elementary school playground. Many supervisors were thoughtful, concerned bosses who kept the machines running but managed to do it while maintaining a semblance of humanity. Others were power-hungry jerks who took out their life frustrations on the screwups assigned to work under them each summer. In the same position, I might have taken a similar attitude.

Junior year I packaged Cool Whip, although the Waseca plant no longer produces the delicious product. After my senior year of high school, I worked the overnight shift in the mixed vegetables area, packaging the frozen goodies. Initially, I was assigned the machine that wrapped the boxes before they went out the door. My complete lack of mechanical ability led to countless debacles that first night, as I fell behind, meaning the entire team fell behind, meaning schedules were screwed up, meaning frowning managers in ties were called to the scene, meaning heads were going to roll along with the veggies, meaning something had to be done, and now.

Instead of letting me go, they moved me to a different part of the rotation and stuck another high school kid on the machine, a guy who hadn't nearly failed Industrial Arts class. The company basically rewarded my incompetence, something countless workers identify with every day as they cover up for hapless co-workers. Sixteen years later, my apologies, Mark.

On that job, we rotated each night to a different part of the area, so you wouldn't stand in one place for 12 hours like on cob select. It increased conversations and cut down on hallucinations. One of the rotations sent you to a separate room, where the frozen veggies dropped onto a conveyor belt before being fed into the bags consumers buy at the grocery store. Armed with just a spatula, the worker sifted through the tonnage to find things that didn't belong. One night I discovered a frozen frog. Perfectly preserved. Fossilized. Sort of sad. But fascinating. But certainly out of place among the peas and corn. I grabbed it and threw it away, while wondering...what's getting by that we aren't catching?

A quality assurance worker - a real, trained worker, not one of the summer hires - inspected many bags throughout the night. In theory, she would find things such as frozen amphibians. But did she catch all of them? I don't know. But I do know my mother-in-law doesn't eat frozen vegetables anymore after hearing that story. Oh yeah, they do sometimes get through: Woman finds frog.

The nine total months spent at Birds Eye helped pay for college, which helped keep me from ever having return to the factory, (hard)hat in hand.

My dad worked at Birds Eye when he was a young husband and father. One night my grandpa called and asked him what the hell he was doing working there and not going to college? My dad needed to support his family. But just like my mom, grandpa knew you went to college to avoid having to work there. You didn't quit school to go work there. Dad eventually returned to his studies and got his degree. His kid returned to the factory two decades later. Nothing much had changed at the plant in the years since. As summer jobs go, it wasn't the worst thing ever. Although, if I had quit school to go work there, my dad would have given me the same lecture his dad gave him.

I still love their product. But I'm grateful I never again have to worry about producing it. So enjoy the final days of sweet corn season. And look out for the frogs.

No comments: