Unraveling the Long Embrace

Lad Moore Photo of Lad Moore.
© Copyright 2001 by Lad Moore

"I owe my soul" sang the line in the song somebody called Sixteen Tons. Leo Tommit errantly believed the line to be true. .

He was a holdover from the days when work life and private life were considered separate but not equal. He believed that a commitment to the company should out-rival even the vows of matrimony. In return for the company's paternalistic role of keeper of the flock, one should return a full measure of loyalty and tireless commitment. His past was rooted in the days before Mission Statements and Strategic Direction sought so desperately to redefine a company that was getting tired and was stuck in the mire of faded technology.

In short, he continued to live the good old days that had long since vanished without fanfare, and for most, without even an acknowledgement.

Leo Tommit was a craftsman printer. He ran three generations of rotary presses in his thirty years with Bethany Forms. In that time he liked to say that he trained eight bosses.

He saw the plant managers come and go---some as casualties of not meeting numbers, some moved along to the next level in the pyramid. He liked to cite phrases from The Peter Principle, the book that heaped all managers into their deserved final positions---their level of incompetence. It wasn't disrespect---it was just true to what he had witnessed so many times.

But in his heart he loved the company that had educated his children, "put biscuits on the table" for thirty years, and enabled him to hook his travel trailer behind a fresh Chevy Suburban and wander around in the mountains of Wyoming for three weeks every year. All this---and with a continuing of medical and dental benefits that kept everybody in the family happy and healthy.

In the last five years he saw big changes beginning to reshape the world he knew as ink on paper. But he clung to the things that made a printer proud. He would display the best and most colorful samples of his work to visitors and guests who came---like the bragging photos from a beaming grandfather.

"Look at these---we print three million a week---credit card and sales tickets," he would proudly say. "See, all of the major companies---look at the close registration of the colors in the logos. Oh---and these---four-color process advertisements for a credit card. You can see the hairs in the feather in the man's hatband. My press can hold three-thousandths tolerance on six colors."

Then, in a matter of only about a year, technology redesigned the credit-charge process to nothing more than a thin paper receipt---small counter-top machines at retail establishments that just spit one at you to sign. And for Leo, it was almost a mocking gesture. For every little gob of spittle, there was one less of Leo's forms to be made.

When he lamented the demise of his tickets in the stores and gas stations he patronized, the retail counter-attendants mostly from Iran and Iraq would say:

"You think paper is disappearing fast now, just wait until the electronic-games-generation reaches the age of consumer. Those kids won't even need a piece of paper. They'll be using a smart card."

That forecast caused Leo to cringe---and he cringed because he knew it to be true. His own kids were off at college, buying gasoline and clothes with bank debit cards. At night, alone with his wife Annabelle, he would rail on the events of change---his complaints falling into an ear that had been deafened by the good life---enjoyed without interruption for twenty-five years.

He found peace in knowing that there was still strong demand for the data processing forms that he produced on his press---the green-bar multicopy computer paper. Thirsty IBM's consumed them in such quantities that the trees would quiver from Texas to Canada as hordes of chain saws droned to satisfy the demands of papermaking. The world was chewing up its needled forests and hurling out the white vomit of reports and data at a rate never seen before. And to Leo, all that demand meant overtime on Saturdays and double-time on Sundays---and the possibility of a new motor home for next year's trip to the mountains.

And when consumers demanded something to eliminate the nasty black curtain of carbon paper, Bethany had the answer---self-copy paper---carbonless and clean. And the trees continued to crash in the forests to provide the raw material.

Then Leo saw that change too. Almost in a single night, technology discovered that a single copy could be reproduced multiple times by lasers---quicker and cheaper than the printing of multi-copy forms. Single sheets of paper, often times blank, replaced five-color graphics and six-part forms. The impact was so significant that the plant discontinued using its rail siding loading docks---trucks could handle the one or two loads that remained. In barely two months, the bright chrome rails turned to decaying red-brown ribbons. There would be no more railcars of green-bar paper going out to refresh their luster.

And he really took notice when he heard that Bethany Forms would no longer produce and ship the caravan of trucks filled with stock market dividend checks that were printed each year for December 31 tax year. His enemy---technology--had figured out a way to electronically provide those payments to eighty percent of the Fortune 500 shareholder-recipients. Leo heard that it was a new and strange payment process they called direct deposit ---where no paper of any kind touched hands. He was even more shocked when Bethany endorsed it and began to use it for its own 3000 employees' payroll checks. Leo marched up to Plant Manager Higgins' office in disbelief when he heard that rumor.

"Am I hearing this right? We depend on printing and we're not even going to print the checks to pay ourselves?

"Leo, the government says there must be less float---the time that businesses have to use other people's cash before the checks clear. And for us, there is considerably less backroom expense," so the boss explained.

"If by backroom you mean Accounting, I heard seven people lost their jobs in this one plant of Bethany's alone," Leo probed of his balding and tired-looking Plant Manager---"how can that be good for us workers?"

"We've got to focus on the big picture," said Higgins, not making eye contact. Leo knew well enough that avoiding eye contact was a diversion element for corporate-speak--- words that Higgins was told to spew out, but probably didn't believe himself.

"We'll have a chance to review our strategies at our quarterly employee meeting," Higgins said, as he bobbed back into the pool of his computer screen with its rows and rows of dancing numbers---a signal that the session was over for now.

Plant Manager-Employee meetings were historically a time to yawn a little and poke at the guy next to you, munch on a Twinkie, or pick your nose---but never to ask a question and never to criticize the company. Leo remembered some tidbits from most of those meetings, held before shift time around the vending area tables, with lots of charts and slick things that were flashed through the overhead projector. He didn't have to understand much about the charts. He knew that a trend line zigzagging up was usually good, and that when the subject was waste, the bar chart should be stair-stepping downward---and the steeper the stair the better. Then there was always the ho-hum part---about how everybody's production objectives must be increased for the next quarter. It was always the same game---do more with less. But Leo understood that. "Those footsteps behind us are our competitors---gaining on us," he would say to his skeptical co-workers, who sometimes thought him a little too much the company man---but respected his long service as being a badge of survivorship.

This day Leo listened closely to Higgins, as did each of the seventy people on A-shift. He told about lost contracts, curtailed budgets, and something called Resizing for Strategic Alliance. The colorful bullet-points on the big screen were masking the obvious. Bethany was licensing some of its product lines to competitors, using the guise word "partnering." Six big presses would follow the product lines out the door. It was obvious that they would not need as many people now for the scheduled shifts, and that surmise was confirmed with Higgins' next chart---covertly titled Rationalization of Human Resources. When he talked about the mandate to reduce "full-time-equivalents," Leo understood that the phrase was a code name that referred to people.

Higgins had a lot of other charts on cost reduction. He talked about how much the company would save by abandoning its four-shift, seven-day production and returning to three-shifts on five days. Leo was sure that the overheads were the exact same ones---but in reverse---that were used to claim similar cost savings by creating the seven-day shifts in the first place.

It was strange to be sitting in a Holiday Inn yet only twenty miles from home. The table was filled with browning sliced fruit, and doughnuts that had become crusty from four hours in cigarette-infested air. It was almost time to break for lunch, and hotel people were arranging a sandwich assembly line, just outside the meeting room. About half of the plant was there that day---a good turnout for a Sunday when the Texas Rangers were playing one of their last home games only twelve miles away.

Leo was depressed---so thirty years has come to this---slipping around behind the company's back and sitting down with a bunch of turtleneck-shirted bastards from a West Coast printing union.

As the man named Tuck with the totally bald head spoke, he clicked his pointer against the screen to emphasize the charts that portrayed union wages to be superior versus non-union wages. Again, Leo drifted away in thought. Most of the people in that room would be nodding yes and missing the point. None of this was even about wages. It was about desperation---keeping a plant open and viable---saving jobs and the lives that revolved around them.

He recalled all the meetings in the past when plant managers got up in front of people and talked about the company posture of non-unionism and the fact that no one at Bethany ever needed to look to "third parties" for a listening ear. But here we were, tucked behind the starched conference-table aprons, listening to some guy in a black shark-skin jacket from Monterrey, California talk about the evil empire of big corporations. It had not escaped Leo that Tuck had himself stepped out of a Mercedes-Benz rental car that morning.

It was like a steel curtain had fallen when Bethany learned of the union organization meetings that were going on. It was as if a lifelong trust had been broken. It reminded Leo of the book he had just finished reading---a tragic story told of the Civil War---brothers faced off on opposite sides---one blue, one gray.

Higgins showed his disappointment on his furrowed face as he made his daily rounds of the shifts. The other managers suddenly lost their chumminess and silenced the joke telling and the recounting of the Ranger game highlights. Things were tense. When

Higgins came around, Leo felt slimy---guilt and shame poured over his face like warm concrete.

A month before the union election was to be held, Higgins was suddenly removed and a new plant manager came in from Maryland. His name was Cal Booth, and he was an ex-major league pitcher in his younger days. He was stern and all business---swooping down and diving into the plant financial results, looking for more ways to cut cost. The first meeting that he held completely ignored the presence of a union drive. There was no mention of it, and no propaganda of any kind. He spoke in detail of the need to remain competitive, but then told the crowd some additional bad news. One of the plant's largest customers, Paramount Nut, a giant snack foods company, had shifted all their route trucks over to electronic order processing---all originating from a inboard microcomputer in each truck. This single, almost overnight transition would idle two more of Bethany's presses.

The union election was held in the plant lunchroom on February 14---it was Valentine's Day. Leo suspected that the choice of dates was no accident. The vote was counted. The man in the gray government suit sang out the totals over a battery-powered bullhorn:

"Union 94, Company 111. The Union is defeated."

It was over with no cheering. As people walked away from the NLRB voting table, discarded plastic "Vote Yes" buttons skittered across the polished tile floor like little red and blue hockey pucks. No one spoke of victory or loss. Everybody knew a union drive at Bethany was like infidelity---perhaps forgiven but never forgotten.

Cal Booth had that patented stern look again. His cold eyes swept over the audience as he waited for the hush that he needed. In what was less than half a page of legal text, he announced that the plant would close. When that sentence was read and heard, everything that was said after that got lost. Leo and 200 others fell into what was a trance of disbelief. Only pieces of other words could pierce the devastation of that news. "Last checks---unemployment---some relocations to Santa Fe---early retirements."

These words were not connected to full sentences. Everyone was numb to the all the details except one. The last day of work was to be June 15.

Both kids will be out of college then, Leo thought.

On that June 15, Leo Tommit came to work in a stretch limo wearing a rented tux and top hat. He had made a stop along the way---at Rex's Tinker Bell Pawn Shop---and had made quite a splash in there. Everybody, especially Rex, thought it must be Halloween---in the middle of summer. They asked him if he had dumped his wife for a younger woman. He chuckled and replied, "If that happened, I'd be selling, not buying."

He brought on the only laughter that would be heard that day, as co-workers paraded by his press for a look at his cummerbund and cane. Flashbulbs were sparkling the pressroom sky to preserve the memories of a very formal Leo on this last day at work. At the sounding of the noon horn, he opened a patent-leather briefcase at the lunch table, and retrieved a small can of caviar from a ice-packed soup-canister. Using his Twenty-Fifth Anniversary crystal plate---the one with the gold-leaf personal inscription from the company's CEO, he dined on Waverly-Wafer caviar-sandwiches and Gouda cheese. In his drink thermos was non-alcoholic champagne.

He toasted the crowd that was jeering on his antics: "Here's one to Cal Booth, our last Plant Manager," he said.

"Here's to you and here's to me. I hope we never disagree. But if we do, to hell with you- I'll drink this toast to me."

And.pointing at Marie, who had stood by his side for twelve years as his apprentice.

"Here's to Marie, who lives on the hill. She won't, but her sister will."

His shoulders were sore from the backslapping and well wishing as he made his way past the time clock for the last time. He slid his card in the slot slowly and carefully---as if touching the metal sides of the chute would set off some kind of deafening alarm. He listened while it slapped the hour, minute, and second of his final departure, then printed the aggregate time, rounded to the nearest tenth, for payroll purposes. He put it proudly in the "out" rack, where its little gold star with oak leaf clusters caught a glint of sunlight and highlighted it. It was one of only three cards marked like that in the plant. It signified twenty-five years of perfect attendance.

He smiled as all this reminded him of Jellyroll Rogers, the old black man who had tended his press with raw materials for the last decade. When the new calculating clocks were installed, he and Jellyroll stood together at the training demonstration on the clock's use. The attendant had entered a tough calculation, as if a person had clocked in and out several times on the same day, to show how it could accurately figure the person's time for payroll. That set of circumstances caused the time recorder to spin and chatter for a longer-than-usual few seconds as it calculated. Jellyroll scratched his head and leaned over to Leo, and whispered, "Leo---listen to that lil' bastaad dee-vide!"

Leo had the limo driver circle the plant three times, staring through the blacked-out windows at the place he had called his second home for all those years. The shrubs around the brass front doors on the visitors' entrance need pruning, he noted.

He stepped out of the limo at the former Moose Lodge and paid the driver---blowing him a kiss as he drove away from the curb. The Lodge had once occupied the second floor of the Matson Hardware building, but had long since moved its bourbon and bingo nightlife to newer quarters. Leo trudged his way up the wooden steps to the top floor, leaving his footprints outlined on the dusty old treads. He clumped down on the landing like a dumped bag of feed, ushering up a cloud of gray. With his black silk handkerchief, he slicked his patent shoes of their coating of cobwebs and dirt.

The plastic bag he pulled from his lunch briefcase said: "Tinker Bell Pawn-Your Ticket Out of Trouble." From inside the bag he removed a short-barreled .357 magnum, and he ingested it all.

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