Sunday, May 21, 2006

Harvey and Ernest: Memories from the bakery #1

(It appears blogger photograph uploading gizmo isn't working at the present time, I'll try to post a picture later. It's been twenty-five years since I worked in a bakery. This is my first attempt at recalling some of my memories.)

I inherited Harvey and Ernest a few days after I graduated from college. I was a production supervisor in a wholesale bakery, a place where I’d been working since the summer after my freshman year when I took a job there traying off bread. With four years of college under my belt and a philosophy degree to hang on the wall, I decided not to even look for other employment. Of course, now that I’d graduated from college, my schedule was more flexible. When they recruited me to stay on after that first summer, they promised to keep me on second shift so that I’d be able to attend school in the mornings. This worked well, but once I’d graduated, they wanted me on the night shift. I had to pay my dues. Harvey was my oven operator and Ernest ran the pan-stackers. Although they were as different as night and day, I liked both of them.

Ernest got dubbed "Rerun" after the character played by Fred Berry on the popular 70s TV show, "What’s Happening." Both Ernest and Berry were comical, overweight and Africa-American. Harvey was a skinny, aging, white-guy, clueless about the world. As their 22-year-old supervisor, I was almost as clueless as Harvey.

My day began around mid-night, when I came in the plant and spent the first hour developing schedules. Then the first part of my shift reported. In the mixing room was Roosevelt on the mixers and Frank running the make-up equipment that took the dough, shaped it, and placed it into pans. I'll write more about them later. Ernest and Harvey would head back to the panstackers and oven and proof box area. Ernest had to get the pans ready to be put online and Harvey began his morning by making sure the proof box was warm and at the right humidity and then lighting the oven. For the next three hours, it was just the five of us. Roosevelt would start mixing the dough while Frank set up the equipment. In the back room, Ernest would set the machine for the right size pan and arrange the stacks of pans that were needed first. When the first dough was dumped from the mixer (which had a capacity of 2400 pounds), the operation would start. It was mostly automatic, dough pumped from the mixer to the divider and then traveling by various means through the rounder, sheeters and moulders, until shaped into loaves and dropped into the pans.

The automation continued as a conveyor ran the pans to the proof box, then to the oven, then through the depanner, after which the bread headed to the cooler and the pans returned for more dough. At four in the morning, Bobby and his crew came in to run the slicers and baggers and a few minutes later, freshly sliced and wrapped bread would be out in the shipping area. We produced about 7000 pounds of product an hour.

The one similarity Ernest and Harvey shared was solitude. For the most part, they wanted to do their job and be left alone except for an occasional break to smoke a cigarette. They were both good at what they did. Once Ernest got things set up and running smoothly, he’d lean against the machinery and rest. From then on, his role was to clear jams and troubleshoot problems. I knew he’d developed the skill of sleeping upright against the machines. Any change in vibration would wake him up and he’d fix the problem and then return to his nap.

Of course, Ernest insisted he never slept. Even though I knew he was I wasn’t troubled by it because he always got his job done. But I also had a point to prove. One morning, while he was napping and the machines humming smoothly, I found a piece of twine and fashioned a tail, much like you make for a kite, and tied it to a belt loop on the back of his pants. Ernest snoozed. Once he woke, he couldn't see it, he was too big. Over the next several hours, quite a few visitors made their way back to see his tail. He wasn’t too happy with me when I spilled the beans, asking him if he grew the tail while sleeping on the job. It wasn’t a very nice joke and was probably dangerous considering the equipment we worked with, but in time he forgave me and I stopped hounding him about sleeping.

Harvey worked in the most isolated part of the plant. Ernest was located near the receiving docks, so he’d often see people walking by. But nobody walked by Harvey’s workstation unless they wanted to see him or were lost. The only people Harvey saw regularly were supervisors and mechanics. His oversaw the most automotive section in the plant. When things worked properly, it was a breeze. When something went wrong, such as a jam in the oven, Harvey didn’t call just for help. He hit a switch that activated a horn that could be heard throughout the bakery, summoning mechanics and me to drop whatever we were doing and run back to the oven. A major malfunction at that point in production meant we had only a couple of minutes to get things going before losing thousands of loaves of bread. Luckily, things kept humming most of the time.

The mechanics often spent time with Harvey, making minor adjustments, watching to make sure things were running okay, and mostly avoiding work. A couple mechanics took it upon themselves to educate Harvey, something that nearly six decades of life had failed to do. Pornographic magazines, often very graphic, were utilized as textbooks. Being in management, I was spared their instruction, but I always knew when Harvey had received a lesson for he’d be beside himself and would start babbling to me about it. "You wouldn’t believe what that girl was doing," he’d say. "Why would someone do that," he asked? Although I don’t think he was a religious man, the general depravity of the human race troubled Harvey greatly.

My favorite memory concerning Harvey and Ernest happened early one morning. We’d been having trouble with people breaking into cars parked outside the plant, especially older ones which didn't have hood latches inside the car. On these vehicles, the thieves didn't have to get into the car to be able to pop the hood and steal the battery. Ernest drove a big old dark-green Cadillac. To keep it safe, he’d park on the street, right next to the loading dock and under a streetlight. This morning, about 1 AM, as I was going over the schedule with Ernest, telling him how many of what type of pans we’d need, Harvey went out on the loading dock for a smoke. When he returned, he asked Ernest, without sensing anything wrong, "Who’d you get to work on your car at this time of night?" Ernest took off out the door like a locomotive, cussing and screaming. The guys stealing his battery dropped their tools and took off. Harvey had no clue; Ernest gained a pair of pliers and a wrench.

I talked to the police. They told me to mark the batteries. A battery with identifying mark that didn’t belong to the person trying to sell it made it difficult to be resold. Salvage yards would have police check such batteries. I went out that morning and purchased an engraver and offered to write the license plate numbers on top of my employees’ car batteries. Word about this quickly spread around the neighborhood and I don’t remember any more batteries being stolen.

I worked the night shift for a year and would stay at the bakery for another year after that. I still think about those guys and wonder whatever happened to Ernest and Harvey.


  1. First, I thought you were an you have multiple degrees? Will need to chat with you further regarding this philosophy degree, that's cool :)

    Second, rather than the engraver why didn't you buy a very solid baseball bat & entice the thieves in....then you could've got revenge & stress relief at the same time lol ;)

  2. wow...great story

    did you ever consider running the thieves thru your oven to do an "on line" inspection? *S*

  3. I would love to see the inside of a bakery plant. I am pretty much fascinated with anything like that. I still can vividly remember my tour of the Chrysler minivan plant in St. Louis like it was yesterday instead of over a decade ago.

  4. I am loving these looks back into your past. It really gives us an insight into you.

  5. ditto dawn. such lovely stories.
    i also loved looking around factories. probably because i was lucky enough never to actually work in one! though this sounds quite fun. didn't the smell of freshly baked bread make you drool??!! or did you just get sick of the stuff?

  6. That is quite a first job...

    This is a wonderful story about yur co-workers you remember them well. I really enjoyed this.

  7. Daydreamer: Nah, I'm no Engineer, but I do have multiple degrees. Don't think I would be up for beating someone with a baseball bat over a battery.

    Mallory, the oven eh? Nah, you must think I'm a vigilante.

    I toured a bakery when I was in Cub Scouts and living in Virginia. A bit over a decade later, I was working in one. I do plan to write more about my experiences there, a modern plant is something to behold, to watch flour being blown in to silos from trucks or railcars and later coming out of the oven, as soldiers marching behind each other.

    Dawn, I wonder what kind of picture I'm creating of myself?

    Keda, the smell was heavenly for about two weeks, then you didn't notice it anymore.

    OCG, thanks for stopping by. It was quite a job--one that I'd later leave and take another that paid much less, but I still have good memories of working there.

  8. Was this back in the good ol' days of no hairnets and no mandatory handwashing after a visit to the restroom? As for Ernest and Harvey, have Ed look him up. He's a great P.I.

  9. I think I'll go engrave my battery right now!! This is a good story, Sage.

  10. Murf: I could probably find them, if they're alive. I know where some of the folks are who worked at the bakery and occasionally see one guy who keeps me up to date. I didn't have a beard during this phase in my life cause I'd have to wear a net over it. We were required to wear hardhats in parts of the plant, in other parts hairnets were required. ANd if things were running properly, the bread wasn't touched until after it was bagged.

    Kenju, cars today all have an inside latch for the hood, making it hard to steal the battery. If someone is going to break inside your car, they'll go after more than just a battery. (the last time I had a car broke into, I lost fishing gear, some camera stuff and an ice axe!

  11. Great walk down memory lane Sage. I too think it might be a wonderful idea to look up these old friends ... I mean if the guy who keeps you up to date still keeps in touch with them.

    I do have a bread question though. Was this just one kind of bread? White? Or did your factory produce a variety of bread?

    And did you have time to read during those long nights?

  12. V. The night shift produced a variety of breads--1 pound loaves of wheat, rye, high fiber (sawdust) and pound and a half loaves of multi-grains and old fashioned white. Then we'd shift over to white--which was ran all through the day shifts. That's what sold in the south in the late 70s and early 80s.

    I think Ernest has died and the guy I know there wasn't sure what happened to Harvey. Roosevelt was murdered a few years after I left, which I'll write about later.

  13. You're a good writer; you know how to tell real life stories from your past that intrigue us all. Many thanks.

  14. You really are a good writer. Funny what memories we hold in us! Ernest and Harvey are great names too!

  15. i do love your tales. what a good boss too, getting that engraver.

    don't know why, but i have a wicked strong craving for a hunk o' crusty bread with my coffee right about now

  16. Tim, As a baker yourself, you'll have to share some of your stories.

    Deana, I'd thought about paralleling Frank (in the mixing room) with Ernest (Frank and Ernest), but it just didn't work and Harvey's question about who was working on Ernest's car drew these two together.

    Rose, we didn't make any wickedly crusty bread--all ours was soft--the really good bread we brought from another bakery that specialized in those products. I still enjoy baking bread, often doing it when I get to a point when I need some stress relief, and good crusty loaf of french bread is a treat.

  17. A warm crusty loaf of anykind of bread and some butter is paradise for me. I've been known to eat half a loaf of warm bread for supper and nothing else! If Dr. Atkins heard that, he would probably roll over in his grave.

  18. Ed, that's okay, Doc Atkins can rollover in his grave... after all, he's dead and your not!

  19. Built an addition on a bakery between turkey day and Santa Claus Day last year. Loved the smell. Excellent story!!

  20. Love first job after college stories. Somehow when you begin college, you expect something a bit different...

    Another great story Sage, and think you should find out what happened to Ernest and Harvery. If not for you, for your readers ;-)