The Summer of ’55

The Summer of 1955:

          The summer of 1955 was hot, exciting, and filled with promise. I just graduated from St. Bernard’s High School, was accepted at the University of Massachusetts, and had my first adult job at Hedstrom-Union Company in Fitchburg. The pay was a respectable $1.08 per hour. Life was good.

          Hedstrom-Union made bicycles, carriages, and children’s furniture. The finishing and assembly operations were done at different locations around the city, so interplant traffic was heavy. They always needed spare truck drivers. I said I was 18 (I was really 17). I got a job driving on old six-wheeler between plants.

The truck was an antique Ford from the 1940’s. It was an old dumper with a wooden stake body and a transmission that could frustrate a weight lifter. I would roll it away from the loading dock in low, wait until I was out of earshot, then put my shoulder behind the floor shift and push up it into second while double-clutching. My foreman would sit patiently beside me watching these antics. “Grind me a pound too,” was his only comment.

The company’s executives all lived in Gardner, about 15 miles from the plant. If we were there with an empty truck, the practice was to swing by their homes and pick up a load of rubbish for the dump. The family lived in a compound of expensive homes on neatly manicured lawns. They were nice people. My favorite person by far was Mrs. Hedstrom, Senior.

Mrs. Hedstrom was the founder’s wife and the president’s mother. A lively, social woman in her eighties, she always offered cold drinks and snacks on a hot afternoon, a story or two about the old days, and a load of rubbish for the dump. This day she had barrels of trash for me to cart away. I had the truck loaded when she asked me to take along a tin of ashes from the fireplace. Wearing my heavy canvas gloves, I grabbed the container, threw it onto the truck, and was on my way to the dump and the main plant.

It was a beautiful summer day. As we drove through town, my foreman remarked, “I don’t remember an early June this hot.” We learned the reason when we stopped for a red light. The truck’s cab filled with smoke. “Oh no!” he cried, “You’ve set the truck on fire!” I looked out the back window. Mrs. Hedstrom’s rubbish barrel was on fire and so was the back of the truck.

Quick thinking is what I do best. I got the truck rolling in low, cut across the lane against traffic, and pulled up to the front door of the local fire station. By now, the truck was fully engaged. I ran into the station yelling, “Fire! Fire!” An officer stopped me. “Where is it?” he demanded. “Outside, in the truck!” He seemed puzzled. “You brought the fire to us?”

The station started filling with smoke and he quickly realized what I had done. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the fire engine out because my flaming truck was blocking the door. “That thing is going to blow,” someone yelled, “and it will take us with it!”

Quick thinking was what they did best too. They hooked up their pumper, started it inside the station, and ran hoses up through their living quarters and out the front windows where they could douse the fire. Shortly, my flaming truck was under control. Meanwhile, the fire station was trashed. It was full of smoke and water, their living quarters were soaked and sooty, the front windows were broken, and they had a genuine attitude problem. They took my name and address, sent a tow for my truck, and reported everything to Hedstrom’s office. I suspected there would be trouble.

There was trouble. Mr. Wolfe, the personnel manager, was in the process of firing me, when Mrs. Hedstrom called and put in a few good words for me. She felt some responsibility for the ashes and found the whole story mildly amusing. Mr. Wolfe did not. He reminded her that he was the personnel manager. She reminded him that she was the founder’s wife and the president’s mother. She won. I was removed from truck driving and assigned to the warehouse – as a forklift operator.

Forklifts are fun to drive. These were electric lifts that ran around the warehouse on steel plates that gave them traction, power, and speed. I used to watch the experienced guys turn those machines on a dime. My favorite trick was the way they went from one department to another through the large swinging doors that separated inventory areas. They lowered the forks to ground level, so they would hit the steel plates bolted to the bottom of the doors. Then they leaned on the horns, picked up speed, and banged right through. The key part was to lower the forks to ground level so they hit the steel plates bolted to the doors. I remembered everything but that.

In a few days, my chance came. I was to move some pallets from one area to another and that meant going through the swinging doors. I spun that lift around, leaned on the horn, stomped on the accelerator, and headed for the doors. If only I had lowered the forks. Those forks hit the doors amidships like a battering ram. There was a great cry of twisted iron and tormented plaster. Then, down came the doors, the doorframes, and a surprisingly large hunk of the wall. I lost control of the lift by this time and it careened across the warehouse with the impaled doors in place and smashed into an order of tricycles before it toppled over and went silent. Fortunately, I was not hurt.

I knew this meant more trouble. I was right again. Mr. Wolfe figured my career might better be pursued elsewhere, but he reckoned without another call from Mrs. Hedstrom. She asked why he had assigned me to drive anything when I was only 17 years old. Somehow, she convinced him that the whole mess was his fault. I was demoted and put on the yard gang as a common laborer.

My job was to mow the Hedstrom’s lawns. They had the first self-propelled power lawnmower I ever saw. It was big and red and beautiful, with a huge Briggs & Stratton engine that could power a speedboat. It was a reel mower, but many times the size of anything I had seen before. It was only a few days before my foreman let me run it while he napped under the shade of a tree.

The younger Mr. Hedstrom showed his Swedish ancestry by maintaining one of the most beautiful flower gardens in the city. He had gardeners come in to care for these plants and by early summer his yard was a riot of beautiful colors and fragrances. It was magnificent. I learned I could cut his lawn in one-third less time by running the mower at top speed while I jogged along behind it. I was 17 and in shape. A jogger before his time.

One afternoon, as I jogged behind the roaring machine, I tripped over the exposed root of an old tree. I went down for the count, but the mower continued merrily on in its high-powered and self-propelled way. I watched in horror as it headed for the flower garden, and then in fascination as it cut a perfect, thirty-six inch swath through the center of the flowerbed. Then, choking on the flowers it had gorged, it coughed and rumbled to a halt just this side of the swimming pool.

I surveyed the damage. It was a three-foot path through the center of the garden so geometrically perfect that it looked to be the work of a landscape architect. I raked and bagged the clippings; stomach pumped the lawn mower, and loaded everything back on the truck. I awakened my foreman and said it was time to go. He looked around, congratulated me on my neatness, and we drove back to the plant in silence.

I called Mrs. Hedstrom and told her the whole story. She said to tell no one. She would handle it with her son. And she did. I don’t know how or why, but I kept my job. I was demoted a grade below common laborer and Mr. Wolfe told me not to touch machinery of any kind for any reason. He said “for life”, but I’m sure that was just to make his point. They put me back on the yard crew. Now my job was to trim hedges (with manual clippers) and pull weeds. They sent me to the home of the founder, Mr. Hedstrom, Senior. I was issued a gunnysack and told to go pull weeds. I did so with alacrity. And so many weeds there were! Three sides of his home were lined with the ugliest, scraggly, stringy looking weeds I had ever seen. I made short work of them. Within an hour I had emptied my sack onto the truck three times.

I went into the front yard where Mr. Hedstrom was taking the sun. More ugly weeds were around the steps where he sat. I started towards them. “Don’t go near those, boy!” he said.

“Why, sir?”

“Why?” He couldn’t comprehend such ignorance. “Those are Svengalis! One of the most delicate Swedish plants known to man. They blossom every two years but they are fragile and must never be touched. I went all the way to Sweden and brought those back through Customs myself.” Then he delivered the topper: “Didn’t you notice them all around the other three sides of the house?”

I excused myself to go about my duties. I walked until out of his sight, and then made a mad dash for the truck. I spent the next hour stuffing Svengalis back into the ground and piling dirt and mulch around them. By noon, the yard was done and the Svengalis looked much as they had.

The next week when I came back I found Mr. Hedstrom very distressed. “I can’t understand it,” he said. “My Svengalis died on three sides of the house. Only the ones in front here still live. What could have done that?”

“Maybe it was an early frost?” I suggested.

“In July?” he said.

I told Mrs. Hedstrom what happened. She said she’d handle it. I was demoted again and taken off both the truck and the yard crew. My new job was to sweep the factory floor – eight hours a day, sweeping the factory floor. Mr. Wolfe said to touch nothing but the broom and a dustpan. Nothing.

The problem was it didn’t take eight hours to sweep the factory floor. The factory was laid out in a circle and it didn’t take that long to get around it. I was also made nervous by the continued presence of Mr. Hedstrom, the president. He was always out there walking around and looking for malingerers. He didn’t know me by sight and I never felt compelled to introduce myself, so we never spoke. I asked my foreman what to do when Mr. Hedstrom was around. “Keep busy,” he said, “and never stop moving.” I took his guidance to heart.

I would sweep diligently for five or six hours a day, and then walk around the factory with the broom in my hand. I looked like I was on a sacred mission. Occasionally, I would round a corner to see Mr. Hedstrom coming the other way. I would smile, pick up the pace, and pass him at a fast trot.

A few weeks of this and I was called into Mr. Wolfe’s office. “Are you going to demote me again?” I asked. “No,” he said, rubbing his care-lined face, “there is no position here lower than the one you already have. You are here because … Mr. Hedstrom said to give you a raise. He likes the way you hustle.” I took the money but there was no satisfaction in Mr. Wolfe’s despair.

My exit interview was September 1, 1955. Mr. Wolfe asked me what I had been paid. I told him $1.08 to $1.15 an hour. He said that Accounting figured out that if they paid me $50.00 an hour to stay home, they would have been ahead of the game.

“By the way,” he concluded, grinding his teeth. “Mrs. Hedstrom called and said to tell you goodbye. She said she hopes you’ll come back and work for us next summer.” I said I’d think about it. I thanked Mr. Wolfe for his many kindnesses and left.

Shortly thereafter, Hedstrom-Union moved their entire operation from Fitchburg to North Carolina. Some said it was due to labor troubles. Others said they wanted closer proximity to their major markets. A few thought it was a transportation and distribution issue.

I’ve always wondered if it had anything to do with me.

 Ed. Note: “The Summer of ’55” was originally published in Reminisce Magazine in the early 90’s. It was also recorded on “Talking Books for the Blind.” It is now included in my unpublished book of essays: “Upside Down and Backwards: Essays, Musings, Adventures, and Rants From An (Over) Examined Life.”

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