Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Army, The Orange Juice, and The Nuns

The Army, The Orange Juice and The Nuns:

 

It was the summer of 1963. I was out of the active army and back in Fitchburg as a member of the US Army Active Reserve. This meant one night a week (sometimes two), one weekend a month at nearby Fort Devens, and two weeks in the summer on active duty at Camp Drum in New York.

I was a first lieutenant, and in an understaffed reserve company in a small city that was plenty of rank indeed. I had my own Jeep. Anyone who has ever been in the service will tell you that having your own Jeep is the ultimate perk. You can tote things, you can pull things, you can get lost for a couple of hours, and nobody said a word.

Each month we went to FortDevens for our weekend training. We were using training manuals that came out of World War II, while our troops in Vietnam were learning strategy and tactics that made our stuff look archaic. I remember being joined one day by a training officer just back from Vietnam. He watched us attack a hill like our books said to do it. We softened it with machine gun and mortar fire, and then marched across an open field toward the hill, firing from the shoulder as we walked. He shook his head sadly. “All you need now,” he said, “is a set of bagpipes and a drum and you can take any hill in India.”

Military techniques aside, the logistics of feeding hundreds of weekend warriors was a great challenge for the Army Reserve. We may not have known the latest techniques, but we knew how to eat, and three meals a day were absolutely essential. The problem was: How many people do you plan for? We had over 200 people on our roster, but on any given weekend they could get excused, sick, or simply disappear. How many rations should we order? We thought better order a few extra than a few less, so we’d order for the full complement, and end up with leftovers. All good food, mind you, baskets and boxes of it: All sealed and safe, even if out of the original packing container.

“What happens to all the leftovers?” I asked the mess sergeant one June Sunday as I looked at about fifty lunches untouched after an all day drill.

“We throw them away,” he said.

“What? Throw them away?” I couldn’t believe it. What a waste. “Why not turn them back into the quartermaster?”

“Reason one,” he began, as though talking to a child, “How do you turn in a sandwich?

“Reason two,” to whom do you turn it in? The quartermaster people aren’t here on Sunday.”

“And reason three,” he concluded, “if you turn any stuff back in, they get upset at your over ordering, and they cut back your order the next time, and that may be the time you really need it. You could have a food riot on your hands.”

“Then let the guys take the extra lunches home.”

“That, Sir,” he sneered, “is called theft of government property.”

I gave it a lot of thought. Well, a minute or two anyway. I said, “Load those lunches into my Jeep and cover them with a tarp. I will handle the matter from here.”

And so it was that I became a food thief from the US Army. That first time it was box lunches of sandwiches, chips, and drinks. I brought them to a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The preacher thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said, “Tell me your name so I can write the Army and let them know what a good man you are.”

“Please don’t,” I replied. “It’s not necessary and they’d probably just shoot me anyway.” I felt like the Lone Ranger leaving incognito the scene of a random act of kindness.

Nobody at the Fort noticed or mentioned the missing box lunches.

The next month, July, it was bacon, eggs, bread and milk. There were cases of the stuff. I took it all to a local nursing home. They were very happy. I did my good deed and slipped away into the night. Once again, nobody noticed a thing.

All this while, by the way, I was complaining to my commanding officer about this waste of government property (the throwing it away part, not the stealing it part). I suggested that unused food should be turned over to the base kitchen for use the next day. The paperwork, he said, would be a real killer. Then there would be audits and inspections and questions. But, he agreed, my idea made sense and he would see what he could do. I noticed the Army usually ends up doing what makes sense. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

It was the orange juice and the nuns that did me in. All that was left in the kitchen tent that hot August Sunday afternoon was orange juice: Fifteen one gallon cans of the stuff. I loaded them into my Jeep, strapped down the tarp, and thought: “What will I do with these? Who would want fifteen gallons of orange juice?” I exited Route #2 West coming from the Fort and pulled up on South Street in Fitchburg, when it came to me like a flash. The nuns! This road took me right past the convent where the retired Sisters of the Presentation made their mother house for the retired nuns who had taught in the local parochial school systems. That was the answer. My mother worked with these elderly nuns and they appreciated every little kindness done for them. I would give them the orange juice for a Sunday afternoon treat.

I wheeled my Jeep into their convent driveway, knocked on the door, and asked for Sister “Cook.” Honest, that’s what they all called her. I gave her a brief explanation, short on specifics, carried the cans into the kitchen for her, and was on my way. It bothered me a bit that she seemed to recognize me. How could a nun recognize every little kid she had met over a fifty year career? Especially some twenty years later when he showed up in a uniform with a steel helmet, and a Jeep load of orange juice.

Yes, I had done another good deed and once again, I was sure, no one would be the wiser. How could I get into trouble giving orange juice to the nuns? The question was answered the next morning when my mother called me, “What did you do to those poor nuns?” she demanded.

“I gave them orange juice: Fifteen gallon cans of orange juice.”

“And did you read the labels?” she continued. Those were one gallon cans of concentrated orange juice. You empty those cans and then fill them up again with water four times each. You gave them seventy-five gallons of orange juice.”

“I’m guessing that’s bad?” I asked.

“Bad? Bad? They’ve filled every pot in the convent with orange juice. You know they can’t waste anything. Now they’ll have to drink it before it turns bad. The old nuns are asking for a glass of water or a cup of tea and Mother Superior is telling them to drink the orange juice first. They weren’t sure you were all that bright in grammar school. Now they know for certain.”

“I’ll solve the problem,” I began. “I’ll go down there and….”

“Stay away from them,” she warned. “Sister Cook is a little confused these days. She’s been telling people about armed soldiers coming into her kitchen and forcing her to take all that orange juice. If you show up, they’ll put the story together and you could be in trouble with both the nuns and the Army.”

“Mother,” I said, “it sounds like Sister Cook is making up what we call a cover story…”

“Just stay away from the convent. The Ladies Club is holding a bridge club and bazaar there this afternoon. Thanks to you, the refreshments will be orange juice, orange pudding, orange muffins, orange bread, and fresh fruit orange drinks.” She broke off the connection, obviously upset.

I reviewed my position. I had probably committed a federal crime. If the Army found out, it could mean Leavenworth Prison. A bunch of gentle old nuns wanted my scalp. My own mother had turned on me. And no good deed goes unpunished. I had implemented better plans than this.

Well, it all blew over. Mother and her friends helped use up all the orange juice at their bazaar. The old nuns could have tea again. I was free and clear. And by September, the Army was routing unused drill food back into the army kitchen system. Nothing would be wasted again. Mother forgave me, like always. I figured the nuns would just forget about it and it would all be over. I was wrong again.

Ten years later I went to a local benefit and they wheeled in a few of the surviving nuns from the South Street Convent. One of them must have been in her nineties. It was Sister Cook.

I smiled at her in the reception line and tried to ooze past, but she grabbed my arm with a grip of steel. “Which brother?” she wheezed, asking the question my brothers Leo, George, and I were always being asked. I told her I was the youngest, Edward. She stared at me for a moment, and then said, “You’re the nut with the orange juice, aren’t you?”

I smiled and nodded yes. She said, “We almost had a revolt until your mother and her friends got rid of it all.” Then, she smiled and nodded too. It was our shared secret and it was a safe as it could be. I went home in peace.

 

    “The Army, The Orange Juice, and the Nuns” was a follow-up to “The Summer of ’55” published in Reminisce Magazine in the 90’s.

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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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