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the problem solving committee

A lot happening this weekend that I was going to write about, most notably a fine, weekend party at Sara and Ray’s that served as a housewarming, welcome-the-baby-to-be, meet-the-two-families affair with freshly made carnitas.

But then I came across this photo, which an old friend had posted on Facebook some time ago, but which I hadn’t seen until today:

continental can circle group

This is a problem-solving committee from Plant 80, Pittsburg, Continental Can Company, from sometime in the early 1980s. As I recall, there was a lot of excitement over Japanese-style “quality circles”, and since at the time, Japan seemed to have all the answers as far as business and manufacturing went, Continental Can decided to try out the process. I can’t remember if I wanted to be in this group, or if I was chosen … on the one hand, I liked anything where I didn’t have to work (I was even on the safety committee for awhile); on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone in charge at that place thinking I was good for anything. I suppose they thought I was smart, who knows?

One thing that interests me is that I quit working there in 1984, almost 30 years ago, and the only person I’m still in contact with is Jeanie, the blonde-haired woman standing in front of me (I’m the semi-longhaired guy in the back on the left) … yet I can tell you the full name of five of those other people, and the first name of a sixth (only the guy on the far right slips my mind).

You know, that’s a pretty good group of people. All of them (that I can remember) were good folks, good to work with, just, well, good people, as we called it at the time. Jeanie was one of my very favorites. She was the first woman to take on a job maintaining the operation of one of the big machines in the plant, and took a lot of shit for it. I was lucky enough to work as her assistant on many an occasion, and I always felt proud to be on her team. And OK, I had my usual crush on her. Jesse, who is standing next to me, did a lot of the same jobs I did, but did them earlier … it was all based on seniority, and I think everyone in that picture had more seniority than I did. He was fun to work with, and while my memory is slipping, I feel like he, more than anyone, called me “Rube”. Next to him in the back is Rich, who was the whole package: a good worker, one of the best people you’d ever want to meet, and extremely strong … he was a big guy, but so easy-going you might not notice his strength until he’d pull off some feat in a moment of showiness.

Pat is the woman next to Jeanie. I worked with her on and off over the years, and don’t have a lot of memories of her, except that she, too, was very nice. (In case it isn’t clear, not everyone at the plant was nice. Duh.) Next to her is Elsie … I think that’s her name, it’s the one I’m not sure of … she was as smart as anyone I worked with, and it was always a pleasure to have a conversation with her.

On the left … well, that’s probably the most interesting person of them all to me. His name was Elwood, and, as you might guess from the white shirt and tie, he was a boss. A foreman, to be exact, meaning he was in charge of the work on the floor. Many (most?) foremen came from the ranks of the real workers, so there was always a bit of tension once they switched sides. Elwood was a nice man (I know, broken record), and I guarantee you I was not an easy person for a foreman. I was destructive when I was bored, I had attendance problems, and I wasn’t much of a team player … I mean, I was always ready to help out my fellow workers, but I never wanted to do what I was told … in particular, I turned down overtime every time I was offered it for ten years, and when I was forced by my low seniority to work it anyway, I was a prick about it.

Anyway, my memories of Elwood are blended with my memories of all the foremen: they were my enemies. Yet I look at this picture now, and I see Elwood, and he just looks like a guy trying to do his job. He surely deserved better than to have me working in his department.

I worked with these folks, and many others, for ten years. It’s good to see them in this picture, mostly because I’m 28 years removed from the awful drudgery of that job. I know when I finally went back to school, I often thought that my classmates lacked real-world experience. But the truth is, I had that experience, and I hated it. I was probably just jealous of my classmates. Most of the people in this photo helped get me through those ten years. If they ever read this, hey guys, thanks! (And Jeanie, I know you’ll see it, and you get double thanks.)

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