Coming of Age at the Bakery

Introduction

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In the summer of 1976, I began working at Fox Holsum Bakery in Wilmington, NC. I had just finished my first year of college. I was hired for a summer job, to tray off bread. At the end of the summer, the plant manager asked if I would be interested in continuing to work on second shift. This would allow me to attend classes in the morning. He promised to work with me while I was in college. I stayed on at the bakery, moving up to running the bread slicers and baggers. Next, they promoted me to oven operator. Sometime in my senior year of college, I became a supervisor. I continued with the banker for almost two years after graduation, when I decided to take a major pay cut and go to work for the Boy Scouts of America. 

The bakery no longer exists even though the building and the flour silos along the railroad tracks were still standing a few years ago when I rode by the plant. I hope to rework a number of essays I’ve written about some of the characters I knew during this period of time. Over the next few months, as I work on them, I will post them here. 

Linda and the Summer of ’76

The intoxicating smell of yeast overwhelmed me the week after I finished my freshman year in college. It was our nation bicentennial year and I had accepted a summer job in the bakery—traying bread. If ever there was an entry level position, this was it. Bread came out of the bagging machine, 70 or 80 loaves a minute, and I put the loaves on trays or in tubs. Ten pound and a half loaves per tray or tub, twelve-pound loaves each. I placed the full trays, 30 to a rack. Bread going into tubs I stacked fifteen high. When I filled a rack or completed a stack, a guy from the shipping department hauled them away and placed another rack or stack of tubs for me to fill. Eight or more hours a day, another guy and I handled the bread. The nation’s bicentennial summer promised to be long and hot.

But there was a bright side. My work station faced the roll packing line and there, maybe thirty feet away, was Linda. In her mid-30s, she was a hot blonde fireball. She wore a short white uniform skirt that showed off her tanned legs. Her uniform top hugged her body and showed off her curves. She wore slip-in mules on her feet with two-inch heels, as was as high as allowed within the plant. Her hair, she pulled into a bun, a requirement for working around food. Little ringlets stuck out from under her hat.

From where I stood, I could see Linda’s backside. Being short, she had to rise up on her toes, her heels leaving her shoes as she reached across the conveyor, a process she’d complete a dozen or so times a minute. Each time, her muscles tensed just enough to display her well-shaped calves and thighs. For the first week or so, I watched Linda in awe, from the safety of my station. 

Loud, Linda could just as easily tell a joke as to cuss out a supervisor. Her job was every bit as boring as mine, but making the best of it, she entertained everyone. She and Virginia, her co-worker, stood where the hamburger and hotdog buns came off the cooling conveyor. Her job was to lightly place four or six rolls into a slot on another conveyor. Virginia would then place another set of rolls on top and a pocket conveyor would take them through the bagging process. 

Linda always said hi when I walked by the roll line, but we never talk during my first few weeks on the job. Then it happened. Virginia got sick. Having proved I could pick up basic skills quickly, and since I was done early this day, a supervisor asked if I would take Virginia’s place. For the next three hours, I stood by Linda, as together we packed rolls. She was flirty and funny and seemed to take as much delight working next to me as I did of being beside her.

Harold, one of the mechanics, also had an eye for Linda.  I didn’t particularly like him, primarily because he always called me “College Boy.” As we worked into the night hours that evening, Harold came by chatting. He was sipping a Mountain Dew and offered Linda a drink.  She took a sip and handed it back to him.  

“Here, College Boy, you thirsty?” I thought this offer was strange, but also saw my chance to get back at him. I took the can, tossed my head back and began to chug. It wasn’t Mountain Dew, at least not the soft drink variety. There I stood with a mouth full of rut-gut bourbon and all eyes were on me. Everyone assumed I knew it was liquor. It was part luck, part willpower, that I didn’t baptize the rolls with bourbon. My throat burned as I down my mouthful. For the rest of the evening, things were a lot sillier.

I don’t remember much about the Bicentennial that summer, except that I went down to the river with my girlfriend on the night of July 4th. The fireworks, to be launched from the deck of the battleship across the river, promised to be the largest display ever in the city. It rained and the display wasn’t very impressive. We were disappointed, but there were a lot of things to be disappointed over during ’76.  Although the horrors of Vietnam were over, there was a sense we’d failed. The economy was shot and interest rates were going through the roof. Gerald Ford was in the White House, due to the moral failings of Nixon and Agnew. People were suggesting the American era was over, which was daunting prospect for a kid about to leave his teen years behind. But in this dark era, Linda brought a little light to the world.

“Why don’t we go out tonight?” she’d ask when I walked by her work station. Or, “When are you coming over to my apartment?” she’d yell in front of everyone. I shunned Linda’s suggestions, but ate up the attention. I felt like a king the night I worked a double shift and she came back, unexpectedly, with dinner. She had prepared it herself. I don’t remember what she fixed, but we ate in the break room. Linda sat across the table from me, smiling the whole time, proud of her efforts.

When Linda quit the bakery the next year, she threw a big party. Naïve as always, I didn’t realize the party was Linda’s last attempt to woo me. At 10:30 PM, everyone suddenly left her apartment. She’d set this up. I was in the kitchen with Linda when people started heading out.  Soon, everyone was gone except for a shipping dock worker who was stoned and sleeping on the couch. Linda stepped in front of me, rose up on her toes and wrapped her arms around my neck. Her perfume was strong. I sat my glass down on the counter and wrapped my arms around the small of her back. Then she surprised me when her mouth found mine. She gave me a deep passionate kiss. It seemed to last forever. We had to stop to breathe.

“Does your girlfriend kiss you like that?” she asked as she looked up into my eyes.  I smiled, but didn’t answer.

“Why don’t I help you clean things up,” I said after a pause. I backed away and began to collect glasses. We joked around and talked of memories at the bakery as we gathered and washed dishes. When done, I woke the guy sleeping on the couch and offered him a ride home. He nodded and headed out. At the door, I turned and said goodbye. Linda leaned close. She kissed my cheek and whispered, “Why don’t you come back?” 

It was tempting, but we both knew I wouldn’t.

Recent article

If you’re interested in other writings of mine, here is a recent piece written for the Carroll County News in Hillsville, Virginia. The article looks at Easter, from Friday through Saturday to Sunday. Click here.

18 thoughts on “Coming of Age at the Bakery”

  1. Running a little behind, but glad I went back for this one! I would have been scared s—less by someone like Linda, but flattered by the attention. I was one year behind you, graduating from high school in 76, and woefully naïve.

  2. I worked my 1st 2 years after high school in Brick yard while going to college! The one thing I learned from that job was that I didn’t want that to my life’s work! At the brickyard there were many locals, mostly Italians who worked there from the time they graduated or didn’t, and this was their life’s job! They were hard workers, fun loving and great people to be around! They loved playing practical jokes on all the newbies ! Like stuffing straw down the
    Backs of ones who worked in the boxcars which usually were in the hundreds inside! Oh how that straw make your back itch everywhere or hiding your lunch bucket so you would have about 10 minutes to consume it before going back to work ! But they were always jovial and would take care of you if anything went wrong! I still cherish those days! The brickyard is long gone and I wonder if they are still living!I thinks that was one of God’s plan for me as It gave me a better outlook on life! Praise God! A member of that Church in 1990

  3. I thought this was going to be a remake of Garth Brook’s “That Summer” and instead it ended more like his “Unanswered Prayers”.

    Yesterday I flipped the television on for a few minutes and happened to land on a channel about a bread factory showing how bread is made. I had visions of you from your past stories. Now this morning I am reading about it again.

    • I need to find that program. I wonder how things have changed. When I left, we were just beginning to talk of the possibility of computers monitoring ph levels, etc, and making automatic adjustments. I wonder if this happened. And posting this again without Murf just doesn’t seem right 🙂

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