Jesus: The Bread of Life

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Church
August 1, 2021
John 6:25-40


Sermon recorded at Mayberry Presbyterian Church on Friday, July 30, 2021

At the beginning of worship:

      I want to thank Libby Wilcox and Mike Nyquist for preaching the last two weeks. The texts they used—from Matthew and John’s gospel, both spoke of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude. In John’s gospel, there is a follow up to this story. When word spreads about Jesus having free bread, crowds multiply. 

       Jesus wants to teach a deeper lesson. He equates bread with God’s word. This isn’t anything new. It’s in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, we are reminded we live not by bread alone, but by the word of God. Lady Wisdom in Proverbs invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The prophet Amos speaks of a coming famine. But he’s not talking about a shortage of bread, but of the word of God.[1]

Bread is an appropriate symbol of God’s word. Bread made of grain sustains our bodies; bread as the word of God sustains our lives. Bread that is old becomes stale; it needs to be constantly refreshed. So does our faith, which is refreshed as we study God’s word.

Read John 6:25-40

After the scripture

Jesus wants to give the crowd so much more than a few crumbs which will soon be consumed or mold. But the crowd, some whom benefited from Jesus’ dramatic feeding of the multitude the day before, don’t get it. They want food. 

The climax of this passage comes in verses 34 and 35. Then the crowd asks Jesus to give them bread always and Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.” These guys are talking to Jesus, God incarnate, and all they can think about are their stomachs. 

Coming down hard on the crowds

It’s easy to come down hard on the crowd. Yes, we know, they’re greedy. But then, are we any different? When I consider my prayer life, I know how I’m much more likely I am to pray when I am in need or trouble. “Lord, I just want…, Lord, I just need…” Am I any different than the crowd? Are you? If I’d been there, not only would I have wanted such bread, I’d wanted it hot and fresh and with a tad of butter and a bit of jam? Out taste buds draw us in. 

Jesus attempts to pound through their heads that bread, made of flour and water, isn’t what’s most important. Bread molds. Remember, Jesus’ advice about not worrying about storing up riches that rust or can be stolen?[2]  Ultimately, things aren’t important. Jesus is important. Jesus Christ, God incarnate. Jesus gives and sustains life. But the temptation to think otherwise is overwhelming! 

When you’re hungry and your stomach is gnawing, a loaf of bread looks pretty good. When you’re feeling blue, the idea of feasting on a rich meal or drowning your sorrows in well-aged bourbon or rich ice cream is tempting. We all suffer from a spiritual hunger and try to fill this void with stuff.[3] On TV we’re told, in not-so-subtle terms, that new cars and certain beverages will help us to enjoy life to the fullness. But it doesn’t work; we end up even hungrier.      

       Yes, it’s too easy to come down too hard on the crowd. Sure, they’re greedy. But we are no different!  It’s just that the economic scales have changed. We no longer crave simple bread; we’d want a croissant or at least raisin bread with a tad of peanut butter.  Think about it. Bread is such a basic food; we take it for granted. 

For us, bread is cheap

How many of you don’t eat the end pieces of a loaf? Let’s see hands. At best, I bet, we crumble them up and feed them to the birds. At worst, they end up in the landfill feeding the seagulls. And why should we eat the end pieces when we can run to the store and pick up a fresh loaf. 

Bread is cheap. Even someone making minimum wage earns enough to buy a loaf in 15 minutes.

       Now, I’m neither an economist nor an anthropologist, but I’d venture to guess those in the ancient world labored a lot more than a quarter of an hour for their daily bread. Think of all involved. The planting and harvesting of wheat, the grinding of the grain by hand, the mixing and kneading and shaping of the dough, and building of the fire in the oven, the proofing and baking. They couldn’t rush down to the store and buy a loaf using the spare change lying on their dashboard. Bread had value. They’d seen Jesus break a few loaves of bread and fed 5,000 folks. They’d feasted at Jesus’ table and wanted more!  

My bakery experience

       I worked in a wholesale bakery for five years. It started as a summer job between my first and second year in college. They liked me. When promised to work with my college schedule if I stayed on, I agreed. For the next three years, I went to school in the mornings and went to work in the afternoon. 

I still remember the first time I entered the plant and was overcome with the aroma. The smell of yeast bread baking seemed heavenly. It didn’t last. Pretty soon, I didn’t notice the smells anymore and the excitement of watching the loaves rise and bake waned. It became a job; I took it all for granted, kind of like the crowd taking Jesus’ miracles for granted.

       I quickly worked up the ranks and during my senior year of college, I was also a production supervisor. With seven employees and a lot of modern technology, I oversaw the production of 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of bread an hour. A lot of dough! 

If you figure a ½ pound of bread a person, technology has caught up with one of Jesus’ great miracles. Jesus and the disciples fed 5,000 people—we could have done the same in about twenty minutes. Of course, we needed a few ingredients like a rail car of flour, tank cars of sweetener and shortening, pallets of yeast and salt along with lots of electricity and natural gas. In Jesus’ day, it would have taken quite a production to produce that much bread which makes his miracle even greater!   

       One of my claims to fame as a baker was throwing away more bread than anyone else in the history of the plant. In one hot summer afternoon, we threw away 24,000 loaves of pound and half bread—that’s 36,000 pounds or 18 tons. 

The bread this day rose nicely in the proof box. But when it came onto the conveyor between the proofer and oven, it dropped flat as a pancake. By the time we realized we had a problem and checked everything, we had all the loaves for that batch in the system. The only thing to do was to bake the bread and then dump the loaves out of the pans, by hand, for they were too small to be picked up by the depanner. As the loaves accumulated on the floor, a forklift equipped with a scoop, picked it up and took it the loading dock. 

It was humbling to watch that much bread go to waste. This was especially true for me, the guy in charge. I had no idea what the problem might be. We tried everything. Finally, after nothing helped, we did something radical. We changed all our ingredients, going to new manufacturing lots. This meant hauling pallets of fresh ingredients from the warehouse and changing the silo from which we drew the flour. After six hours, the bread returned to normal. 

I could finally breathe a sigh of relief even though a cloud hung over my head. It took a few days, but after having a lab test our bread and the ingredients we were using, the mystery was solved. The enrichment, those vitamins and stuff you add to flour to replace that which is lost in the milling and bleaching process, had way too much iron. 

The extra iron was the problem. My neck was saved. Our ingredient supplier reimbursed us for the cost of the wasted bread—I suppose you could say he brought dinner for thousands of hogs in eastern North Carolina, as that’s how we disposed of most of the bread.[4]

We take bread for granted

Bread, for us, is not as special as it was for our ancestors. They couldn’t image throwing away that much bread! To the ancient ones, bread was considered a gift from God. It was to be used and not wasted. For some Jews, you don’t waste even a bite of bread. This custom has its roots in the wilderness experience where they had to depend daily upon God’s manna from heaven. 

In our modern world, we need to consider the work that goes into bread and cherish it as a gift. Like Jesus conversation about water in John 4, here he takes a common item and makes it holy. God is encounter through the ordinary!  

Encountering Jesus in the ordinary

Kathleen Norris has a little book titled The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.” Quotidian is a sixty-four dollar word that means ordinary. In this book she brings out how the divine can be encountered through ordinary events of the day. Quoting another author, she recalls an “Ah-ha” moment: “I had never thought about the obvious fact that preparing a meal can be a sign of caring and loving communication because food just has never been an avenue of communication for me.”[5]

Jesus uses the bread to communicate a more sustaining truth about himself! Norris goes on to suggest that our daily ordinary tasks, if approached reverently, can save us from the trap that religion is merely an intellectual exercise of “right belief.”[6] Our God is Lord of all and therefore concerned with all aspects of our lives.

 Even though bread is so common for us that we take it for granted, we should not lose sight that it’s not that way for many people in the world. Bread, in the form of tortillas, is still the basic food of survival in many countries to the south of us. Watching women make tortillas in Honduras, a daily task, reminds us that we’re to pray for our daily bread.  Even though bread may represent only a fraction of our budgets, we need to consider its value and treat it with respect. 

Seeing bread as a valuable gift, we link the bread that sustains our bodies and the bread that sustains our lives. One loaf nourishes our bodies and the other our souls. Both are ultimately from God. Together they make us whole and for both we should give thanks

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we thought of Jesus throughout the day, whenever we encountered bread? At breakfast as we butter toast, we give thanks. At lunch, as we slather peanut butter and jelly between two slices of bread, we give thanks. At dinner, as we chew on freshly baked biscuits or yeasted rolls, we give thanks.

 If we could just pause a moment before consuming another slice of bread, and think about Jesus, we’d begin to appreciate bread and all the hands that go into making it. And we’d also begin to sense just how important Jesus is to our lives… Amen. 

Making tortillas in Guatamala 2018 Photo by Jeff Garrison

[1] Deuteronomy 8:3; Proverbs 9:5-6; Amos 8:11ff

[2] Matthew 6:19-20.

[3] Craig Barnes addresses this spiritual hunger in many of his books.  See especially Yearnings: Living Between How it is and How It Ought to Be (Dowers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991) and Sacred Thirst (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

[4] I provide more details of this fiasco in this blog post:   

[5] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.”(New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 73.

[6] Norris, 77.

Another Bakery Story: The Perils of Working on the Christian Sabbath

I have already told you about becoming the oven operator about a year after starting in the bakery. It was a good move. The position was at the top of the hourly pay scale, and I had almost a quarter of the plant to  myself. I monitored the proof box, oven, depanner, and cooler. The oven, cooler and proofer were each the size of a house, the oven could hold nearly 1500 loaves while the proofer and cooler could hold over 4000 loaves at one time. This whole complex was automatic with lots of lights and bells to indicate something was wrong. I mostly walked around, making sure the electric eyes were working, checking the temperature in the various zones of the oven, the humidity in the proof box, and the temperature of the bread coming out of the cooler. If everything ran well, it was the best job in the plant. I could keep an eye on things while I reviewed formulas for chemistry or dates and names for a history class. But when things didn’t go well, it was a headache.

Thunderstorm havoc

One Sunday afternoon (we baked on Sunday for Monday sales), a thunderstorm seemed to sit on top of the plant. The lightning popped close, and each strike caused us to momentarily lose power. Since electricity ignited the oven burners, any loss of power automatically shut the gas off. When that happened, I went to work. The oven had around 50 burners. A manual knob had to be turned off for each burner. Then the dampers were opened so the oven could be purged with air. Then you could relight the oven safely. This was a safety feature to reduce the risk of explosion. Once the gas was back on, I’d light the burners, close the dampers, and continue. 

Having this happen once wasn’t a problem. Working fast, I could shut the oven down and re-ignited in about five minutes. Even having to go through the cycle twice in a row wasn’t too bad as I could slow the oven down and allow bread to bake longer to compensate for the loss of heat. But this day, we had several storms and they seemed to sit on top of us. I’d barely get the oven back baking before we’d lost power for a few seconds. Then I’d have to start over. 

Soon, the temperature in the oven was down 50, then 100, then 150 degrees. With an internal temperature of barely 200 degrees, there was no way I could slow the speed down enough to bake the bread. Slowing it too much caused the dough in the proofer to rise too high. Half baked bread had to be tossed. The mechanic on duty finally called his supervisor, the plant engineer, who told him how to rewire the panel, jumping over the safety switch. He did this and I was finally able to keep the oven going long enough to get the heat back up. However, the thought of a bypassed safety was scary. I’d heard of ovens that had exploded. But we had to do something had to be done if we were going to get back into production.

Crippling the most bread in the plant’s history

We lost a couple thousand loaves of bread with the thunderstorms, but it wasn’t anything compared to an incident that also occurred on a Sunday afternoon a few years later. At this point in my bakery career, I was a new supervisor. Things had been humming along as we were making the pound and a half squared off white bread, the type that has no taste but was so popular back in the late 70s and early 80s. We’d often make 45,000 loaves of this bread a day. John, my oven operator called over the intercom this Sunday Afternoon to say that something was wrong. The dough rose nicely in the proof book. But when the pans came onto the conveyor between the proofer and the oven, where lids were placed on the pans, the dough suddenly dropped. Yep, we had a problem.

The white spongy squared-off bread wasn’t mixed in a traditional manner. A machine called a dough-maker created this bread. This machine mixed the dough at high pressure and speed in just a few minutes. Traditional mixers had cooling jackets and the dough mixed slowly at cool temperatures). This machine not only mixed, but also cut the dough into shapes and dropped it into pans. It was fed automatically with flour, corn syrup, shortening and a brew that smelled like bad beer. The brew contained a bit of flour, the fermented yeast, salt and all kinds of additives and each batch. Large stainless-steel tanks mixed the brew. Each tank made enough to make approximately 3000 loaves of bread. That meant if we had a bad brew, I had at least 3000 loaves of bad bread in the proof box, about forty minutes of production. It was a frightening thought. I went back to the mixing area and with my mixing operator we checked everything repeatedly. I had him checking and recording the dough’s ph. and temperature continuously. We checked the temperature of the brews. Everything seemed fine. I assumed something had been left out of the brew.

As this “fallen bread” started to come out of the oven, I had to pull some employees from the wrapping department to dump the pans of bread because it was too small for the depanner to pull out of the pan. Soon, back beside the cooler, there was a large pile of hot bread on the floor. Our production goal was to keep cripples under half a percent a day. There was no way I’d make my goal for the day, I probably wouldn’t make my goal for the week and maybe not for the year. When it got time for the next batch to start coming out of the proofer, I was hopefully that the problem would be over. It wasn’t; the bread continued to fall. I then had my mixing operator to shut down, dump the brews and to start over with fresh ingredients. I watched carefully. I made sure everything was measured just right. It put a large gap in production, but we had to find the problem. By this point, we already had a few thousand loaves of bread on the floor, and with another 6000 in the system, I was about to panic. 

I called the plant manager, who called the general manager and the maintenance supervisor, and they all came in. Soon, even the owners were on site. It was a mystery and even with all the top brass, no one knew what the problem might be. Making things even more mysterious, the roll line wasn’t having a problem, it was just the bread. I watched with anticipation as this new batch, made with new brew, made it way through the proofer. The bread rose nicely, but so had the early bread. I was there, along with the plant manager and general manager, when that dough came out of the proof box. But again, once it got between the proofer and oven, it fell. 

At this point, the plant manager suggested even more drastic actions. We stopped production and got all new ingredients from a different shipment. This meant that we had to send people to a warehouse to get ingredients that came from different shipments. We also changed the silo we were drawing the flour from just in case something was wrong with the flour.

While we were scurrying around trying to pinpoint the problem, a crisis was building back behind the cooler. Crippled bread piled up. Generally, we packed crippled bread in 55-gallon barrels. The barrels brought in a couple bucks when we sold then to small time hog farmers for feed. The farmers brought back the empty barrels for refilling. Another way to get rid of crippled bread was to bag it without slicing and selling it to a seafood place that made crab cakes. We called the crab company, and they took a thousand loaves. We called our hog farmers and told them that if they could bring trucks, we’d give them all they could carry. We had to get the bread out of the plant. Having that much warm bread sitting around unwrapped could develop into a mold breeding ground. So as the farmers arrived, an employee would use a scoop on a forklift to fill up the back of his truck with bread. We still wasn’t able to rid ourselves of all the crippled bread. The rest was hauled to the landfill the next day.

When the dough once again started to come out of the proofer, everyone lined up by the conveyor to watch it come out of the proofer. When the bread didn’t fall, I let out a deep breath. Finally, we had bread we could sell. However, we still had no idea what caused our problem. We had thrown away nearly 24,000 loaves of bread and had wasted almost a whole shift. Since we were only running two shifts, everyone that day worked a lot of overtime. We even called the next shift in early so that no one had to work 16 hours.

It took a few days to pinpoint the problem. Our answer came from a chemistry lab where we sent samples of the bread and our ingredients. We discovered the enriched salt we used had three times more iron than it should. Enrichment is added back to the dough to replace the good vitamins that are loss as the wheat is milled and bleached into flour. At times, we would dissolve pills and add them to the brew to make up for this enrichment, but since most bakeries use one percent salt to the amount of flour, lots of salt companies started adding enrichment to their product. This was to be more convenient, and I suppose it was, until it wasn.t. The excess iron made the heavily machined bread weak and caused it to fall when it left the moist warm air of the proof box. We got rid of that salt and the supplier had to reimburse us for our losses. Thankfully, I didn’t lose my job. However, I became known as the supervisor who threw away more bread than anyone else in the history of the bakery.

There were perils for working on Sunday.

Other Bakery Stories

Coming of Age in a Bakery: Linda and the Summer of ’76

A College Boy in the Bakery

Harvey and Ernest

Frank and Roosevelt

Frank and Roosevelt and the making of bread

Masonboro Island

I am currently taking a week off and spending it at my dads. It’s hot here, but we have been out paddling kayaks in the morning. The wind has been too strong for us to go out into the ocean fishing, so we’ve been paddling kayaks over to Masonboro Island in the morning before the wind rises. There will be no sermon this week as someone is preaching for me. Below is another of my bakery memories:

Former Bakery Stories:

Linda and my beginning at the Bakery

A College Boy in the Bakery

Harvey and Ernest (Oven Operator and Pan Stacker)

Frank and Roosevelt (Bakery, Part 4)

Like Ernest and Harvey, I also inherited Frank and Roosevelt when I began my stint as the night shift supervisor at the bakery. For nearly a year, I came in first at night. I had about thirty minutes to review the day’s orders and set the schedule. Then Roosevelt reported. He took my schedule, we discussed it a few minutes, then he headed back to the mixing room.

Roosevelt’s work

Roosevelt’s first task was to weigh up buckets of ingredients for the various breads we would make in the morning. As the mixer held nearly 3000 pounds of dough, the ingredients he measured were small in quantity and generally fit into a five-gallon pail. This included salt, whey (a milk substitute), enrichment, and preservatives. Sometimes another bucket contained alternative sweetener such as brown sugar, honey, or molasses. After shifting, white flour blew into hopper on top of the mixer, which had a scale to weigh the flour. Gravity then fed the flour to the mixer. Whole wheat, cracked wheat, and rye flour came in 100-pound sacks. Corn syrup, shortening, and fermentation brew (the yeast) were also added mechanically. 

Huge 65 horsepower motors turned the mixer. Water cooling sleeves formed a metal jacket around the bowl which kept the dough cool From what I remember, it took about 10 minutes to mix a batch of dough. Time varied slightly basked on the the strength of the flour and the ingredients used. When ready, Roosevelt tilted the giant bowl, dumping the dough into a trough.

Frank’s work

From the bottom of the trough in front of the mixer, a pump pulled the dough to the make-up area. There, Frank oversaw the operation. A divider cut the dough into six portions of the proper weight. Then it dropped into the rounder, a spinning pot that formed the dough into a ball. After that, the dough balls rose a bit before running through the sheeter that flatted them (like a pizza dough). A machine rolled these flat portions into the shape of the bread. At the end of the process, they dropped into a pan. When things ran smoothly, it was a marvel to watch. For things to smoothly operate, the machines had to be properly set and the dough the right consistency.

Roosevelt’s background

A seaman earlier in his life, Roosevelt had served as a cook on an oil tanker. He once talked about working on a ship hauling oil from North Sea to Philadelphia. In a storm, the ship’s hull split. The ship was in danger of sinking. Two ocean going tugs reached the ship and helped it limp into Jacksonville, Florida. This took eight weeks instead of their normal week-long crossing. During this time, Roosevelt slept with his life vest. Reaching port, the captain told Roosevelt the ship would be ready to sail in about ten weeks, but he decided that his days on the sea were over. Although he still had his seaman papers, he came back home and took a job at the bakery. Roosevelt proclaimed himself to be a Black Muslim, but he wasn’t a radical. He certainly didn’t appear to mind having a white supervisor. Since he also smoked pot and drank alcohol, I wondered how devoted he was to his proclaimed faith. 

Frank’s problems

A dependable worker, Roosevelt made my job easier. Frank wasn’t so dependable and sometimes made my job a living hell. He often came in late. Several times he reported in a condition in which he wasn’t capable of working. This became a problem as it’s hard to find a last-minute replacement at 2 AM. I often had to do his job, too. One night he didn’t show up. When Bobby, who ran the slicers and wrappers, reported three hours later, he found Frank passed out in his car. I sent him home. He cried to the personal manager later that day, who reinstated him. I could only place another written warning in his personal file. 

A few months later, the personal manager regretted his actions. Frank, while on break one morning, had gone over to the slicing and wrapping area. When the bread entered the slicing area, the outside was firm and crust. This allowed it to be sliced easier. It also allowed the loaf to be carved upon. Joking around, Frank scratched with a knife on the bottom of a loaf, “Fuck You.” After showing it around as if it was a joke, he placed the loaf back onto the conveyor. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Our regular bags were red on the bottom. Unfortunately, at the time, we were bagging the bread in a special “private label” bag that had a clear bottom. This bag found itself on a shelf of a store in South Carolina and then in a family’s home. The family didn’t appreciate Frank’s handiwork. A day later, our General Manager received an angry call from the head of the grocery chain. They dropped their contract with us. We lost several thousand dollars a day in sales. The chain reaction began. The personnel manger and I were informed to find out who did it and to fire them on the spot. As Frank had shown this loaf to several employees, it only took a few questions to pin it on him. We called Frank into the office. When confronted by the General Manager, the Plant Manager, the Personal Manager and me, he admitted he had done done the “deed” as “a joke.” Frank was fired. I had the task of walking him to his locker to see that it was cleaned out and to escort him to the door.

Sad endings

I ran into Frank a few years later. Bitter, he complained that we “couldn’t take a joke.” I shook my head and said “whatever,” realizing he hadn’t learned anything from the consequences of his actions. 

I never saw Roosevelt after I left the bakery, but a decade later, I ran into another supervisor from the plant told me the sobering news. Roosevelt had returned to the sea. Sometime later, Roosevelt’s body was found floating next to his ship. He had been stabbed, The assumption was that a drug deal went bad. My heart grieved over his demise. I had enjoyed working with Roosevelt. I can still see him laugh, with a prominent gold tooth in the front of his mouth. 

Harvey and Ernest in the Bakery

Series introduction

In the summer of 1976, I began working at Fox Holsum Bakery in Wilmington, NC. I had just finished my first year of college. For the summer, I had a job traying bread. At the end of the summer, as I wrote about last week, the plant manager asked if I would be interested in continuing to work on second shift. This allowed me to work full time, while also attending college. During my senior year of college, they promoted me to supervision. 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. 

Story 1: Coming of age in the bakery
Story 2: A college boy in the bakery

Harvey and Ernest

I inherited Harvey and Ernest a few days after I graduated from college. 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 also went by “Rerun” This was based on 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.

A night in the bakery

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. Ernest and Harvey worked in the background, which comprised about half the plant with just the two of them. Ernest ran the panstackers, while Harvey oversaw the operation of the oven and proof box, each the size of a house. 

The machinery Ernest managed placed the pans on the conveyor that transported them into the mixing area. Havery’s first hour was more laidback. He turned on the steam into the proof box and lighted the oven’s burners (the oven had about forty burners in it). 

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 kept count of the number of pans needed for each size and type of bread. When the first dough dumped from the mixer (which had a capacity of 2400 pounds), the operation started. The plant was mostly automatic. A pump drew the dough out of the trough and into the divider, that cut the dough into loaf sizes. From there, the rounder snapped the dough into a ball. Then, running through sheeters and moulders, to create a loaf. The dough dropped into a pan and conveyed over to the proof box.

This automation continued as a conveyor ran the pans from the proof box to the oven, then out of the oven and through a depanner. From there the bread went through a cooler, while the pans returned to the mixing area for more dough. 

At four in the morning, Bobby and his crew came in to run the slicers and baggers. Timing was everything. A few minutes after four, bread that had been cooled enough to be sliced, marched on the conveyors out of the cooler and toward the slicers. Afterwards, the bread was stuffed into bags. If all ran well, the first-time human hands touched the product was when the wrapped loaves were placed on trays and sent to the shipping department. We could produce 5000+ pound loaves or 4200-pound-and-a-half loaves of bread an hour. 

Ernest sleeping on the job

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 had things 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 immediately wake him. He’d fix the problem and then return to his nap.

Of course, Ernest insisted he never slept. I wasn’t troubled by it for I knew Ernest always got his job done. But for some reason, I also felt I had a point to prove. One morning, while he was napping and the machines humming smoothly, I found a piece of twine and some fabric and fashioned a tail, much like you make for a kite. I 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 folks in the plant all made a trip back to his area to see his “tail.” 

Ernest wasn’t too happy with me when I asked if he grew the tail while sleeping on the job. Thinking back, it wasn’t a very nice joke. It was also dangerous considering the equipment we worked with. In time he forgave me, and I stopped hounding him about sleeping.

The education of Harvey

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. Few people walked by Harvey’s workstation. Except for the supervisor or a mechanic, one either wanted to see him, were lost, or were trying to hide. Harvey oversaw the most automotive section in the plant. As I wrote in the last piece, when things worked properly, it was a breeze. When something went wrong, such as a jam in the oven, Harvey just didn’t call for help. He hit a button. This set off a horn 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 at times, avoiding other 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. I was spared their instruction, being in management, but I always knew when Harvey had received a lesson. 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 greatly troubled Harvey.

Working on Ernest’s Cadillac

Another memory I have of Harvey and Ernest happened early one morning. We’d been having trouble with people breaking into cars parked outside the plant, especially older vehicles which didn’t have hood latches inside the car. On these vehicles, the thieves didn’t have to get into the car 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’s working on your car 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 indicating its owner made it difficult to be sold. Salvage yards had police to check such batteries. I 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. I don’t remember any more batteries stolen afterwards.

Thinking back, 40 years later

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.

A College Boy in the Bakery

This is the second story in my bakery saga. Unlike the first story about Linda, which I wrote years earlier and revised, this is a new story. While the bakery was always hot, this post isn’t nearly as steamy as the first one. It also has more technical detail that’s required to fully understand what I’m talking about.

Summer’s End

As the summer of 1976 wrapped up, I called into the plant manager’s office. That morning I’d given my two-week notice. My plan was to leave the bakery as I returned to college. I would also work in the fall part-time at a Wilson’s Supermarket on Oleander Drive, where I had worked for several years. Even during this summer at the bakery, I still put in six or eight hours a week there, mainly ordering and tending the cigarette aisle. It’d been a busy summer, and I had no idea why the plant manager wanted to see me. 

 “I’d like you continue working here,” he said. “In a few months, I think you’ll be a supervisor. And I promise to keep you on second shift, if you can arrange your schedule to take morning classes.”

He also noted that for the time being, I would be the second shift operator for the bread slicers and baggers. I had already spent some time that summer learning and running this equipment due to an accident earlier in the summer. 

Roy’s accident with the wrapping machine

One hot day, a major breakdown occurred in the proof box. This meant we didn’t have bread to package for several hours. After cleaning up our workstations, there was little for us to do until they got the operation back running,. We hid out on the loading deck. Roy was the second shift operator for the slicers and wrappers. He proceeded to smoke a couple of joints. By the time the bread production resumed, he was feeling pretty good. But his thinking wasn’t very clear, nor his reflexes fast. 

In other that your thinking will be clearer, let me explain the process. As a loaf of bread approached the bagger, a shot of compressed air blew up a bag. This signaled an arm to shoot, out, catching the loaf of bread and sliding into the bag. As the arm retreated, the bread was inside the bag and dropped onto another conveyor. It then moved through a machine that sealed the open end of the bag with a twist tie. The arm that caught to bag was sharp and shiny, made of stainless steel. This was so it could easily slide into and out of the bag. If the bag didn’t open, there was a switch that would stop the machine. There was also a metal lattice grate that protected the operator from the arm. If the grate wasn’t fully extended, there was another switch that kept the machine from operating. 

On this day, the wrapping machines were having problems. This often happened on really hot days as the bag would stick, or when the bags were old. Roy was constantly having remove stuck bags. To expedite things, he tapped down the switch that kept the machine from operating when one’s hands were inside the grate. Then, when cleaning up some bad bags that had jammed the machine, he accidently tripped the switch that indicated the bag had blown open. The metal arm shot out to catch the loaf and sliced into the flesh on Roy’s forearm. Blood went everywhere. He required 20 or so stitches. 

That evening, Paul, the supervisor began teaching me how to operate the machinery. The next day, instead of traying off bread, I ran the machines. They kept Bobby, the first shift operator over to help train me and until we had no more change overs. I worked for a few days as an operator, but then went back to bagging when Roy returned. 

Roy would only work another week or so before he quit. I never completely understood him. He had left the army after 10 years, which he had worked primarily as a cook. He learned the baking trade in Vietnam, where he worked in an American built field bakery supplying troops in the country. I never knew why he left the bakery and I never saw him again. From this point on, I was operating the equipment, even though I was still making the wage of a bread trayer. But my summer was almost over and It was a week or so later I was in the plant managers office. 

Two job offers

I asked time to think about the offer. The grocery store I was working for had also offered me a similar position. They were opening a new store near Monkey Junction. Bert, the manager who had hired me, was being moved to the new store and offered me to come along as the “third man,” essentially the second manager, who main job would be to close the store several nights during the week. It was tempting, but in the end decided I would stick to the bakery. Having worked in the grocery store through high school, I’d done most of the jobs throughout the store except for in the meat department. The bakery was still a mystery, so I accepted the offer. When classed resumed, I left the grocery store and began to work fulltime on second shift at the bakery. 

Operating the slicers and baggers

About a month later, the plant manager left. I was never sure if he quit on his own or if he was fired, but I would not be a supervisor for nearly three more years (and two plant managers later). 

While I was not a supervisor, I was the lead on a four-person operation. This was especially true after some remodeling of the plant. When I was hired, the bread traying operation occurred in the shipping area (and faced Linda’s work station). There, two conveyors from the wrapping machines brought the bread through a wall. This was the position was just behind the roll wrapping area, providing me with Linda. At the end of the summer, they cut out the wall and moved the bread trayers next to the wrapping machines. This allowed for the wrapping operator to be able to interact more easily with the trayers.  

The process

The bread came into the wrapping area from the cooler, where it had spent approximately an hour cooling to where the outside was crusty, but the inside was still warm. This was necessary for the bread not to mash up in the slicers. This bread came out on a single conveyor, which split into two before going through the slicers. A woman generally worked at this position, making sure the operations ran smoothly. Whenever one of the machines were down, she would take off the excess bread and place it on waiting trays. Then, she would feed it back in when things ran well. 

The slicers were large bandsaws, but instead of a single blade, there were sixteen or so blades. Each blade was circular and five feet or so in diameter. Inside the machine, the blades twisted in a figure eight around two drums. This allowed the cutting surface of each blade to face the incoming bread and resulted in two slices per blade. A few extra blades were stored on the drums of each slicer. This allowed for the operator or a mechanic to quickly move blades over to replace a broken one. The razor sharp blades were dangerous. The equipment remained closed, except for where the bread entered and departed. If one of the doors on the machine opened, a switch shut the saw down down. A broken blade flying free would be deadly. 

From the slicers, the bread traveled by a conveyor, maybe ten feet long, to the bagger. This conveyor had sides that were set to the bread to keep the slices from falling. After bagging and tying the loaves, they were placed on to trays and racks, which the shipping department then handled. In some ways, this was an easy job, when things went well. This was especially true after all the changes that came with morning variety bread. Once we started with the pound and a half white bread, which was so popular back in the 70s, we only changed the bags. During the summer busy season, we’d often bag 60 or 70 thousand loaves of white pound and a half bread at a rate of 4200 loaves and hour.

I became friends with Bobby, who was the morning operator. He’d often punch out and then come back over and talk. On a few occasions, on our days off, we went out rabbit and squirrel hunting. He had several uncles and cousins with beagles who lived on farms just inside Pender County. At the time I didn’t think about it, but I now wonder what some people would have thought to see a white guy running around several African Americans, all of us armed with shotguns or rifles.  

While everyone in management remained silent about me becoming a supervisor, I was honored during this time as the company’s outstanding employee for the first quarter of 1977-78. In addition to a nice plaque, the management treated outstanding employees and spouses to wonderful dinner at the Hilton on the Cape Fear River. (Looks like I should clean up my plaque!).

My minor injury

I did have one injury while running the bakery machines. As a promotion, we were placing game cards inside each of the loaves of bread. This required a separate machine to sat next to the conveyor between the slicer and bagger. It was always creating problems when the placement of the card wasn’t perfect. At one point, a card was near the bag opening, which jammed up the tying machine. In trying to free the bags, I pulled out a pocketknife. Leaning over the equipment, I supported my weight on my left hand as I cut out the bag and card with my right hand. When the knife slipped, and the blade went into my left hand, requiring a couple of stitches. The scar is still visible. 

My learning from this event happened in the emergency room. I joked that I’d been stabbed. They followed their procedure and called the police. I attempted to clarify. It was truthful, I had stabbed myself. But it was an accident. The hospital visit would be filed on a workers compensation claim. And, to make me look innocent, I wore a white bakery uniform sprinkled with bits of crust from the bread.

Oven operator

After about a year as an operator of the wrapping and bagging machinery, I was asked if I would like to move over to the bread oven. This was a solo job, but it came with another pay raise and a lot more responsibility. Mainly I oversaw the operations of about a 1/3 of the production area. One main task involved continually monitoring the temperature in the oven and the humidity in the proofer. This was in addition to making sure everything ran smoothly. The size to the equipment in my area was similar to a house. Since there were three major pieces of equipment, my work area represented the size of a small neighborhood.

Oven operations

The bread came back to my area on a long conveyor from the make-up room. There, the dough was placed into strapped together pans that held four loaves. The bread first entered a proof box. The temperature in the box was kept around 110 degrees with nearly 100% humidity. Automatic arms pushed the bread pans, ten four loaves pans at a time) onto racks. Windows into the proofer provided a glimpse at how the bread was rising. When the dough rose to the top of the pan, another arm pushed the pans onto a conveyor. From there, the bread travelled to the oven.

Between the proofer and the oven, a machine placed lids onto the bread if we were making square top loaves. The operator had to place the lids onto the conveyors at the beginning. That was easy as the lids were cool. After that, the lids recycled until the end of the day. As second shift ended the workday, I had to pull off the lids. These were hot and more than a few times I burned my forearms.

The oven worked liked the proof box with arms pushing and pulling the pans onto and off of racks. The oven consisted of seventy-some burners, which needed to occasionally be checked. Sometimes burners had to be scraped out to get them to relight. In addition there were 6 temperature zones. If the bread wasn’t tall enough, I’d reduce the temperature in the first zone to allow it to rise a bit more. If it was too tall, I could increase the heat to kill the yeast faster. Each zone had gauges that checked continually.

Leaving the oven, the pans went through a machine that first removed the lids (if used). Then, by suction cups, the loaves were lifted from the pan and placed on a conveyor for the cooler. The loaves would remain in the cooler until it was time for them to go to the slicers. The entire process, from arriving at the proof box till leaving the proofer, took approximately 2 1/2 hours.

The pleasure and perils of being an oven operator

I had the horn if case there was a problem. It could be heard throughout the plant. If I blew it, the supervisor and the mechanics on duty immediately ran to my aid. Even a break down of a few minutes could cause us to lose upwards of 6000 loaves of bread. In later stories, I’ll share some horror stories.

But running smoothly, I was left alone with my thoughts, as I continually checked on things. When taking classes at the university in which I had to memorize lots of stuff, I would keep index cards in my pocket. Then I would run the cards occasionally throughout my shift. 

I would continue working as the oven operator until my last semester in college, which was when I was moved into supervision. While it seemed long, I had just turned 22 years old. I had been at the bakery less than three years.

Coming of Age at the Bakery


Image from Pinterest

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.