Sunday, July 3, 2011

Facing the Dragon (baking when its over 100 degres Fahrenheit)

When the temperature is over 100 degrees and hot, bakers show up to the plant shrouded in silence. If you are new to baking, the obvious conditions seem surreal. If you are an aged vet, you realize that you are entering a marathon and the last thing that crosses your mind is winning this race, you simply want to finish it in an upright position.

When the temperature is over 100 degrees and humid, bakers show up to the plant in more than silence. You can see traces of fear in their eyes.

Just this last week we had several days like this at my bakery. On Friday the heat index was around 110. I had to work in the shop as well because we had our Scottish Bake Retail on Saturday morning.

For reasons only known to God, these severe weather conditions always seem to take place during a Thursday or Friday bake, days where many bakers are forced to work 10-14 hour shifts.

I remember when the Twin Towers crumbled and those Fire Fighters rushed into the building instead of out, their bravery received all kinds of attention (and rightfully so)and people marveled at their willingness to put their cause ahead of their own life.

I would never try to tarnish that commitment, but I would like to point out that many people do similar things w/o praise or recognition.

I've heard stories about soldiers, ranch hands, foundry workers and sailors, all of whom raced into the roar during moments of catastrophe.

Part of the reason I think these people do it is because the realize that the outcome of their performance is critical to either the survival of their life, their business,Many blue collar folks understand this, and especially if you work in a crew, you understand how a collective sense of pride exists.

This is why I think Corporate America shouldn't have been so surprised by the courage of the NYC Fire Department. Blue Collar people have a tenacity that sometimes just can't be described in words.

I think the hottest patch of weather I worked in was that Wed-Fri in late July 2001. This was during the time when Minnesota Viking - Korey Stringer died from heat exhaustion.

His passing raised a lot of questions as to when was hot, too hot, and how should businesses regulate when to raise a black flag of surrender. Surely certain tasks could wait until the weather became more humane, or could they?

I remember that Wednesday. I was working at a bakery (which is not defunct) which was basically nothing more than a concrete slab, surrounded by 4 tin walls. In essence, the structure was a heat magnet.

When you entered the shop between Memorial and Labor day, you couldn't help but feel like an ant walking under a magnifying glass.

I was the PM manager, and Sweet Jesus of All Polish Popes that place was hot, but worse yet there was a steam in the air that just hung there.

In case I forgot to mention, bakery's are seldom air conditioned. There isn't enough money in the profit margins to support this.

When I walked to the building entrance, Darold was laying on the pavement in front of the building. He had been dropping salt tablets all day and his Casper white fleshy torso was now bright pink.

He didn't offer any salutation, he just slowly rolled into a different position and I could see the puddle of sweat underneath him.It eerily resembled the chalk outline that you associate with corpses.

Bakery's get hotter as the day progresses. First off, the orders that get finished and packed, will end up taking up about 30% of your building free space, so the lack of open mass, combined with running multiple ovens for ongoing hours contribute to intensifying the heat.

As supervisor, I decided to take my usual oven guy off the ovens. I figured if anybody died, maybe it should be the guy who was bringing home the biggest paycheck.

I'll tell you the God's honest truth, when I think back to opening those ovens, just even flesh crawls with goose pimples and I feel sick to my stomach.

When you lower that oven door a blast of heat hits you, it's not an inanimate object. That energy has a form that rivals wrecking balls and jack hammers.

I swear to Caesar, if you paid me $100 bucks just to endure 10 seconds of that again, I'd tell you to go straight to the Devil.

Many American bakers call that experience "Facing the Dragon" and I applaud the author of this description.

It's accurate.

Throughout that Wednesday night shift not one single person complained or uttered a single word. You just looked at each other, we were more than scared, we were terrified.

When you are a supervisor under these circumstances, you also have the mental pressure of peoples well being on your mind as well. But sometimes when the Titanic is sinking, you just don't have options.

In the clear light of today, with a somewhat sound mind, I can imagine some of you might say....

"Well Klecko, why didn't you guys just quit?"

The answer is simple.


Most people don't like to quit. When you are on a crew, it's even harder, walking out increases the difficulty of your comrades tasks, and you guys really are working together as a team.

May the dragon be damned! Workmates typically just link arms and dig into the trenches and do their best to keep moving forward.

I remember after 5 hours of running the oven, I think one of the Einerson brother relieved me for awhile.

About 15 minutes into replacing me, he started to howl....not figuratively, but like a wolf.

Our entire crew adopted this technique of adaptation and followed suit for the remainder of the evening.

Have you ever seen that scene in Lawrence of Arabia when hes trying to cross the desert but he's become dehydrated and weak and just kinda slumps into the dune?

You know if he doesn't get up that he's going to die. You scream at the TV screen.....

"Get up idiot, if you don't you're dead!"

I never understood "hitting the wall" like that until that day.

I was in peak condition. What was I 36?

But when I got home early that morning I was shivering. Sue McGleno piled 4 or 5 quilts on me but I couldn't make the cold leave my body and she was frightened for my safety.

When I woke up, some skank weather reporter also seemed to take pleasure in telling me that we were going to do it all over again.

Every single person from our shift showed up. Ownership stepped into our heat hut to offer some type of speech of commiseration, but the heat was so terrible, they couldn't even remain in the building long enough to express their sorrow.

When they left, I smiled and said I don't know about you guys........

Then I disrobed out of my uniform and stood on the shop floor in a pair of boxers and Red Wing work boots.

The crew did the same.

I started a system where employees worked in cells of 3's. Each guy worked 20 minutes and and then sat in the cooler for 10.

The heat was every bit as bad as the night before. Who knows how many of us suffered from heat stroke? Guys were talking about throwing up after their last evening shift, other guys talked about shi**** them selves involuntarily.

Normally that would be an open target for their co workers to haze them, but nobody was laughing now.

Somebody gave us the news about Korey Springer collapsing and being in a coma which was induced by the heat.

Now you know I don't like to use foul language in this blog, but I guess there's an exception to every rule huh?

I walked into the midst of my co workers and threw my hands up to Christ and said.......

"You dumb sons of bitches, really? do you want to die?"

My question was answered with a couple "F-U's" and that was it....the howling continued until the sun set, our staff survived another 12 hour shift.

Before going home, I called the bakers and packing department together and we smoked cigarettes on the curb. I reminded them that our Friday bake would be big, but Saturday the shop would be closed, and by Sunday....the weather was supposed to be cooler than typical.

We just had to get through one more shift.

I also added that I was going to approach management and tell them that we would not be baking for the weekend markets (this was around 25% of our workload) under any conditions.

Several peeps voiced that the suits would never go for it, I responded by telling them that nobody on our crew had insubordination in our records so just this once it was mandatory that we practiced solidarity.

The guy's laughed and shook there heads indicating that Papa wasn't gonna like it, and you know what?

They didn't.

I got raked across the coals a bit, and was reminded that even though I baked the bread...they were buttering it so to speak.

So at that point I explained that thanks to the Polish Saints nobody had died in our sweat shop, and in simplest terms....I wasn't going to negotiate.

Accept these terms, or terminate my employment.

To their credit, they did the right thing. It's just that sometimes people cannot understand abject suffering unless they've lived it first hand.

As those of us who are Americans approach Independence day, I guess I just want to point out that when courage takes places on our streets our in our work place. It shouldn't surprise anybody. We are a noble lot.

Happy 4th of July.....I Love most of you!


  1. sobering; now i feel like such a wuss in the heat and cold.

  2. Yeah, ain't it the truth, that same building was horrible in the winter too. You could see your breath in the men's bathroom as you changed into your uniform!

  3. Klecko, at least you had the b*lls to confront management, not many supervisors do that any more. It's the almighty $$ that they care about unfortunately. You at least know the importance of people! God Bless you and Happy 4th!

  4. Thanks Nancy, I'm telling you, I wasn't trying to be a hero. I think I really thought it just wasn't possible. There simply wasn't enough gas in the tank. Have a great holiday also Nancy