Biff America: The sweet taste of male bonding
Ryan Summerlin August 7, 2013
It was my first glimpse of manhood — or at least what I thought was manhood at the time.
Though it happened almost a half century ago I have replayed the event and retold the story so many times the image is fresh.
My old man and his three brothers owned and operated Intercity Transportation, a small trucking company on Boston’s South Shore. The business was founded by my grandfather and predated the Great Depression. Though technically my dad was the president he often dressed, worked and swore like the drivers and dock workers in his employ, many of them lifelong friends.
How a trucking company works is big trucks go to manufacturers and factories to pick up large quantities of one item — say, 50,000 pounds of shoes and work boots. They are unloaded on the dock and divided into smaller loads, and those loads are delivered, in smaller trucks, to local stores around the Boston area. Shoes were only one of hundreds of items the company might handle.
Intercity was was a union shop. What that means was that in order to move freight or drive trucks you had to be a member of the Teamsters. My old man was a former union member and even after he became “management,” he believed the unions were necessary to protect the working man. Being born in 1909, he had seen firsthand the abuse of labor and the need for collective bargaining.
When unions like the Teamsters go on strike it is often on a regional level. In other words, union reps, representing all of the workers in the state, and a team of management reps, representing all the companies, get together and try to come to terms. If they can’t, sometimes a strike is called.
Often the local workers might be satisfied with their particular situation, but if a strike is called all of them stop work.
It was the weekend before July Fourth, sometime in the mid 1960s, and the workers were on strike; it wasn’t expected to last long. There was freight on the dock of my father’s company that would sit there until things were resolved.
One morning my father got a frantic call from Mr. Casey, the owner of a small, local candy company. Casey employed about 10 workers and many of them attended our church. He explained that he had 100 pounds of confectioners’ sugar and cocoa beans, already paid for, sitting on our docks that were supposed to be delivered two days before. Casey desperately needed those items so he could have inventory ready for the upcoming holiday.
May dad and I got into his Olds and drove to his business. Workers were required to put in some time on the picket line in order to collect their strike benefits, so there were a few lounging out front. On the way, we had picked up some doughnuts for them. My old man handed them the crullers and told them we were there to pick up 100 pounds of freight and explained the situation.
Now, technically this was not allowed. I don’t think it was illegal, but certainly against the union-management agreement. But on the other hand, all of the workers knew Casey and knew that it was only a small amount of freight moved to help out a friend and longtime client. The union steward, a man who grew up with my dad, thanked us for the doughnuts and told us where on the docks we could find the sugar.
It took my dad and me a few trips to get the sweet stuff into his trunk. On the last trip we were met by two tough-looking guys whom we didn’t recognize. They were regional union reps and just happened to be checking in on the various shops.
The local steward tried to explain that my dad was just helping a local business. My dad assured the two thugs that he wasn’t trying to break the strike but only move 100 of what had be a million pounds of freight still waiting on the dock. If the two union thugs had any concern for the tender ears of a young boy, they didn’t show it. There were curses, threats and more of each, all directed at my father.
There was one small box left to be placed in my dad’s car. “Bring that box to the car, Jeffrey, and wait for me there,” my dad said.
I was probably about 9 years old and weighed about 60 pounds soaking wet. I picked up the box and walked between the two huge, tough guys; I was afraid to look at them. Before I got to the car, I turned back and saw my father standing calmly, holding what was called a “freight hook” in one hand.
A freight hook is a foot-long piece of steel shaped into a sharpened hook with a handle on one end. It is used to grab and lift soft cargo, like bags of coffee beans and cotton bales; it is a fearsome-looking weapon.
My father and I walked shoulder to shoulder the last 10 feet to his car.
“I bet Mr. Casey will give you a candy bar for bringing him his sugar.”
I’ll be thinking of my old man this coming Father’s Day. He was by no means perfect, but there was much about him I admire to this day.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com.