THE BLOG
04/01/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

The Day the Factory Stood Still

Every small town has its Friday night rituals, and the community I grew up in was no exception. When my father's shift at the tool and die plant ended at 5:00 pm, the men who worked on the factory floor gathered at the Silver Front Bar and Grill to have a few beers, talk, joke about the day, then head home for a sit-down dinner with their families.

I'll never forget one Friday night when I was 15 years old. My dad came home earlier than usual, his face red as a beet. He was sweating and paced like a caged animal, bellowing about "the bastards." Dad was so agitated that my mother and I could only make out every fifth or sixth word.

"Calm down, Bob, and tell me what's going on," my mother pleaded with him.

"Betty," he panted as he slowed down from sheer exhaustion, "there's going to be a big layoff. Really big. Three hundred people are going to lose their jobs. Just like what happened to my father 20 years ago. What are we going to do?"

Dad then went on to explain how everyone had convened at the bar, as usual. Burt, the bartender, served up the first round of drafts -- on the house -- then told everyone to brace themselves for some bad news. Burt cleared his throat and then read aloud from an official-looking memo stating that the plant must lay off 15 percent of its workforce if the company were to survive the rough economy. The foremen of the different floors had the weekend to choose who would stay and who would get pink-slipped.

When Burt the bartender finished reading, the room remained silent -- for about five seconds, after which a collective roar erupted from the patrons. Most of the workers had relatives who were let go during the last big layoff, so they were hypersensitive about downsizing. When the shouting stopped, my father demanded to see the memo. Sure enough, it was typed on company stationery, complete with the telltale red logo.

"It's real," my father had proclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief and his fist in anger. More fists rose in the air amidst cries of solidarity. Everyone then swilled down the remainders in their mugs and rushed home to tell their wives.

My dad and his friends weren't the only ones spooked by the news; that weekend the tenor of the whole town changed. The fury from the prior night morphed into fear, and fear devolved into panic. Panic led to immediate economic collapse. The King Pins bowling alley was deserted. Ditto for the town's four main eateries -- the Old Mill Restaurant, the River Front Café, the Colony Café, and the Boiler Room Restaurant. Who could afford to spend money on having fun if they were going to be fired soon? The grocery store, however, did very well, as people stockpiled food in preparation for the hard times ahead. An outside observer would have thought we were rehearsing for a disaster movie -- we just needed aliens or microbes from another galaxy to complete the scene.

Fallout from the news leak rippled and amplified throughout the weekend, causing disruptions in the very social fabric of the town. Friends eyed each other with the kind of suspicion that would have made for a great TV reality show. Who would be voted off the factory floor first?

By the time my dad arrived at the plant that morning, an angry mob had convened on the assembly line floor, demanding to know what was happening and who was going to be laid off. The foreman, who commuted from a neighboring town, was chagrined -- this was the first he'd heard about layoffs of any kind.

By 9:30 a.m. the word had spread throughout the plant, and a work stoppage ensued -- people were too upset to do their jobs. The normal hum of the machinery in the plant was replaced by animated conversations among the workers and the din of foreman talking in quiet, low voices.

The president of the company, Mr. Cassidy (who came into his job by virtue of being the chairman's son) was notified of the stoppage and came down to the floor to address the employees. Mr. Cassidy said that he, too, had no knowledge of a pending layoff, let alone any official memo calling for a reduction in the workforce. He vowed he get to the bottom of it and put the malicious rumor to bed. After hearing the Friday night saga, he huffed out of the building and didn't stop walking until he reached the Silver Front Bar and Grill, where he interrogated Burt the bartender about the memo.

Burt quickly knuckled under pressure from the six-foot, 280-pound factory president and coughed up the document. Mr. Cassidy read the memo and immediately deduced that we were dealing with a high-level act of psycho corporate sabotage. Someone was trying to wreck the company -- maybe an operative from the competing factory across the river -- by breaking down morale and causing production delays. Mr. Cassidy also deduced that the miscreant must have had help from the inside. There was only one way that the operative could have purloined a sheet of official company stationery; we had a traitor in our midst, and he was going to flesh the person out.

Mr. Cassidy lumbered back to the plant to confront the most likely suspect: his secretary, Diane Sullivan, the keeper of the corporate letterhead supply. Diane, a close friend of my mother's, recalled how Mr. Cassidy stormed into her office and accused her of being an accomplice by providing the enemy with company stationery.

"I'm going to give you one chance. Tell me who you gave the stationery to!"

"No one!" Diane answered as she burst into tears.

"Then how do you explain this?" he said with Oscar-winning flare and drama as he slammed the memo on her desk.

Diane regained her composure, did a double take, and angrily held the paper to Mr. Cassidy's face, saying, "Well, you might what to take a look at that!"

"THAT" happened to be the date on the memo: March 29, 1936.

Mr. Cassidy's throat bulged as he swallowed a good helping of humble pie. His investigation then shifted from corporate sabotage and intrigue to the more mundane question of how Burt the bartender got hold of a 20-year-old memo, typed on authentic company stationery?

A little more digging on Mr. Cassidy's part revealed the answer. For the past week, in preparation for the 70th anniversary of the company, one of the department heads, Mike Kelly, had been assembling a timeline poster that documented the factory's history. Mike had gathered all kinds of memorabilia, and the layoff letter was part of the exhibit. Mike had a working lunch at the Silver Front earlier that day, and the layoff memo apparently slipped out of his brief case, onto the floor, and later into Burt the bartender's hands.

Once the truth was known, Mr. Cassidy immediately met with all the department heads. The department heads met with the foremen. The foremen met with the shop stewards, and the shop stewards met with the line workers. In recognition of the emotional stress and trauma that had gone around, Mr. Cassidy grudgingly let all the workers leave a couple of hours early, with full pay. It was a good thing everyone got a chance to rest up in the afternoon, because that evening saw some of the most serious celebrating in the town's history. The economic damage of the weekend recession was quickly reversed; the restaurants, bars, and bowling alley were filled to capacity and then some.

Today, my mother, who's now in her 90s, still gets a howl out of retelling the story. She says that the only thing that could have made it funnier would be if the incident had occurred three days later. Then everyone could have legitimately declared it April Fool's Day.

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