The case of the ticking Timex turkey

Jobs come, jobs go.

These days they just seem to be vanishing into the ether.

But back when Nixon roamed the earth, I was young, earnest and curious about the lives of working-class Americans. So I embarked upon a series of entry-level jobs in factories and food-processing plants.

At age 17, I processed peas and sweet corn 12 hours a day for the Jolly Green Giant. In the late '60s, this emerald mascot was a national celebrity, thanks to lighthearted TV ads often seen on “The Tonight Show” and other popular broadcasts.

The Giant was portrayed as nature's benevolent bodyguard who mentored his tiny protege, Sprout. So I expected merry workdays filled with ho, ho, ho's. What I got was Cannery Row.

This was a worm's eye view of America's corporate food industry. The processing plant relied on a small army of Mexican migrant workers along with local laborers to handle the harvests. Although essential to the operation, factory workers seemed virtually invisible to management executives who occasionally toured the noisy plant. Unlike their affable corporate mascot, these fellows were anything but jolly.

Like infants distracted by shiny objects, the “suits” seemed hypnotized by the non-stop parade of flash-frozen yellow Niblets or sweet peas on the conveyor belts. But workers never saw any nods of encouragement, weak smiles or heard a single ho-ho-ho. It was like laboring for grim, humorless undertakers and we were faceless, interchangeable human Dixie cups.

That was when I had two proletarian epiphanies about corporate life: 1. Product was everything and deadly serious. 2. Idyllic or funny advertising images in no way reflect the realities of factory life

Butterball flashbacks Green Giant was an earthly Eden compared to my subsequent job at a Butterball turkey plant. The kill floor where I worked was a bloody, feathered bedlam where hundreds of squawking birds were dispatched daily, hung on hooks and sent on toward eventual Butterballdom.

People are endowed with innate skills and aptitudes. Odds are that today's nimble-minded, grade-school math whiz may manage your retirement portfolio in a couple decades. (Good luck with that.) My major talent? Yanking lungs out of freshly killed fowl.

But spending long days with waxy cold turkey carcasses was not my notion of nirvana. So I welcomed the chance to hit the road to pick up turkeys at area farms. That, too, had its drawbacks. A conveyor belt was used to help us load the birds into cramped cages on the truck. Trust me, you haven't lived until you've had a 45-pound Tom turkey go Bruce Lee on your face with razor-sharp claws. I was always covered with scratches and my clothes were in shreds at the end of each day.

So I welcomed the chance to transfer to the plant's frozen food section. It was a clean, cool place to work and an inviting habitat for a human turkey named Tom: my co-workers were women.

That was distracting, I must confess. My eyes would often wander and, one day, I paid a price for it. While batting my eyelashes at a young co-worker, I suddenly felt a violent tug on my wrist and watched my trusty Timex watch disappear into the cavity of a frozen turkey. Before I could retrieve it, the bird was encased in plastic and yellow netting and disappeared down the assembly line.

Timex broadcast TV ads years ago that featured watches that had been run over by an 18-wheeler or lost underwater for decades. Their spokesman, John Cameron Swayze, would cap off each testimonial with the company's famous motto: It takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Years after losing my watch, I perked up when a Timex ad would air. Maybe an Ohio family had a shiny, stainless steel surprise in their giblets. Or Little Johnny in Peoria inexplicably “passed” a timepiece after his Thanksgiving feast.

Thank goodness it didn't happen today. In this age of Homeland Security paranoia, a ticking Timex turkey might trigger an elevated terrorist threat advisory and ruin a perfectly good holiday.