Lessons I learned on the assembly line

Over the holiday season I did what around a thousand other Rogue Valley people did.

I went to work at Harry & David.

My reasons were to engage in an activity that involved other people, produced immediate, measurable results and provided a new experience. I didn’t do it so much for the money as to keep me from spending money. If I was packing boxes, I wasn’t buying them.

For others, it was all about the money. Money was always the first and last topic among my colleagues. Hourly wages defined how good a job was. Fifteen dollars an hour made a job good. Thirty dollars made it spectacular. A trainer in our customer service group said we should push a doctor to scale up his order because he doesn’t care about money.

“He probably makes $40 an hour.”

Nobody among us was making more than $12.50 an hour. I actually had to take a wage cut from $12.50 to $10.50 when I couldn’t master the convoluted order entry system and voluntarily opted to pack boxes on a punishing assembly line. But I found that work to be rewarding beyond any monetary compensation.

The people there took pride in their effort, looked out for each other, laughed easily, but constantly stayed on task. The boxes got filled with those famous pears, plus apples, cheese, crackers and other assorted goodies. Thousands upon thousands of boxes.

My shift started at 6:45 a.m. and lasted until 3:15 p.m. with two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. I was on my feet during the entire shift and always in a flurry of activity. It was just what I was hoping for.

The real reward was to witness the many acts of kindness among my fellow workers. The hugs they gave each other each morning when they arrived. The popular songs they sang in Spanish individually and together. (Spanish was the common language on the floor.) Holding doors open. Sharing food at lunch.

Mukda, a remarkable Thai immigrant, a grandmother with overflowing generosity, did more than that. She realized that a young man working our line never ate anything at lunch. He just sat during the half hour. So she got in the habit of peeling off $2 from her wallet before going upstairs to the lunchroom and surreptitiously slipping them to him. As he took the money, he put on an air of indifference. Anything else would be too embarrassing, too revealing. It was like a drug exchange. Neither one acknowledged the other. And he would get his hot dog and Mountain Dew.

Another woman, a hefty and no-nonsense retired practical nurse who was in her 17th year of working at Harry & David, said, “I always cry when the season ends. I don’t know why. But I always do.”

I know why. So much care and feeling and goodwill. Isn’t that what the holiday season is about?

— Dennis Read lives in Ashland.

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