A midnight creative joy ride with a little twigging afterwards.
Things that make people cry excluding all real tragedy:
Laughing too hard, pain, pride, happiness, a sad movie, a funny movie, a sad book, frustration, anger, fear, temperament, extreme physical effort, smoke, death, birth, funerals, graduations, loss, gifts, weddings, baptisms and onions.
In scientific terms – onions are part of the Alluim Clan. There are sweet onions like the long slim green onions that appear on many a vegetable plate and best grown in the family garden; there are yellow, white and red onions; there are popular varieties like Vidallia, Walla Wallas, Mauis and Texas 1015y’s; there are shallots, pristine leeks, scallions and pearl onions. And then there are Bermuda and Spanish onions, considered to be “hellish hots”.
Do you know hot onions are considered the backbone of our world’s cuisine – a favorite secret ingredient?
Sweet onions don’t store well so they have to be used quickly but Spanish onions are perfectly round and most suitable for stockpiling. Even so it’s critical they’re protected from their enemies: black mold, downy mildew, pink root, purple blotch, neck rot and yellow dwarf.
In total there are 450 species of onions.
A lesser known fact but one that garners a lot of interest is that onions, particularly “hot” onions have healing powers. This is not a new revelation. It was written about by the Greeks long ago. Onions and garlic have a similar history and mystique.”
While it’s not true of all onions hellish hots like Spanish and Bermuda are guaranteed to bring tears to the most stalwart beings. 25 of the 450 varieties will effect a human’s tear ducts. In other words, they make you cry.
You may think it strange that I know so much about onions but most of this information is printed in the brochure of a company I was assigned to help in the small factory town of Weepy, Wisconsin. It was an assignment I’ll never forget. As a Computer Software Specialist I often work in the field helping companies get their systems up and operating. That includes training their people to understand the programs. Weepy is a small town located just north of Madison on the shoreline of spring fed Lake Tableau . Its whole financial base is one large plant owned by none other than J. P. Weepy. That was about all the advance information I received. My bosses aren’t renowned for providing background to their representatives.
I was running late when I pulled into the parking lot of J. P. Weepy & Co. It was a large parking lot running fully down one side of the plant. There didn’t appear to be any special area for guests or executives so I grabbed the first open space. It was surprising to see a paved and lined lot in such a small community. From past experience I was expecting more of a gravel pit area where the challenge is to avoid hitting your exhaust when you drop into the potholes. The building in front of me was old but well maintained, no falling-down brick or lopsided doors. The grounds around it were nicely manicured. Climbing the steps to the main entrance I began to speculate on what product this plant dealt with. There was no evidence of a product on Weepy signs but then I could have missed them in my harried state of mind. Being late for a first appointment doesn’t bode well for a good first impression. But still, I didn’t see any signs around the building.
The lobby was warm and welcoming with portraits on the walls and fresh flowers on a corner stand. A center coffee table had an array of current business magazines and there were two comfortable armchairs by the window. I was just about to tell the receptionist seated behind a glass partition my name when a door opened and in swept Heather Weston. I knew it was Heather Weston because she wore a badge on her blazer pocket.
With a big smile and her hand extended to take mine “Tim, it’s so good to finally meet you. I saw you arrive so Sarah didn’t have to call me.”
I recognized her voice immediately since we had talked on the phone several times regarding details of my visit. Her handshake was firm and it was easy to respond in kind.
“Hello Heather, it’s good to finally be here.”
“Our President is anxious that you get some exposure to our company culture before starting to work on our systems so the plan is you are mine for the balance of today. I have a tour you can join scheduled to start in a few minutes. We don’t get them often but this is a visiting church group and our local Minister made the arrangements. Hope this is okay with you.”
It wasn’t really a question. Although a little surprised by the plan it was a pleasant change from the norm. Usually I arrive at an assignment and within minutes am locked away in a room with my computers. “Sounds okay to me.”
“Good, we’ll wait here. The bus is just arriving.” Heather went to hold the door open. A group of 14 people entered and fanned out in anticipation of what was next. There were 4 couples with 6 children of various ages. The youngest seemed about 5 and the eldest I guessed to be about 15.
Moving to the center of the room Heather had no trouble getting everybody’s attention. She had a magic smile that lit up her whole face. It left no doubt how pleased she was to have you visit.
“It’s my pleasure to welcome you to J. P. Weepy & Co. My name is Heather Weston and my job is to make sure you enjoy your tour. It’s 2 o’clock so how about some refreshment before we start. There’s coffee or tea, cold drinks if you’d prefer.” Looking at the children she bent down a bit, “And – some fresh cookies. I made them myself this morning because I knew you were coming.”
“Follow me. Sarah – would you please.”
Sarah pressed a button and a section of the wall separated and slid on a rider to the left. 5-year old Jamie was impressed. So was I.
We all flowed into a small boardroom that had been set up for guests. There were again fresh flowers in the center of the table and as promised the drinks were set up with a big plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies. You could smell them as soon as you entered. Nobody could resist and soon all the cookies had disappeared. Jamie managed to consume three almost without taking a breath.
If you’ve ever toured a factory plant, particularly the old ones, you know they’re generally a very sterile environment with white walls, industrial flooring, high ceilings and harsh lighting. Even the offices seem cold and uninviting. Not so J. P. Weepy & Co.
From the moment Heather started the tour we were all intrigued. Color, creative lighting, art and imagination had been used to create an atmosphere that was both warm and interesting. Even hallways were an adventure with hidden doors and controls.
“This library was created for our employees and their families. It’s open 24 hours a day, The only time we close is Sunday. We have our own librarian and are regularly updated with new issues and books. We’ll soon have a computer terminal and be able to access the internet from here. I should mention that our librarian does a regular shift in the plant as does every employee of J. P. Weepy & Co. There are no exceptions, including the President.”
My curiosity peaked. If you weren’t paying attention you might have missed it but this group, particularly the adults, were all tuned in and their reaction was almost comical. A few started questioning what they’d just heard, a couple raised their eyebrows with a “ya sure” expression and the two beside me started to laugh.
I couldn’t resist. “Heather, you haven’t mentioned what product J. P. Weepy produces. It doesn’t say on your signage, there was nothing on the building, in the reception area, boardroom or library. Is it a secret or a giant oversight?”
“You’re right and I’m so sorry. It’s neither. It’s not a secret and it’s not an oversight. I always like to see how long it takes before my guests ask the question. On a tour sometimes we get all the way to the plant without anyone asking. Either they’re not really paying attention or they’re hesitant to point out a flaw in my presentation.”
“Tim, our product is Spanish Onions. This whole company is in the business of supplying the marketplace with Spanish Onions and onion products such as dressings, spices, mixes etc. We supply about five percent of the “hot” onion product for all of the U.S.A. California is the largest supplier – about twenty-five percent but with our climate we are nearly maxed out. It’s a big responsibility and our mandate is to have a continuous flow of newly harvested onions to the market.”
“Before moving on everybody, let me share some product facts with you.”
Heather took a deep breath. She ran through the information I later saw in their brochure with cool precision. You could tell she’d done it many times before, but then she continued.
She leaned towards the children. “It’s always been a wonder to me that no-one has figured out why onions don’t have the same effect on animals, just people. Maybe that could be a science project for one of you.”
“Anyway, as a result of our human reaction to onions our workers can only be in the plant for a maximum period of two hours daily. Medical specialists examined the problem years ago and proved that this type of tearing could be endured, even daily, but for a maximum of only 2 hours. Thus the 2-hour shift. There is no automated system to replace the traditional manpower requirement and no air filtration equipment to reduce the impact of the onion fumes. Various types of eye protection have been tested but all failed to reduce the tears. So .. to maintain our production output at a profitable level requires the co-operative effort of every adult in the community – everybody in town has to participate. That’s why … every adult 18 to 65 in the town of Weepy works at the plant for one shift per day. There are no exceptions and in return J. P. Weepy & Co. is very good to the community. The two are almost synonymous. One could not exist without the other.”
“We’d best start moving if we want to finish before dinner. I should mention we have an extensive research laboratory and a full modern gym for the employees but time won’t permit us to see everything.”
Heather moved to the other side of the library and pulled one of the books off a shelf. Instantly a hidden door opened and putting the book back she led the way through.
Freddie, who looked to be about 12, expressed it best. “Coooool!!!!”
“Most of our executives are people who were born and raised here. They have an understanding of our business and how it interacts with the town. I said most but we do have a few executives who have been hired from outside because of a particular specialty. Computer technology has brought a lot of changes. Mind you it takes a while for these people to fit in. We all try to help. As I mentioned before each of the office staff also does one shift a day in our plant so an average day in the office is 6 hours.”
Try to picture the implications of this arrangement, particularly for someone new to town. I could just see myself trying to get up the courage to tell my wife that she’d have to do a 2-hour daily shift in the plant. Well, if the President’s wife and the Mayor’s wife could do it, why not? She said everybody.
Another button, another sliding door and another hallway. At the end Heather pulled a handle and this time a panel lifted to reveal the plant. It was a big room with high ceilings of small paned glass. Around the perimeter of the room was fenced scaffolding about 2/3 of the way up from the floor. It obviously permitted movement about the plant without descending to the production area. There were conveyor belts broken into sections by large sorting machines. Power dollies loaded with boxes were being propelled around the floor by both male and female operators. There were at least a dozen workers at each section of the conveyor system.
“Onions are planted, harvested, and shipped here by our Farmers. When they arrive they are sorted and graded. Some are simply bagged for distribution to the various warehouses, some go to our resident scientists for experimental work, and the balance go to our cooks and processors.”
Heather stood on her toes to address her guests. “As you can see by this sign we need your co-operation to maintain safety in our plant. Firstly, Billy here will give you each a package with industrial eyeglasses. Put these on and make sure the strap is tight. When we move unto the scaffolding be sure to keep a hand on the railing. If for any reason you have a problem with height or vision just call me. Don’t let go of the railing. Okay? … Let’s move out in single file.”
The trip around the plant was actually quite standard. This is where the raw product arrives and is fed onto the conveyor system for initial sorting … where it’s then prepared and graded for the various systems and fed into the correct production stream … how the product is blended to produce the various end products … and the multiple packaging systems to meet the customer requirements. Some were well known name products and others no-name specials. What was really unique was seeing the people on the floor.
All of the people on the floor were crying. Not deep soul wrenching crying but tears ran on the cheeks of each worker. The industrial glasses worn by visitors worked only because no close contact was made with the production floor.
We had a little excitement when Jamie, driven by his “need to know” mentality, lifted his glasses. At first nothing happened but it wasn’t long before his eyes had swollen and turned red. He became quite frantic as the tears began to fall and he couldn’t control them. Instinctively he let go of the railing to rub his eyes and that’s when he started to slip to the floor of the scaffolding. Fortunately Heather turned to check the troops and was able to catch him before he fell off.
When the tour was finished Heather thanked everyone for coming as she handed out J. P.Weepy’s company brochure. She also commented on my original question. “Tim asked why there were no signs or identification of our product in town or the plant. While we are proud of our product there is a certain continuing discomfort attached to our involvement with it. For that reason it has been J. P. Weepy’s policy to not post any graphic reminders within town or the plant. Instead we concentrate on building an atmosphere … one that is creative, fun, and that stimulates harmony.”
All in all I spent a full week in Weepy and it was a fascinating experience. Harmony is an illusive state but it was evident all around me. The people were warm and welcoming, the town pretty and carefully maintained, services efficient and stores well stocked. Everyone I met had an involvement at the plant and an interest in my project. Even children were encouraged to ask questions. It was interesting that they also were free to make use of the plant library and gym.
Because I was only in town short-term, working on a project, I didn’t have to do a shift in the plant. It crossed my mind, however, that shedding a few tears in this case seemed like a really worthwhile investment for each and every one.
Ten years after I wrote this we went into a Kitchen Boutique in Florida and there on the shelf, labeled as the newest must-have, were Onion Goggles. For sentimental reasons only I bought them, adding to my collection of relatively worthless cooking aids.