THE CHICKEN PLANT NOVEL ~ FREE CHAPTER
Chapter 2 - 1970 . . . A Killing, the Mob, and a Lesson Learned
It had been six months since my coming with Starr Bright Poultry. My future in the chicken business seemed to have some good potential.
The Wednesday after we returned from our Christmas vacation, Ramsey Hill told me that the fast-food department would become my responsibility the following Monday. I would continue to answer to him, but my new assignment would mean there would be more time spent in the processing two end of the plant.
Processing one was through eviscerating and processing two included the chiller, rehang from the chiller, cut-up, packing, fast food, polybag and shipping.
My salary was increased to $9,000 annually. I was happy with the added responsibility and the extra money.
Let me give you the scope of the fast-food department. There were eight saws to cut a chicken carcass into four-, eight-, or ten-piece fast food as ordered by the customer. We had all the saw stations filled and had a support staff that included two bag removers for the eight saws, an end-of-the-line packer and an ice and scale person. We also staffed a floor person who gave breaks as needed for everyone in the department. We had a line leader that had been with the company since its beginning.
Shipping had pretty much become routine with an occasional long-haul driver problem or a customer situation that the sales manager usually handled.
Almost one year ago to the day, CBC Inc, ( Carolina Best Chicken, Inc ) - the largest fast food supplier in the United States had implemented a quality check program whereby a quality auditor would go from plant to plant and perform certain criteria checks of the cut-product quality, document these checks and send them to a quality director in their home office in Oakwood, South Carolina. They had four or five of the quality auditors hired to make their required checks. They called these people quality compliance auditors. The auditor assigned to our plant was a gentleman named James Mathews. He made an appearance about every two weeks.
I think Mathews just had a mannerism that rubbed people the wrong way. He had long, blond hair that was combed backward into a Conway Twitty style. He always had his hair styled without a hair being out of place. He would make various checks upon entering the plant. He would check product temperature, icing, feathers, bruises and broken bones among other quality issues.
The plant had to make a score of eighty-five percent to remain in compliance. There were also checks on the scalder temperature, and the percentage of cuticle on the bird, in that CBC wanted ninety-five percent of all cuticle removed from the bird so that it would hold their batter in the restaurants. The keel cut, drum cut, percentage of feathers/hair and cuticle removal, would prove to be the hardest quality factors to consistently maintain a good score.
I would continue to deal with James Mathews for many years after that initial meeting in January of 1970.
The weekend was going to be a big event for my family. I had been given tickets to see Anne Jordon and Benny Gilbert perform at Blue Sky Country Music Park in Minton, Alabama the upcoming Saturday night. The tickets were given to me by the owner of the park, Lyle Addison. He purchased about 20,000 pounds of poultry per day from the plant. He owned a poultry distribution business over in Minton where he covered most of the small-town supermarkets in Northeast Alabama. His son, Danny, would pick up product three or four times per week. We developed a good friendship. My family attended the music show that Saturday night. We were introduced by Lyle Addison to Anne and Benny.
Some of the perks that accompany various jobs in the poultry industry were beginning to become available to me. However, I had the common sense to know I was still just a peon in the industry and had no delusions of grandeur.
It was Monday in mid-March. I had just arrived at the chicken plant and parked in the upper portion of the parking lot. While walking toward the shipping department my name was called by a young man sitting on the circular steps that led up to the front office. It was Chan Winn, my old friend from the hanging pen. He asked if he could talk with me. I answered him, “Of course Chan, what can I do for you?”.
Winn then recounted a story to me that will live with me for as long as I live. He and a couple of buddies had been out riding and drinking beer the past Saturday night when they ran out of beer and money. They discussed robbing a small store just on the county line between Robins County and Hulon County. He went on to say that he had a pistol hidden in the boot of his car. When the decision was made to rob the store, he got his weapon and placed it in his pocket. He told me there was never an intention to even show the gun, much less use it. He thought the store keeper was going for a gun at some point in the robbery. He pulled his gun from his pocket. He said he just fired it and then fired it again. He broke down and cried at this point. The sixty-two year-old store owner was killed during this robbery. Winn said they got sixteen dollars from the cash register. He told me he had not had a moments sleep since the Friday night before the incident occurred. He said he just had to tell someone.
I asked him just what he wanted me to do.
He said, “Call the law, have them come and get me.”
I nodded that I would do that. A call was placed to the office of Sheriff Daniel Stone at the Robins County Sheriff’s Department. They told me he was at his home, but they would get into immediate contact with him. He would meet me at Starr Bright Poultry in twenty minutes. It was about that long before Sheriff Stone pulled into the driveway.
Winn told the sheriff pretty much what he had told me.
The sheriff’s vehicle, with Winn inside, slowly pulled away from the plant.
I don’t know why Chan Winn chose me as the person he wanted to turn him in that morning. I had hung chickens beside him for a week. I would see him around the plant in the break room or as he left work in the afternoon. We were not really close. I was to see him one other time after that. It was at his arraignment. He pled guilty to second degree murder and received a sentence of life plus twenty years. I had been asked to come by the sheriff’s office in case a statement was needed from me. It was not.
As I watched that young man being taken away, I wondered if coming into a job each day like hanging chickens could have contributed to his situation. I rationalized that thought away. No matter how tough a person has it they still have to do what is right. Chan Winn knew what he did was wrong. He had to let it out. Just as well to me as somebody else. Still, I will never forget the tears in his eyes and the look on his face as he told me his story on that chilly Monday morning in 1970.
For the next several days I didn’t say much. My mind was lost in deep thought much of the time. By the end of the week it was back to the everyday grind of loading trucks to fill customers orders and cutting fast food to satisfy Columbia Best Chicken.
Gleason had brought in some exciting new customers. Starr Bright had moved into the number one ranking in profitability of the six Starr Bright divisions. You could see it in his face each day as we had our coordination meetings or discussed various customers orders. Gleason was not happy at Starr Bright Poultry. This was a big-time poultry sales manager. We were a small time operation that was apparently boring him to death. Every day I expected the announcement to come that he was leaving the company.
At the time I was looking in the wrong direction. Ramsey Hill was resigning from Starr Bright to go with another larger poultry company in Harville, Alabama. He was working a two week notice at this time.
My expectations were to get the processing two manager job, but it wasn’t really that big a deal to me as just becoming a full time supervisor had been. Before the end of the first week, I was named processing two manager. A raise to $15,000 annually came with the job. So did a lot of headaches.
There were rumors for several months that a young lady, Ruth, had been selling her body to plant employees for the sum of ten dollars per visit to her mobile home on the outskirts of town. Ruth was employed in the cut-up department as a wing cutter. She was not a bad looking young lady. To the contrary, she was reasonably good looking. She could probably have been successful at about anything she chose to do. She chose prostitution.
The ball started rolling when two employees were out due to their being locked up for fighting. It was explained to me that the fight was at Ruth’s house over her. Ruth was twenty-three years old. Her husband was in Vietnam with the Twenty-third Airborne Division of the United States Army. Like so many young servicemen wives’ of that time period, she was having a terrible time making it with her husband off fighting a war. She decided to enter into specialize prostitution with her specialty being the men who worked at Starr Bright Poultry. Eight men were questioned. All admitted to paying her for sex.
Ruth was called into my office.
Judy Henning, the eviscerating supervisor, was called in to be a witness as to what was said and what was decided. This was the first time I had talked at length with Ruth. She was very pleasant. We discussed the situation as tactfully as possible. It was explained to her that we were afraid someone was going to get killed if she continued to see different men that worked at the processing plant.
She agreed that maybe it was not the best thing to do. She said she would not make any promises on giving up her side job. She explained that she really needed the money.
It was mid-July of 1970 when I fired my first employee at a chicken plant. We put the reason as poor job performance. It was never challenged. We never released any details of why we terminated her or spoke of her again.
Two years later her husband was killed in a fight with another man over her at the age of twenty-six. He had survived Vietnam, but not Ruth.
A great deal of my time was now being spent in the packing and cut-up department. I was inexperienced in both of these departments. Packing was where we dropped birds off the lines after they were rehung after coming out of the chiller. Wing-off birds ( birds with one or both wings-missing ) and parts-missing birds ( birds with one or both legs-missing ) were thrown in a vat to be rehung on the cut-up line. Trimmed-breast birds ( birds that had been NDPI trimmed ) due to breast bruising, skin damage or skin disease were placed in another vat to be packed into boxes for shipment to a larger cut-up operation. The objective was to bring the wing-off and parts-missing birds back to as close to whole-bird price as possible after allowing for cutting-cost and lost-shrink cost. Lost-shrink cost was the loss of all the twelve percent of moisture NDPI allowed on moisture pickup per bird as the bird went through the chiller. Usually, you could maintain about three to five percent of the moisture pickup through the scales if you handled the bird properly and packed it correctly in the box.
A tare, poundage allowed for moisture pick-up, was set into the scales along with an individual box weight. Usually about a three to four pound tare would sufficiently cover the product until it reached the customer if held under the proper temperature at the plant, the proper temperature on the delivery truck and if there was enough ice or Co2 ice powder placed on the top of the product.
The whole birds were dropped by selective-sizing scales on the overhead drip-lines. We would size birds starting at two and one-quarter pound increments up until three and one-quarter pounds. We also had a three-up label for the L & K Meat Company business. We packed all whole birds at exact catch weight except for the seventy pound L & K Unit pack. Unit pack product was weighed as close to seventy pounds as possible with a target of plus or minus one-half pound. Usually, you had to go over the seventy pound weight.
That is why Plant Manager Bakker didn’t like the seventy pound unit pack.
I was never a proponent of this particular pack either. It gave away a great deal of yield. Processing yield was the front runner of all the performance factors that jumped out at a processing plant manager each day. You would go through all the trouble to carefully catch and hang that bird, limiting limb breakage and bruising as possible, leave the neck as long as possible, leave all cuticle possible on the bird, save all possible fat on the opening flaps, get as much water as allowable in the bird pores, pack it out properly, use as little tare as possible to satisfy regulations, and then give it away over the scales. After all the things we did to get as much meat as possible in that box, it was considered a major sin to give meat away at the scale due to over pack. This is, of course, why it was a given that you always placed your most responsible personnel on the scaling job. You also paid these people more than other labor in the department due to the impact on the bottom line.
Birds were packed with the breast down to allow the water inside the bird to collect in the breast area, keeping the bird wet and staying in the box for a good portion of the trip to the customer. To turn the birds back down would have allowed the water to drain out the viscera opening and neck cavity. This would have greatly reduced the retainable moisture pickup.
Yield trouble shooting was a vital part of a plant managers training. I was just beginning to see the emphasis and effect on the bottom line of good yield saving practices.
I had been at Starr Bright Poultry for about eight months now. I was considered one of the boys. There were invitations to various cook-outs, fishing trips and other little team building outings that would come up. One such trip was as a guest of an equipment salesman to go deep-sea fishing off the shores of West Florida. Bakker, Crain, Offal Manager Dave Willis, newly-appointed Assistant-Complex Manager Bill Downey and myself went on the trip. We drove all night Friday. We went right out the next morning at 7:30 a.m. We were going to fish for Red Snapper and Groupers aboard a six man plus the captain and mate fishing boat.
My hook was never wet that day. By 9 a.m. we reached our fishing destination. Three of us were already sick. We couldn’t even make it out of the galley. There were six bunks down there. When Bakker, Downey and myself even tried to get up we would fall to the floor, crawl through the puke and water on the floor back to the bunks.
By 10 a.m., Willis and Crain joined us.
I would lay there on my back and pray that God would just sink the boat and put me out of my misery. I have never to this day been as sick and miserable as that day. We were all vomited out down to the dry heaves by noon.
The captain agreed that we had probably had enough of the fun for the day.
We were sweating profusely as the trip back to shore started. Sometime later as land came into view my sickness began to go away.
I crawled to the deck of the boat. The shoreline was so beautiful. I have never been so proud to see land before in my life. I learned a lesson that day that has never been forgotten. There have been many deep sea fishing trips since that time, but I always take ocean-sickness medication before embarking on the trip. I have never suffered from ocean sickness again since that initial trip.
There were other trips to Florida for Speckled-Mackerel fishing in the shallows off the Florida shore, and other deep sea fishing outings as June rolled in.
It was in early June. I was summoned to Charles Crain’s office. One of our largest customers had made a request of them. He wanted to discuss it with me. Dixon Poultry out of Illinois, who purchased three loads per week from us, wanted to increase their business. Dixon was a major purchaser of our various parts. Wings, whole legs and whole breast. They had agreed to buy up to two or more whole-bird loads per week if Starr Bright would send someone to their operation for several weeks to assist in the installation of a cut-up line and help train their employees how to cut up a chicken. Mr. Crain told me he would appreciate me going up there for the next several months. He said my salary would be paid as usual by Starr Bright Poultry and Dixon Poultry would work out a little payment for me upon my arrival at their distribution center. He said Dixon would also pay for a flight home every other weekend for as long as I was there.
I agreed to make the trip.
I left Woodhull, Alabama that day for the big city not knowing what to expect in the city of Laurens, Illinois.
My hotel reservations were at the Wayside Inn just outside Central City Airport.
After checking in I went into the hotel dining room for dinner. A young lady walked over, asked me my name, and introduced herself to me. She sat down and began to ramble from here to there about a little of everything. When I finished dinner I told her it was a pleasure to meet her, but I had to leave.
She smiled and said that was not a problem, she was to be my companion for the night. She went on to say she was under contract to me for the night. I told her I was not interested in a companion for the night, and I had not made any contracts. She looked at me quizzically, then said she understood. She called a young man over that was waiting tables. She told him to check with me later on that night. If I were to change my mind, she told him to give her a call.
I watched, somewhat stunned, as she walked away from the dining room. This was apparently all arranged by Dixon Poultry management. I wondered what other surprise arrangements Dixon Poultry management had laid out for me.
At around 10 p.m. there was a knock on my door. It was the waiter. He asked me if I wanted him to give Angie a call. I told him no, but thanks anyway.
He said as he walked away, if there was anything I needed, just ask for Todd.
The next morning I took a cab to the Dixon Poultry address that had been provided to me. It was just off of Victor Avenue on Exit 216. A young lady introduced herself to me and walked me to the office of James Delanos. He told me he was the operations manager of the company. He took me to another office and introduced me to his brother, Jimmy. He said Jimmy, was the Dixon Poultry sales manager. After touring the building, we started discussing an employee cut-up line to cut up a load per day or 40,000 pounds of whole birds.
After the first week we began building this line into the Dixon Poultry distribution center. There would not be a trip home for several weeks. We worked about twelve hours each day getting that line ready to go. The hiring process began the following Monday. It was on this day that Delanos told me to fly home this weekend if I wanted to.
During this time at Dixon I was provided a company car, given anywhere from fifty to $100 every evening before leaving the building, and always asked if there was anything I needed for the night. I took that to possibly mean another young lady. At any rate, I always told him no.
He never gave a return response.
I even had lunch with the brothers several times per week as we went over the details of why you did this and why you did that on the cut-up line. The Dixon Poultry set up was amazing to say the least. There was a big apartment complex just across the street from the center. This was where most of the Dixon employees were drawn from. There were over 200 government sponsored apartments in that complex. Each morning Dixon would sound a horn at 6:30 a.m. By 7 a.m. the employees were on the lines, deboning or packing out chicken. There was product from various plants around the country. Some with the white skin like Starr Bright and some with bright yellow skin like Marsden Farms chicken. Delanos selected two supervisors for the cut-up lines and two line leaders. He told them that day that they were now in the major leagues. It was up to them if they stayed there. It was the most verbose I had seen him since my arrival in Laurens.
The line we had installed was a fifty bird per minute cut-up line that could cut up to two, 32,000 pound loads or 24,000 head of whole birds per day. There were about 11,200 head to a 450 case load.
My belief was the line could operate efficiently at up to ninety birds per minute. Dixon was left a crewing scheme for that rate of production. We had a forty bird-per-minute line at the Starr Bright Plant and usually crewed it as needed for the sake of efficiency. The Dixon Poultry line had three wing cutters, four breast cutters that cut down both sides of the breast and removed it from the carcass. There were four employees to remove the back from the whole legs, leaving them hanging on the line. An automatic leg dumper was installed on the line to remove the whole-legs onto a slide down to a packaging station. The wings, breast and legs were packed in forty or fifty pound cases and iced for shipment. The backs were either placed in a condemn can or seventy pound ice packed for shipment. Three employees were used to dump up cases of whole birds and hang them from a vat on the line for cutting.
A trip back home was planned that weekend to spend some time with the family. My feeling was that about another two or three weeks would satisfy the Delanos brothers with my cut-up line progress.
Before leaving the plant on Friday, James Delanos walked up to me and handed me the plane tickets to Alabama. He also handed me a plain white envelope. He told me not to flash that around in Laurens. He said "there are a lot of "crazies" out there."
I slid the envelope into my back pocket, figuring it had fifty to $100 in it. While settling back on the plane trip to Alabama, I opened the envelope and carefully counted the contents. There was over $2,000 in it.
It was two weeks later when James Delanos called me into his office, told me he was very satisfied with the cut-up operation, and that he appreciated what I had done for them. He said he would buy three full loads of whole birds from our Starr Bright plant per week starting immediately. He also told me Friday would be my last day at the plant. Then, as almost an after thought, he amended that to say unless you have decided to stay with us. He said Dixon Poultry could make it very profitable for me to remain with them.
I told him the interest was appreciated, but my preference at the moment was to stay in the South.
He said he understood and shook my hand. Friday evening came quickly. My preparations were being made for the trip back home.
It was the first week in August when I said my farewell to the Delanos brothers. While moving toward the taxi for the trip back to the airport, both brothers stepped up to me, shook my hand and said have a safe trip back to Alabama. Then I was handed another white envelope.
I looked at James Delanos and told him "I won't be flashing it around. There are a lot of crazy people out there."
He smiled as he walked away.
It would be some years later when the world would find out that Dixon Poultry was a mob funded operation that was to produce a future Illinois God-Father. That God-Father was James Delanos. In 1987, he was killed in a drive by shooting on the streets of Laurens returning from lunch at one of the same restaurants we had frequented while I was working with them.
To this day, Charles Crain of Starr Bright still mentions that Laurens trip from time to time when we run into each other at various industry functions or trade shows.
Oh yes, it was at about 12,000 feet in the air when the white envelope was finally opened. This time there was $8,000 inside it. In less than two months in the Dixon Poultry situation, my gross earnings were over $17,000.
I arrived back at Starr Bright Poultry and settled into my daily regimen of putting out production fires and fighting off NDPI challenges. It seemed almost every day there was some type of crisis situation coming up. My job was to find a way to fix the situation. Problem solving had sort of become my specialty. The people at Starr Bright were seeing the management maturation process in me coming out.
Charles Crain told me a few weeks after my arrival back at the plant from Laurens that it was incredible what had been accomplished with the Dixon Poultry project. I told him it was amazing what the project had accomplished for me as far as maturity and confidence building. He said the project could amount to over $2 million in the company coffers with the additional sales to Dixon and the reduction in sales to L & K Meat Co.
Rick Gleason had reached the point where he hardly made a sale without checking with me as to viability and capability to fill the order. While not the plant manager, there was a great deal of respect being paid to my opinions.
Carl Bakker saw this. There was a deterioration in our relationship. He seldom spoke with me on operational situations anymore. It was like my immediate supervisors were Crain and Gleason.
Clarence Amos was a black minister from my hometown of Denton. We had never met until late-August of 1970. His young daughter Rita had seriously cut her hand on a round saw while cutting fast food in the processing plant.
I was not at the plant when it happened.
The day after it happened, Clarence Amos showed up at the processing plant with a rifle. He stood outside the plant calling for me to come outside and face him like a man. That was not going to happen. The Sheriff was called and disarmed Mr. Amos, who by this time was showing strong emotions of contrition. This was the second man that had cried on this property in the last six months. Chan Winn was the first. Mr. Amos very much wanted to vent. His frustrations were evident as the Sheriff and I walked out the door to meet with him.
My intentions were to listen to what he had to say. This was a man who was crushed that his daughter, who was slated to start college in two weeks, was disfigured by the saw cuts on her right hand. Any explanation to him would not be well received.
He was almost pleading with me when he asked me why in God’s name did I place a kid on that saw? He said he didn’t know she was doing a dangerous job. She wanted to work to pay for her education and kept the nature of the job from her family.
I told him it was a mistake. However, it was done! Now we had to get her back to as good as ever and put this behind us.
He asked me to pray with him. We both bowed our heads. When looking up after the prayer, everyone outside the building, including the sheriff had their head bowed in prayer with the Reverend Mr. Amos. As the group began to disperse I asked the sheriff to let the man go home.
He nodded that he would.
There would be phone calls and visits with the family almost weekly for the next several months. Rita Amos went through six operations to correct the damage to her right thumb and right fore-finger. She attended the University of Western Alabama and now teaches English in an Alabama High School.
Reverend Clarence Amos is a city councilman on the Denton, Alabama board. He still preaches on a regular basis in a local Denton Church.
We consider ourselves to be good friends.
September started football season. Rick Gleason was a Western Alabama football nut. He built his entire weekend during the football season around college football. He loved to talk about the Wildcats almost every chance he got. We attended several games together. He always gave me tickets to all the games home and away. He received his tickets from the various truck brokers that we used to haul our poultry products.
My father was an avid Wildcat fan who never missed a game on the radio. We went to an early October game in Lamont together. It was a lifetime thrill for him.
The relationship between Carl Bakker, the plant manager, and myself was just that of a co-existence. He seemed to go out of his way to avoid communicating with me.
I was beginning to see the insecurities that went with high pressure jobs in this particular industry. It was still my feelings that Bakker brought on a lot of unneeded pressures with his somewhat wild and rambunctious lifestyle.
In November of 1970, a revolutionary development came about in the poultry industry. A European kill system was being installed in some United States plants.
Bakker had visited a plant that had installed the system. He was on the verge of placing it in the Woodhull Plant. This would consist of a machine that would stun the chickens, leaving them unconscious and limp as they went into an automated killer. It had two small blades to cut both carotid arteries and allow for a bleed out before going into the scald tank. This was a great step forward for the industry. My body still quivered when thinking of that kill tunnel and how demeaning it was to stand there and slaughter chickens for eight hours or longer. There would still be a back-up killer stationed after the machine, but it was proven so far that only about nine birds out of every 1,000 missed the electrical stun bath and may rise above the kill blade and have to be manually slaughtered. One back-up person was a small price to pay to remove the other eleven or twelve employees from that bloody hell-hole called a blood tunnel.
On November 17, 1970, an automated kill system was placed in the processing plant at Starr Bright Poultry in Woodhull, Alabama. In my mind this was the start of the automation revolution that was to engulf the industry over the next eight years. 1971 to 1979 saw more automation introduced into processing plants than at any point in poultry history.
On December 8, Gleason turned in his notice. He was leaving to return to Big J Poultry in Harville, Alabama. This was the plant he had originally came to us from. They reportedly had been trying to get him to return to them since he left and had made him an offer he could not refuse. There was disappointment, but it seemed this was the poultry business. Here today and gone tomorrow seemed to apply in almost all instances as far as management was concerned.
The last day for Gleason was on Friday the twenty-second. We gave him a going away dinner in the office break room.
Charles Crain told him how much we would miss him and that was it. At about 4:45 p.m. Rick Gleason left Starr Bright Poultry. My destiny had suddenly had a major change. I just didn’t know it yet.
* * * * * *
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