Back to the Jungle

Less Regulation, Faster Line Speeds Could Compromise Pork Safety

Posted on October 28, 2019 by Trish Nelson

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2019 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter.  The PP is  funded entirely by reader subscription,  available only in hard copy for $12/yr.  Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.

Back to the Jungle 

by Marty Ryan

I will pay you $10.50 an hour to just stand outside by the parking meter for two and one-half hours. You don’t need to do a thing, or you may do anything you like, just as long as you don’t move one foot from the meter in any direction.” That was an offer I made to a farmer in the mid-1980s when we were on strike.

Farmland Foods in Denison, Iowa is a pork slaughter and processing plant. The wages were good when I worked there in the 1970s and early 1980s; I went from making $3.14 per hour in 1973 to making $10.50 an hour in the mid ‘80s. Before going on strike, we were not asking for a wage increase, we proposed a reasonable offer of keeping what we had. The company offered concessionary wages amounting to approximately three-quarters of what we were making. There were other demands by the company: cuts to our pension; increases in premiums for health insurance; and several proposals that did nothing more than pit employees in one department against employees of another.

The farmer did not take me up on my offer, he just crawled into his new Ford F-150 pickup with all the new bells and whistles available at the time and drove away. He had told me that no one was worthy of making over $10 per hour. Of course, I was making the point that it is not easy standing in the same place for 8 hours a day, getting a twelve-minute break after two and one-half hours, and a half-hour break after five hours.

This memory was triggered when I read a business news article last month about how the pork production industry was elated that a federal rule ended the limit on line speed. When I left the packing plant for greener acres in 1990, the line speed
was right around 1,000 head of hogs per hour. That’s over 16 hogs per minute – a breakneck speed as it is. Imagine performing the same task over and over and over again without a break for two and one half hours, only to get 12 minutes to use the restroom, and be back on the line again before that first hog after the break is in front of you (that 12 minutes includes removing safety equipment, removing aprons, rinsing off knives and washing hands). Try it at your desk, or at the kitchen table, or in the garden, or anywhere else where it’s possible to repeat something for a few hours. You barely have enough time to wipe the moisture off your forehead, much less keep your knife sharp.

As a union representative, I witnessed numerous repetitive motion injuries. These injuries were not limited to carpal tunnel syndrome, but included tendonitis, bursitis, shoulder injuries, back pain, and other maladies associated with doing something over and over and over again. In Iowa, you must report these injuries to the company nurse, who sends you to the company doctor, who diagnoses you with a sore arm and sends you back to work with a note that you are to be assigned “light duty” for a period of two weeks. Many of those socalled “light duty” tasks are just as damaging as the one that gave you the pain in the first place. A worker will often acquiesce and return to the job from which the employee complained of pain. That’s the company’s goal.

Now, the sky’s the limit on line speeds. The incentive to hold down line speed over the years has been meat inspection. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspectors, union men and women who are employed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), who work aside company employees, ensure that the pork you eat is safe and clean. The only way meat inspectors can be sure that you’re getting disease-free wholesome pork is to examine each individual liver, lung, heart, and other internal and external organs and parts. The training manual is 58 pages. This is a separate matter that will be examined in the next Prairie Progressive.

The New Swine Inspection System, which went into effect on October 1st, allows pork slaughterhouses to have its own employees examine the offal and carcasses, thereby cutting out valuable independent inspectors. This process will create and encourage short cuts. Company supervisors are not as concerned about the safe supply and cleanliness of a final product as much as being concerned about a line not stopping.

One purpose of this new system is to cut down on the number of hours it takes to slaughter a certain number of hogs. Prior to the inception of this rule, a facility with a cooler capable of holding 10,000 carcasses would have to schedule 10 hours of work in order to fill the cooler. Now, with an unlimited rate, the cooler may fill up as soon as 10,000 hogs are slaughtered, probably in fewer than eight hours, thereby eliminating overtime costs.

In 113 years since Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” the only thing that has changed is the country of the immigrants working in slaughterhouses. — Marty Ryan is a native Iowan

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Irritations

As I get older, I notice that I am becoming one of those old people that I despised as a young boy.  There are several things that piss me off, and I think I should jot them down.  You may be able to empathize.

Drivers

Certain drivers drive me crazy.  Okay, maybe all drivers drive me crazy.  Why am I the only decent automobile driver out there? 

The driver that pisses me off more than others is the guy who speeds up in the inner lane to pass me, cuts over to my lane, and slows to a complete stop before making a right turn.  That goes for the guy that makes a left turn when he passed me in the right lane.

In second place is the person who is in front of me at a stop light.  The light turns green and they sit there.  They may be reading a text or email, or just day dreaming.  Honking is almost a self-irritant (I don’t like honking horns, either – especially the Honk, Honk, Honk of a car that is being stolen – never).  The minute the person in front of you takes off, the propulsion is that of a rocket.  You never see them again, until you get to the next stop light. 

Third place is the tailgater who finally speeds around you, fingering you as he goes by, and two miles up the road he’s next to you at the same stoplight.  I have been taught not to taunt.  He could have a gun. 

This category could be pages, so I have decided to make it part of a series.

Shopping

“Did you find everything you need?”  I often say “no” whether I did or not.  The answer is always an amazing.  “Oh!”  As the clerk continues to scan items.  Many retailers have taught the clerk what to ask, but never gave the minimum wage earner a lesson on what to do if someone answers anything but “yes”. 

An occasional bright clerk may call the manager over, or direct you to the courtesy counter.  When you discover that – yes, they are out of that product – the conditioned reply is: “We’ll have it in the morning.”  The next time I get that answer I’m going to have them deliver it to me.  I don’t feel like I have to return to the same store in the morning, spending about a dollar in gas, when I might save 20 cents on the out-of-stock item.  Better yet, I think I’ll tell the manager that I’ll just stop at the competitor’s store down the street and pick it up there.

Grocery stores hire many high school students.  Those students have been taught to converse with the customer.  My desire is for the student-clerk to pay attention to what they are doing.  “That tomato juice is on sale for 79¢.”  “Oh”, she says.  “Is it in the ad?”  I think employees should be required to read the advertisements before their shift starts (and get paid for it) each week the store begins a new week of discounts.  At the least, people working in a department, like meats or produce, should have a comprehensive idea of what is on sale in their respective departments during a given week. 

“Do you have big plans for the weekend?”  That question from a teenager was suggested by management to keep up a conversation with the customer.  One of these days I want to respond with: “Well, that depends.  What are you doing on Saturday night?”  I would probably get arrested.

Television Commercials with old songs

It began with a pickup commercial years ago in which Chevy used Bob Segar’s ‘Like a Rock’.  I once liked that song.  Chevy drove it into my brain so much I now despise it.  Applebee’s is using a popular song now.  And Ford is attempting to ruin every Queen song I’ve ever loved – which was all of them.

Lectures with a Q & A

I don’t attend many lectures anymore, and maybe it’s because I get irritated at people who stand up during the Q & A at the end and give a 6-minute description of something that happened in their life to relate to the lecturer’s subject (even though it’s a stretch to make the comparison).  It usually ends by having the lecturer asking if the person standing has a question.  It’s bad enough when the commenter says ‘no’ and sits down or wraps it up.  It’s a 10 on the Pain Scale when the person stumbles over trying to come up with a question.

Overturning the Tables at the Temple

Store managers that allow nonprofit groups to solicit outside the store’s doors should be fired.  I don’t appreciate being greeted by a mob of Girl Scouts asking if I want to buy overpriced cookies.  I lie and tell them that I buy them from my daughter.  So what if my daughter is 40-years-old.  The scouts’ moms are reaching that age.  And aren’t they the cookie pushers with the idea to hassle store customers going in and coming out of the store? 

The Knights of Columbus want to give me a Tootsie Roll.  Yeah!  “Here, have a 5 oz. roll of guilt.  It’s free!”  Sure, it is.  If you happen to be Roman Catholic that guilt of turning it down and not contributing will last through your death bed and into the first 4 days of purgatory. 

You may like eating the free nibbles at COSTCO and in the grocery stores, but I stay away.  It’s not that I reject free food, it’s the problem of cluttering up the aisle while pretending to think the tiny sample is the greatest thing since sliced bread, even though the sampler doesn’t buy the product. I hate to be one of those aisle cloggers.  I have to get ahead of you in the check out.

What do you like, Marty?

I like kids.  They can make you laugh more than most comedians.

We live next to a licensed day care center.  The facility has about 50 kids, from infants to 12-year-olds.  If you can remember watching the Art Linkletter show back in the 60s, you can relate to what I get almost every day.

Stephanie and I watched a dog overnight for a friend a few weeks ago.  Four or five children came running up to the fence.  “What’s its name?”  They were all asking.  “Zoe,” I said, and kept on walking.  All of the children in the group began yelling, “Bye, doggie!!”

Even though the children can keep me laughing, they can also keep me humble.  One of the teachers suggested the kids say “Hi” to the neighbor.  “Hi, old man!”

Crap.  I’ve become that old man I never wanted to be.

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A Pattern Begins to Develop

Prior to graduation from basic training, orders came down from above. Before we were provided with individual orders, a permanent clerk in the company read from a list the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and next base assignment for each of us gathered in the yard.  No one wanted to be an eleven bravo (11B), which meant infantry.  We all knew what that number meant.  About one-third of the platoon was assigned an eleven bravo MOS and sent to Advanced Infantry Training across the base.  Those soldiers were to report immediately upon graduation.  (See FYI below.)

I was one of the fortunate ones.  I was assigned an MOS of ninety-four Charlie (94C) and sent to Fort Lee, Virginia.  I had no idea what a 94C meant until the list came around to me.  94C meant meat cutter.  It’s on my DD214 (a discharge form).  The Army has since rearranged the MOS list and meat cutter is no longer included – neither is cook.  Today, it is Food Service Specialist – 92G.  And, of course, food specialists are mostly civilians.  I was scheduled to have a 30-day leave and report to Fort Lee, VA on the 31st day.

For some strange reason, I kept getting up early while on leave and continued running early every morning.  I drank some beers and did other wild things, but for the most part, I seemed to be conditioned to continue my regimen of being healthy.

I flew into Richmond, VA, on the date appointed.  I took a limousine ride to Fort Lee, about 30 miles south.  I checked in with 1st FASCOM Headquarters and Headquarters Company (after all these years I remember this outfit, but not necessarily the outfit in which I spent most of my time.)  The military is full of acronyms.  FASCOM stands for Field Army Support Command.  Our shoulder patch was nicknamed “The Leaning Shithouse.” 

1st SUPCOM patch

I have no idea how someone could design this emblem, or even approve it, without realizing that it looks like a yearly Halloween prank.

The clerk I first spoke with thought I was a joke.  “Really!?”  He said: “We don’t have meat cutters on his base.”  I think he told me that the Army hadn’t had meat cutters since World War II, or something like that.  He gave me a pillow, an assigned bunk, sheets and a blanket and led me to a ward for incoming and outgoing soldiers – it was a temporary holding ward.

I ate in the mess hall 3 times a day, showered in the men’s room daily (latrines are only in the Navy and Marines), and attended roll call each morning, followed by police call (that’s what it’s called – you pick up trash and cigarette butts).  No one noticed I was the only soldier in the holding ward for longer than 3 days.  As a matter-of-fact, I was in that ward for 6 weeks. 

One day, an old sergeant (probably 40 years-old, but looked 70) who was assigned to the temporary bay, asked if I wanted to go for a ride.  Why not?  He drove out to the country.  He wanted to see a tobacco field.  So did I.  He walked up to a fence and picked a tobacco plant.  I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself: ‘Is this guy crazy?  We’re in the South.  He could get shot trespassing like that.’  I don’t remember what he did with it.  I enjoyed seeing drying barns.  I’ve seen photos of tobacco drying barns, but up close was a real treat for me.

I spent most of the time walking up to the PX and buying a Harold Robbins book.  [By the way, this past spring, at a Planned Parenthood Book Sale, I purchased a used Harold Robbins book that I hadn’t seen before.  The copyright was 1976.  It wasn’t available for those years I spent in the Army.  I was discharged 5 years earlier.]  Robbins’ books were thick paperbacks and took longer to read than some of the other offerings.  I would find a nice place to sit and read.  It was August-September, and the weather was pretty good for Virginia, even though hurricanes often travel up the east coast during the latter part of the period.  I avoided the temporary ward.  However, I would occasionally read some of the book on my bunk.  It wasn’t like anyone paid attention to who was there and who wasn’t.  This would become a pattern in my military career.  I was often placed in the backroom.  I have heard, “go hide” more than once.

Staying away from soldiers who looked like officers was a challenge.  I didn’t like saluting.  Walking down a sidewalk one day I saw a soldier coming toward me.  As sloppy as he looked, I assumed he was an enlisted man.  Nope, a lieutenant.  He chewed my ass out for not saluting him.  I believe that most officers avoid saluting whenever possible.  This guy was arrogant.  I have heard more than once that the most dangerous thing in Vietnam was a lieutenant with a map.  To this day I cringe when someone calls me sir.  “Sir” is an address of respect.  There weren’t that many officers that deserved my respect.  More on that in later blogs.

Finally, someone found me.  I had orders to report to a different company and they were going to make me a cook.  I think the company was 260th Quartermaster Battalion.  It could have been the 180th for all I can remember.  Cooks don’t fall out.  That was a plus.  No more getting up early in the morning, unless I was on the morning shift.  I can’t remember cooking anything.  I did make some salads – Jell-O and lettuce wedges.  We had two staff sergeants – one on each shift – that were chefs in the citizen life.  One was from Baltimore, the other from Boston.  They cooked just about everything.  And it was great!

Ramon Ortiz was from Texas, and Julio Ortiz was from Puerto Rico.  They were not related.  Both spoke Spanish, but the dialect was so different that neither could communicate well in their native language of Spanish.  The three of us showed up in the mess hall about the same time.  Ramon and I became pretty good friends for a few months.  Although he was married, he set out to Petersburg every weekend and came back to tell me about the women with whom he had sex.  He was a good-looking Hispanic with oil-black hair combed neatly from front to back, a natural brown hue that looked like a great suntan, straight pearly-white teeth, and piercing dark eyes.  I don’t doubt many women were interested in him.  There were many women to be had in town if you weren’t picky.  I was.  Ramon and I did not hang together on weekends, unless we were working.  I did not like going to Petersburg.

The cooks who were not NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) share a large room.  There may have been about 6-8 of us.  In the beginning, most of us were Privates and Privates-first-class.  Later, most of us were Specialists 4th Class.  I no longer remember many names other than the two Ortiz’s, but one guy from North Carolina went home every other weekend to his wife and child.  He came back one Sunday night and told this story.

He got off the bus from North Carolina at the Petersburg Bus Station and was waiting for the bus that went to Fort Lee.  He ordered a hamburger and sat down in a booth to eat it.  A woman came to the booth and sat down opposite him.  She asked him if he wanted to buy some pussy.  He asked “how much” it would cost.  She said five dollars.  His immediate response was: “What’s wrong with it?”  She got up and left.  He wasn’t going to have sex with her, and he wasn’t trying to be a smart ass.  It was just his demeanor and the manner in which he carried on conversations.  A real Southern boy.  His time was up and he was honorably discharged not too long after I met him.

Within a month or so of finding my new home in the mess hall, the Quartermaster Company was moving out of the building it had been in for quite some time, and began operation on the 3rd floor of a modern barracks a few blocks away.  The mess hall was on the ground floor.  The new location would be my permanent home for the next 15-16 months in the Army.  It’s also where most of the comical and unbelievable things happened to me and around me.

I’ll continue in between some serious blogs and other amusement.

FYI:  Years later, I would travel to Washington, DC and visit the Vietnam Memorial.  I had a list of the people with whom I served in basic training.  Not one name was on The Wall.

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How’s Your Pension Doing?

A favorite question to ask a Democrat in Iowa right now is: “What candidate are you supporting in the 2020 Iowa Caucuses?” 

I don’t have an answer, yet.  I don’t watch debates.  Debates, which is a misnomer today, have turned into ratings wars for the media, where the candidates yell at each other and never get to the meat of an issue.  How could anyone, with fewer than 3 minutes explain a complex subject.  It was much better when the League of Women Voters facilitated the events.  The candidates and the questions were civil.

So, I read newspapers, talk to a few followers of certain candidates, and attend an event where a candidate is speaking – rarely.  Candidates will tell us what they will do, won’t do, or think they can do.  Do any of them listen?  Sure, just ask them.  Each will tell you what they have heard from Americans.

As far as I know, none of them have listened to me.

I’m a Baby Boomer. I live on my Social Security “entitlement” benefits, and two pensions – one is very tiny, the other is moderate, it’s about half of what Social Security provides, but I couldn’t live without it.  Yes, Social Security benefits are very important.  Just ask any politician.  Some will tell you the Social Security well is going to run dry in about 20 to 30 years. Some will tell you it’s solvent far beyond that estimate.  This issue is an ongoing debatable issue.  I may not be around when something changes (like having Congress pay back what it borrowed – HA!).  But my pensions are the focus of my questions to candidates.

Not many Americans are lucky enough to have a “defined benefit” pension. 

Defined benefit plans provide a fixed, pre-established benefit for employees at retirement. Employees often value the fixed benefit provided by this type of plan. On the employer side, businesses can generally contribute (and therefore deduct) more each year than in defined contribution plans. However, defined benefit plans are often more complex and, thus, more costly to establish and maintain than other types of plans.

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/choosing-a-retirement-plan-defined-benefit-plan

I have never contributed to a defined benefit plan in which I have participated.  With most defined benefit plans, the employer makes the contribution.  It is possible that an employee may contribute, but that’s not the norm.

Defined benefit plans are the costliest plans for a business, non-profit or other entity to maintain.  About 20-30 years ago, many companies were keeping their defined benefit plans, but began placing new employees on a 401k plan.  Those employees with a defined benefit plan were grandfathered in, while those hired after a certain date were offered the alternative 401k.  A 401k plan, described as a defined contribution plan, is less costly for an employer, more costly for the employee, but as any company human resources department will tell you, gives the employee more control over investments, etc.  Usually, an employer will match an employee’s contribution into the plan, often up to a maximum 7% of the weekly/monthly salary.  “In 1975, 62 percent of private-sector workers participated solely in a defined-benefit plan; in 2009, only 7 percent did, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.” 

My question to presidential candidates, U.S. Senatorial candidates, and Congressional candidates is this:  ‘Once elected, other than relying on ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) what is and should be your ideas to keep private pension plans and the PBGC solvent?’  (ERISA and PGBC do not cover most government-run pension plans).

Economists are projecting a recession for the near future[1].  When companies cannot sell their products, when non-profits cannot solicit necessary funding, and when service vendors cannot meet sales goals, layoffs occur.  But one thing former employees never worry about is the pension check coming in every month.  A financial hit on a business or non-profit with a defined pension program may affect the pension plan’s solvency, while you hear only about the layoffs.

You can lose your pension benefits overnight.  Several companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past year, including Sears, Toys R Us, ShopCo, and Payless.  Granted, it’s not likely these companies had defined benefit plans for their employees, but if they did, the employees are probably not going to see any financial recovery.  Not that many years ago, Dahl’s Food Stores in the Des Moines Metro area experienced a bankruptcy in which all employees lost their so-called “guaranteed” pensions.  It affects more than employees; it affects the community, as well.

In 1998, CIGNA Corp. changed its defined benefit plan to a cash balance plan.  The employees and the plan administrator sued.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in CIGNA v. Amara, remanded the case back to “District Court to revisit its determination of an appropriate remedy for the violations of ERISA it identified.  . . .  Because the District Court has not determined if an appropriate remedy may be imposed under § 502(a)(3), we must vacate the judgment below and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”  This case was ongoing in 2014, 16 years after the initial change in the CIGNA pension plan.  The complexity of the case, and the numerous side issues that had to be settled, created costs to the litigants that could not be retrieved.  The end result was not a total win for the employees.  The cash balance plan was an actuarial distortion that gave former employees a cash settlement, far less than what they would have received in monthly payments over the years.  It’s sad that the courts determined that there needed to be “an appropriate remedy” for a situation that was not caused by employees, but by the multinational corporation.

If you depend upon a defined pension plan, you should read this:  https://www.marketwatch.com/story/10-things-pension-plans-wont-tell-you-1315521082086 Especially if you have a government-funded pension.

Some unscrupulous companies have been known to raid the employee pension plan to offset a huge salary for corporate management at the highest levels.  This usually comes before the company files for bankruptcy, merges with another unscrupulous company, or closes down without notice.  ERISA is intended to provide oversight to pension plans.  By the time a company or nonprofit has closed, merged, or filed bankruptcy, ERISA can no longer be of much use.  It is the PBGC that helps employees when a company’s pension plan fails. 

Unfortunately, the PBGC is not funded by tax dollars.  The funding for this program comes from “insurance premiums, investment income, and, for the Single-Employer Program, assets and recoveries from failed single-employer plans.”  It is estimated that the PBGC’s “Multiemployer Insurance Program continues on the path to running out of money by the end of fiscal year 2025.”  The Multiemployer Insurance Program covers those pension programs in which more than one employer joins with others to sponsor a plan covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Single-Employer Programs are doing a little better.  These programs are sponsored and maintained by one employer.  However, the “Single-Employer Program remains exposed to a considerable amount of underfunding in plans sponsored by financially weak employers. Plans whose sponsors’ credit quality is below investment grade have unfunded liabilities of approximately $175 billion.”

All of this news is scary for pension plan participants. If your plan fails, you may receive some relief from the PBGC, but it may be pennies on the dollar.  For example, if you currently receive a monthly pension of $1200, and your company’s pension plan fails, you may receive a continuing pension check of $500 a month.  If nothing happens in the next few years, there may be no money left in the funds to pay you a penny on the dollar.

Ask all the questions you want about teachers’ pay, minimum wage, and equality in the workplace, but don’t let the candidates sway you into believing those are the only workplace issues.  Baby Boomer or not, if you depend upon a pension, you should get to know a little more about it.  Learn about high actuarial assumptions, signs that a plan may be underfunded.  Even an overfunded plan can lead to dangerous raiding by corporate sponsors.

Think of the potential economic catastrophe if you and your neighbors worked for the same employer for years, retired, and suddenly lose most of your benefits.

If you don’t have a pension, you still have a lot to consider.  Your friends, neighbors, and relatives may be adversely affected if this country enters a period of recession and companies fail.  Because of Internet shopping, a loss of local small businesses, and the effect of tariffs, we all have something to think about besides the current situation of those less fortunate.  We may be one of them.

Be ready to ask the tough question: 

“Once elected, other than relying on ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) what are your ideas to keep private pension plans and the PBGC solvent to ensure retirees, neighborhoods, and whole communities are not placed in an economic tailspin?”


[1] https://www.guggenheiminvestments.com/perspectives/macroeconomic-research/forecasting-the-next-recession;

https://thehill.com/policy/finance/431423-three-fourths-of-economists-predict-recession-by-2021-survey;

https://fortune.com/2019/06/04/next-recession-2020-predictions/;

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-08/u-s-recession-odds-pick-up-as-economists-cut-growth-estimates

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Bear With Me

He’s back at it.  That damned bear I encountered as a young boy is still putting a responsibility on me that triggers shame and guilt.  It started out when I was a child.  “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”  Me?  I’m the only one that can prevent a massive fire consuming acres and sometimes square miles of wooded land?  I didn’t even live close to a forest.

Smokey the Bear hasn’t aged that much.  However, he’s still placing blame on me as he’s expanded his message to go beyond forest fires.  Now, I have to prevent wildfires.  That could be right-of-way land along the railroad tracks where grass burns.  It could be a fire in your backyard.  It also includes prairie fires that get out of hand.  I don’t even have to be present when the burning occurs.  I’m still responsible. 

Growing up along the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad (now the Union Pacific), the town firetrucks were often called out to extinguish a grass fire by the tracks.  When the fire fighters came back to town, I would hear them talk.  They would often say that the cause of the fire was a “hot box”.  It took some time before I received an honest answer from a fire fighter about what that meant.  A hot box is a railroad car in which the axle bearing overheats, starting a fire.  It doesn’t occur as often as it did when I was kid. 

Railroad companies now have detectors inlaid within the tracks that help determine if a passing railcar has conditions that will identify a hot box.  Also, the use of “ball, roller, or tapered” bearings instead of the old-time journal bearings has cut down on the number of fires caused by hot boxes.  A modern bearing can still ignite a fire when it fails, and it can cause a significant fire if the railcar is hauling grain, coal, sawdust, or other pseudo-combustive material.  The responsibility for these fires belongs to the railroad companies.

What about lightning?  Am I still to blame because the lightning caused a fire?  According to The National Fire Protection Association, “the average number of acres burned per fire is much higher in lightning fires than in fires caused by humans.” Based upon this information, I question the Bear’s statement that “only YOU” can prevent wildfires.  Clearly, the responsibility falls on Mother Nature.

Finally, the deadliest and most costly wildfire in California history was the 2018 Camp Fire, which burnt the city of Paradise into nonexistence.  This fire was started by the failure of a major corporation trying to divert maintenance funds into profit for company shareholders.  Corporate culpability continues.

California’s largest utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), admits that it was its equipment that started the Camp Fire in November or 2018. 

Long before the failure suspected in the Paradise fire, a company email had noted that some of PG&E’s structures in the area, known for fierce winds, were at risk of collapse. It reported corrosion of one tower so severe that it endangered crews trying to repair the tower. The company’s own guidelines put Tower 27/222 a quarter-century beyond its useful life — but the tower remained.

A hot wire broke loose from Tower 27/222 and started a fire moving very fast and so intense it killed 88 people.  It could have been prevented.  But the cost of maintenance would have cut company’s profits.  “The state’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, concluded that the company was more concerned with profit than with safety.”  The PG&E’s answer to this entire mess – file for bankruptcy. 

“State officials also blamed PG&E equipment for starting 17 of 21 major fires in 2017 that ripped through Northern California, including wine-growing Napa and Sonoma Counties.”

The railroads have worked hard at trying to prevent fires.  No one can do anything about lightning strikes, but massive money-making corporations can file bankruptcy and continue to operate with impunity.

Railroads, lightning, and company greed have more to do with wildfires than human error.  Oh, sure, fires have been started by careless campers, hikers, homeowners, and other human sources, but I don’t see that damned bear pointing at them. 

I think I’m old enough now to realize that the bear was not pointing at me specifically, yet for some reason, I don’t think anyone is pointing a finger at corporations who seek profit over safety: safety for employees; safety for the environment; and safety for those of us who depend upon the services many corporations provide. 

Greed!  It’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins[1].  It’s my sin to bear since a pension plan I rely on may have invested in some of these greedy companies.  Greed, guilt, gullibility.  Gee, guess I’m the bear(er) of bad news.

 

Quotes in regards to the Camp Fire and PG&E are taken from: How PG&E Ignored Fire Risks in Favor of Profits. NY Times Business Section.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/03/18/business/pge-california-wildfires.html Penn, Ivan; Eavis, Peter; & Glanz, James.  MARCH 18, 2019

[1] Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.

Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation.

Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.

Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.

Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath.

Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or Covetousness.

Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.

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Go Away, Sunshine

Each time I feel like I’ve written about every hare-brained thing I did in basic training, and that there is no more to write about, something comes up that reminds me of one more thing.

I was halfway through basic training and I evidently forgot to lock my locker when we were called out for evening MESS (that means Meals Essential to a Soldier’s Sustenance – or something like that).  I ate everything, all the time.  I was in the best shape of my life, and I was feeling pretty good.

I came back from the MESS hall and a few people were looking at clothing on the ground outside the barracks.  I casually walked over and saw that it was all my clothing and a few other items I owned.  I picked stuff up as quickly as I could and brought it in and threw it on my bunk.  I was angry.  “Who’s the son-of-a-bitch that threw all my shit out the window?”  I yelled.  Sgt. Greene came out of nowhere and, with his arms folded and a stern look on his face, said, “I did, Ryan.  Now, what was that you called me?”  I didn’t know what to say or what to do.  Sgt. Greene made it easy.  He began getting in my face about leaving my locker unlocked; about how I couldn’t be trusted with things that the enemy would want, and blah, blah, blah.  Chalk up this incident as one more reason to keep me out of Vietnam. 

My punishment was to go down to the low-crawl pit when I cleaned everything up and was required to make something like 5 rounds back and forth.  I did 6 just to make sure.  I knew he would be watching. 

Who’s your best man?

There were several other drill instructors besides Sgt. Greene but he was the one assigned to our platoon.  One of the other platoons had a drill instructor who claimed he had never been beaten in a 100-yard dash.  He came to our platoon when we were mixing with three other platoons in Charly Company and told us about his sprinting prowess.  “Put up your best man,” he said.  Everyone in Platoon 1 (my platoon) was calling for me to race him.  I tried and tried to tell my fellow draftees that I was not good at sprinting.  I wanted another guy to race him – Materas might have been his name.  The dude had glasses that became sunglasses in the sun.  I had never seen that before.  He was criticized for those prescription glasses by the staff.  He got about as much of a break as I did.  But he could run fast.

The rest of my comrades insisted that I be the representative from our platoon.  I was honored, but I could readily see that they had no idea about the difference between sprinting and cross country running.  I reluctantly agreed.  There were four of us trying to beat this character, one from each platoon.  No one came close.  What did surprise me is that I didn’t come in last. 

I look back on this event and shake my head.  What were we thinking?  We were running a sprint on loose white rock.  Had someone been injured it would have been the runner’s fault.  That would have called for disciplinary action.  I should have checked things out.  If it meant immediate discharge, I might have considered falling down. 

“How much does it cost?  I’ll buy it.  The time is all we’ve lost.  I’ll try it.  And he can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine.”  That song didn’t come out until a year later but it was definitely about Sgt. Greene.  [Lyrics from Sunshine by Jonathan Edwards.]

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