On a warm and sunny day in June 1958—a Candy Land kind of day—I began my summer job at the Milton Bradley game factory in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. I considered myself lucky to be making $1.45 an hour—well above the minimum wage—with time-and-a-half on Saturday mornings. Some of my high school friends were toiling under the steamy white gauze that covered the tobacco fields along the Connecticut River valley a few miles south. Others were filing endless claims and letters in the big home office of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, or, as a last resort, selling magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post door-to-door.
I was assigned to work on one of the game assembly rooms as the “line boy.” Although the floor man, Frank, was my boss, I was really at the beck and call of the ten women—always referred to as girls—on the line. My main task was to keep these ladies supplied with parts as the game boxes slowly made their way down the conveyer belt.
We might spend anywhere from a few hours to several days working on just one game. “Go to the Head of the Class” and “Easy Money,” perennial big sellers, were regularly assembled in half-day stints throughout the year. But a big new item that suddenly took off, like “The Game of Life” or “Racko,” might mean a sold week’s run, with thousands of games rolling off the worn, shiny belt, then carefully stacked on wooden and steel skids. They were then wheeled away on a big, bright orange-colored jack to the packing room and eventually shipped off to an eagerly awaiting public in all 48 states and parts beyond.
Every morning I arrived shortly before seven at the big arched rear entrance to the factory, a cluster of labyrinthine brick buildings dating from the late nineteenth century. This dark entry passage led to a big open courtyard, where on nice days the workers gathered until the five-minute warning whistle sounded. From the courtyard, you climbed the stairs to the upper floors or waited for a ponderous freight elevator to take you up, very slowly, to your department.
We were a relatively nondescript group except for the men from the paint rooms, who always bore faint evidence of the previous day’s run on their clothes and even on their skin. Some mornings pale purple-hued men walked among us, other days we were greeted by workers with traces of lime green or pink on their arms and hands and hair. At lunchtime on days when they were mixing a batch of blue paint, the men reminded me of ancient Celtic warriors got up in fiercely smeared overalls and T-shirts.
I usually made it to the time clock before the late whistle sounded, but if I was still running down the hall, one of the women—Frannie or Rose or Esther—punched me in. I stored my jacket or outer shirt in a locker in the men’s room. By the end of the day, my T-shirt would be grimy and black, and I’d usually take it off and wash up a bit before going home. Some of the women arrived in the morning dressed to kill and then changed into housecoats or smocks.
My first job every day was to make sure there was fresh glue for the game board assemblers. Because of the terrific heat they generated, the glue vats were located in a separate room about 200 feet from the huge cutting and pasting machines. I had to struggle with both hands to turn a giant wheel and release the slow-moving, sweet-smelling glue into five-gallon pails. At a certain precise moment, I then rotated the wheel in the opposite direction to avoid a messy and dangerous overflow from the full pails, coated with years of dried, honey-colored gunk.
For balance, I always carried a full pail in each hand as I gingerly made my way back into the department, past the assembly lines, and over to the big black board machines. When I was new on the job, Doris, a big-boned cutter operator who always wore a flowered bandanna turban, poured the glue into the machine herself. “Too much spilt glue with you new kids,” she told me. But after a week or so, I got the hang of it and began to hoist the pail to elbow level and carefully pour out the fresh glue into a wide shallow tray, where it bubbled and steamed like a bad batch of salt-water taffy.
By this time, Frank would have started the conveyer belt on the assembly line. Whatever game had been halted when the whistle blew the previous afternoon was back in production. Often, mid-way on my long trek with the glue pails, one of the women would start to run out of game parts.
“David, get me some dice!” I’d hear. Or, “Winks! I need winks!” Each game had different parts and pieces to be inserted: the plastic discs of “Tiddley Winks,” little gingerbread men for “Candy Land,” bundles of fake money and card packs to be stacked into the boxes of “Easy Money,” the Milton Bradley version of “Monopoly.”
Esther, one of the veteran workers, was usually assigned the easy task of placing winks or dice into their assigned space in the cardboard box insert. Esther was a 64-year-old girl who’d started on the line when she was 16 and was due to retire the following year at the mandatory age of 65. She was a skinny little woman with bright red, tightly curled hair, heavily rouged cheeks, and a huge diamond ring that flashed as she threw her pieces into the moving boxes.
“David, I told ya I need winks, winks!” she’d often yell again as I tried to quicken my pace and still maintain my balance with the full glue pails in each hand.
Invariably, Esther would become desperate. “Jesus!” she’d shriek. ”Get me some of them goddamned winks!” She’d often end up grabbing passing boxes and piling them up on the floor until I ran over with a fresh bag of colored winks and poured them into the recessed drawer by her work stool. “Thanks, Honey!” she’d invariably say.
After the first time this happened, I tried to keep a special watch on Esther’s supply, and I encouraged her to alert me before the 11th hour. But, in truth, I think she liked living on the edge and being the cause of the commotion the piled-up boxes created. The other women usually laughed and enjoyed the short respite. Frank always glared, at nobody in particular, and shouted, “OK, girls, OK, back to work!”
Mornings and afternoons we had a l5-minute break, signaled by the arrival of Henry, the canteen man, and his creaky, snack-laden wagon. Sometimes, instead of having a coffee and a delicious greasy doughnut, I’d race to another department to see if I could catch my friend Larry at the tail end of his break. I’d zigzag down the maze of narrow hallways and through the thick steel safety doors that separated the crayon and paint rooms from the other units.
These oppressive chambers contained huge vats and insulated pipes: Imagine Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory transported to the middle of a ship’s boiler room. In the summer, temperatures often rose well above 100 degrees, and the air was thick with the sweet chemical smell of dye pigments and wax. Many of the men worked stripped to the waist, mixing and stirring and pouring the colored powders and liquids.
The end products were neatly labeled jars of creamy finger paint, shiny blue tins of watercolors, and smooth canisters of powder paint. Here, too, were produced the famous Milton Bradley “no-roll” crayons, ranging in shades from sepia to magenta to flesh (soon to become “peach” in the more enlightened decade of the sixties).
My friend Larry was assigned to a department that operated strictly on the piecework system, meaning that smaller game or educational items were assembled by individual workers at rates established from previous workers’ averages. Every summer saw the unwelcome presence of a few super-speedy high school or college kids whose fingers were willing to fly for their brief ten-week stints. As a result, they sometimes racked up totals that threw into question the accepted quotas of the old-timers.
“Jeez,” Larry told me, “I’m just trying to make as much as I can while I’m here. She didn’t have to stick her fingers in my face and call me dirty names.” He was referring to an earlier encounter he’d had with an older worker who had also been assembling “Ding Dong School” clay sets at the workstation next to his.
“Listen, Honey,” Esther explained to me later. “If you’d been sittin’ at a bench bendin’ cardboard day in day out since God knows when, how long d’ya think ya’d keep up that pace? Tell your Mr. Quiz Kid to slow down before someone glues his ass to a board and sends him down the line.”
I talked with Esther all the time, and with most women on the line, but I had very little verbal contact with some of the other workers in the department. The box and board cutters worked alone and silent at their machines. Unlike the assemblers, they had to concentrate closely on their every move. I was well aware of their presence, however, because of the constant THWACK! of the guillotine as it sliced through paper and cardboard.
Legend had it that one time on the third shift a man and his finger got separated by one of the gigantic knives. He was rushed to the hospital, but it wasn’t until the next morning that his finger surfaced, rolling out of the machine and into the lap of the horrified daytime operator.
I worked until Labor Day that summer, but I was back again at Milton Bradley the following June. This time, however, I got assigned to the shipping department, located several miles from the main plant. My workstation was just off the loading dock, in the mailroom, where the radio played all day and the canteen breaks were longer. I sat next to an open window, where the occasional breeze was a welcome change from the stifling heat of my old department in the upper interior courtyard of the older downtown building.
Sometimes I made runs to the post office, but most days that summer I pasted address and postage labels on thousands of small cardboard tubes. These cylindrical missiles contained refill question and answer sheets for the game “Concentration,” a runaway best seller that year because of its tie-in with the hit TV quiz show.
I brushed and pasted labels for hours at a time, until big boxes of “Concentration” canisters were ready to be wheeled over to the Pitney-Bowes meter, where I slapped on the proper domestic or foreign postage. The music of a popular local disc jockey, Gordy Baker, on Springfield station WSPR served as background accompaniment to my labors, along with conversations I would sometimes hear from the commercial drivers arriving in their big rigs to pick up shipments. Some of these exchanges were quite eye opening and, uh, instructive for a rather naïve 16-year-old in 1958. I remember a lot of conversation about a certain Lorraine, whose friendly ways were known at truck stops up and down the Connecticut Valley.
Most of the time, however, life in the mailroom was placid and eventually boring, and I often found myself thinking of the previous summer and of my friends on the assembly line. I wondered what games they were working on and if the new kid had spilled any hot glue yet. I missed hearing gossip about the women’s lives. The packaged doughnuts on this plant’s canteen truck weren’t up to Henry’s killer deep-fried crullers.
And somehow the mellow radio sounds of Doris Day and Patti Page couldn’t quite match Esther’s voice playing over and over in my head: “Dice, dice! Come on, David, I need dice! God damn it, DICE!