Kerry Temple | June 16, 2017
It was the summer I trafficked in Coke. The best summer ever. 1970.
I had graduated from high school and was playing baseball with a team that would make it to the state championship by summer’s end — a summer that would conclude with my entering Notre Dame. The ballgames and post-high-school summer liberties kept me up late most nights, but I got up every morning at 5. So did my dad.
We ate breakfast together, I packed a lunch, and he drove me down to the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. There I pulled on the day’s freshly laundered butterscotch jumpsuit (with pinstripes and a big Coca-Cola symbol on the back) and went out to the trucks, ready to roll at 6 a.m. — a fleet of bright red vehicles loaded full of glass-bottled Coke (along with some Sprite, Dr. Pepper and a little Fanta).
We were the only crew that took out two trucks — the biggest route in the city of 200,000. Roy Burroughs was the salesman; he drove the big truck. Lee Christor, an African-American “helper,” drove the second truck — a rarity in those days, because only white men got the routes and the trucks and the commissions. I was a summer helper with lots to learn.
The work was hard. Mostly it required only strength and stamina in the oppressive Louisiana heat and humidity. These were 8- and 10-hour days of lifting, bending, carting, stacking those 40-pound cases of classic sea-green glass bottles that came then in wooden crates, with a latticework wood grid to keep the 24 bottles in place.
My first Friday on the job — after a week of work and play — I crashed on my bed before dinner and didn’t wake up till 10 the following day.
The handcart was the helper’s helper. But at first it was an intractable foe. Six of those 40-pound cases on a handcart, a cart to be loaded, wheeled through parking lots, up and down ramps or steps, over bumps and fissures in concrete. Negotiating doorways one-handed was particularly tricky. Some of our stops were country stores with gravel parking lots and old-time boardwalk porches.
It took days to master the proper tilt — not too far back that the weight clenched the forearm muscles, not too upright to risk a dump. An art of balance and deft handling. Arriving at your destination required removing the cart from underneath a tipsy tower of pop — a maneuver mastered in time, eventually done thoughtlessly, but acquired only through persistence. Then the cases were lifted again and stacked in storerooms or shelves, or displayed in pyramids as enticement to quench the summer thirst.