Summer Jobs: Poppin Fresh

Factory work means you have to withstand being covered in starch and powdered sugar, and have your dreams haunted by thousands of Pillsbury Doughboys. In today's summer jobs stories, Melissa Block and Michele Norris hear from listeners about working the production lines in a gum factory and in a latex factory.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We have been hearing about your summer jobs - the good, the bad, the weird. Today, two stories about working on the production line.

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NORRIS: Think of David Webb(ph) of Spokane, Washington, the next time you have a wad of chewing gum in your mouth. He used to work with molten(ph) bubblegum.

David writes this: Loads were poured into large troughs where slabs were cut by swarthy men with sweaty arms. Everything was lubricated with powdered sugar and cornstarch, including me. I resemble Marcel Marceau without lips, eyebrows or the funny hat. Rivulets of white powder flowed down my forearms onto the gum slabs if I stuff them into the roaring belching beast-like machines.

Later, hair and clothes were cleaned with compressed air, which removed the worst of the white crusts; however, bees followed me to the bus stop. And I left a white outline of myself on the seat when I got off the bus. On the upside, David tells us that any doubts his mother had about him were relieved because he stuck it out at the chewing gum factory. He went on to become a university professor.

BLOCK: Listener Ed Via(ph) is the head of the Interlibrary Loan Department at Miami University of Ohio. But for two summers in the 1970s, when he was in college, he worked at Dayton Flexible Products in Eaton. He made Pillsbury Doughboys. That's right, plastic Poppin Fresh Dolls. That little guy who goes like this when he's poked in the belly.

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Unidentified Man: Hoohoo.

BLOCK: Ed also made little Doughgirls known as Poppie Fresh.

Mr. ED VIA: Well, it was a hot dirty job, actually, and pretty tough. There was a station where I stood, and then to my left was an oven where the mold would go in and cook the little doughboys out of the latex that have been injected into the mold. That big mold looked like a giant wagon wheel would cycle over to the cooling station. And then from there, it will come out of the cooling station over to the platform where I stood. And then I would use a pneumatic wrench to loosen all the bolts off the top of the mold. Hook it up to the chain hoist that would lift the top of the mold off. Then I use a little T handlebar to stick down on each of the 50 little molds and twist it and pull, hopefully, an intact nice-looking little Doughboy or a Doughgirl out of the mold. I would pitch those over into a bin. I would lower the mold back down, refasten it, then use a little gun that was suspended above me to inject all the 50 molds with a fresh batch of latex.

BLOCK: So 50 at a time? And how big are they?

Mr. VIA: Let's see. Poppin Fresh, he was 6, 7 inches tall, and Poppie, she was maybe 4 to 5 inches.

BLOCK: She's a little smaller.

Mr. VIA: A little quieter and a little more demure, a little smaller.

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BLOCK: Now, did you ever get a misfire, one came out, you know, missing an arm or just horribly misshapen?

Mr. VIA: I still have dreams about some of the ones that would come out. Sometimes, maybe a section of the mold didn't get quite cooled down, and you would go to extract the doll from a mold and instead of coming out with a nice little pop - a little play on words - Poppin Fresh.

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Mr. VIA: But they didn't always come out Poppin Fresh. You would twist it, and you'd go to pull it out, and it would just kind of do a Stretch Armstrong on you.

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Mr. VIA: And you would get these hideous little homunculus-looking things, and every once in a while, the face, if you've seen Edvard Munch's painting, "The Scream"...

BLOCK: Oh, yeah.

Mr. VEY: ...yeah, once in a while, you'd get one that kind of look like that, and you just really felt bad for it and...

BLOCK: He was not so fresh?

Mr. VIA: He was not so fresh. He was scary-looking, actually. You know, I calculated that that summer, I probably made close to a quarter million of them myself.

BLOCK: Oh, come on.

Mr. VIA: No, seriously. I mean, if you do the math, they would, you know, 45 to 4,800 dolls in an eight-hour shift and then 25,000 for the week, and I was there for 10 weeks - 250,000 dolls maybe.

BLOCK: That is a scary thought. Ed Via of Camden, Ohio, talking about his summer making Pillsbury Doughboys and girls.

NORRIS: And we'll have more of your summer job stories next week. Thanks so much for sending them in.

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