The Wisconsin Cheeseman

There have been 3 distinct work phases in my life. They have been before education, during education, and after education. The jobs I had before education were if nothing else… memorable.

It was during the Wisconsin Cheeseman days when I started questioning my lack of education.

We had moved to Sun Prairie, I had a job in yet another grocery store, stocking and bagging and thinking that life was fine. Then a realization that we had no money prompted me to look for full time work. Enter, The Wisconsin Cheeseman.

Wisconsin Cheeseman

The Cheeseman is a catalog order business, selling sausage and cheese logs and trivets and crocks and candy and all sorts of whatnot. Savy readers may remember my posts about getting reel-to-reel equipment from this place years after I had left. It’s a Sun Prairie institution.

I think I went on a day when they were having something along the lines of a hiring fair. I filled out an application in a room with about 100 other people. They took us in batches of 5 to 10 back into the factory to talk with prospective supervisors. There was a cross section of humanity there, that’s about as ill speaking as I get. I don’t believe an education was a prerequisite for working there, which was good for a washout like me.

Myself and about 5 other guys were walked to an free standing office inside the factory by the docks, forklifts zooming around, and were set down and asked to fill out yet anouther form. The questions were mostly the same questions we had already answered on the previous form. There was grumbling from the group as we filled out the questions again. This it turned out, was part of the interview. We handed in the forms and waited as they looked through them right there.

The other 5 were escorted to another area, and I was asked to stay.

The gist of the forms, in truth, was just to see who had the best handwritting. I, who wrote all my answers out in all caps (this was before all caps became shouting) and neatly, won the job. They needed someone on the dock, who was to fill out ship/recieve slips. A qick glance at the forms landed me a job that little did I realize was one of the best I could have gotten there.

The little dock office was about the size of 2 standard office cubes and in there was the dock boss, a chain smoking, gruff, cartoonishly massive guy whom I actually learned to get along with and liked, also at the other desk crammed in there was the freezer manager. This guy was a tall younger guy that routinely complained to me about the status of the freezer and how he had coached his family to sue the ass off the place if the freezer floor collapsed as he was convinced it would. It was a weird existence working between these two.

At break they set out cheese and cracker trays, which I scoffed at in the beggining when I was getting a fat packed lunch to chow on, but in later days when money was tight I was the first one in to supplement my dwindling lunch. It was a dark time.

The thing that made it even darker however, was the music. All across the factory, from speakers high up in the girders, and pumping through dust and cobwebs was country music radio.

Now understand that these days, I have made my peace with country music. I dig Eric Church, don’t mind some Gary Allan (we love Gary Allan), and can handle some Dwight Yokam and I love Buck Owens and Johhny Cash. During this time in my life however, I was vehemently opposed to twang. Steel guitar made me twitch and fiddle sounded like nails on a chalkboard.

Luckily for me the noise on the dock, several times a day when deliveries were happening, drowned out most of it. However, the last hour or so of every day, when I was repairing pallets, starving and counting the seconds before I could leave, it played and played and played. This was after the time I worked at Pick N Save and was forced to listen to Top 40 there and in comparison, that was a day at the beach.

My time at Wisconsin Cheeseman was divided into 3 major chunks. The dock job, the warehouse job and the final phase were I was back at the factory working the mail order carts.

The warehouse phase was a good one, where I could listen to whatever I wanted, and I will detail it in another post. The mail order cart phase was the absolute worst and though it was short lived ( a 5 week stint just before I got laid off) it scarred me for a long time.

When I worked on the dock there was enough noise and commotion to break up the music and I could almost handle it. However, during the mail order cart phase my job was to get a paper copy of someone’s order, take a crappy old rickety cart and travel up and down aisles in the factory collecting all the parts of their order. This area of the factory was away from the noisy dock and all the forklifts and was quiet, except for, the radio.

It was during this time that the song “Swingin'” by John Anderson entered my world.

John Anderson Swingin

It played over and over and over and seemed to shoot pains through my skull back in those days. I will never ever forget that song as long as I live. I listened to it just now, and in fairness, it isn’t as bad as I remember, but at the time I thought someone was torturing me. When I got out of work I needed to listen to Hendrix to cleanse my palate.

Each day I braced myself for what I was about to hear, and every day I came home broken. It was awful. I can only assume that the owners or the majority of the workers were down with country music. At that time I was into 80’s metal and just about anything else, but not country.

It was the force of the music that made it okay when I was told that I and a large group were being laid off. Not really, but that’s how I like to look back on it instead of being devastated that my life was about to blow up.

Fear not, after several weeks of agonizing rejections, miles and miles away from home, I had to stop for gas and spotted a large warehouse in Waunakee. I figured one more application couldn’t hurt, and so I went in. To my surprise I got a call back the next day and started working there the next week. Marshall Erdman & Associates basically saved my life.

It wasn’t until years later, with a good job in the engineering office at Marshall Erdman,  that I thought about The Wisconsin Cheeseman, and went back to buy some equipment that I knew was languishing there.

When I walked in, country music was playing.

They probably have robots picking orders now… I hope.


Or not.

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