When I was a kid I used to go to Company Picnics thrown by the companies for whom my parents worked; Big Rivers Electric and Westinghouse in and around Owensboro, Kentucky.
Big Rivers would always throw a big shin-dig. There would always be barbeque catered by the Moonlight or the Hickory Pit. Sometimes it would be at a horse farm and there would be horseback riding or sometimes it would be at Ben Hawes State Park with guided tours of the trials lined with ancient trees studded with thorns. Dinosaur trees. There would be drawings by age groups for door prizes. One year a won an electric make-up mirror. Round, yellow plastic ringed with Hollywood bulbs; it flipped over to magnify your flaws.
“I hope you don’t look at it and break it,” some teenaged wit smirked as his skinny, blonde blond girlfriend snorted over her salmon ruched tube top as a made my way down the runway boardwalk clutching my prize, happy for a moment.
Westinghouse picnics were also catered affairs but not so lavish. They were held in the large cafeteria in the big square building where my mother and grandmother worked making incandescent light bulbs. Outside was a giant Vacuum Tube first installed when it was a Ken-Rad plant and there was a vogue for oversized novelty statuary like the statue of Gabe Fiorella in a red dinner jacket that stood waving on top a revolving pedestal outside the swanky Gabe’s Steakhouse at the corner of 18th and Triplett streets. For years I believed it to be a statue of Richard Deacon who played Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show.
The Westinghouse picnics tended to be a bit more chaotic, with lots of kids running all over the speckled linoleum floors, more like a Bingo hall, but without the Bingo. The barbeque would be served through cafeteria windows and they would by door prizes and all the kids would get General Electric coloring books and crayons and toy balloons. Still, it was nice to see where so much of my family had worked. I only saw inside where my dad worked once, way out in the country down gravel roads and through fences and past mountains of coal into a steel building that belched steam and clanged with the deafening fire of industry. We stopped on the way there and bought a Bible at a Bank. The Bible was ivory leather with gold lettering with a Catholic encyclopedia and lists of suggested baby names with meanings in the back.
“I wouldn’t want you to work here,” my Dad said, “Unless it was in one of the executive offices. It’s too hard on a woman on the Floor.”
At some point both companies stopped throwing Company Picnics. It seems like somewhere along the way most companies have whether it’s been deemed an unnecessary expense and sinful drain on shareholders profits or a potential liability issue if someone was to fall off a horse or impale themselves on a tree I don’t know. After Reagan and Thatcher deregulated American electrical plants Big Rivers became a wholesale producer and three new companies that have been sold over and again to the Brits, the Scots, the Germans and the Poles were created to act as middle men between the producer and the people. Nominally they were still customer owned cooperatives but more money went into executive salaries and less money into maintaining the electrical grid which all of which combined led us to Enron and Rolling Black-Outs and people dying because sociopaths with MBAs are now running the show.
My dad was sectioned off to one of the three offshoots, Kenergy and the picnic stopped.
Picnics had stopped at Westinghouse well before they moved to Mexico in the early 1980s. No word on whether they have ever resumed such Picnics for their new employees. North American Phillips set up shop and made light bulbs for a while, collecting several million dollars in tax incentives from the City and staying the minimum it took to fulfill their contractual obligations before closing up shop, citing as their reason competition from their own new state-of-the art plant in Mexico. There were no picnics there either.
Gabe’s Steakhouse closed sometime in the 1970s. The last I saw of the giant statue of Mr. Gabe he was standing behind a chain link fence on Southtown Boulevard, knocked off his pedestal, jacket painted blue, but still waving with a smile as if to say, “Hi, Neighbor! It’s a Wonderful World!” his tag-line back when he was actually alive and the reigning Bon Vivant of the steakhouse circuit.