Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where's Our Milk?

   ©  2015     by Victor Sullivan 
 A tale from a Milk Bottling Plant.

Our city boasted an excellent, door-to-door, pasteurised milk delivery service in the 1970s.  On six days every week pasteurised milk was distributed in foil-sealed, one-pint glass bottles that were left on the door-step of every customer throughout the city and suburbs. A team of Roundsmen operated a fleet of delivery vehicles. Some were electric, battery-powered floats, others were more conventional small trucks that operated in the hilly areas. At around 3:00AMRoundsmen began their day by loading crates of full bottles from the Cold Store at the Bottling Plant and then heading off on their delivery routes, regardless of weather conditions, so that there would be fresh milk on every breakfast table. The delivered bottles of milk were taken in by the householder, each foil cap was pressed down with the thumb, peeled off and the contents decanted into a jug. Every customer was expected to rinse the empty bottles and place them outside the door, ready to be collected in exchange for the next milk delivery on the following morning.
At the Bottling Plant the returned glass bottles were processed through a large bottle-washer from which they emerged in a neat row past an inspection point to the filling machines. The foil-capped full bottles were immediately packed in plastic crates and stacked in cold-rooms to await the next pre-dawn invasion of Roundsmen.

Some 'convenience shops' boasted a refrigerator that held a few bottles of milk but door-to-door delivery was the way it was done. It was efficient but not totally problem-free!

Into this smooth-running system the plastic milk bottle was introduced, in a move intended to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the need to return, wash and re-use the heavy glass bottles. 
Saving the planet was not a priority back in the 1970s! Thousands of non-returnable plastic (polyethylene) bottles were manufactured and filled every day, never to return. Resistance to change was anticipated and the marketing team gradually overcame the negativity. Transition to plastic milk bottles proceeded  slowly and steadily without a major hitch until a 'situation' developed in mile-long, suburban Cherrytree Avenue.
It began with one customer's complaint that only two bottles of milk had been delivered instead of the required three. The complaint was passed on to the relevant Roundsman who raised an eyebrow, wryly acknowledged the possibility of an error and was very careful to get the delivery right on the following morning, plus a complimentary extra bottle with apologetic note attached.
On the next day there was a different and very abusive personal visitor to the Bottling Plant and two other customers making irate telephone calls, all complaining of incomplete deliveries at various addresses on Cherrytree Avenue. Over the following weeks it grew worse. The girl at the telephone switchboard was growing weary of "WHERE'S OUR MILK?" calls. The Roundsman on the route was under suspicion. Was it incompetence? Illenss? Carelessness? Indifference? Dishonesty? Sabotage? or worse?!
Some customers were being suspected of doorstep pilfering of their neighbours' milk. 
Householders confronted each other and demanded proof of innocence. Faces appeared squinting from up-stairs windows in the early light of dawn. Children were spied upon in the street and accusations of milk theft were overheard in the school playground. But why were such problems occurring in Cherrytree Avenue only and in no other residential area of the city?

I was Chief Engineer in this Milk Bottling Plant and was not involved directly in any of the distribution or public relations activity. Indirect complaints via Roundsmen about leaking plastic bottles was as close as I got, or wanted to get, to any customers. I was not even aware of any 'situation' in Cherrytree Avenue. Pasteurising over 25,000 gallons of milk and getting it into glass or plastic bottles each day provided me with enough technical challenges. 
One such challenge was a temperamental steam-boiler that seemed to take a vindictive pleasure in causing me to be called from my warm bed at unsociable, pre-dawn hours to sort out its problematic ignition system.
Bleary-eyed and irritable after receiving one more early boiler call-out, I was driving through the dawn mist along Cherrytree Avenue when a movement ahead grabbed my attention. Something white had been visible for a moment and then vanished... A cat perhaps? At that early hour there was nothing else likely to be out and about. Then, just as I drove past the spot where the creature had vanished, I caught sight of it, struggling beneath the front gate of one of the many houses that lined the road on both sides. It was not a cat but a small Jack Russell terrier. Believing the animal to be stuck under the gate, I stopped the car and, as I went to perform my work of mercy, the little dog wriggled free and set off down Cherrytree Avenue with a very peculiar side-stepping gait, dragging, with considerable difficulty, one of our new plastic bottles of milk while holding it by the neck.

I drove on and once more persuaded the boiler's ignition system to function and thus satisfy the milk needs of the city. Other problems and duties of the day put dogs out of my mind until lunchtime when I happened to share a table in the canteen with the supervisor from the accounts department. By way of casual conversation I mentioned my encounter with the bottle-dragging Jack Russell terrier. For a moment I thought she was choking on something she was eating.
"A dog! You SAW a DOG stealing milk?"
"I thought it was a bit odd..." I began.
"ODD! Where did you see this happen?"
"Cherrytree Avenue. What's so big about that?"
"You have solved our missing milk problem!"
"What missing milk problem?"
She hauled me off to the General Manager's office.
"Tell him. Go on. Tell him about the bloody dog!"
I did so.
"Could you identify the house you saw the dog come out from?"
"What number did the dog take the milk to?"
"I have no idea."
"You mean you didn't follow it?"
"Of course I didn't. I was called from my bed to deal with a boiler problem, not to follow dogs."
It was then the General Manager's turn to have a choking fit and use adjectives...

The new plastic bottles had been carefully designed with a special neck rim to facilitate easy lifting between fingers. The Jack Russell had also found the lifting rim convenient for dragging a bottle along but he couldn't get a grip on the heavy, old-fashioned, glass bottle. The strategy adopted involved reverting to strictly glass bottle deliveries all along Cherrytree Avenue. 

There was rejoicing among the Roundsmen, now pleased that their colleague was deemed to be innocent and honourable while apologies proliferated throughout the Cherrytree Avenue environs. The owners of the dog were traced, informed, were embarrassed, apologised profusely, declared total ignorance of their dog's early morning adventures and assured everyone that the dog would be restrained from pre-dawn wandering in future. And NO! The animal was never even suspected of bringing home a stolen bottle of milk. NEVER! NOT ONCE!

A mystery remains unsolved to this day: Where did that little dog hide all the stolen bottles of milk? 

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