Wednesday, April 12, 2023

How World War II launched Golden Flake Potato Chip Company, and other Sloan Bashinsky family skeletons


How World War II launched Golden Flake Potato Chip Company, and other Sloan Bashinsky family skeletons

Yesterday, March 13, 2023, someone told me that her son had been a Golden Flake route salesman for 20-something years, and he had really liked his job until the company was bought by Utz Quality Foods in 2016. Utz told him that he would have to buy his route truck and be responsible for its upkeep, and he declined and quit. I said I had run routes for Golden Flake, and I would have quit, if I were him. 

She asked me to tell her how Golden Flake got started. I said that is a long story, which will have to wait for another time. I didn't think where we were was a good place to tell what I knew, and I wasn't sure she would care to hear it. Most of it was told to me by other people.


During World War II, my father enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was sent to Boca Raton, Florida, where the Air Corps had an airbase and B-29 bombers. My father took his family with him: my mother, me, and our black maid and cook, Charlotte Washington, who had come to our home in Birmingham looking for work on the day I was born in Hillman Hospital, in Birmingham, October 7, 1942. I could not pronounce Charlotte, and simply called her, Cha, pronounced Sha, and that's what my mother and father called her, too.

My father got his pilot wings to fly B-29s. Then, we all went with him to an Air Corps base in Iowa. My father was very good at math, and perhaps Iowa is where the Air Corps decided he would be more useful as a B-29 navigator-bombardier, than a pilot.

After a while in Iowa, we came back to Birmingham, and my father was sent to an air base in California, I don't know exactly where, perhaps San Diego. From there, he would ship out with the Air Corps to Guam, where B-29's were based and flew night bombing missions to the Japanese isles. My mother left me and Cha with my father's parents, Leo and Cora, and went to California to see my father fly off to war.

My grandmother did not like the way I ate, and she tried to force me to eat what she wanted me to eat. I was eating what Cha cooked for me, and I loved what she cooked for me. To force me to eat her way, my grandmother banned Cha to the servants' quarters in the basement. I refused to eat what my grandmother served me. She took me to doctors, to try to get them to make me eat what she wanted me to eat. They told her she was nuts. She kept tying. I still have screen memories of screaming, "I want my Cha! I want my Cha!"

When my mother returned from California, I was skin and bones. She fetched me and Cha and took us home. Cha told my mother what had happened. My mother told Cora that she would never have a relationship with my father's and her children.

All of that I would be told by my first wife, Dianne, who had been told it by Cha.

My mother had never told me why Cora took the sons of my father's older brother, Leo, to the beach for two months every summer, but she never took Major or me. Instead, my mother told me that Leo's oldest son, Leo, was born with a bad heart, which was true, and that's why Cora favored my cousin Leo and his younger brother.

But what does all of that have to do with how Golden Flake got started? It has everything to do with it, which I also learned from Dianne, who was told it by Cha.

My mother wrote my father a letter describing what his mother had done to me, while his father did nothing. My mother insisted that, after the war, they would move away from Alabama, to get themselves and me away from his mother and father. 

I don't know if my mother also said, to get herself away from her Puritan mother and father, who had let her older brother run wild, but had treated her like a convent whore num, which had made her a prude, to the point (she much later told me), she could not walk naked before my father in their bedroom. (I loved my mother's parents, and they loved me.)

Imagine what it was like for my father to get my mother's letter not long after he arrived at Guam and began flying night bombing missions to Japan, while Japanese anti-aircraft guns were trying to shoot down his plane. (Isaw the black and white photos he took of Japanese cities on fire, and anti-aircraft flack all around his plane.)

I doubt my mother told my father in letters to him during the war, that she had been physically violent with me. 

I had a spring-loaded rocking horse. I was riding it hard one day in my mother's bedroom, where she was doing something. It was making lots of noise on the wooden floor, and I was making lots of noise with my mouth. She told me to stop making so much noise. I kept at it. She yanked me off the horse and grabbed her hair brush and started hitting my fanny with her hairbrush, which broke. She yelled, "God durned you, you made me break my good nylon hairbrush and I can't get another one because of the war!!!" 

She started raining blows down on my head and shoulders with her hands, which I tried to fend off with my hands and arms, as I kept yelling for Cha, standing in the doorway, to save me!!! I imagine if Cha had tried to intervene, she would have been fired and I would have been in far graver peril.

My father was very good at math, electronics and mechanics. He had earned pilot wings for the B-29, and now he was a navigator-bombardier. He secured the promise of a job with an aircraft manufacturer in Ohio, Akron, I think. We would live there after the war.

Only then did my father's father get involved. He wrote my father a letter, in which he promised that he and his brother-in-law Cyrus would buy a company in Birmingham and make my father a junior partner, if my father and his family remained in Birmingham after the war.

My Grandfather Bashinsky and Cyrus had been in the newsprint business, and when World War II started, they converted the factory to a munitions plant, where they made 37 millimeter and smaller cannon shells for American fighter planes. (I saw some of those shells in my grandfather's home, and in the home of his mother in Troy, Alabama.)

My father and mother accepted my Bashinsky Grandfather's offer, and he and Cyrus, whom my mother, and thus everyone else, called "Uncle Cy", went looking for a company to buy. 

Uncle Cy had married my Bashinsky Grandfather's younger sister, Helen, who had tragically died of some kind of galloping pneumonia or tuberculosis not long after they married. 

I much later learned, from whom, I can't recall, that my Grandfather Bashinsky had insisted Uncle Cy not remarry and dishonor Helen, and Uncle Cy complied. My mother loved Uncle Cy, I had named my Bashinsky Grandfather, Poppa Granddaddy, and that's what everyone in my family called him.

Anyway, Leo and Cyrus found a company they liked, called Magic City Foods. It made potato chips and a few other packaged snacks, such as perhaps peanuts, popcorn, fried pork skins, peanut butter and cheese crackers. It had been established in the 1920s by people in Birmingham, Alabama, in a grocery store basement

The company now had a manufacturing plant and warehouse on Lomb Avenue, in west Birmingham, near the Rickwood Field baseball park and the Alabama State Fairgrounds. The company had several routes in Birmingham, and, I think, a route or two in Montgomery and maybe one in northern Alabama. 

A deal was struck.

I was told there was a great surprise! We were going to see it. I think by then I was 5 years old.

My father drove. We were on the road for a while. We reached a building with a quonset hut next to it and stopped. It was a cool, cloudy day, like maybe in March. 

I was told, this is the surprise. My father's new job. I felt awful inside. Like, doom.

My father learned the business from the ground up. 

He started out in the manufacturing plant, as a mechanic on the cooking and packaging machines. He got to where he could take them apart and put them back together.

He ran a sales route for a while, I recall him coming home nights in a route truck.

He became the potato buyer for the company. He traveled a lot to Florida, south and north Alabama and North Dakota, courting potato farmers, getting their confidence, buying their spuds. 

He wanted to make Golden Flake grow, while his father and Cyrus wanted to keep it like it was.

When I was in high school, my father bought out his father and Cyrus, after they had the company appraised. They did not give it to him.

After that, Golden Flake began to grow.

Perhaps that story is best left for another day.

Perhaps what needs to be told now is the rest of the letter from my mother to my father in Guam story, which was provided to me by Poppa Granddaddy himself.

I had worked summers at Golden Flake, in the plant, in the warehouse, and running vacation routes for route salesmen.

I had attended and graduated from Vanderbilt, and was in my senior (3rd) year at the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa.

My wife's and my first child died of sudden infant death syndrome.

A law school buddy a year ahead of me, now practicing law in south Alabama with his father and his father's law partner- they were trial lawyers, meaning they got paid if they won- persuaded me to try my hand at being a country lawyer. 

My lawyer buddy and his father loved to hunt and fish and play golf, and go down the gulf coast. As did I.

They sent me to a very respected defense lawyer in Troy, Alabama, to have a chat. Pi Brantly had grown up with my father in Troy. Pi's son had died tragically.

Pi had a spare law office, and a very good legal secretary. He said he was referring to other Troy lawyers the kind of cases he did not handle, and I could have the spare office, use of his legal secretary, and he would refer cases he did not handle to me.

We walked over to the drug store on the town square, where Pi introduced me to several lawyers, who welcomed me, said they looked forward to seeing me in Troy.

Dianne, now pregnant again, and I agreed with a developer to rent an apartment in a new apartment building under construction. 

Out of the blue, I received a letter accepting me as a member in the Troy Country Club.

It was a done deal.

I told my father about it. He asked why I wanted to do it? I said, I loved to fish and hunt, and go to the gulf coast and fish, and I could do lots of that, if I lived in Troy. He said that was no reason to do it.

I told Poppa Granddaddy about it. He reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a letter my father had written to him from Guam, saying, "As things now stand, we will not live in Birmingham after the war."

Poppa Granddaddy said, my father once wanted to leave Birmingham, but he changed his mind and that turned out well. Poppa Granddaddy did not say WHY my father had changed his mind, nor what had happened to cause my father and mother to want to live somewhere else after the war ended.

My father sent me to his and his father's lawyer, John Gillon, whom I knew somewhat. John said, let's go to the law library, where there is more room. Most of the lawyers in the firm were there.

John asked me what I knew about living in a small town? 

I said, very little. 

John said, "All you have to do is drive out to the golf course on Saturday night and drive around it to find out who is fucking who's wife."

John was a devout Christian and Bible scholar, and a very smart, shrewd attorney.

The other lawyers burst out laughing.

The death of our baby boy had really disturbed my relationship with Dianne. I might well have been susceptible to being one of the men on the Troy golf course on Saturday nights.

My Great Grandmother Bashinsky died and was to be buried in Troy. Dianne and I drove from Tuscaloosa to Troy. When we reached the cemetery, we saw Pi, who greeted us warmly.

I saw my father and Poppa Granddaddy standing some distance behind Pi. I walked over to them with Pi, who offered my father his hand to shake. My father and PoppaGranddaddy turned their backs to Pi and me, and said nothing.

I looked at Pi, he looked at me.

I was really embarrassed.

Dianne and I drove back to Tuscaloosa.

My criminal law professor, himself an Alabama law graduate, who, I learned much later, had gone on to join the US Army and prosecute Nazis at Nuremberg, told me a federal judge in Birmingham had lost his law clerk and was looking for a replacement.

I hand-wrote United States District Judge Clarence W. Allgood a letter, asking for an interview. He hand-wrote back, inviting me to come. 

I went. 

Mostly we talked about hunting and fishing. He said I had the job if I wanted it. I said, I wanted it.

I drove to Troy and told Pi. He said he was not surprised, after how it went at the funeral. I said I felt awful. He said for me not to worry. Clerking for a United States District Judge was a great honor and opportunity. 

I clerked for Judge Allgood for a year and a half. By agreement with the other two federal judges, he presided over all criminal prosecutions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. 

I watched really good criminal defense lawyers and federal prosecutors lock horns in trials and in Judge Allgood's chambers. I got a priceless legal education my fellow law students at Alabama could not possibly imagine.

About a year into the clerkship, I woke up one morning and my bowel was locked. There was no warning sign. Medicine had no answer. I lost my confidence. I went to work for Golden Flake, which felt safer.

My bowel did not like that, either. 

My bowel hasn't liked anything since. 

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