While America was just coming out of The Great Depression, my grandfather began working for a world-renowned company in New Jersey. In a matter of years he was able to work his way up from a menial job to that of District Manager.
As District Manager, he was very busy, but never too busy to listen to an employee who had a problem. He made it very clear that any time he was at the plant any employee could come to his office to discuss any work-related issues with him.
Having lived through The Depression, he realized he was lucky to be working again and making a good wage. He often agonized over firing anyone, for any reason, unless there was absolutely no other recourse.
One day, while working at the plant, a worker came to my grandfather’s office. Standing outside the office door, the worker nervously curled his Donegal Tweed Cap in his hands and gently knocked on the door. My grandfather invited him in and asked him to sit down.
“You know, sir, you said if any of us ever had a problem we could come talk to you any time,” the man started, slowly. “Yes, that’s right, I did say that. Do you have a problem you would like to discuss with me?” my grandfather asked while seated behind his large, wooden desk.
The man seemed nervous and explained that he was very upset about a recurring situation – so upset that he was thinking about quitting his job. He explained that he worked between two workers. (We’ll call them Worker A and Worker C.)
Apparently, for reasons unknown, Worker A and Worker C seemed to hate each other, and, the nature of his job forced Worker B to have to stand between them on the factory floor. Every day each one complained about the other, each was certain the other was talking about him, making disparaging remarks.
No matter how Worker B tried to calm their anger, their quarreling never seemed to stop and the constant tension between them was driving him crazy.
“I just can’t take it anymore, sir. Is there any way you make them stop bickering? If you can’t, I’m afraid I’ll just have to find myself another job …” he said, with some hesitation.
My grandfather put his forefinger up to his lips and thought for a minute or two. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, he asked the man if he had a garden. With a puzzled look on his face, he replied “yes.”
“I assume you grow cucumbers and lettuce in your garden, don’t you?” my grandfather asked.
“Yes, I do, but, I don’t understand – why you’re asking about my garden? Aren’t you going to find a way get those two fellows to stop arguing?” the worker asked.
“I’m getting to that,” my grandfather continued, as he got up and perched himself on the corner of his desk. “Now, let me ask you this, do you grow tomatoes in your garden?” he asked. Worker B nodded, still looking confused.
‘Fine,” my grandfather replied. “I think I’ve got a solution to your problem,” he continued, with a quick smile.
“Here’s what you do … each time either one of these guys asks if the other is talking about him, you reply ‘No. He’s not talking about you … he’s asking me about the tomatoes I grow in my garden.’”
Worker B looked puzzled. “Huh …” he said.
“Now, for this diversion to really be effective, it’s going to require a little work on your part. You are going to have to go to the library and study up on tomatoes. Learn all you can about the different varieties, learn about the best soil to grow them in, and learn about how to get rid of insects. And each time either Worker A or C asks about the other’s disparaging remarks you just keep talking about anything that has to do with raising tomatoes. Do you follow?” my grandfather asked.
Worker B stood up, scratched his head, and asked “You sure this’ll work?”
“I think it will,” my grandfather said. “In time, they will stop arguing with one another, you’ll see.”
“Okay, it’s worth a try,” said Worker B, shrugging his shoulders, as he left my grandfather’s office.
As the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, Worker B kept to his word. During coffee breaks, lunch, even quitting time, he only talked about tomatoes with Workers A and C, nothing else.
Six months passed, and while the quarrelling workers never actually became friends the bickering between them finally ceased and Worker B was very relieved that all the tension was gone and that he didn’t have to quit his job.
Curiously, something else unexpected happened. Worker B became such a tomato aficionado that Workers A and C told the other employees that if they wanted to grow healthy, lush tomatoes they should talk to Worker B.
So, my grandfather was able to solve this personnel problem peacefully. And, one morning, he walked into his office and found on his desk a basket of the most beautiful tomatoes he’d ever seen. He smiled because he knew who sent them.
And, that’s The Tomato Story…