When you stand on the customer side of a McDonald’s counter, your vantage point reveals various jobs being acted out.  But there are also “back room” jobs that have to be done as well.  A prime example is the filling of the sterilized tanks that are used to get Coca-Cola into your cup.

Coke comes in a concentrate form.  A thick, dark syrup similar to brown Karo.  In the 1970s, the syrup came in cases of heavy containers that resembled over-sized milk cartons.  You poured cartons of the concentrate into the syrup tank which cross-fed with gleaming tanks of carbonated water.  Calibration to ensure the perfect Coke blend was done at the fountains themselves – 80 percent carbonated water to 20 percent concentrate.

One Saturday night, I got the detail to go in the back supply room and fill the concentrate canister.  I wrestled a heavy 4-pack off a stack onto the floor and when I did, the box slipped from my hands and I dropped it solidly on a corner of the unopened case.  The corner that thumped into the floor ruptured a carton inside and syrup immediately oozed out of the wound.

To stop the hemorrhaging, I had to crack the seal on the top of the case and work the bleeding carton out of the box.  Syrup quickly spread everywhere.

What followed was 20 minutes of lost Stooges’ footage.  The more I tried to mop, the worse it got.  But eventually I triumphed.  It was my own scaled-down version of the Boston Molasses Disaster.

On January 15, 1919, there was a flood in the north end of Boston.

A flood of molasses.

The event became known as the Boston Molasses Disaster.  The Great Molasses Flood.  The Great Boston Molasses Flood.  Pick one.

A large storage tank burst, releasing a wave of molasses that some said was 40-feet high, traveling at 35 MPH through city streets.  Once the liquid began to cool in the Boston night air, it became so viscous, people suffocated before they could be extricated.

150 injured.  21 dead.  And that doesn’t include horses and dogs.

Residents claimed that decades later, on hot summer days, you could still smell it.

On that January day in 1919, the weather had shifted.  It had been freezing cold for days and then the temperature quickly rose above the freezing level.

The Purity Distilling Company stored molasses in a tank 50 feet high and 90 feet wide.  It’s estimated it held about 2,300,000 US gallons.  Molasses is a key ingredient in manufacturing munitions, but it can easily be fermented to produce rum and ethanol.

When the tank ruptured, witnesses said the ground shook.  They heard a roar, a long rumble like an elevated train going by.  There was tremendous crashing, deep growling, a bang that sounded like a thunderclap.  Popping rivets that sounded like machine-gun fire.

There was a rush of sweet-smelling air so powerful that people were hurled about along with debris flying through the air.

The massive wall of molasses buckled elevated train girders and swept buildings off their foundations.  People and animals were crushed and drowned.  After the initial wave, several blocks were left with molasses 3 feet deep.

It was described in a local paper.

“Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell.  Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper.  The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.  Human beings—men and women—likewise.”

Coughing from the fumes hindered everyone.

Rescue workers stopped searching after 4 days.  Bodies they recovered were so glazed over in molasses, they were hard to recognize.

Crews used salt water from a fireboat in the nearby harbor to wash the molasses away, followed by applying sand for absorption.  The harbor was brown with molasses until summer.  During the months of cleanup, molasses was tracked everywhere.  As it was reported, “Everything a Bostonian touched was sticky.”  Streets.  Subways.  Seats inside trains and streetcars.  Pay telephones.  Homes.

Just as interesting as the flood was the investigation that came later.  Lawsuits were filed.  People were put on trial.

The company that owned the tank was the United States Industrial Alcohol Company.  They tried to escape judgment by claiming anarchists had blown the tank up, supposedly in retaliation for the company producing a substance used in munitions manufacturing.

Subsequent investigations into the tank and the people who controlled it were revealing.

The tank was constructed poorly.  The steel was only half as thick as it should have been.  Plus it lacked manganese which made the steel more brittle.

The tank had never been properly tested.  Even basic safety tests like filling the tank with water to check for leaks were ignored.  Instead, the company painted the tank brown so leaks wouldn’t show when the tank was filled with molasses.  It leaked so badly, local residents routinely came around with jars and buckets to collect molasses for home use.

The tank was not always filled to capacity and this contributed to stressing the walls, especially with temperature fluctuations.

Prohibition was ratified the day after the explosion.  It was speculated that the company was trying to outrace the forthcoming liquor ban by fermenting the molasses for use in alcohol.

When all was said and done, the company had to fork over $600,000.  Survivors of victims were given roughly $7,000 a pop.

But some rules got changed.  Regulations were put in place.  Requirements were levied.

As Chrissie Hynde likes to sing, “This is a cleanup job.  Everybody grab a mop.”

Mopping builds character.

Case in point.

When our youngest turned sixteen in 2001, he wanted a job.  I drove him a mile down the road from our house in Virginia Beach to the local McDonald’s.  I waited in the car while he went inside to fill out an application.

He came out with the news that they’d hired him on the spot.  The manager was impressed that our kid offered a handshake and made eye contact.

Our son went to work the next day.  When he came home that night, he told us at dinner, “Okay, I think I’ve got this work thing figured out – I mop and the other 8 people stand in a circle and watch me.”

Yeah.  That’s pretty much the deal at work.  People either have a work ethic or they don’t.  Years ago in California, Judy and I watched a white-haired manager mop the floor at a Wendy’s.  The old man mopped around us while a gaggle of young crew people stood idly by watching.

Judy couldn’t resist.  She asked the manager, “Why are you mopping the floor?”

The old guy angled his head over at the clueless crew.  “If I ask any of them to do it, they’ll just quit.”

Fast food has changed.

When I was working as a teenager at a Maine McDonald’s in the 1970s, a story circulated about Ray Kroc, the guy who is considered the founder of McDonald’s as we know it today.

Ray Kroc, by all accounts, was a take-charge bull-in-the-china-shop kinda guy.  Old.  School.

The story went like this:

Ray Kroc dropped in unexpectedly and anonymously at a random McDonald’s.  He was aghast to find the lobby floor filthy.

Ray was a cleanliness nut.  Everybody knew that about him.

Mr. Kroc strode to the front counter and introduced himself to the manager.  Ray then requested a bucket of hot soapy water and a mop.  In his suit, the founder of McDonald’s proceeded to mop the entire lobby himself.  He then returned the mop and bucket and promptly fired the manager and the entire crew.  On the spot.

That’s the way Ray rolled.

Too bad I wasn’t alive back in 1927.  Or my youngest son, for that matter.  Between us and Ray and that old white-haired Wendy’s manager, we could have parlayed our collective mopping skills and been instrumental in the cleanup.

And if we could have traveled back in time, I wonder whether we would have gotten in and out with our mops, or do you think we would have been in for the long haul?

Me, personally, I think we would have stuck around for a while.

I know.

Too soon.