By Tim Hayes

For 363 days a year, the local YMCA was just that – a fully functioning YMCA in a small town hard along the banks of a major river in northern Pennsylvania.

But two days out of the year, the YMCA metaphorically tugged off its eyeglasses, ran into a phone booth, and emerged, its cape flapping heroically in the breeze, as something vastly different and truly amazing – a fully functioning command center for a full-blown nuclear emergency.

Rooms that hosted dozens of sweaty aerobicizing housewives the day before, transformed into a corporate newsroom with computers, fax machines, phones, and all of the other equipment needed to provide key information to a concerned public.

A gymnasium where league and pickup games filled the air with the sound of bouncing basketballs and squeaky sneakers 12 hours earlier, morphed into a press conference headquarters where major announcements would be made and probing questions answered.

Thousands of dollars’ worth of the latest equipment emerged from unmarked closets and cabinets, as miles of cable and power cords descended from ceiling panels.  It really was quite an impressive conversion of both appearance and purpose for the YMCA.

The power company where I worked as a writer on the corporate communications team operated a two-unit nuclear power plant just outside of this little town, and had worked with the local leadership along a number of fronts.  It donated to the fire company to sponsor a fleet of new pumpers.  It coordinated a siren warning system to alert the locals of any events at the plant.  It greatly enhanced the local tax base through employing thousands of well-paid people.  And it underwrote improvements at the Y, both for the emergency center stuff and for the facility’s more traditional functions.

Every year, a segment of our merry band of writers, photographers, managers, and assistants would travel north for a two-day nuclear emergency drill.  I always looked forward to these events, because they represented a change of scenery as well as a way to truly sharpen your skills under a pressurized – albeit artificial – environment.

But the annual drills offered another perk – fantastic food brought in by a local caterer that we got to enjoy for lunch and dinner.  And here’s where the story gets interesting.

One year, during a break in the drill scenario for lunch, we feasted on chicken cordon bleu.  Mouth-watering, juicy, succulent, delicious food that sent your taste buds into a frenzy of happiness, joy, and bliss.  This stuff was so damn good, and we ate like condemned men.

The only problem?  One of the company managers, in an unguarded moment of camaraderie and hospitality, invited some reporters – onsite to cover the drill event for the local paper – to join us for lunch.  Can you guess what the headline on the next day’s front page read?

“Power Company Execs Feast at Nuclear Drill”

The story had gone from an admiring piece about how well prepared we were to handle communications during an emergency, into an expose about how the company wasted ratepayers’ money on a heaping bounty of rich food for its employees.

Ouch.  We never had chicken cordon bleu, or anything nearly that delicious, again.  We tumbled back to hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Yip-yip-yahoo.

Perception is everything, after all.  But boy, even all these years later, I can still taste the lunch that cordon bleu me away.

Copyright 2013 Tim Hayes Consulting