Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First Job Glory Days

What I am about to say will surely cross me over the line from middle age into the realm of old-fogeydom. It is this: Parents nowadays are afraid to let (or make) their children work.

There. See what I mean? I'm now an old fogey because I've invoked a version of "kids these days."

Maybe I am brushing the stroke too broadly. I know kids right now who are hard workers, and I know parents who teach them to be. After all, I'm sure that in my generation and in generations since the dawn of time there have been parents who couldn't bring themselves to let their children work hard labor, the kind of labor that produces heavy sweat, huge appetites, and death-like sleep only to be aggravated by sore muscles. But there must be some reason why our world is bending more and more toward an entitlement mentality. I think kids who don't know how to work -- or work hard for small reward -- are part of that problem.

But I'll get off my high horse now. I really just want to tell you about my first job, a job that taught me to work hard, and then harder, and formed much of my work ethic as well as the one I've hoped to instill in my own kids. In this (unlike so many other things) I believe I have been successful.

My aunt gave me my first job when I was thirteen years old. I'd done my share of babysitting, dog-sitting, and even chicken-sitting by that time. I'd learned to mow a lawn, hoe a garden, pick beans and shuck peas. I'd scrubbed floors with an s.o.s. pad, washed windows with a rag, shoveled snow, and taken out mountains of trash. All in all, I was a pretty well-rounded kid when it came to chores.

But never before had I been paid for manual labor. (Note: I never counted the babysitting as manual labor. Jobs like that were cream.)

So I was delighted, thrilled, high with excitement when one winter's eve my aunt told me she intended to plant an acre of cucumbers the following spring if I and my eleven year old cousin were interested in picking them. We would make 40% of the profits.

Months passed. Spring came. The cucumbers were planted, and at long last the day came for the first picking. Now we never really called them cucumbers, just pickles. I arrived at the farm at the crack of dawn. Everyone was still asleep.

I should veer here for a second and explain a little bit more about that arrival. See, one of the things that was made very clear to me as a kid, was that my parents were not chauffeurs. I could pretty much be involved with whatever I wished, as long as my involvement didn't have to involve their gas and travel time, with very, very limited exceptions. Now I'm not as much of an old fogey as they were. I did occasionally drive my kids to their first jobs.

So on the morning of my first pickle picking adventure, I got on my bike -- an old, green, second-hand Hiawatha, a single speed gem my mom bought me when I was nine, for twenty bucks at a the Wagon Wheel Tavern -- and off I pedaled. It was only thirteen miles to my aunt and uncle's farm.

The first five miles took me down a quiet country road and a county line not heavily traveled. I sat up straight on the seat, took my hands off the handlebars, and swung them at my sides as I pedaled along nonchalantly singing songs and enjoying my own company. By the time I reached the Highway 73 corridor, I had to pay closer attention. Every time a semi careened up alongside me, I gripped the handlebars tighter and glued my eyes to the grassy edge of the shoulder, hoping I wouldn't get sucked under the trailer as it roared and rattled past. It was always a delight to get off that highway five miles later onto the back lanes leading to my relatives' home.

I had a hardy breakfast with the family that first day. They got their milk straight from the cow, and it was creamier than I was used to. That would've been fine, but it was pretty warm. Can't say I've ever cared much for thick, warmish milk.

Then off we went to pick pickles. My young cousin and I each took a gunny sack from the pile and stood at the end of a row that seemed a mile long. We gazed out over the dewy field, and it dawned on me, you can fit a lot of rows in an acre. But we were filled with enthusiasm, because we both had goals for our summer earnings. For me, it was to retire the Hiawatha and buy a shiny Schwinn ten speed. They were the new rage back then. Both my two best friends had one, and I can tell you they didn't get them second hand from a bar, NOR did they have to earn them. Just sayin. Were it not for this pickle field, I could be stuck with my one speed until I graduated high school. Besides that, I figured if I bought a bike myself, my mom couldn't ground me from it when she got mad at me for doing -- oh, I don't know -- teenage stuff.

So we started to pick. There were two things we learned after our first day in the field, laboring like migrant workers under the blazing sun:

1.      You should wear gloves if you plan to pick pickles for nine or ten hours straight. Pickle prickers are painful, and they make your hands hurt even worse the second or third day after. Your fingers will swell up and turn red, and you can hardly stand to touch a thing!

2.      Filling up your gunnysacks with mountains of big, green cucumbers do not earn you higher wages because they weigh more than the cute little finger-sized, green guys. They earn you exactly 1/16th of a cent per pound. 1/16th of a cent! Per pound! No, if you want to make any money, you need to fill many sacks with hordes of the little guys. They'll at least get you 3 or 4 cents per pound -- minus your aunt's 60%.

Yes, we learned those lessons pretty quickly, and we applied our knowledge so that our second trip to the Polka Dill Pickle Company in Plover, Wisconsin actually provided us with a check that was written out in dollars instead of cents.
Later we learned that it didn't always pay to take our load in on the day of picking. If we picked until late, and if the day was particularly scorching so that our pickles risked dehydrating a bit, I'd spend the night at my aunt and uncle's while our gunnysacks soaked in the kiddy pool, adding a few precious pounds to our cache.

But going to the dill pickle canning factory was an adventure. We'd watch them pour our gunnysacks into the pickle --er--cucumber sorter. The belt would creak and role, and the pickles would shake and jiggle along the track getting divvied up into about eight or ten different sizes, and pay varied by size. Like I said before, the smaller they were the better. Then my aunt would receive our pay, and off we'd go to the nearest swimming hole. I will never forget group bathing in a silty irrigation pond, with a bar of ivory soap floating around for each of us to use, or getting to a lake well after dark on a sultry summer night, and not being able to hit the water because the bottom was covered with thousands of crayfish. A few zillion pincers didn't really stop my uncle and cousin, who leap-toed around up to their ankles at the boat landing, tossing crawdads at us while their hoots and hollers echoed over the lake. 

The irrigation pond we swam in looked a lot like this.
There was a time or two we helped out my relatives' other cousins in their field, or we all got shipped over to another field along Highway 73. I don't know who owned it, only that there were about 6 or 7 of us kids, brown as burned toast, hot and dirty, having a good time working hard. I was the eldest. When we needed a stretch, we'd watch for a semi to come along, then we'd all run as fast as we could to the end of the pickle patch, pumping our arms like crazy to get the driver to blow his air horn. We leapt and cheered with each success, and that bit of relief kept us picking until another truck came along or the adults came to rescue us. So we had fun. It was a lot of hard work, but not all work. We made the best of it we could.

I remember one 90 degree day my cousin Barry and I had been bending over, working along in silence for about an hour, when I decided to liven things up with a song. I stood quickly and belted out a verse of Great Big Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts to Barry. Suddenly the world turned on its axis. The warmth overcame me. The soft dirt rose up to meet me. A minute later, Barry woke me up. It was kind of a childhood milestone. My first time passing out.

There were a lot of days when the picking went fast and we just played. Our favorite place was the sand hill out in the cow pasture. We spent hours there, digging and building. As long as that mean old bull Chester wasn't around, there were no worries. A favorite activity was to take turns burying each other up to our necks and build hysterical, graphic sand bodies on each other. Once, when my cousin was properly cemented deep in his hole on the side of the hill, I stood up, looked over the hill behind his head, and cried out, "Here comes Chester!" Then I promptly bolted off "running to the house", only I was really hiding on the other side of the hill, laughing hysterically at Barry's panicked screams. First-borns are mean when it comes to pranks like that. I came back a minute later, cackling my head off, and dug him out. Thankfully, even though I'd scared him out of his mind, he had a pretty good sense of humor.

I have almost nothing but good memories of that summer on the farm and in the pickle field. At the end of it, I could have passed for one of the Mexicans we were used to seeing around the fields in central Wisconsin. I was brown as bark, strong-limbed, and happy with accomplishment to receive my final pay. My only bad memory came from pedaling my bike home one day when I was taunted by a car full of young men who kept returning to drive along next to me and tease. I wasn't too worried about them. I even stopped to pick some flowers after they finally drove off. But when I crested a hill a little while later and saw their car parked on the edge of a dirt lane, my heart filled with dread. I had the good sense to turn around and pedal as fast as I could to a house -- the only house -- along that stretch of road and pound on the door for help. The car load of boys cruised by a few minutes later, yelling risqué remarks while the kind lady of the house was loading my bicycle into her van to take me home.

Everything else was good, from the hard work, to the fun days on the farm, and even to the pittance I'd earned by the end of summer. I'd made a grand total of $116 dollars for all my days of labor, only about $15 short of what I needed for my ten speed, but that was easily made up with babysitting. And I can tell you, my red, white, and blue bicentennial ten speed was worth its weight in those pickles. I pedaled it hundreds and hundreds of miles, but that's another story from the glory days.

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