The attractive, mini-skirted, young lady pointed at the thigh-high boots. “I’d like to try on a pair,” she said. When I returned with the box, she asked, “Just how much help do you give customers when they try these on?” “As much as I can,” I replied. We were laughing because she obviously had no intention of letting me help.
Being good with customers was a skill I learned early at my dad’s shoe store. Dad had the ability to talk with people and listen to them without expressing his own feelings. He let them have their say without agreeing or disagreeing. They found him friendly, not judgmental. Watching him was a great lesson.
He was cognizant of the reputation required to have a successful store in a small town. He reminded me often that “the customer is always right.” Now and then, I would suspect him of suppressing frustration when someone demanded a refund for a pair of shoes that were obviously abused. Fortunately, that was a rare occurrence.
My hometown was composed mostly of people who were hard-working and honest. Most of our customers were farmers. They would “come to town” on Friday night; the only night the stores were open in those days. Those evenings were often quite busy. We would have customers standing two and three deep behind the chairs. Often it would be a family—the parents and some number of children—all needing shoes—except the wife; dad stocked few women’s shoes. We did not have room for the inventory. Besides, Dad’s shoe “department” was a rented space inside of “Hugs Men and Boys Wear.” Our lack of women’s shoes was natural.
Growing up in the shoe business is how I found a part-time job at a shoe store while in college. Lest I give the wrong impression, that was a full-service shoe store. The thigh-high boots, of which they only had a few pair, were a novelty only in stock to demonstrate the comprehensiveness of the merchandise.
I was probably 12 when I sold my first pair of shoes. By the time I was 14 and in high school, I was expected to work whenever needed, which meant every Friday night and Saturday. I had organized stock at the store for a few years by then. Dad would have me unload boxes and put shoes in order on the shelves. It was a fortunate circumstance because whenever I needed a few dollars, I could go to the store and Dad would give me a few hours of work. I became familiar with the stock and easily slipped into being a salesclerk when I was old enough.
I enjoyed the work. When busy with customers, the hours seemed to fly by. Dad always said, “I never minded getting up and going to work.” I could understand this, but eventually, I noticed the restrictions caused by owning a retail business. Working every Friday night and every Saturday does not seem as restrictive these days when stores are open Sundays and every night. But Dad always had to be at the store, more than 60 hours per week. His only help most of the time, was my mother and I, and we were there when it was so busy that more sales help was needed, not to give Dad time off.
Similarly, with no other help, Dad had no vacation. The only time he had two days in a row away from the store was when a public holiday fell on a Saturday or Monday. This was before some of the holidays had been collected on Mondays. For that reason, we loved Labor Day because it was always on Monday.
Dad never complained. This was an easier life than the farm he had grown up on. In addition, many of our customers were dairy farmers. Their cows needed to be milked every day—twice. I think Dad looked around and was grateful he had it so good.
That store served our family well. There was always enough. Dad was lucky to sell out before the onslaught of Walmarts and Footlockers made stores such as his obsolete. He earned enough to invest wisely and then subsequently, to work mostly part-time selling real estate. But, that initial 24 years had plenty of shortcomings. It wasn’t just the lack of vacations; it was also the events missed because Friday night and Saturday were never free.
For example, I received my school’s Scholar Athlete award. The St Louis Post Dispatch had each area school select an awardee to attend a banquet. Speakers and other attendees included the well-known sports personalities of the St Louis area including baseball players and announcers. A couple of the other awardees, already locally famous, went on to professional careers. Only awardees and parents could attend. It was a Friday night and a very busy time at the store. Dad could not go. It was a great event. He would have loved it. I would have loved sharing it with him. Mom came with me. She was proud of me but had little interest in the rest of the proceedings.
I did not like the hours of my part-time job in college either. I wanted to go to a football game or Saturday afternoon basketball game—not if your job is retail. I was never interested in that life.
The summer I was 13, my mom decided I should not be at home at all but should be working. There was not nearly enough work at the store to keep me busy, so I had to find something else. What many of us did, was work on farms. “Making hay,” we called it. I learned a great deal from participating in this world.
Farmers would wait for what they hoped was a dry and warm period and cut and rake hay, usually alfalfa, but sometimes clover. The hay would be left to dry, then raked into rows and baled. The baling system consisted of a tractor pulling a baler that operated off the PTO (power take-off)) on the tractor. Attached to the baler would be a wagon. On the wagon would be a boy like me, hay hook in hand, ready to snag each bale expelled by the baler. I would pull the bale onto the wagon and then slide or carry it to the back and stack it.
Once the wagon was full, it would be unhitched, attached to another tractor, and pulled to the barn where the bales would be put on what we called an elevator—just a simple conveyer that carried the bales up to the loft. Usually, boys such as me would be in the barn to do the final stacking. I loved working the wagon. I liked being outside. I could hear the occasional calls of Bobwhite quail and Eastern Meadowlarks. Sometimes a Red-tailed Hawk would soar overhead.
The job was often enlivened by the baling of a snake. I would turn from stacking the previous bale and be shocked from my reverie to face half of a snake swinging menacingly; the rest of its body trapped within the bale. I do not know what the farmers thought of this besides the aggravation of having to stop and dispatch the snake. All those I remember baling were beneficial varieties that helped rid the farm of mice and rats.
Working in the loft sometimes permitted more rest, but the loft was often nasty work. Sometimes, the only window was the one in which the elevator was inserted. The light was dim, ventilation almost non-existent. This was mid-summer Illinois. Days of 90 and 90, temperature and humidity, were common. That’s the way it was. We never thought twice about it. Well, with clover, I did. Clover has a lot of chaff—small particles falling off. An hour of stacking clover bales in a hot barn would have my eyes and nose full of dust and chaff. Worse was that it permeated my clothing. Combined with sweat, there seemed to be nothing else as itchy.
The only farming task that was worse was when I was put in a small shed with only a tiny opening for the “hopper” that was to dump recently harvested wheat. My job was to shovel the wheat away from the wall by the hopper so that the shed could be filled. I had to shovel quickly as I braced myself on my knees on top of the ever-growing pile of wheat. What a dirty job. My eyes, my ears, my mouth were all full of dirt. I spit mud when I emerged. The farmer laughed. He was in his 70s then. This was a once per year job. He had probably done it 50 times.
Typically, however, I liked the work. Most of the farmers were friendly and appreciative that I worked hard.
On my first job, I was almost sent home when the farmer learned I was only 13, but I was able to keep up and after that was never questioned.
I never received instruction on how to work for others, other than my mother reminding me I was getting paid and needed to earn it. I will never forget how on one of my first jobs, I was rapidly unloading bales when the farmer came over and said “s__t-g__damn boy, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He had decided we needed a rest and a drink. He went over to a well and pumped. Hanging from the handle was a rusty tin can. He filled it and gave me a drink. Rust and all, it quenched my thirst. I never thought twice about it.
My education included the variety of people I worked for. There was one farmer who always hired four of us. One would work behind the baler. One would drive the wagon of bales back and forth and put them on the elevator. The other two would stack the bales in the barn. Bales were fed quickly into the barn, and many were simply put aside to be stacked properly while the next wagon was fetched.
We would get a lot of hay baled and stacked in a hurry. There was little idle time. What I noticed is that the first time I worked on the wagon, the farmer said, “now only stack those bales three-high. That way, the timing should be about right to run wagons back and forth and keep those other boys busy.” This worked well and we usually completed his fields in a single day—at most two.
In contrast, I worked for another man who either by choice or economic circumstances approached the job differently. He let it be known that he was uncomfortable hiring help. He said he couldn’t afford it. He even paid me somewhat less than the other farmers, but I was his only worker, so I received a lot more hours.
I would load the wagon, and then stack in the barn while the farmer loaded the elevator. His instructions were different. “Stack the wagon as high as you can so we don’t have to make so many trips.” This meant a wagon of “seven” or “eight-high,” meaning I would have to terrace the bales so I could climb up and stack them. As the stack grew, the farmer would watch and slow down so that I could get back to the baler before the next one fell off. Although we managed a big wagon load, we probably stacked bales on the wagon at about half the rate as the man who had me do them “three-high.”
Efficiency was not very good back at the barn either. Unloading the wagon meant carefully undoing the big load. The high load inevitably meant a few bales would fall off the wagon while unloading. The farmer had to jump to the ground, put the bales back on, then climb back on the wagon to put them on the elevator. I had no problem keeping up in the loft and would be idle for several seconds in between bales. All of this meant several days were required to complete the project and a much greater risk of a rainstorm spoiling the hay.
The ultimate inefficiency of this effort occurred early one hot afternoon. I was climbing to the back of the wagon and hoisting a bale to the top of the stack. All the weight at the back of the wagon, which had probably been occurring for many years, was finally too much for the wagon’s running gear. It broke. The wagon bed, now free, flipped vertical throwing me and the bales into the field. I was unhurt. I had scrambled atop the bales as they tumbled and suffered no more than a few scratches. The wagon, however, was now bent and broken. The farmer, always taciturn, looked at the mess and expressionless, said, “yup, can’t use that wagon no more.” Back at the barn, there was an ancient wagon with iron wheels. We had to use it the rest of the time, even though it did not hold even a fourth of the bales.
Eating at the various farms was also an experience. Some farmers I worked for were deeply religious. We were asked to hold hands and grace would be said before every meal. There was another who had stacks of naturist magazines. They were just lying around. He and his wife treated them as if they were the latest issue of Time or the newspaper. This was the mid-1960s! None of us teenagers had ever seen anything like those. As I said, it was an education.
The wife of the efficient farmer I described above, was a great cook. She would serve an enormous and satisfying meal at the end of the workday. But, the wife of the farmer who only owned one wagon, served such a variety of food, breads and desserts; it was incomprehensible. And she would serve such a meal at lunch and again at supper. I always wondered what breakfast was like.
Meals with the farmer with the naturist magazines were much simpler. There was plenty of food, but it was always the same. His wife would place a big bowl of boiled hot dogs in the middle of the table. Another bowl was filled with potato chips. There would be a plate of summer sausage and bread and jam but always hot dogs. Is that what they ate when there were no workers?
These farm meals introduced me to roasted cow tongue, head cheese, and blood sausage. Tongue was ok, the rest not!
This was a stoic and taciturn German community. Houses were neat and rows were plowed straight. Once, I was asked whether I could remain and do some work after dark. This was strange, but they were nice people, and I needed the money, so I agreed. Once it was dark, out came the hay mower. The farmer explained how he had a couple of fields in what was then the equivalent of today’s Conservation Reserve Program. He was receiving federal payments to fallow some acreage for the purpose of protecting wildlife. He couldn’t stand it. “Those fields make my farm look sloppy. I’m going to mow it after dark so no one can see what I’m doing.” My job was to hold a light so he could see well enough to do the mowing.
Most of the farmers treated us well, but there were exceptions. Once I was enlisted to work on a farm owned by a relative of my mother’s. It was inconvenient getting there as I was not yet old enough to drive. On our drive out, mom admonished me to work hard because the father in this family had passed away and now the wife and sons were running the farm.
The eldest son, probably in his early 20s was surly. When introduced, I said the usual, “How’s it going?” He replied, “I don’t know yet.” He put me on the wagon at 11AM. His mother came and got the wagons as they were filled, and younger siblings stacked the hay in the barn. We quit after 7. There had not been a break—not even for a drink of water. Whether the young farmer had water with him, I don’t remember. I just remember how angry my mom was when I told her. She called the farm that night and told them I wouldn’t be back.
Making hay did not take up the entire summer so it was that my mom found other work for me. For a couple of summers, I worked for the County Fair Board which conducted the Madison County Fair. There were several odd jobs suitable for a teenager.
Before the fair started, I was assigned to the man in charge of the concession stand in the exhibition building. His name was Pat. He had me do some clean up and arranging of a few chairs and tables. Then came time to prepare the food. I do not recall anything about permits or inspections. For the most part, we sold fountain drinks and packaged snacks that were consumed in paper cups and with plastic utensils. We also sold chili dogs. The “dogs” went into a device designed for them. No problem there—except those remaining from one night were still on top the next morning. What appalled me was the chili.
The day before the fair, Pat told me it was time to prepare the chili. There were some large commercial-sized cans. These were to be opened and dumped in large pots as needed. “Where are the pots?” I asked. “Hop in the car,” Pat said. “We’ll get them now.” Our town still had an old “locker” or ice plant. Lockers were rented to store frozen food until needed. My family often purchased a “quarter of a beef,” and stored it at the locker. Every so often we would stop by and retrieve whatever of our stored meat we wanted. The Fair Board had a locker and in it were two large pots—probably 30 inches tall and 18 inches in diameter. Each was approximately half full of the two types of chili for the chili dogs. I questioned the source of the chili. “Oh, I bring these back each year. That way I don’t have to buy as much,” said Pat. That’s right. The pots were never washed. They were never emptied.
I never ate any chili dogs and advised my friends against it as well.
Pat’s parsimony with the chili was also reflected by what he told me about selling the fountain soft drinks. He told me to size up the young children and to give them mostly ice with just enough of the soda to color the water. “They won’t know the difference” said Pat.
My other remembrance from the concession stand was that every two hours, it was my job to check and clean the bathrooms. This was the county fair. Those bathrooms were sometimes abused. Once, a woman came in, looked at me cleaning up and said something about being “behind a door” and used the facilities. That was ok, but when I emerged and went directly to the food counter, she was not happy. I had washed my hands, of course, but no one had given me any other instruction. She reproached me for not wearing gloves and for not having different clothing for cleaning bathrooms versus serving food. Later when I told Pat about this, he merely shrugged. “She’ll get over it,” he said.
The worst job, probably the worst one I ever had, was after the fair. This was a farming community. Lots of farm animals had been shown. That meant lots of manure. I worked with two other people. One, Duane, was mentally deficient. He was pleasant but not much of a worker. He had a penchant for doing things he was not supposed to. An example was using the lawn mower which was electric. Duane would inevitably start mowing and then run over the extension cord.
The other worker, to my teenage eyes, was an ancient, wiry, bad-tempered old man. He let me know he was experienced at this work. “Man, the s__t, I’ve shoveled,” he would remind me. All day, we would shovel. Now and then, Pat would come by and hitch up one of the wagons we were filling and haul it off. It was a long three weeks, enlivened only once—when Duane set fire to a pile of tires and the rolling black smoke led to an emergency call from a nearby resident and the subsequent arrival of the volunteer fire department.
The downside of these jobs was that none of them paid well, and except for 4-5 weeks encompassing the county fair, none were consistent. When I started college, I hoped for something better. So did my mother.
After my freshman year of college, I was awarded an “Undergraduate Research Participation Grant” by the National Science Foundation. This kept me busy at St Louis University where I was attending. There was little pay, and the professor I worked for was a terrible communicator. My summer was one long series of simple lab experiments. Mix A with B and see what happens. If you don’t like the results, try heating it, then try cooling it. Change the proportions. Try a different reactant. Nothing worked, but I did learn a lot about laboratory techniques and the experience guided my intentions to not be any sort of synthetic chemist once I graduated. I jokingly called my efforts: “Synthesis of crud in high yield.”
The following summer brought serious problems. I was now attending the University of Illinois which ended its semester in June. It was too late to participate in the farm work—which mostly went to those younger than me anyway. I applied for a lot of jobs and worked at the store Friday night and Saturday, but this left me at home far too much for my mother.
I still believe her constant disapproval was unfair. She was angry to have me about the house. She was particularly unhappy if I stayed out late with friends being sure I would not have done so if I had a job.
She must have complained mightily to her father. He had worked for the State of Illinois repairing roads and signs. Surely, he would have connections. One night he picked me up and took me to someone’s home in the nearby village of Millersburg. This man, I realized was one of Grandpa’s drinking buddies, but he knew the secretary of a local construction union. The three of us went to this man’s house and explained how I needed work. The man said they hired workers from a pool every morning. I should go and sign-up.
I was to be there every morning by 6:30. By 7, they would know how many men were needed and would call the next ones on the list. Then everyone else would go home. A problem was that the office where the morning assignments were given was 50 miles away. I did not have use of a car. I no longer recall how it was that a classmate of mine was dragooned into the same morass. He had use of a car and I could pay him to take me along. Dutifully, every morning, we awoke at 5:30, drove the 50 miles, waited, and went home. I think we did this for three weeks. There were a few other men, much older, who waited with us. There were no jobs. I think the older men were there to fulfill requirements to receive unemployment pay. It was a waste of time. My mother, however, was pleased. She told everyone what I was doing, and the fact that I could not sleep late seemed to solve most of her problem with me.
Eventually, my grandfather’s political connections got me a job with the state highway department cutting weeds. I had my own scythe! Day after day, we were dropped off along a state highway to cut locations inaccessible to tractors. This was a lot like making hay. I liked being outside and the pay was better. Nearly all the full-time workers, mostly tractor drivers, were local farmers. I already knew several of them. They worked hard. One of my college-age compatriots had long hair and the farmers were merciless with ribald comments toward him. However, the only real drama that stemmed from this job occurred the following December during my winter holiday from college.
Our part of Illinois was hit with a huge ice storm followed by heavy snowfall. This meant lots of roads to plow. The snowplow drivers, some of the same farmers I had worked with in the summer, had already worked long hours. Another big storm struck. It was about 7:00 in the evening and I was visiting a girlfriend when her phone rang. It was my supervisor from the previous summer. It had been deemed unsafe for the drivers to be out that night alone. They needed riders. Regulations did not permit me to drive. I was assigned to the “efficient” farmer I have described above. He would be good company. Because it was night, I was to be paid double-time. By 8:30, we were rolling. The storm raged all night. My job, besides keeping Wib awake, was to pull a lever to strew salt on the road at intersections. Conditions were horrific. The snow piled up all night long. There was no way to keep up with it.
We would drive our route, and then return to the shed for more gravel and more salt. Wib had already driven the truck all day. By early the next morning, he and some of the other drivers had worked 27 hours without a break. Sandwiches had been handed into the cab when the trucks were re-loaded at the shed.
The storm broke about 9 that morning. The skies, while not clear, had lifted such that visibility was good. I was already on the clock for more hours than the state had allotted. A radio message went out that all the drivers should take a break. A centrally located cafe at a highway intersection was selected. We all met up and ordered breakfast. It was a beleaguered group.
Perhaps you can guess what happened next. Someone drove by on the still icy and snow-packed roads and spied five state trucks equipped with plows in a cafe parking lot at ten o’clock in the morning. The epithets and curses hurled at the lazy state workers wasting his tax money were as bad as you can imagine. I said that the farmers in my hometown were taciturn. This group was also tired. With a disdainful shake of their heads, they just kept on eating breakfast. Our oppressor took the hint and left. I have thought of that incident a lot. Not all public workers are always lazy. They might even be heroic.
The following year, I hoped again to work for the State. The weed-cutting job was not available and, instead, I was assigned to a road and sign crew. Here, I received more education.
These jobs were mostly patronage, meaning that the party in power, the one that had won the governorship, this time the republicans, did the hiring. Because governors came and went (mostly to jail in Illinois!), no one with a real career wanted these jobs. That is why the weed crew, which operated out of a “shed” near my small hometown, was mostly populated by farmers supplementing their income.
The sign and road crew operated from a shed in East St Louis. This was different. Most of the workers were required to have some skill or experience.
The foreman was a former brewery supervisor. He had the most prodigious beer belly I have ever seen. No shirt could cover the bottom of his stomach. He would walk about, a chewed-up cigar stuffed in the corner of his mouth, pointing that bare belly and navel at everyone he approached. Besides his looks, he was not a nice man.
The workers in this group, which I now remember were 100% white in an area that was predominantly black, were not industrious farmers. There were exceptions, but most were people who could not get any other job. Several were alcoholics. A few had been retired and no longer capable or interested in any real work. It was mostly a travesty. (It is important for me to note: few who read this will know who I am talking about, but there was an adult worker from my hometown who was a good man and a solid worker. He was an exception.)
The problem was compounded by recent changes in the patronage rules. The foreman was hired originally because he was a democrat. Now, his workers were hired because they were republicans. Several times that summer, he assigned two volatile workers who hated each other to a shared task. He was delighted the time the morning paper had a photo of two state workers (republicans obviously) having a fistfight on the job. On the other hand, the foreman was careful about the political days at the State Fair. The idea was that the crowd on Republican Day must be bigger than Democrat Day and vice versa. One way to do this was to require, surreptitiously, that all state patronage workers attend Republican Day. Our foreman, although a democrat, had to look out for himself and his own attendance on Democrat Day. Plus, he did not want to be blamed for blatant absenteeism. What he did was forbid three reliable drivers from attending the State Fair. I was assigned to one as his rider. The foreman had interviewed all the workers, learning where they habitually stopped for coffee and lunch. He made up routes for the non-attendees and we drove the district all day being sure to stop at every known worker hang-out. I ate lunch twice and drank a lot of soft drinks.
Much of that summer, my job was to fix the delimiters, the reflectors on metal posts that line exit ramps and portions of highways. My driver was too old and decrepit to perform the labor, but he was a passable driver.
About once a week, the foreman would have me load some of the metal posts into his state-provided pickup. “In case you need extras someday, you can call me,” he said. We called him once and he angrily told us to “Do your job and bring enough next time.” Later we drove by his son’s used car lot. There were those posts, supporting the wire fence around the lot.
One of the painters was an especially noteworthy alcoholic. A friend of his would go by a tavern each morning and pick him up already drunk. Once, I was assigned to work with this man. I should not have accepted. His hands shook so badly that I feared for my life as he drove. At our job site, he opened his lunch box and inside was a bottle of Ten-high—a cheap whiskey.
One of the tasks of this “shed” was to paint stripes and edges on the highway. The drivers of the primary equipment were not patronage, but full-time workers. Most of them consistently performed their jobs. Once, however, there was an exception. The crew with the edger did not return to the shed. Eventually, the foreman called the State Police. The workers were found in back rooms at a combination roadhouse/whorehouse. At least in that case, they were fired.
Because much of the equipment was relatively unique, the area assigned to the East St Louis shed was large. This meant some of the projects were “stay-outs,” meaning the crew would work longer days, stay at motels during the week, return Thursday evenings, and have Friday off. I did not feel I was paid enough not to go home at night, but there was a week at the end of the summer when it suited me to be home on Friday. I volunteered for that week’s stay-out. My job was easy. I rode in the back of the truck that did the center striping. I had to keep a box of “beads” full to mix with the paint. These “beads” are the small particles that make center and edge stripes reflective. One incident from that week is forever imprinted in my memory.
One night we stayed in a small village in far Southern Illinois. The area was impoverished. There was nowhere to eat. That evening a couple of us had a stale sandwich at a tiny bowling alley. Now it was time for breakfast. There was another college student on the crew, and we went in search of a cafe. The one we found appeared very rundown, but we entered. A woman approached with menus. We gawked. Whatever your picture of a “hag” is, she was it and more. She seemed old, but who could tell? Her hair was comprised of a white and gray mixture of unkempt tufts. She was missing some front teeth.
We shuddered and shook our heads but prepared to order. The woman began approaching with two glasses of water. Just then, one of the large black German cockroaches famous in that part of the US skittered across the floor. The woman spied it and with a quickness we did not expect, stomped it. She looked at us and cackled. Then she proceeded to put the waters on the table and turn back toward the kitchen. The smashed carcass of the big cockroach lay there for inspection, next to our table. Without a word we arose and left. Our breakfast that day consisted of cheap powdered donuts from a gas station. I have traveled many places and eaten at a few I would describe as “sketchy,” but the worst place I ever saw was this one, less than a hundred miles from my hometown.
I think back on that summer now with amazement. Much was about to happen. In a few days I was to begin my senior year at the University of Illinois. A year later, I could call myself a chemist and would be living in Arizona with a wife I had not yet met. I never had to perform jobs such as these again, but I will always be grateful for the many lessons I learned.
One thought on “GROWING UP WORKING”
Great article Nic. You have a very good memory.