Neighborhood kids are busy these days, working as dog walkers, garden helpers and babysitters. They remind me of my own summer jobs as a teen.
One gig would be considered outrageous today. When a friend and I were about 14 and horse-crazy, we would ride our bikes a few miles out of town to where a lady had a riding stable, offering our services in return for riding lessons.
After thinking about it, this rather stern lady decided what she needed most was to have us climb up tall, A-shaped ladders to the high reaches of the barn ceiling to get rid of black cobwebs on the rafters. She instructed us to use rags to do the job. (Every time I blew my nose for weeks after, black soot came out.)
We never told our parents what we were doing, just that we were helping the owner and getting lessons in return. I’m not sure the arrangement lasted more than a few times, but it seemed like high adventure at the time.
While that job brought the heady excitement of being around horses, others were more mundane. Salem, my home at the time, is the pretty capital city of Oregon, located in the agricultural Willamette Valley. During World War II, pickers for the crops were in short supply, so high school students were encouraged to help. Trucks with loudspeakers patrolled the neighborhoods intoning, “Hop pickers, hop pickers. You are urgently needed.” My friends and I picked hops, beans and cherries (more ladders).
A short stint in door-to-door sales convinced me never, ever to go into that field. The Fuller Brush Company devised a new marketing tool to introduce a line of cosmetics. I was a ”Fullerette,” with a smart little sample case and order blanks, ringing doorbells in my neighborhood and hoping for someone kind to open the door.
Lipsticks, makeup and other cosmetics were in my case, and I soon found that while many neighbors enjoyed seeing the wares, there were few sales. My mother, my aunt, and a few neighbors were my principal customers.
My most tedious job was in a cannery. I stood at a conveyor belt holding a plywood square with a hole in it as cooked beets traveled down the line. Beets too large to go through the hole were set aside for another purpose, which was never explained. Those days went by very slowly.
A friend born in the East recalls his teen experience in New Jersey where kids were bussed to a school and slept in its dorm during two-week stints in the fields, harvesting potatoes which had been plowed up but were still on the vines. Students plucked the potatoes from the vines, put them into a basket and then into large burlap bags. The pay was 4 cents a basket, and a day’s labor paid $4 tops.
Still in high school, this friend next found work in a four-story Philadelphia factory that manufactured an unusual cloth made out of horsehairs. This resulted in a stiff fabric used to reinforce the lapels of men's clothing, including uniforms. ”We were told the hair came from horsetails imported from Argentina," my friend recalled.
A stationary steam engine, a big fly wheel, and a belt that drove other belts were involved in the manufacturing. The students earned 50 cents an hour. Despite his youth, this young man was assigned to the end of the production line where he set a meter to the required number of feet ordered, cut it, folded it and wrapped it for shipment. He is still quite good at wrapping packages.
An offer too good to pass up came the way of another friend, an engineering student at the University of Oklahoma. Times were hard and the government offered students part-time work at 35 cents an hour. To gain extra space, the electric motor lab of the engineering school wanted to remove a 4-foot-wide, 8-foot-tall brick wall.
“My tools were a cold chisel and a ball-peen hammer,” my friend recalled. He set about removing one brick at a time. The good part was that he could choose his own time to work between classes. He figures it took several weeks to finish the job.
Though I said my job in the beet cannery was the most tedious, chiseling through a brick wall one brick at a time puts it all in perspective.