Rodney Roe's Blog

Still Trying to Make Sense of It All

Rodney Roe

Rodney Roe
Clayton, Georgia, USA
November 22
I currently place myself among the curmudgeons of the world. Always thinking about why things are, and how they may be better, I tend to rant at times, but mostly I just look for a reasoned discourse. I have previously worked as a cotton scout, grocery bag boy, cannery worker, and am a physician. I am married, have two daughters and four granddaughters. I retired due to vision loss in 2005 after a 30 year career as a hospital pathologist. Fortunate to have a wide range of interests, life following retirement has been good.

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MARCH 21, 2012 9:12PM

My Brief Career as a Child Labor Organizer

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  As a child I learned to do a lot of things to make spending money.  For many reasons opportunities seem to be more limited today, but this is about the late 1940s and the 1950s.

The first thing I can remember doing for money was singing.  The neighbors seemed to enjoy paying me to sing.  Since the Arkansas/Oklahoma border where I grew up was more Southwestern than Southern in its character I learned to sing Bob Wills, Hank Williams and country music of that ilk.  Typically, I would be asked to stand on top of a concrete pedestal and belt out the requested song.  For my efforts I got a nickel.  A nickel would buy a candy bar then and two would buy a coke.  I remember singing The Tennessee Waltz; I’m in the Jailhouse Now, and Jambalaya on the Bayou.  I got past the cute stage at some point and the requests quit coming in.

There were a lot of orchards and truck farms in the area and I picked tomatoes for forty cents an hour, picked peaches on the share (pick a bushel and keep a peck) and picked pecans, sometimes on shares and sometimes by the bushel.  This was genuinely hard work and the farmers were hard to please.  This was not my “go to” choice of jobs, but I did a lot of it.  I helped a lot of people put hay up, but these were friends and I didn’t get paid for it.  If you’ve ever walked bare to the waist behind a truck lifting and tossing bales of hay onto the bed you know about hot, sweaty, and itchy.

The area where we lived was outside of town and consisted of some housing developments scattered between residual farms.  Our house looked out over number five tee on a nine-hole community golf course.  Past the golf course was the Arkansas River bottom.  Since the bottoms flooded every few years this land was mostly fallow and a perfect place for a kid to watch killdeer try to lure one away from their nest, cottonmouth water moccasins lounging around sloughs, scare up rabbits, and glimpse an occasional bobcat.

The golf course, though, was a source of revenue.  We hunted golf balls that had gotten lost in the rough and sold them back to golfers, I had a lemonade stand for a while, and we all took a shot at caddying.  I was a small, scrawny, day-dreaming kid and was not the golfer’s first choice to carry a bag of clubs, but I got paid fifty cents a round of nine which was better than picking tomatoes.  Several of the kids in our neighborhood, including my brother, got to be pretty good golfers by watching the good players, practicing when the pro let us, and one of us turned pro.

At some point I learned that The Grit newspaper paid kids to put the papers together and roll them prior to delivery.  This involved a bus ride into town and then standing with a crowd of boys in front of the building.  Eventually, the door would open and a man would point to the boys he wanted to hire.  The rest could go home or hang around hoping someone would leave.

I got picked.  We sat on the concrete floor next to the printing press and worked without much light.  Printers ink covered everything and when we left we looked like we’d been working in a coal mine.  There wasn’t much to do but work fast and talk.  The talking got me in trouble.  Several boys didn’t think we were getting paid enough.  They thought sitting on concrete and getting covered with ink was worth more.  I said, "YEAH, let’s go ask for more money."  So, I led the boys to the boss and asked for more per hour.  He escorted us all to the front door, ushered us out, and hired another group of boys.

I went back hoping I wouldn’t be recognized, but it was pointless.  That is how I learned about labor, management, and who has the power.

My next job was as a paper boy with the local newspaper, actually, newspapers.  I delivered both the morning paper and the evening paper.  Sunday editions were combined which meant that not only was the paper bigger than usual, but had to be delivered to every subscriber that I had.  These papers came in a large stack and during the week I did all of the work, but on Sunday it took the whole family to get the newspapers folded in time for delivery.

I never grumbled about getting up or delivering the paper.  I delivered in sunshine, and rain, heat and cold.  Collecting for the paper taught me a lot about people.  Some people were very reliable and had their change ready when I came by to collect.  Others wouldn’t answer the knock on the door.  I got cheated out of pay by folks who would promise to pay next week, which became next month and eventually I had to stop delivery.  I don't know whether they knew that I had to pay for the papers that I delivered, or if they did they cared.

In some instances I got complaints through the circulation manager.  One fellow who took the morning paper was at the far end of the route and wanted his paper delivered first so he could read it before going to work and be able to talk about sports, the news, or whatever they talked about.  I made every effort, but couldn’t get the route done and get his paper delivered first.  So, I hit upon the idea of hiring my younger brother to help.  He would go to the far end and deliver Mr. Complainer’s paper first.

It worked at first, but my brother, who was four years younger and always bored with work, began to get the paper delivered late.  I got calls from the circulation manager.  I talked to my brother about the issue.  He seemed to understand.

The next morning I thought everything would be well.  Then I got THE call from the circulation manager.  As the story unfolded I found that my brother, irritated by the demands of the complainer, decided to teach him a lesson.  When the wife of Mr. Complainer unfolded the newspaper there was a flattened dead snake that my brother had scraped off the road inside.

I got to keep the route provided that I would fire my brother.  This didn’t bother either of us much.  I had the paper route for 2 or 3 years and quit on good terms with the newspaper.  I did lose the complainer as a customer which was a relief.

Once I started high school I went to work as a carry out boy for the busiest grocery store in the area.  It was an IGA called Consumer’s Warehouse Market that eventually became a Piggly Wiggly store.  I started for 50 cents/hour and was making $0.75/hour when I graduated.  For a variety of reasons I had no social life in high school.  My mother was very religious and regarded everything as either a sin or giving the appearance of being a sin.  We, also, didn’t have much money so I couldn’t afford a car which pretty much prevented dating.  So, I worked a lot and saved my money.  Some of my coworkers at the grocery store did have cars, did date, and were always broke.  Knowing my situation they would come to me to borrow money.  I charged 10% interest.  Borrow ten and pay me eleven on the next payday.  I got some complaints, but they kept coming back. 

The grocery store was my first and last experience with punching a clock.  I hated the clock.  We couldn’t punch in early, which meant standing by the clock waiting for it to click, and I felt like the store was stealing my life.  The thing that I really hated, though, was working split shifts.  For 8 hours work I had to be at the store 12, punching out for the 4 hours in the middle and then sitting around because I had no transportation.

Sometime in my Junior or Senior year Mom suggested that I buy stock with my savings instead of letting it molder in a savings account at the bank.  So, I went to Merrill-Lynch and talked to a woman named Idell Wurtz.  Her family owned a bakery that made Wurtz Crackers which were saltines with a different flavor than Sunshine crackers.

Ms. Wurtz treated me with as much seriousness as if I had been a high roller and I ended up buying 3 shares of IBM – which were selling for $100/share – and a few shares of Xerox.  The Xerox did very well for a few years and then the company got competition that caused their stock price to plateau and I sold it.  IBM was another story.  It just kept on growing.  The three shares went to $500.00/share and then split.  Over the years I sold off the splits to fund college. 

Every work experience that I had taught me something.  One conclusion, that I came to, was that I wanted to work for myself.  All things considered, I liked being a paper boy better than I did working in the grocery store, because I had the possibility of getting new customers and affecting my income.  On the other hand, working in the grocery store taught me a lot about working with other people.

We made the mistake of encouraging our kids to work as volunteers.  They did a lot of good things, but were shocked when they found out how hard they had to work for a little money, and were further dismayed to find that the things they wanted to do didn’t pay much and the jobs that paid the best required more education, involved studying subjects that were hard, and often involved doing the less interesting jobs at the beginning of employment.

I wonder, now that young people can’t find jobs, how they will learn the lessons of a varied work experience.

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This was inspired by reading the experiences that others have had on OS.
My first job was digging a hole for the septic tank at our family vacation house. I agreed to $5.00 - minimum wage was 50 cents an hour and I knew I could get it done in less than ten hours. I began at 8:30 am and worked through the hot humid day and by 6:00pm I only had about eight more inches to go when I passed out. My Dad, older brother and our neighbors had been watching me work all day. When I came to brother Bill was pushing my skinny butt up toward Dad, who lifted me out with one arm. Bill finished digging the hole in less than a half hour and after dinner, Dad handed me a ten dollar bill and a cold beer, "Here, you earned it, but don't tell your mom about the beer."
My dad used to sing The Tennessee Waltz when he'd had a few.

Babysitting was always available for the girls when we were kids in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 50s and 60s. More fun and lucrative was trapping gophers--usually the boys' job. We'd get fifty cents a tail. That was good money back then.

Good read.
jmac1949, I was thinking you would never finish in 10 hours. You deserved the beer. My alcoholic uncle - actually my favorite uncle - stopped by the Dew Drop Inn one day and sat me on the bar stool next to him. "Don't tell Jonesy (my mother) I brought you in here" were his strict instructions.
beauty1947, trapping gophers sounds like fun!
gracious jane, I wish your son an open mind and a willing attitude. My dad taught us that; there are no jobs that are beneath you, you owe a man a good job while you work for him, and you owe yourself the best job you can find. I can hear him say, "I don't care if you're a ditch digger as long as you're the best ditch digger out there."
Live and learn. I had to tend several cows, two horses plus a few goats before and after school, then keep the driveway shoveled in one of the snowiest areas of Maine so my father could save his money and make his living as a Doctor.
If that was not child labor, I do not know what was then.
My father never educated any of his six children from my mother except for the child from his second marriage. Eventually he told me he gave all the land to that child.
He also once said that he was pissed off to loose almost a million dollars in the stock market but refused me 3,000 dollars so I could continue my post secondary education. I am sure she told him to say that too because she did not want anyone to get an education on our side of the family so later they could not afford to take them to court.
I was severely sucker punched by him and his current wife.
He used to say, Life is going to teach you son, and never told me anything except curses and putdowns. He used to make me work the land, saying it would be mine some day but everything went to them.
When I see the clothes I had to wear in old photographs and how I had to skate with second hand girls skates and then was forced to ski down expert runs at Sugarloaf mountain on burnt second hand skis. Where he had professional hockey skates and brand new german skis.
His current wife, who was his secretary, used to tell me as a child hideous things about my mother and said to me how the devil was going to get me too if I did not watch out. She was a loyal Catholic !

She created hate and more within my family and even had the police serve me papers once, to keep me away from them, during a film festival when my movie was featured in Maine FF. When my brother died she refused along with him to anything to do with it. My father said good. He will be better off now. I once heard her tell her son.... those kids are after your money and he eventually smashed in my car door durning one of my last visits.

I have seem mean malicious evil and it lives in my family too! Just wondering what you would recommend in a situation like this?
Algis, that is truly a wicked stepmother story. Sorry about your experience. I have no advice except to turn your back and make your own way.
There really did seem to be a wealth of jobs around when we were growing up. In rural Illinois picking strawberries, baling hay and detassling corn were big ones. I managed to avoid all three in favor of babysitting, waitressing, car-hopping at the Tastee Freeze, a summer on a factory line, and lifeguarding--which to this day remains my all time favorite job, although I'm probably a good candidate for skin cancer. I learned something from each one. Nice post.
You hit the nail on the head when you said “Every work experience that I had taught me something”. I think all youths should have the opportunity to gain the valuable life skills you learned via working. Sadly, because of minimum wage laws and other onerous employer regulations, many of the jobs of the past are unavailable for today’s youths (picking fruit, rolling newspapers, delivering groceries, digging holes). I guess the adults of today’s generation feel a “fair wage” is more important than life skills.

I also found it interesting how you titled your post “My Brief Career as a Child Labor Organizer” when the one place you tried organizing caused you and all your friends to be unemployed. In the future, if you should find yourself unhappy with your working conditions, exercise your power over your employer and quit.

Finally, seeing that you’re such a strong advocate for a “varied work experience”, it makes no sense why you would encourage your kids to be volunteers.
Very inspiring story. R
If more young people could find jobs and/or sign on for volunteer work, perhaps their work ethics and their senses of "customer service" would be enhanced ( 2 of my pet peeves....the third is that they can't make change without a calculator.) Thanks for this piece which also generated a lot of memories. I worked in a jewelry factory at 16 (summers) and the local private mental hospital in college. I still remember those jobs and what I learned there.
Mary Ann, much has changed. It occurred to me that two of my work stories involved newspapers. We can no longer get delivery of the Atlanta newspaper. Many of the nations newspapers are shells of what they used to be.
Your complaints are the same that I have and hear form others. I especially am irritated by the inability to make change. I bought some things in a grocery store and the clerk turned and was going to cram a wad of bills and coins into my hand. When I asked him to count my change out to me he threw it on the checkout counter and turned to the next customer. Poor attitude, no sense of customer service and an inability to make change all in one person.
I saw a movie years ago that had Alfie Woodard as a drug using young woman who decided to try to get her act together. There was a scene in which a convenience store owner asked her to make change and not being able to do it cost her the chance of employment. The employer asked her, "What if the power is out?"
One of my most interesting experiences about work was at a company team-building exercise (at a software company). We went round the table and told the group what our first paid jobs were outside home. The stories were similar--a lot of burger flipping, one guy worked in a bread factory, one woman worked at an amusement park. When we got to an engineer from India, his first paid job was software engineer. We were dumbstruck. Then he explained--it was cultural. His job, until he finished his PhD, was to work on his studies. And he did. He was a great student, and earned a scholarship to university. It would have been shameful for his family if he'd had to work while he was in university. Instead, his parents were proud of him, and worked extra jobs to keep him in school. Now that he was earning a good living, part of his salary in the USA went to India to support his parents. It was an honor for them to have an engineer for a son, who lived in America.

It made me realize how much of our "work ethic" is cultural. When is work for pay better or worse than schoolwork? That experience made me think.

I still agree--my experiences as a teen and young adult, working my fingers to the bone for little pay helped form who I am now, but it's also helped me think about my own kids, and how much time should go to work vs. schoolwork. Maybe jobs in the summer.
I've been traveling and absent from the computer. Indian culture is very different from that of the West. I have worked with several Indians over the years and find many of their ideas about family relationships valuable but not very applicable to our culture. One friend told me that Indian parents don't treat children like friends. They are treated like children who will learn to love their parents when they become older and realized how much their parents sacrificed for them. Children are expected to become successful, marry the chosen spouse, uniting families and providing support for their parents in their retirement. Love is regarded as something that comes after marriage.
Another wonderful story about your life. I agree about the benefits of varied job experiences. I've had way over a dozen jobs and I'm glad. Now I'm teaching and a lot of my colleagues who have done only that can do nothing but complain--about everything. They're also kind of boring and rather full of themselves. I'm deeply grateful that when I stand in front of the kids that's not the only thing I've ever done.