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.