Working Stiff

Child labor laws were first passed in 1938, but that never stopped parents from working their children, and so it was with me.   Though honestly it wasn’t that bad, and was actually a bit of fun, especially when I was young.  My first job was at the ripe old age of nine, and I earned a whopping dollar a day, cash under the table.  And I was paid every day to boot.  Most of it didn’t usually make it home however, as we would nearly always have to stop by the hardware store, and of course they had candy for sale there.  Regardless of whether my wages actually made it home, I was worth the cost.

One of the big advantages of being teachers is that you don’t have to work summers.  One of the big disadvantages of being teachers is that you don’t get paid during the summers as well.  Actually, Dad got paid year around, as a full professor.  But as anyone knows raising kids is expensive, and as kids still do today, my sisters and I did our best to make it continually more and more expensive.

Just three blocks down the street was the local drug store, the Medicine Chest.  Like so many that exist on every street corner these day, it had a whole lot more than drugs, even in such a small town.  Comics (my favorite), cassette tapes, some clothes, makeup (for my sisters), greeting cards and just about anything else you might want.  This was long before the days of Kmart or Wal-Mart, and the Woolworth’s downtown was just too far, so we bought just about everything there.  One year I did all of my Christmas shopping there; at least until Mom found out that I was getting everyone a deck of cards, and sent me back for some real presents with all the extra money I’d saved.

Back in the mid seventies, credit cards were around, but not as common or omnipresent as they are today.  What were common though were store charge accounts.  These were basically blue cards behind the counter with your name and account number on them, and they would use them to ring up charges and then send a bill at the end of the month.  Small stores don’t tend to do this anymore, they let Visa and MasterCard worry about it instead (by the way, does anyone else remember when Visa used to be named Bank AmeriCard and MasterCard was MasterCharge?)  Well, Dad made the mistake of letting us use the charge at the drug store.  And it is easy to see where that was headed.

I only rang up a little bit, but my sisters apparently went nuts.  Now anybody who thinks that teachers make a lot of money just hasn’t been paying attention in life, and Dad was having problems paying the charges off.  So he made a deal.  George Tracey owned the Medicine Chest, but he lived outside of town on a small farm, with a huge traditional farm house and an even bigger barn.  Dad had his whole summer free, and the farm needed painting, badly.  Some of it hadn’t been painted in many years, and both the house and the barn had cedar shake shingles – which hadn’t been taken care of in probably thirty or more years.  So Dad convinced George to contract him out to paint the farm, which would give Dad more than enough to pay off the farm and make some on the side.

He of course immediately hired his nine year old son to help.  It gave me something to do all summer, I earned a little pocket change, and even managed to provide a bit of help once in a while.  Mom, Norma and Margaret helped a bit too, but it was mainly Dad and me every day.

I do believe there is no better place for a young boy to spend his summer than on a farm.  I had a lot of fun that summer.  They had an old tom turkey named Roscoe – he was probably thirty pounds, with missing feathers and the meanest and nastiest looking bird you had ever seen – but the friendliest.  Whenever anyone would come in the driveway, he would hear them and come running straight for them, and once they got out of their car he would thump up into their legs, begging for attention.  He wouldn’t stop until you petted him and thumped him on the breast.  He would then wander off, but never very far.

They also had a female farm dog that had just lost a litter of puppies, at almost the same time they found an abandoned litter of kittens.  That dog adopted these kittens, and those kittens had the habit of getting everywhere.  More than once did a kitten end up covered in green paint and have to be hand scrubbed to get it off. 

I also remember getting to help collect eggs from the chickens a couple of times, and I think I may have watched them milk a cow once.

I even managed to slap a bit of paint around as well.  But it was the roof that was the worst.  One side of the barn was so old that the shake shingles were green – and not as it turns out from paint, but from moss that was growing on them.  Dad had to climb up and scrape it all off, as well as repair and replace the ones that needed it, and then we had to paint the roof.  This was done by mixing green paint and linseed oil, in big five gallon buckets.  Then I’d fill a smaller gallon bucket half way and hook it to a rope at the end of the ladder, and Dad would pull it up, paint the roof, and send it back down when he needed more (and I wasn’t out chasing kittens!).

When we finished the job at the end of the summer, we made up a sign and tacked it up to the barn – “Painted with Pride by the Carters, Summer 1974”

Dad had bought his old truck a few years before.  I think it was a 58 Chevy, but I’m not real sure.  I do remember it wasn’t in great shape, the turn signals didn’t work, and it badly needed painting.  So we painted it; with light green latex paint.  And Dad rewired the turn signals with big round external ones on the front fenders.  He then built a toolbox for the bed out of plywood.  The funny thing is the toolbox he built held up better than the truck and worked better than the commercial ones he would later buy.  And they also worked to hold our fishing tackle as well, for those afternoons when work just got a little too much, and Dad would remember that this was his summer vacation after all.

I believe George Tracy introduced Dad to the fishing club as well.  This was run by another farmer in his irrigation pond.  They only allowed ten people in the club; each one paid a hundred dollars a year.  Half went to buy stock rainbow trout in the late spring, the other half went to the farmer.  They stocked the pond around the beginning of April, but no fishing was allowed until the middle of May or so.  You could keep as much as you wanted, just so long as you recorded what you took on a small pad of paper they kept in an old chest freezer next to the pond.

I can’t remember how many times we went out to the pond fishing, but I never had a fishing license until I was over thirty years old because I never needed one.  Some days I’d get bored, and go and catch the fresh water shrimp that lived in the pond and would get caught in the culvert after the farmer irrigated.  They worked great as bait, because that was the natural food for the fish anyway.  And sometimes a trout would get caught under the pipe as well – it was always fun to try to net one of those.

So that first summer, Dad got out of his debt and everything was fine.  However, he must have talked about it at work, because the next summer his boss wanted to know if we wanted to go up to Colorado Springs to paint her sisters house.  So we did.  We actually went up for two weeks, stayed at her house and painted it.  My sisters were at Girl Scout camp during the time, so it was just the three of us.  We would basically work in the mornings, then clean up and act like tourists on vacation in the afternoons.  And I think I got two dollars a day.  And I found a wonderful barbecue sauce recipe using Campbell’s Tomato Soup.  For years I would make this when we had cookouts, always being very careful to find a can of soup that had the recipe on it, because I wasn’t ever smart enough to keep on of the labels.  Eventually we did find it in book of soup recipes.  And now that I’m writing this – I may have to have Mom dig out that recipe and send it to me and make it again this summer.

Well, after that second summer, Dad actually started looking for jobs the next summer.  He liked the extra money, though he never had a good head for business.  We got lots of jobs simply because he underbid everyone else, but never managed to make more than an hourly wage for himself.  Pride Painters as he took to calling us, hired nearly every boyfriend my sisters had over the next few years, one of my girlfriends helped a bit once, both my sisters got into the act for a while, and even one of Dad’s former students.

Buckley Bangert was a graduate student of Dads, and eventually became a good friend.  The last few summers, when I was in high school and college, we got a bit more serious about it, and pretty much is was the three of us on most jobs.  One time we got a hotel to do – that took most of the summer, and my sisters helped a bit more on that one.  By then we were making minimum wage or even more, again all still cash and I’d managed not to spend it all immediately, though I never was good at saving it for long.  The only summers I didn’t work for Dad was right after I graduated high school (because of my accident), and the year before I graduated college. 

Buckley was a great guy to hang out with.  He lived in a one room apartment out at the Carroll’s place for many years.  The Carroll’s were one of those families who had done so much many years before that they had streets and parks and all sorts of stuff named after them.  I never knew Mr. Carroll; he died before I was in high school.  But Mrs. Carroll was a sweet old lady, even if she did have a wheezing, ancient poodle that we unaffectionately nicknamed “Maggot” behind her back.

Mr. Carroll had owned several businesses in town, including a potato chip factory.  When he decided to build his house, he wanted it to be on a hill.  There weren’t any around, so he made one.  And the hole he dug to make the hill, well he turned it into a small lake.  His house back then, which I believe was the mid fifties, was way too far out of town to get city water, so like everyone else he had to dig a well.  However once they hit water, he told them to keep digging.  He believed there was hot water down there, though no one had ever found any before.   They kept digging, until the well was over four times deeper than any others in the area, and lo and behold, they did hit hot water.  So not only did he build a house, but he built a swimming pool as well.  Actually, the swimming pool came first; it took a few more years before he built the house around it.

The house was simple cinder block construction, but is unique in that even though it endures harsh Colorado winters, it has no electric or gas heat.  All the heat is provided by a fireplace in the middle of the house and by the geo-thermal well.  He laid pipes under all the floors, and the water was free flowing and about 85 degrees out of the ground, so even on the coldest mornings the floors were never cold.  The house would lose a degree or two each month, so by spring it was a little cool inside, but never cold.

The Carroll’s liked to spend their winters down in Mexico, and get away from the cold.  So they would hire college students to watch the house, in exchange for living in the small apartment they built out back.  This worked well for both parties, and Buckley was the last student they hired, and he didn’t leave for many years.  In fact, he eventually married one of their granddaughters, which allowed the two of them to move across the pool into the ‘pool house’ – which was several times larger, and actually had a separate bedroom.

We loved to go swimming out at Buckley’s.  The water was always clean and fresh; you could empty and refill the pool in about an hour.  There were many summer afternoons where we would go straight to the pool after work, drain it while having a beer, then get in as it filled up and scrub off, while drinking more beer.  Dad actually would drink Cutty Sark scotch, and mix it with the fresh pool water.  To this day, when I taste that scotch, it takes me right back to the summers in the pool.  Or swimming in the winter – your hair would freeze, but it felt great to jump out, roll in the snow, then jump back in the hot water and feel your skin tingle as it melted off your body.

Once I got into college, I became better friends with Buckley, and we would often stay up playing war games half the night, or watching Star Trek movies on the VCR.  I would bet that he can still recite every line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan even now, all these years later.  He eventually became a middle school history teacher, which was his intention all along.  Though last I heard, he was still painting in the summers.

My painting career ended the year before I graduated college.  I actually started doing some work for other people, simply to make more money than Dad could afford to pay any more.  Working all those years for “Divorcee’s and Widow Women” had not made him rich, though it had given all of us jobs for the summer, and he finally quit a few years later.  He noticed an ad in the paper for a garage sale out at the Tracey’s old farm (they had long since retired and moved away), and he went out.  The place was in horrible need of a paint job again, not having been touched since we had finished it fifteen years before (though the roofs looked great, as they were intended to last much longer than that).  He was able to reclaim that sign, and still has it.

For my career in house painting, I’ve been very careful about it.  I was making decent money on the last few jobs, and I actually did paint the house we were renting about twelve years ago in exchange for some of the rent, but I have never made quite as much at painting as I have at programming.  Just because I’ve done it long enough to really, really hate it, and don’t ever want it as a fall back.  And of course, my house has aluminum siding!