Tag Archive: work

Workin’ For A Living: 12 Years Old

That’s ME – Workin’ For A Livin’ for the USMC –
About Ten Years Down the Line

It wasn’t my first job; that was different, but it was the first one I got paid to go to other people’s houses to do. My first job, as my parents were fond of reminding me, was doing my chores. Those chores ‘paid’ for my education, my life, my rent – the food on my plate and the clothes on my back.

“We don’t have to feed you nothing,” my mom and dad were quite fond of warning me, “but water and bread and enough vitamins to survive.” Their way of showing love was giving beyond the basic essentials. You were rewarded when you did something good. You were punished by taking things away – including your liberty and freedom to go outside, venture beyond your room. You learned to take care of things by doing without if they got lost, missing, stolen, broken or anything. There was no second chance with toys.

We learned to do without – on a lot of things. Doing without TV for three years. Doing without any radio station except a foreign one. Doing without your toys – those had been left back Stateside to await your return, they were too expensive – too redundant to take along. Doing without friends.  Do without love.  Do without Stateside.  Do without America.  And make it on your own.  While the US Military might have been there for the adults and all their problems – for us kids?  You were on your own to solve your own issues, your own ‘things’; deal with the daily concerns of life and death and the overhanging threat of a nuclear war . . . with your enemies but a few stones throws to a few hours away, them  knowing your weapons are pointed at them, and you know theirs at aimed at you – a small child of twelve or thirteen.

“Make do, do without, or build your own.”

That was a rule I learned – and took that one to heart. I began to build my own toys, starting with models, and then later (when we got back Stateside) my own stuffed animals. But those things took money – money I had to earn. I could get fifteen cents for taking out the trash – my mom would grant me that, for use on the German roach coach that would come through the apartment complex at about noon to drop off soft drinks at everyone’s house (no one drank the water, or at least not unboiled – the German water treatment system left something to be desired, and an unwary traveler would learn). But you could only take the trash out every three or four days or so – when the can would start piling up. They lined it with a paper grocery bag – that’s all they had back then; everyone used them – and God forbid it got wet. The bottom would simply tear out and you would be left holding an empty paper sleeve, wet and dripping on the ragged bottom – and then you’d have to reach in, get whatever trash had fallen in, and stuff it in a new bag – over and over again. Sometimes we’d use two or three bags to line the can, but it didn’t much matter. My dad wouldn’t think twice about dumping some soggy coffee grounds in, or a mess that would make that bag soggy. My mom, poor thing, was considerate of me to sometimes wrap such things in paper – newspaper, “The Stars and Stripes”, the only publication we were allowed. (There were comic books, but those were almost forbidden things – like they were naughty or something – plus they were expensive at the store.)

We got a bit of allowance off and on, depending on how our father was feeling and how generous our mother felt at the time. Usually it was seventy-five cents a week, sometimes only fifty. That’s a lot of money to a little boy, but not so much to one of twelve in 1970. And I had to work hard for my fifty, seventy-five cents – making my bed, moping the floors, cleaning the bathroom, taking the trash out again – sweeping the bedroom (if it needed it) – sometimes dusting. But at least we didn’t have to clean the light bulbs, ha-ha! That would come much later.

And then somewhere – somehow – I got the idea of hauling trash for a living. I think it was my parents who suggested it to me, but maybe I had come up with it on my own. It might have been I wasn’t the very first kid doing it – it seems to me there were several doing it before I was done, and there was a bit of competition among us to find customers – one staking out one stairwell, another another and so on.

And it was hard work, too! Sometimes you had to run up to the fifth floor. All that way up – and then back down, clutching this bag of trash in your arms – you all along hoping they didn’t just stuff another wet and soggy bag into a new one because it would leak out and wreck the new one before you could get to where you were going, which was the huge dumpster at the end of the row of apartment buildings – four buildings in all, sometimes six, and one time eight – going all that distance to drop off some trash, for these buildings were long! They were the German base apartments, built for them in the past – pre-WWII. They were big buildings, hulking and ‘square’ – not that they were square – they were long, thick, huge rectangles, like slabs of meat with windows cut in. But everything about them was squarish in a way – squared windows with little squares within them in their metal frames – set in a bit so they looked even more cube-ish. The balconies on some – long slots cut into the rectangles, stacked like cord wood one over another. And the long roofs go marching on and on with their rows of dormer windows peering out over them like so many square frog’s eyes.

So I set about setting up business, going from door to door – knocking at each one, making my offers. If you lived on the first floor, it was fifteen cents; twenty-five cents for the second, thirty on the third, forty on the fourth and two quarters for the highest points in the building. I would come by every two or three days a week, depending upon my customer’s preferences. I didn’t keep any notes, any track of them. Once the deal was set, it was my job to remember them – where they lived and what time to come in. Since all the buildings looked the same, it wasn’t always hard – but it wasn’t easy, either. Sometimes I’d knock at the door to find my customer gone – swept away by some Army order – and another potential customer staring me in the face, wondering what was going on with this young kid in his jacket and boots standing there. And I’d make my offer again. I would point out how far away the dumpster is; what a bother it is in the morning. Or I’d come by later, taking off my hat (I often wore a stocking cap) – and making my offer another time, if they were were still in the process of moving in or out. I used to get ten cents a box for hauling them down to the trash – that was quite a boon! – finding someone who had just moved in, secreting their boxes somewhere, and then notifying some kids I wanted to play with, or selling them to some other – either way, making money hand-over-fist as best I could.

Not that it was a lot of money. Funny how money goes out of your hand as quick as you take it in. I became a firm follower of the German roach coach, buying candy for me and some kids. Or I would go down to the base theater and take a movie in. Often you could find me at the E-Club, playing pinball games or ordering a soda, a float – anything to take my mind off my loneliness and pain. And quite often I would go over to the PX to buy some model, usually a plane. I was quite fond of the ones from World War Two, buying endless bottles of various Testor’s paints and painting them up in ever increasing detail as my skills got better and better at this thing. I remember long hours sniffing model glue – not intentionally, I hadn’t a clue that it could get you high – I didn’t even know what ‘high’ is. That all would come later – much later – into my teenagehood.

I also would ‘go to town’ once and awhile, exchanging my dollars for marks and phennings. There I could buy something worth a dollar, and it would only cost one-hundred cents. Later, when the dollar plunged (another trip later on) I found my dollar was worth a quarter, and us Americans were considered poor.

There in town I would buy me candies and walk around; spending my marks on bus fares and stuff, touring, taking the trains. Often I would ride my bike into town to save the fare, and simply walk around. There the Germans would often greet me as one of their own – they always said I would make a good German! Some were kindly, some were cold – all of them strict in a way. A very German way of being: following the rules (some), not getting too wild, obeying all the laws (normally), and behaving in an orderly, logical fashion – and they were quite proud of their heritage, minus World War Two. That they seemed very embarrassed with, as if Hitler had let a fart and a bomb had gone off. Which they should be. It was a very shameful period and part of their history.

But that job ran out when we switched bases; after a couple times, I just got sort of heartsick about going on. The run of new faces, me pitching my pitch – how easy it would be for them, no more forgotten garbage sitting by the door, no more running through howling snowstorm or blizzard or thundering rain – I just felt sick at heart.

There’s a big difference between being ‘sick at heart’ and ‘sick of something’. ‘Sick of something’ implies you just don’t want to do it; that you may even feel some nausea at the idea of doing it again. But sick at heart? That implies a whole other level. That’s when you look down that row of apartment buildings, knowing what you have to do – and instead of just feeling nauseous, you feel down and depressed. Where it’s more than not just wanting to do it, or facing the same old task time and time again. I find myself hard put to put my finger on it – that pulse of emotion, that dread and sinking feeling I started to get each time I’d stare down a new street, trying to prepare for a new beginning. One that seemed to never come.

After awhile it seemed the apartment complexes began blending – each one different, but so much the same as the one we’d left behind that it did not matter. All the buildings were the same, the streets were the same – the endless blend of faces, all of them unknown – the same. And facing facts, I was getting quite tired of banging on doors and finding a new face staring out at me, wondering what was going on.

Eventually I gave up my job as garbage hauler, leaving it for the younger (and more ambitious, I presume) boys to employ. Instead I got me a job during the summer (at one place) mowing the center courtyard – the ‘big yard’ that stood between the building’s backs. Each row would face a street; behind them would be another row, facing another street beyond. Inbetween there might be a thin strip of land, varying (depending on where we were) – from one hundred to two hundred foot wide, and about as long as a football field. These were hard jobs to find, because they were in most demand, and we didn’t own a lawn mower – and essential tool for the job. Instead each community had one – just one – to do the job. And it was a tight position – always jostling with the other kids, making deals with the grownups – the grownups making deals among themselves, so that you never knew whether you got the job or not until the last minute. And then there was the mowing to be done. It was about thirty dollars a ‘whack’ or session – pushing that mower around and around all afternoon, pacing through the summer’s heat while the other children got to play. And it was one I didn’t get very often – no one did. It was sort of shared among the grownups and the kids (which meant just that much more competition) – although the grownups didn’t get paid (I think). They just did it for the enjoyment of mowing the ‘quad’ – something that would remind them of their time overseas and what they had left behind. So it really wasn’t a very good job.

I bought my first bike – though it wasn’t really the first one – using that money I made. I got it for ten buck off a G.I. who was going overseas – back Stateside – and needed to get rid of it. It had straight handlebars and was of foreign design, unlike the Schwinn I’d owned and that my parents had given me.

But that’s for another story – how I lost my bike not just once but twice – once to myself, and once to a thief over in a German town.

Islands In The Sky

Islands In The Sky

One day the teenager next door came across a boon – a sheet of plywood. In those days such a thing was a problematic treasure. We had no way of cutting the thing, but it was there, huge and grand. Often we would use such things as the roof an underground fort, but we had just built a huge underground fort, only to have the parents make us fill it in again. I don’t know how long the teenager debated what to do with his treasure, but I do know this: once he made up his mind, we were his workforce, his day-laborers, his busy and willing hands. And us kids, he was our hero, the one who played with us, and we would do anything he asked, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be. Sure, he abused his power sometimes*, but we loved him, respected him, wanted to be accepted by him, and were all too willing to please him in any way we could.

It was mid-morning when he came over, and somehow or another, he managed to wheedle permission from my mom to build a tree house in our back yard. I don’t know how that went; I rather imagine he just asked my mom, “Hey, do you mind in we build a tree house in your back yard?” – and my mom, typically indoors during the muggier portions of the day, probably just said yes, trusting our safety to his common sense. Sometimes the parents trusted him a bit too much.

So the teenager herds us kids together and states his plan.

We are going to build a tree house. And not in just any tree, but in one of the towering pines – one of the unclimbable giants, those ones with no limbs for at least twenty feet up, covered in rough and scaly bark. And this particular giant is unusually devoid of limbs at the lower levels; we are going to have to haul that sheet of plywood to a span of branches over thirty feet in the air.

Us kids are dumbfounded as we eyeball this tree. It seems to rise on forever; too wide to get our arms around, not the first hand grip or footing anywhere, unless you count the crevasses of the friable bark, which gives way beneath the least amount of weight, or a clawed finger’s pressure. We look at him; he looks at us, and says, “Come on, let’s go get that sheet”.

So we all go over to his yard, and it takes a half dozen of us, huffing and puffing, to drag the thing along. The teenager has the front end, he’s lifted it off the ground, making our jobs somewhat easier – but this thing is heavy! I know my doubts grew with each step; me being only eight years old. The pine tree seems to grow right before my eyes, reaching unscalable heights. “How are we going to get this thing up there?” I silently wonder, running my eyes up and down the tree’s formidable length and eyeing the fork above. But as it turns out, the teenager has a plan.

“Ya’ll wait right here,” he says, also scrutinizing the tree and our small group. He can see our doubts, hear our whispered words. “I’ll be right back.”

So he goes into his yard, back into their barn, and disappears for awhile. Us kids, we approach the tree, trying to scale it – wrapping our arms around it’s girth, but we can only reach a third of the way around. We try to climb it, like rats trying to climb a slippery pole, but it’s obvious to us; something we’ve always known: these forest giants are indomitable; you aren’t going to get up one easily, especially not this one. The only one in the neighborhood that we’ve ever managed to climb is one across the road, in the front yard of our neighbor’s house, due to its unusually low pitched branches. And even then, it almost took one kid’s eye out when he had tumbled down. But there was nothing like being able to get there, all the way to the top – eighty some odd feet in the air, the tree softly swaying – suspended between the ground and the sky. To be able to manage to climb this one – I wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. The idea of having this platform in the sky, in my own back yard, seeing far and wide – it was too appealing to me, and to the teenager as well, I reckon.

Eventually the teenager comes back, with a pocket of nails, some boards – and a long, long rope. Going up to the tree, he begins to nail the boards on, forming a ladder. Up and up he goes, coming back down between boards to get more boards, nailing them on, one at a time. Us kids crane our necks, watching as he climbs higher and higher. Finally he reaches the outspread limbs, and throwing the rope over one, drops both ends to the ground. He climbs down and looks at us. I look at his ‘ladder’ as he takes one end of the rope and ties it around the sheet of plywood. The boards are almost haphazardly nailed on.

“Okay, I’m going to pull the rope,” he says, propping the plywood against the tree. “You kids are going to have to help me.”

So we all get on the end of the rope, and we pull. The ply sheet rises a few feet. We pull. The ply sheet rises a bit more. We keep on pulling – but eventually we can make no more progress. The ply sheet is catching on the ladder, snagging on the bark, and we are all gasping, hands raw from the rope, muscles sore from the constant pulling. It’s hot; the sun has come up full, it’s midday by now, and we’ve only managed to get that board about fifteen feet in the air.

“All right,” the teenager says, staying the rope with his body. “Ya’ll are gonna have to climb up there; help me lift this thing.”

And so we do. Like a swarm of ants we attack the tree, climbing up the rungs of the ladder. Some of us get above the board, others get down under. There are about six of us kids, up in the tree, and we begin to try again.

It was a Titan struggle; a case of many little Davids against a huge Goliath. Those above pulled and kept the board from catching onto the tree, those beneath lifted it with our shoulders, those on the side grasped and tugged with their free hands. So many times we almost fell! I remember almost toppling away, laughing at my brother, watching his legs tremble from exhaustion beneath the board’s weight; his embarrassed anger as he looked down and snarled at me. I had never seen muscles quiver that way, but it goes to show how hard this task was. By the time we got the board up to the branches, my own shoulders and arms were trembling as well. It was hot and exhausting work, with chips of pine bark falling in our faces, covering our half-naked bodies. As always, we were in bare feet and cut-off shorts, but our bodies were toughened and inured to pain; scrapes and cuts and bruises weren’t going to faze us, not in our attempt to please this teenage friend of ours, the one we loved who ruled us.

It was with great difficulty and peril that we finally got that board up there and balanced it across those outspread branches. Climbing out on one limb, toes gripping the bark; delicately balancing thirty some odd feet above the ground, pulling that board – inch by inch – like determined little monkeys, intent on our task, we gave little thought to falling, except when we’d teeter near destruction. Finally we had the thing in its proper place, according to the teenager’s instructions, and he climbed up, nails in his pocket, hammer in his hand, and secured the thing to the branches.

“Now we need to make some walls,” he announced, sitting up there with us puffing kids. “To make sure none of you fall off.” Those walls, I was to discover, were to hide another activity, but that is for another time.

So he goes down and gets some odds and ends of plywood – again from that mysterious barn – and brings them over. Like ants once again, we go up and down the ramshackle rungs of the ladder, bearing our burdens, while the teenager sits above, nailing them into place.

And then finally, suddenly it seemed: we were done. The afternoon sun, already dropping down towards the horizon, shown across our new creation. From the ground I could see it – small as a postage stamp way up there – a small boxy construction, with walls that were only knee high. It was the best we could do with the wood we had, wood being such a precious thing – but it looked like . . . well, it looked unlike any tree house I had ever seen before, or have seen since. In my grownup’s eye it resembles something more like a deer hunter’s stand, with those low walls and wide platform. You couldn’t lean against the walls; they were nailed onto the sides of the platform, the nails driven into the edges of the plywood. If you leaned against them too hard, they would simply give way and send you tumbling down. But they were there, and it was there, and we were all quite proud of ourselves, even if at the time we were too exhausted, dirty and sore to take much joy in our creation. That would come later, the next day, when we would start using this thing.

It was about supper time, for about that time – before we could climb up to enjoy our creation, my mom called us in. After she squirted us off with the garden hose we went inside, our minds full of dreams, our imaginations in the sky.

That fort would become the neighborhood attraction. Not all kids were allowed to go up there; many mothers rated the climb ‘too risky’. But my own mom, in her own way, was proud of us boys as well, for she let us go up there any time of day, and often my best friend and I would go up there to ‘do things’. What kinds of things I won’t say, not here, but this I do know:

It was the hardest work, the hardest job, that the teenager had ever assigned us. It wore out us slaves, the teenager’s servants, building that island in the sky. And today I know: I would of never let my own kids take such a risk, not in that tree, not doing those things. But at the time it was a wonderful thing.

Odd how times change. Or how we’ve changed.

I don’t think we ever considered the risk at all.