Thursday, April 29, 2010

Giants walked the earth in those days

I'm thinking about work. Specifically I'm thinking how lucky I was that I didn't end up crippled from trying to handle the 100 pound sacks of potatoes that Harry set me to unloading when I first started working for him at about 12 years old. Those potato sacks were stacked about head high to me. Fortunately there were only two ranks of them at the front of the truck, stacked bricks and mortar fashion. Some potatoes got bruised after I learned that there was no way I could handle those sacks on my shoulder the way I had seen Harry do. I tried the best I could to slow the descent of the higher stacked bags and ended up slowly dragging each to the end of the truck where I was again presented with a rank on bags almost head high once I climbed down. It took me several hours to unload probably thirty bags of potatoes.

Now that I'm thinking about this I'm realizing that I can't ever remember encountering hundred pound sacks of potatoes again. It just may be that Harry was getting old enough by then to doubt his ability to handle them. And it may be that he was paying attention to how I was unloading them; although I don't remember him checking on me. I've always thought I could easily have been dead under one of those sacks for most of a day before being discovered.

This came to mind again today, for I was thinking about it the other day in another context, because I'm listening to a Larry McMurtry book about Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley. McMurtry is skeptical about a lot of Buffalo Bill's yarns, such as his claim that he killed an Indian at eleven years old while defending himself during a raid on a cattle drive he was working; but he seems pretty certain that the man was telling the simple truth about starting work at eleven years old. And McMurty mentions that his father and his several uncles were all handling more or less full responsibility for work on his grandfather's ranch by eleven years old in the early 1900's.

One of the things Buffalo Bill certainly did at eleven years old, according to McMurtry, was to singlehandedly take a small herd of twenty or so cattle to an army outpost thirty five miles away from Leavenworth Kansas, presumably after he had proven himself reliable at delivering messages on mule back within several miles of town. And that was at a time, the 1860's, when there were still at least some untamed Indians still to be found in Kansas, if only in the form of occasional raiding parties from wilder regions west of there. I've been trying to put myself into the mind of an eleven year old responsible for those cattle during what had to be at least one overnight, knowing that there might well be Indians about, even if that was unlikely.

Giants walked the earth in former days.

The other day I was reviewing the various sorts of work I've done over the course of my life in the context of finishing up a stint at one of the more boring sorts of work I've ever endured. And I promised myself I would make a list, so here goes.

-Unloaded 100 pound sacks of potatoes from a truck, possibly the most dangerous job I've ever done if you discount jobs that have involved driving.
-Waited on customers at the fruit and produce market.
-Sorted endless tomatoes into greens, pinks and ripes, and resorted them again and again and again, after unloading a tractor trailer load of boxes of them. I still remember the ugh factor of encountering a rotten one, seemingly always by surprise. This may have been one of the more useful early jobs I ever did. You have to learn to achieve a sort of out of body zen state to mentally survive sorting tomatoes for 12 hours.
-Unloaded most of a tractor trailer load of watermelons over the course of two days between waiting on customers at the market. I did that before reading Chairman Mao's phrase, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
-Helped more or less at a paper mill on the night shift, when I wasn't napping in the bin of paper scraps because the regular workers didn't consider me much help. I took away and still retain amazement at the the balletic artistry the lead guy exhibited as he threaded the first run of pulp through the big machine's almost quarter mile long run of rollers. I also remember the size of the cockroaches down in the level under the machine, where mushy paper pulp was almost a foot deep, and where I had to go once because I dropped a tool down there.
-Machined endless strangely shaped fiberglass wheels with brass bushings whose purpose I still can't imagine. One of my jobs was to help the foreman muscle a 55 gallon drum of brass shavings into his pickup truck every few days. Evidently he could hide taking the brass; but he couldn't hide using one of the union guys to help him load them after the shift end.
-Did public opinion polling of Job Corps dropouts in the projects in Chicago. It was hard for that company to find literate people willing to put on a jacket and tie and walk into the projects to question Job Corps dropouts so the job paid what I thought was a pretty good hourly rate; but I didn't know the half of it at the beginning. It turned out that achieving two completed interviews was considered reasonable quota for a 40 hour week. My supervisor berated me for turning in five interviews with my 40 hour time sheet that first week, and she had me correct the error by filling out a second time sheet under a variant of my name. I never made that mistake again and I became much more efficient at getting interviews as I learned the ropes. That job ended up paying an effective hourly rate that was astronomical. But it did have associated expences. After the first week I paid a fraternity brother to drive me and keep the car running so he could help with a fast getaway if necessary or at least report my disappearance to the police. But I never had so much as a really scary encounter during the course of doing a hundred or so of those interviews.
-Counted shoppers emerging from a supermarket and noted how many bags of groceries they had. For quality control purposes I was part of a two man team with a fraternity brother. We customarily started the day with a gallon of wine in my car facing the entrance to a supermarket and we ended the day recording very suspect numbers; but the market research company loved our work. Put not your faith in data unless you gather it yourself.
-Chauffered for a very wealthy family. I learned about pecking orders since I was at the very bottom of the chauffer one since I drove a Chevy station wagon. The black guy at the top of that pecking order was responsible for one of those 1920's cars with the separate compartment for the chauffer, something out of a movie. Plus he had an actual uniform and hat. I say he was responsible for the car because he never actually seemed to drive it. He only dusted it with a soft cloth. His Mrs. Gotrocks employer never went out.

Well, that's enough for now. I haven't even gotten to the Navy yet. I'll think on this jobs business again.

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