Small World: Joining the world of work

 

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Not many more weeks before school is out for the summer. That used to mean — when I was in high school and college — time to find or start thinking up a summer job. Not that our bunch didn’t have jobs year around — using our red wagons to help ladies haul groceries home from the store (25 cents or so), cleaning out Dr. Cole’s pigeon coops (lemonade and cookies), cutting grass (depended on size) or painting the porch floor (family membership).

A summer job was different: You were on your own, independent and distant from the family or neighborhood. It was real work, the kind that helps define or shape your character. The attitudes and anecdotes experienced stick in memory more firmly than a season on the sports fields. More than just generating cash for diversions (albeit welcome), a summer job created a new kind of self-esteem. I expect that their inability to find a decent job drives many young folks in struggling countries to despair and violence. But, I wander into profound depths too soon.

My first hourly employment was with the Union Bag and Paper Corporation — the biggest plant in our town — turning harvested pine trees into pulp and then into paper products. My job was to operate with hands and feet a machine, which compressed batches of brown paper bags into neat, glue-wrapped packages. I was one of several hundred white men operating these machines. (African-Americans did other jobs as did white women). We were in a gigantic room and the noise was constant and deafening. To keep my mind engaged, I filled the eight hours reciting poems I had memorized. The foreman seeing my mouth work, but hearing nothing would come over and incline his ear toward me, seeing if I needed help. I was paid a basic wage plus a few pennies incentive for higher production.

Then came a job at the Westinghouse Supply warehouse helping Oscar, the African-American, who normally did all the work under the oversight of the dour white boss. Seventy-five cents an hour = decent pay. I learned from the patient and always helpful Oscar how to deal with steel conduits that had been baking in the sun and how to load and unload refrigerators and other kitchen appliances. There was one hazard: the warehouse was on Indian Street (site of the colonial era Yamacraw encampment). Now, it had become the locus of Indian Lil’s, Savannah’s most renowned house of ill repute. I passed it every day on my way to lunch at Morrison’s cafeteria. Once, avoiding a sudden downpour, I ducked in the doorway. Lil herself (I’m sure she was) invited me to join her at the bar. I often wonder what my life might have been like if I had accepted rather than getting drenched.

The following summer, jobs were rare as the nation suffered from a recession. My brother found work on a gang laying down asphalt and I joined him. One day under that broiling sun was enough. Instead, I filled in for a sick friend at Thom McAnn’s shoe store. The rules were rigid: nobody with bare feet got to try on shoes unless he bought a pair of socks. It was another incentive pay scheme: sell a “wild” pair (part died purple, part suede, etc.) and you earned a few cents more. I barely made bus fare and, when my time as a substitute was up, I spent the remaining weeks at the public library.

My final summer job before entering the Navy was back at the Union Bag serving as a maintenance man’s helper. That meant carrying his toolbox and running errands. But the pay was the best: $1.25/hour. Like my first factory job, it was shift work. I swore I would never, never work those nighttime hours again. (I had several years of them later in the Navy.) It was on one of those shifts that the most horrible incident of my summer employment happened. An African-American man fell into the uncovered steaming lye tank to die a frightening death before our helpless eyes. I watched the local paper to see how they would report it. They never did. That moved me toward premature radicalization.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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