Working for 90 cents an hour
On winter evenings we skated on a nearby pond. We would light a roaring fire, let it burn to hot coals, then roast potatoes. We played hockey with rolled magazines under our pants’ legs to protect our shins, using a small round rock as a puck and larger stones to mark the goal.
But life wasn’t just one long delicious ski run followed by another high-spirited hockey game. I can barely remember a time from childhood on when I didn’t work, particularly in the summer, to save money for my future education. Shoveling snow, chopping wood, weeding gardens, mowing lawns, stacking grocery shelves, picking corn, putting up hay – I scarcely ever had a day off and never made more than 90 cents an hour. Those jobs seemed hard at the time, but none was as exhausting or as excruciating as the work I did in the summer of 1940, at 16, as an apprentice boilermaker repairing rusted-out railroad cars.
The boilermaker’s main task was to replace the floor plates or splash plates in coal cars and tank cars. In hundred-degree heat we worked with deafening rivet guns and red-hot rivets that sent up boiling clouds of steam when they came in contact with water in the cars. It was a sweltering, ear-splitting job.
I worked seven days a week, 10 hours each weekday, eight hours per day on weekends. I was paid maybe 90 cents an hour, and I allowed myself exactly one dollar a week to spend on soda pop (a nickel) and candy bars (also a nickel). The rest I saved for college.
But I was 16 and strong for my age. I even held another job simultaneously, as caretaker of the Sharon Tennis Club’s two clay courts. No money changed hands, but I had the right to play for free. Often on weekends I would play two or three ferocious sets with my best pal, Irv Post, after putting in eight hours at the car works first.
When our family later moved to North Conway, N.H., Irv visited during the summers and we worked as golf-course caddies at the Eastern Slopes Inn, a popular resort in North Conway that sometimes attracted celebrities. The most dazzling guest of them all was Yankee slugger Babe Ruth.
One day Irv and I were playing a fierce game of tennis and “The “Babe” himself sat down near the court and began cheering for me. Perhaps because I was shorter and my game was less polished than Irv’s, Ruth had picked me as an underdog worth rooting for. Irv was irked – so much so that he lost the match.
The next day Ruth was part of a foursome for which the two of us were caddying. The “Sultan of Swat” not only had a caddy to carry his golf bag but also a second one to pull a small wagon loaded with bottles of gin and tonic. We kids, firm abstainers when it came to “demon rum,” were disgusted by the great Babe’s pathetic slide into decadence. We both agreed that he was over the hill.