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September, 2016

First Seven Jobs

by Larry

For some odd reason, a large number of folks have recently gotten onto a "First Seven Jobs" bandwagon, tweeting and writing in various venues about their early employments. Such lists can be fairly interesting. Counting only those that would involve full-time work, here are my first seven positions after leaving home:

1. Grocery Clerk for Krueger's in Austin - Learned to operate a cash register, carry out folks' sacked items, stock and inventory the shelves, check in new truckloads of merchandise, prepare and put out the produce, mark the prices, and clean up the messes.

A funny thing happened one day while I was the produce guy there in the fall of 1962. Tensions were higher than usual because of the Cuban missile crisis. President Jack Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev had more or less threatened each other with war if newly discovered Russian nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba were not removed. After Kennedy had addressed the nation about the situation, there was general awareness that if nearby Russian vessels tried to run a blockade our navy had set up to prevent further missile related materials and personnel entering Cuba, an exchange of atomic weapons between Russia and the U.S. might soon follow. Most everyone was on edge.

After I had been working that day for a half-hour or so in the cooler vault, getting a cart-load of produce ready for display, I came out to find nobody in the store with little traffic on the adjacent roadway and all of it heading out of town. A Civil Defense siren was also blaring loudly.

I went back into the thick vault and stayed for awhile, figuring it was the safest place to be if we were about to get a big blast. Of course, it was just a coincidence that no customers had then been in the store. The cashier had been outside because he had carried a load of groceries for the last person shopping. The siren was simply being routinely tested.

2. University Co-op Shipping/Receiving Clerk in Austin - Also worked in Austin, Berkeley, and San Francisco variously as a bookstore stocker, cashier, mail order clerk, and assistant manager. In those days I was very fast with a cash register. This came in handy when there were long lines of students waiting to buy their new or used textbooks at the beginning of each University of Texas semester. Summer, though, was more a slack time. I was one of only two checking out the students in our department then. The register we shared began to consistently come up short when the cash register tape was compared with the cash in the drawer. Eventually the other fellow was caught and fired. He had been slipping a ten into his pocket each day. Am not saying I was Mister Perfect Employee. Later, when a part-timer at 7-Eleven, I was a serious worker but occasionally had an ice cream sandwich at company expense.

3. Self-Employed Yardman in Austin - This was not the best kind of work for me, for I am susceptible to skin cancer, easily aggravated by exposure to the sun. Nonetheless, there is a certain satisfaction in both the physical exertion involved and the sense of accomplishment as lawns with high grass and weeds are once more brought to states of orderly control. There was and likely still is an abundance of such employment available.

On the other hand, there are a surprising assortment of potential setbacks. One's employee, for instance, might not be as exacting as oneself, nor readily prompted to change. No doubt there is much to be said for the supervisor (me, in this case) not being a perfectionist, but when there are ten more yards to complete in a short period may not be the best opportunity for learning this lesson.

Even without personnel problems, there might be a month with more rainy days than dry, when it is not possible to stay caught up on the then rapidly growing grass to be cut. One's first and second mower might also both go out in rapid succession, the truck might require maintenance at just the wrong time, or one's back could develop a severe lower spine pain from merely lifting a log or big rock. And then there were the days or weeks when not just routine difficulties arose, but everything seemed to go to heck. In retrospect, these challenges can seem comic. At the time, not so much.

Once when I had more work than I could handle myself I hired one of my younger brothers to assist. Unlike the fellow referred to above, he was terrific. He was an eager, enthusiastic worker and stronger than I. What happened, though, was not his fault and could just as readily have occurred with me. We started a big job early in the morning. It involved moving certain shrubs from the front to a better location in back, filling in the holes, then mowing and edging the large yard. Just as we got started, the couple rushed off with their young daughter for the hospital. The property was adjacent to an undeveloped greenbelt area, and, moments before, the little girl had been bitten in the backyard by a rattlesnake.

As we got started after they had gone, my brother took our pick and swung it to begin digging up the shrubs. With his first swing, he punctured a sprinkler system pipe. A small geyser immediately appeared. I began using the gasoline-powered edger shortly afterward, and its blade fired a stone into my truck's windshield, cracking it. A full day's pay went to fixing the plumbing problem alone. We did have a sort of victory for the couple that hired us. While we were mowing in the backyard, the machine's whirring blades loudly dispatched the till then not noticed rattler.

A couple days later, tired and returning after dark to my apartment building, I misjudged the clearance between vehicles and with the front of my truck put a large dent into the side of a car. After most of a summer of such employment and once my overhead were taken into account, it seemed wise to find a different type occupation, let someone else be the boss, and work for him or her instead.

4. State Hospital Ward Attendant in Austin - Worked the graveyard shift (11 PM - 7 AM) on a locked mental ward that also was for unfortunate folks who had severe physical ailments or disabilities. There were usually two of us for about 30 patients, but my partner would sometimes arrive too drunk to do his shift. On an active night, we would need to check-in new patients or, occasionally, wheel dead ones down to the basement morgue. After frequently several decades of institutionalization and patients getting heavy drugs for psychosis, there was not much room left for personality. Who needs Purgatory when there could be places like this? Without even trying, I lost about 20 pounds while working there. In the basement of the building where I did my shift a display of brains was kept, and I was allowed to examine them when we would take another gurney and body down.

5. Window Clerk, University of California at Berkeley Station, U.S. Post Office - This was a really pleasant job serving an interesting public, including foreign and domestic students, college staff, local business people, etc., folks needing all the usual sorts of postal services. In those days before automation, I was given a cash drawer and a key. The amount was inventoried by me and my supervisor before I started on day one and signed off on by me and him. I was responsible for what was in the drawer. Several months later and after hundreds of transactions, we repeated this process on my last day. I was 11 cents off and so paid my boss the difference.

6. Quality Control Inspector, Colgate Palmolive plant, Oakland - Tasted toothpaste, smelled detergent, checked 11 assembly lines at several points in the packaging process, took samples, and did analyses in the lab to help assure each product was within specs. My manager wore two hats, though, quality control and production, and had a slide-rule he loved to bring out if I stopped a line due to errors. He once told me the talcum powder we were accidentally putting into the toothpaste was only a small part of what would be going onto the shelves across the country and that a mere few thousands tubes of the stuff were within the limits allowed by the government, so I should let it go. There were few legitimate reasons, he felt, for stopping production. One, however, was if the gluing of the product packages were so badly affected that they would not make it to retail stores intact. One night on a double-shift I told a mechanic to shut down a line because the glue was not being properly spread, leaving hundreds of detergent packages open. He reached over with his screwdriver to twist a switch, shutting down the line. There was some kind of short, and I saw sparks fly. I am sure what happened next was just a bizarre coincidence, but at once all the power in the plant ceased flowing, and we were in darkness. It remained that way for several hours. Things were not restored to normal till the next day. A few people had cigarette lighters, so at length we got out to our cars safely and went home. None of the streetlights, stoplights, or any commercial business lights were working either. Later it turned out this was a widespread blackout through most of the Bay Area.

7. Manager, Jim Dandy Fried Chicken, Austin - The pay was not great for this gig, but we could eat all the fried chicken we wished, which turned out to be quite a bit. I really knew nothing at the time about managing a restaurant, so it was a fast learning curve experience. On one of my first mornings, I was greeted on arrival by a small flood because the grease trap had gotten clogged during the night. Not long afterward, the main evening cook did not show up on time, then came in too drunk to do her job, so I had to go back in to help out while one of my cashiers, who luckily also knew how to fry up the chicken and potatoes, took her place. Another time, one of the chicken vats had begun to smell bad. I diagnosed that it was either too old, had been left without refrigeration too long, or both. My area boss said to fry it up right away, just add extra salt and other flavorings, and sell it that way. Soon after that, two of the Jim Dandy eateries in another part of town were robbed the same night. There was extra nervousness for we thought it likely ours would be as well. It was not. When I went back to school in the fall, to belatedly finish my undergraduate degree, I was happy enough to leave that job behind, but long afterward I missed its daily ration of piping hot fried chicken.

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