Hard scrabble life; We survived it

Times are tough, no doubt about it. Jobs are scarce. That's why you have to scare them up. I've done that in spades--and with spades--for as long as I can remember. My first job was selling apples from our backyard tree. That worked out fine until my brother Russell and I started eating the apples--the good ones, anyway. 

I piled wood around the neighborhood and tossed sticks down to basements so folks could keep their furnaces stoked. I picked brock (today known as "weeds") for our family salads, lots of berries and did plenty of chores.

Later I sold magazine subscriptions door to door. Housewives often fell for my well manicured sales pitches and gooey eye-rolling routine, but their husbands were often wary, slipping me a nickel to take my act on down the road. But when I did make a sale, I was rolling in the dough. Enough to buy my first Daisy air rifle, anyway. 

When brother Albert brought home can after can of pork and beans from his CCC job, I flirted with the idea of selling any surplus--but they tasted so good that I had to keep them as samples.

Later, I delivered the News Telegram and Oregon Journal all over northeast Portland. It was a tough job, particularly on Sunday mornings when you had to get up at 4 a.m. Not having a bike, I had to carry the heavy papers on my back. But the job taught me how to be dependable and responsible, making sure all the papers got delivered and the money collected. From there I went to work in a fruit stand. The work was hard--lifting orange crates, carting boxes and whatnot--but I learned how to help and wait on people, enhancing my "people" skills.

If it could be sold, I sold it. Perfume door to door. I wasn't very good at it--maybe I needed a bath more than once a week. Flower seeds... I was a little better at that. Seeds represent hope--something that we all needed a shot of during the Great Depression. I was trying to earn money for a policeman's uniform from the Montgomery Ward catalogue.

After high school, I went to work for Meier and Frank Department store as a transfer boy, pushing a cart around the drug department, picking up bags of items people needed delivered to their homes. Women used to get mad at me when I snagged their stockings with the wooden handles of my cart. I got $60 a month for pushing that transfer cart down to the mail room. They made me mailman for the entire store, a job I held for six months. From there I ascended to the advertising department, where they tolerated me for a year.

At that time (1940), young men had the option of joining the army and carrying a wooden gun for two years or working in a defense-related industry. Boeing was hiring so I moved to Seattle. My first job there was as a mechanic, drilling holes in the airplane skin for the riveters to do their thing. I was there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, so Boeing deferred me for two years. 

I brought my bride-to-be, Lee Bower, up to Seattle, where she got a job at Best & Co. selling clothes. Nordstrom’s later bought the company.

While I was working at Boeing, I took a mail-order course in advertising, and also went to night school at the University of Washington. By then I was an electrician at Boeing, for which I had to go to electrical school in Renton. Habitual readers of this column are well acquainted with my previously documented electrical escapades and the exploits of "Arky and Sparky." 

As long as the war was on, Uncle Sam kept calling, so I kept on getting on the bus for the bi-annual trek to Fort Lewis. But Boeing said they needed me more, so I remained an electrician. Then wife Lee went to work at Boeing in the "Button Room," issuing badges for employees. 

Needless to say, we won the war, despite my propensity as a test electrician for burning up Boeing airplanes before they ever left the factory floor.

When the war was over, I was laid off, then re-hired as a forklift driver. I managed to convince myself (and those who hired me) that it was a skill I possessed. I actually did okay--didn't break too many things or run over too many people--until a hot summer day and gooey asphalt conspired to put a fork in the road for my forklifting career. I walked away from that job with the forklift hubs deep in that warm asphalt. 

My family was growing and so was the need to keep the little mouths fed. If a ditch needed digging I dug it. If a lawn needed seeding I sod it ("I came, I sod, I conquered.") If a barge needed toting I toted it. 

When a local merchant needed a window dresser, I offered my services. I had never actually dressed a window, of course; but how hard could it be? You wear socks and climb around on carpets. 

I once offered to frost a merchant’s window with beer. Unfortunately, the result was a barley recognizable, hoppy mess. 

But I was true to my company motto: "We create displays that sell!" Only my client, along with the $15 he paid me, changed my slogan to "We create displays that SMELL!"

From there I went to a shoe store in Renton, offering to do some store displays for Easter. My wife Lee went down in the woods behind our house near Sea Tac and picked a bunch of Pussy Willows. She drew up two big posters for their windows using the pussy willows for letters. We worked really hard until midnight. Needing a break we went across the street to a neighbor to share a cup of coffee. We left son Mike, who was three years old, alone in his bed. We were only 75 ft away.  Big mistake... When we got back, not only was he lying naked on the couch, with a mouthful of grapes grubbed from the fridge, he had torn all the pussy willows off the display. We were too tired to be mad. 

Those were difficult times then but I don’t remember it being tough. We did what we had to do. We survived. 

Next week: Part II of my World of Work Column--the Earl of Kent

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