Monday, December 26, 2011

A Life of Work, Part I

As I prepare for retirement, I've been thinking about my work life, looking back over the years since I was eleven or twelve and asked to do babysitting periodically for children in my dad's little congregation. I was born in 1942, so when I began my work-for-pay life, it was about 1954. It's now almost 2012 and that means that I have spent the last 58 years working at one thing or another. No fulltime work till I was out of college, but a combination of full-time school and part-time work is pretty significant.

So I'm planning to write a few posts about my work life over the years and what those jobs/careers were, what they meant to me, and the life lessons I received. As I reach the end of my work years, I'm gratified to see just how valuable these experiences were and how much I received from the effort I put in. I haven't always been a hard worker; in my early years, I sluffed off on the job, even got fired for that once. But overall I learned to work smarter, to do a good job without cutting corners but by being choosy about the kind of effort I made.

Those babysitting jobs were a chance for me to see how other people lived, to notice that other families had different books on their bookshelves than mine did. I used to love babysitting for the Nelsons----they had things like the Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on their shelves, books that were, as yet, unfamiliar to me. I would pore over them, not for their erudite wisdom but to see if it was true that they had slightly dirty parts. No dirty books on the Ketcham bookshelves! I didn't find much, but I kept looking! Pay for babysitting in those days was 25 to 50 cents an hour.

At church, my sister and I were asked to help wash communion glasses and tidy up after services; we got to experience one of the perks of being preacher's kids-----swilling the leftover grape juice and munching communion bread. No pay attached, just these benefits. At home, we were expected to clean our bedroom weekly, do dishes, set the table, babysit our brother; for this we received a small allowance which grew slightly larger on each birthday.

When I turned 13, my dad taught me to drive a stick shift and I was hired as a pea truck driver in the fields of eastern Oregon. It wasn't necessary to have a driver's license, as we were only able to drive in the fields, not on the highway. We were paid 85 cents to a dollar an hour for 12 hours of work daily during pea harvest. Our job was to haul peavines from the fields being harvested to the line of peaviners stationed at one end of the field. This job was the cool thing to do for teenage girls in Athena and we had a good time. We had plenty of downtime between trips, as we'd have to wait our turn to load and then wait to dump the load back at the viners. So I always had a book or a notebook with me to pass the time.

Once I had my driver's license, I was also able to drive a wheat truck. Wheat season followed pea harvest by a few weeks and the girls' job was to drive the threshed wheat kernels from the field to the grain elevator in town. We were paid about a dollar an hour for 12 hours a day of work. There were a few hazards working in harvest jobs: once my wheat truck caught fire and burned up; in the pea fields, there were occasionally rattlesnakes in the loads so we were careful when we got up in the load to goof around. Once or twice I worked the night shift in pea harvest, which was kind of eerie, as it was hard to tell where you were in the field; you had to watch for the dim lighting on the swathers and loaders to tell where to go to get your load. And it didn't feel as safe out there at night, working with transients and other unfamiliar folks.

Lessons learned? Everybody works, you do it because it needs to be done, it feels good to be useful, it feels good to earn a paycheck. And it's boring to sit around the house all summer and do nothing!


Robin Edgar said...

"We were paid 85 cents to a dollar an hour for 12 hours of work daily during pea harvest."

That sounds like pretty good money for that time period. Perhaps higher than many states' minimum wage today in terms of actual buying power back then.

ms. kitty said...

It was pretty standard pay. Our only gripe was that the boys who drove the swathers and loaders got a dollar an hour, while we pea truck drivers (all girls) only got 85 cents!

Robin Edgar said...

That is not a huge difference. Did the swathers and loaders require additional skills?

ms. kitty said...

To some extent, yes. Also, many of them had drivers' licenses, so they were a bit older. The assumption, we were told, was that if a girl's truck broke down, she would just wait for someone to come fix it rather than tinker with it herself, whereas the boys would see if they could fix their tractor or other equipment. It wasn't totally unfair, but we budding feminists fixated on the "girls get less"!