At that time, the 1950’s and 1960’s, and in that place, a small town on the northern prairie, not having much money did not matter a great deal for my day-to-day life or for that of many other children in town, I believe. The range of wealth around us was fairly narrow if you measured it by the things I noticed. Our public school was better than average and everyone had access to the same education, which was basically a pretty good one, except for people who had learning disabilities, etc. They were SOL. It got weird when the school board laid off Mrs. Kenna, my French teacher and guidance counselor, and the principal, Mr. Peterson, filled in by teaching Norwegian instead, so the school could still claim they taught a foreign language. On the plus side the Norwegian classes let some of the kids communicate a little better with their grandparents. (I can remember the older farmers coming into town on Saturday mornings when I was a boy, speaking Norwegian to each other in the narrow lobby of the old post office building.) On the minus side, the swap meant losing two years of high school French, which was not so helpful to me when I was in college.
Sports programs during the school year did not cost families extra like they do today, nor did playing in the band, or participating in most other extra-curricular activities. I think that sports programs during the summer might have cost a little. The children of families who were better off did not dress much differently than we did, at least that I recall. They might have had new clothes a bit more often, but no one I knew went on elaborate vacations, and none of the kids got a new car when they turned 16 as happens now; old ones, sure. The wealthiest people around us were probably the well-to-do farmers, those with good land and manageable debt, and I think their cash flow went into land, silos, barns and equipment, rarely into lifestyle purchases beyond a new pickup truck, and snowmobiles. In any event going out of your way to appear superior to others was not, in this time and place, something anyone was ever supposed to do.
Still, I sensed there was a class structure in town, and as best as I could tell we were somewhere in the blue-collar middle. The professional people in town, the doctors that set up their practices and then moved on to larger towns and were replaced, the dentist, the banker (until he went to jail for embezzlement), the school superintendent and those who owned larger businesses were at the top. They drove newer cars, a few had lake homes that they went to on summer weekends, they played golf, and their kids had the neatest toys and new baseball gloves instead of hand-me-downs. There surely were people at the bottom of the scale, some of our neighbors were desperately impoverished, and then there were the rest of us. Looking back at things, I think my perception of golf as a hobby of the well to do was off base, and in reality, things were more egalitarian there than I felt they were; sometimes apparent barriers are taller in the mind for us than are real barriers.
The phrase, “We were poor but we didn’t know it” is widespread in our society, so common that it doesn’t appear to have a single origin. Certainly, that was our family situation, for me. We had a house, my father kept us fed and clothed, we saw the dentist and doctor regularly, we had musical instruments, and there were encyclopedias in the house for us to use, so we were not impoverished by any standard. With 7 children to raise, however, there was never much money around, no extra anyways – today we might say our family was “under-resourced.” It helped that my mother was an expert seamstress and made many of the clothes worn by my sisters as well as her own.
I only felt poor when my good shoes wore out. At the time children always had two sets of shoes – basketball type shoes that we called sneakers and wore for gym in the winter and most all of the time in the summertime, and leather shoes, our “good shoes,” to wear to church and to school, with or without rubber boots over them in the snow or rain. I think that God would have burned the sneakers off our feet if we’d worn those to church and I never tempted Her/Him to try; different times than now, for sure.
There came a point in the life cycle of a leather shoe when the threads holding on the sole were worn through and no longer held it in place. The sole would then come loose and flap, unattached from the toe back to the front of the heel. This was the time to mend it because if you didn’t, it snagged on the floor and made quite a bit of noise – “whap, whap, whap” as you walked from one class to the next. I don’t remember this happening to anyone but me, but that is the life of a teenager – you mostly think that embarrassing things only happen to you. Rubber bands could help the day the sole let go, but it sometimes could be weeks before new shoes were worked into the family budget. I experimented with all kinds of glue and contact cement to try to hold my soles on a little longer and while nothing ever worked for more than a few days, I became an expert on the use of household adhesives. I claim the position of household glue specialist to this day.
Thus, it was that my shoes, more than worn blue jeans, lunches or dinners of buttered macaroni, or spaghetti without sauce, or peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for supper towards the end of the month, or the barber telling me that my dad had to come by that week and pay something on account, were what pained me about not having enough money in our family, probably because it was so public and I was a teenager.
Allowance was an irregular event at our house. In my early years, through third or fourth grade as I recall, we were paid by our parents for getting good grades – a quarter for an A+, 20 cents for an A, 15 cents for an A-, 10 cents for a B+ and a nickel for a B. This was at a time when a bottle of pop cost a dime and a sugar cookie larger than your hand cost five cents. It was a tough pay scale, report cards came out only every 6 weeks, and it encouraged us to work hard at our homework and prepare well for tests because this was the only way to earn spending money at this young age. As time passed there was a regular allowance paid in some years, more for the older kids and less for the younger ones, and looking back, I suppose it came and went depending on the state of the family finances.
I had a variety of jobs growing up besides the seasonal work I did for my father at the cemetery that I’ve written about elsewhere. The earliest involved trapping pocket gophers in the fields near our home. These were true gophers as opposed to the 13-line ground squirrels, or chipmunks, that some people think of as gophers. Trapping was spring and summer work, mostly. Gopher traps were not baited, rather they were put underground in places gophers would step into them and be caught. I bought several wide mouth style gopher traps at Thysell’s hardware store and, coached by the older neighbor kids, learned how to find their tunnels and open them up, where the best place to set my traps was, and how to hide and stake them. Traps had to be tended in morning and in the late afternoon to see if any gophers had been caught. If the traps were persistently empty this would signal that it was time to move them to a better site, or leave them to see if another day or two would bring success.
If my trap was full and the gopher was alive it had to be dispatched on the spot with a stick or rock. If my trap was full and the gopher was dead, all the better. In either case, I cut the front legs off with my pocket knife in the field, or on a stump in the back yard, and brought them home. When I accumulated a half-dozen or so pairs I carried them down to the city clerk’s office and collected a bounty of 25 cents per set by telling her that I’d caught them inside the city limits, usually at Quam’s junkyard, at the opposite end of town from where we lived. She never questioned this which was very sweet; my first encounter with an acceptable bureaucratic fiction. Looking back on it I am surprised also that my mother let me keep a mason jar with gophers’ feet in her refrigerator, but I suppose by doing so she was being a good supporter of individual enterprise. I wonder what my brothers and sisters thought about them?
My least favorite job as a child was handling a Sunday morning paper route for the Minneapolis Star & Tribune which I began in the 5th or 6th grade. I kept it for about four years. This involved getting up very early on Sunday mornings, at 5:30 a.m. The Big Ben alarm clock would begin clanging, way too loudly, and I would instinctively throw myself out of bed onto the floor to search frantically for the clock, just to make the jangling stop. Experience taught me that unless I put the clock well out of reach when I went to bed, a full arm’s length under my bed, for example, or on a desk across the room, it was too easy for me to turn it off, fall back asleep and deliver the newspaper late, which would draw complaints. (This lesson was lost entirely when I got to college.) Once out of bed and dressed for the weather I walked to the far side of town, to the bus depot next to the highway where 2-3 bundles of papers were dropped off for me sometime in the middle of the night. I needed to remember to bring a pliers or a wire cutter with me to open the bundles, otherwise loosening up the bundle was sure to tear somebody’s Sunday paper. From the bus station, I made the rounds of my subscribers who lived to the west of 5th Street (someone else had the other half of town), pulling a 2-wheeled garden cart with a very squeaky wheel, usually getting back home by 7:00-7:15 a.m. There were so many ways people wanted to have their papers arrive at their homes – inside the storm door, on the porch, inside the garage, on the front seat of their car – that I’m sure finding the Sunday paper I had delivered devolved into a sort of treasure hunt for my customers on too many mornings.
Sometimes, if it was raining or snowing hard enough, my mother (never my father) would take pity on me, get up from bed and drive me around my paper route. This was rare, though. Trudging down the middle of the street before the snow plow had been out, pulling a wagon full of newspapers in the early darkness of a winter morning, -20-degree weather, with cold fingers and frostbite creeping into the toes, has always made office work look like a pretty soft deal in comparison, even if you throw in business travel. I did not enjoy going house to house collecting money from people every week or two but on reflection doing that and selling subscriptions to new households forced me to interact with adults and taught me some of the rewards of initiative and hard work. To this day, though, I hate the clanging sound of a Big Ben alarm clock!
Every kid in town who wanted to work had a job at the rodeo that came to town every 4th of July and I would suppose I did this for 4-5 years. Usually I sold drinks in the stands but sometimes there were other opportunities. One of my friends, Steve Wignes, had a dad who managed the creamery in town and getting to apply steam to cook a creamery can full of hot dogs was always fun.
My newspaper job kept me in spending money for the bowling alley, our social center, until about 9th grade when I gave it up and got a job tending chinchillas. I kept this job through my senior year in high school. A neighbor, Mr. Mock, was a rural mail carrier who worked with my dad. He raised chinchillas for their fur as a side business, and he needed someone to take over their care and cleaning when his sons left home for the army and for college. Chinchillas are ill-tempered, nasty little animals from the Andes Mountains in South America whose powder-soft grey fur is used to make fur coats. Mr. Mock had a couple hundred or so that needed to be fed and watered daily, and their cages had to be cleaned once a week. The animals were completely un-cuddly, smelled bad and peed on you if they got agitated. There wasn’t anything good about the work except the regular pay and the fact that it didn’t take that long to do it. I recruited my younger brothers, Scott and Eric, to help me and they took turns working with me for $5 of the $20 per week I was paid. I don’t recall if they volunteered to do this or whether I made them, but they never seemed that grateful to me. Half the work for a quarter of the pay. Lessons in exploitation. They must have needed the money, too.
The next job I had was as a lifeguard. The minimum age for the job was 16, so I had to wait until the summer before my senior year before starting work at a state park about 15 miles away, Buffalo River State Park. I worked here for three summers doing a wide variety of work in addition to lifeguarding. The two other non-management staff and I trimmed trees, mowed the grass, hauled garbage to the dump and picked up trash in the picnic and camp grounds (I drove the truck on park grounds even though I lacked a driver’s license). I scrubbed the floors in the changing rooms and cleaned the toilets in the rest rooms. When the park manager suspected that a contractor hadn’t installed a cast iron sewer line as required by his contract for park improvements we used shovels and pickaxes to hand dig a 6′ deep hole across the road to find out. (Sure enough, he had installed clay pipe, more likely to break.) When trees in the park blew down in a storm we cut them up with chain saws and hauled out the logs and branches. Lifeguarding was the easy part of my summer! I enjoyed it and especially liked checking out the girls who came to swim, and talking with some of them.
Most days I hitch-hiked to work. The highway was about a half-mile from the house so if I left our house about an hour before work I could get to the highway, catch a ride for the 15 miles to the park and walk the mile in from the highway to the park, and arrive on time. Occasionally someone who picked me up would go out of their way and take me in from the highway to the park gates but this was rare. I got home in the evening the same way. Sometimes our family had the use of an old pickup truck owned by the furniture store my dad worked at in the afternoon, and Mom would let me drive myself to the park, and I’d hitch-hike back to Hawley at the end of the work day. I can’t say that hitch-hiking was common then but it wasn’t unheard of. By and large, people were nice and helpful and at the time it didn’t seem like a dangerous thing for me to do. A couple of times I got picked up by strange characters but luckily never had any significant problems with them. Cars with teenage girls, pretending to stop, and then speeding away when I jogged up to get in, were the most annoying.
This job got me real paychecks, and I was able to begin saving money for college with them. I always took enough cash back at the bank when making a deposit, though, to buy myself a steak to cook when I got home.
The only other jobs I had before leaving for college involved working at the school for my Uncle Bob, and playing trombone in a resort’s bar. Uncle Bob, known by the rest of the town as, “Midge” or “Midget,” was the janitor and resident engineer at the junior and senior high school after my Grandpa Wicker retired from that job. During Christmas vacation, I would work for my uncle, mopping and waxing all the classroom floors in school and rearranging all the desks and chairs. It paid well and the spending money came in very handy. As for the bar, I played trombone in a small combo every Thursday night for three summers at a resort near Park Rapids, MN. As I recall we got use of the swimming pool, a free dinner, and $30 cash from the till. Maybe there was an occasional beer, too. I enjoyed the gig!
What lessons were learned from all this? It was just the usual, I think. Our family was short of funds but somehow my parents made things work. If I wanted my own money to spend the way I wanted, I had to work for it, and did. Luckily there were opportunities open to me. The people I worked for were respectful, had clear expectations of me and saw that I did what I was supposed to. Getting out in the wider world, interacting with strangers, doing everything from literally digging ditches to cleaning toilets while also taking on big responsibilities like lifeguarding, was good preparation for my future. Any work that lets you support yourself and your family without breaking the law truly is honorable. Work – it is what we are supposed to do! And, it was often fun. I was lucky to have these opportunities.