SUMMERTIME AND CHRISTMAS BREAK (AND THE LIVING WAS NOT ALWAYS EASY)

School is out and it is time to get to work. Fortunately we were usually able to find jobs if we were not too picky what kind of job. There were few, if any, rules about teenagers working, no age restrictions and thus freedom to work at any job you could get that someone thought you could do. We knew we needed a job, one that started the Monday following the ending of the school term. Our parents struggled to provide our board and room and the money we thought we needed  beyond that was our responsibility. Money for movies, after dance burgers and fries, letter sweaters and maybe some special clothing we thought we needed, had to come from what we could save over the summer and by working during the Christmas break.  We were not too choosy about the jobs we took and grabbed the first job we could find. Looking back, we worked very hard for the 40 or 50 cents an hour, or maybe less.

So, to set the stage for a couple of stories about the jobs I had as a teenager and during the summer while in college, I have provided a table (see below) of all the types of jobs involved. It seems quite a collection as I reflect on those times. To simplify I have classified the jobs as Good, Bad and Ugly. I will not try to describe every job in the lists in this short blog, but I will tell you a couple of stories about the job situation that existed for young folks in the 1950’s. I feel that this diverse collection of jobs was a vital part of my education about the world of that time, while growing up in a small town in Wyoming.  Lessons were learned, mistakes made and ideas about life’s goals changed while working on these jobs. It seems, reflecting today, that these wide ranges of experience, the disciplines learned, and the skills developed were a real privilege for those of us growing up in those days. We did not have our hands out for a gift, we just wanted the opportunity to work and earn our way, to hold our heads up high and say, “I did that” and if I can do that, I can do whatever I need to do in my life.

I was lucky for the most part to have mostly decent jobs. Things like digging a deep ditch, so deep we had to throw the dirt high in the air as we dug, are clearly on my Ugly list. We were lucky the ditch did not cave in on top of us as the soil we were digging in was not very stable.  So, for now I will tell a true story about an Ugly Job and another story about a Good Job. Those listed as Bad were mostly just hard jobs involving tough physical labor, but were not really that bad, just hard.

First I will relate the story of my very short career as a welder’s helper, clearly one of the really ugly jobs as it turned out and potentially very dangerous. This job was a fill-in between other jobs and was supposed to pay well. The welder I was supposed to be helping picked me up in his truck and we drove for about two hours to finally reach the top of a large hill between Lander and Rawlins. The site was an oil camp with some active wells. The welder’s job was to weld pieces of metal together, I have no idea for what purpose. My job was to hold the two pieces together so he could do the welding. We were working inside of a metal hut, so at best the light was dim. So all afternoon he welded and I held the pieces as instructed. The intense light from the welding seemed to grow more intense as the day wore on and I noticed that my eyes were beginning to hurt. BY SUPPERTIME I WAS BLIND!  All that time while the welding was going on I had tried to look away, but I could not hold the pieces together well if I could not look at them. NO EYE PROTECTION WHATSOEVER!  My eyes felt like someone had thrown sharp sand into them and that it had stayed there.  Well, the welder seemed to blame me, it was my fault. Now he would have to drive me back to Riverton to see an eye doctor and he would lose money and time in the process. In my mind I was calling him a host of bad names, but I knew I had to rely on him to get me back home. I had no idea if I was going to be blind the rest of my life. It was the most miserable night I can remember. We finally headed towards Riverton early the next morning.  Things were not much better by morning. A very  long and sullen trip did not help. We finally arrived in Riverton and my folks hurried me to the eye doctor. The doctor examined my eyes and proclaimed that I was lucky that I had not continued exposure to the welding flashes much longer or I might have sustained serious permanent damage. By late that afternoon I began to get some sight back. So, after some time my vision cleared up and the pain subsided. All in all a miserable experience and an unnecessary happening. Ugly Job in spades for sure!

I do not want to end this blog on such a sour note, but it does illustrate the way some people behaved in those days. The second job story I want to relate is taken from the Good list and clearly was the happiest and most fun job I had as a teenager. This job is listed as working for the Geological Survey whose local office was in the basement of the Post Office in Riverton. This group of Geological Survey engineers were working on issues related to irrigation practices in the area and the resulting runoff water that often had a high concentration of silt that ended up moving down the streams towards the new reservoir below. Boysen Dam had just recently been constructed to dam up the Wind River just before the canyon. The concern was that the muddy water runoff would fill up the reservoir over time. My job was to collect water samples at several locations along the creeks that emptied into the reservoir. I called it the “milk route”. Each morning I headed out some 20 miles from Riverton to go to each station along the creeks and collect my samples. My transportation was an older pickup truck. This job sounds boring, but it wasn’t really. I had lots of time to think and to enjoy the summer weather and to sometimes chase the pronghorn antelope down the dirt roads. Racing with antelope was especially fun when the young ones were running with their mothers, and can they ever run. I lost my brakes once and had a wild ride down a steep hill. But, all in all it was a fun job with no pressure as long as I could complete the “milk route” each day.

The routine of the “milk route” was broken by other events now and again. One of these is my favorite work story. One of the full-time staff was required to make the trip to Bull Lake Creek to measure the flow above the large reservoir. There was no access road to the river above the reservoir so to get there one had to hike a couple of miles on a trail that was mostly just a cow path. To get to the site of the measuring equipment it was a hike on a winding trail down a steep hill.  My job was to tag along with the professional as a safety measure, just in case one of us fell or was somehow injured there would be another person to hike out to get help. Once we arrived at the river, my job was done until it was time to hike back out again. So as I was taught as a Boy Scout to always be prepared, I had my fly rod and a small red and white daredevil spinner in hand and began casting in a likely spot hoping that some large rainbow would hit the spinner. BANG! A very large rainbow hit the spinner like a ton of bricks and proceeded to fight his way downstream. It was a struggle that lasted for about 15 minutes. To me a fight that seemed to last forever. The rainbow finally became tired and I was able to land it.  A trophy for sure at over 6 lbs even at the end of the day when it could be weighed.  I have never forgotten catching a trophy trout and getting paid for working at the same time. Talk about a boondoggle, well perhaps not too big  boondoggle anyway. All in all a wonderful part of a great summer job, the best I ever had.

PS  My career direction, that of choosing an education as a Civil Engineer, was greatly influenced by the example of those working for the Geological Survey. A group of seemingly happy people, dedicated to solving problems to benefit  people were a positive role model to a high school teenager trying to sort out the future. Ironically, the engineer-in-charge of the office in Riverton some 7 years later became a colleague at Colorado State University. 

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One thought on “SUMMERTIME AND CHRISTMAS BREAK (AND THE LIVING WAS NOT ALWAYS EASY)

  1. You’ve had a wonderful life, Jim, and you had a wonderful attitude for jobs as a teen. (Memories and part of your education, that nothing else can replace.). My favorite parts are racing the antelope and catching a 6 lb Rainbow Trout on work time!

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