First job

April 9, 2011

You know that I adored my older brother Johnny. There were many reasons, but the primary and best reason was that he was nice to me. I can recall only a couple of occasions when one could suggest that Johnny had been mean to me, and being mean wasn’t what was happening.

Once he was dragging me around the basement by my wrists and, yeah, it hurt and I thought my shoulder joints were going to explode, but that activity was supposed to be a “ride.”  Not long after that he did hit me in the face with a shovel; that injury required that I have my eyebrow stitched back together. Because he is not here to explain himself, I will explain the dragging and shovel-to-face contact.

I was a pest. At 3, 4 and 5 years older than me, I thought my oldest siblings were the neatest things I had ever seen and wanted to be around them. I wanted to learn about everything they did and thought. I wanted to see where they went and with whom they spoke, and about what. They reacted to this mini-stalker behavior using methods I learned were to be their own habitual behaviors. Aunt Linda, the oldest, was gentle. She usually created some diversion in my mind to send me off in another direction, patted me on the head and left me chasing the interest-of-the-moment. When I looked up she and her friends would be gone, but my dignity and feelings would be intact. From Aunt Cindy I never knew what to expect. She could ignore me completely, say things so devastating that some of them are still bouncing around in the furthest reaches of my mind, or include my tomboy face in a makeover session and then try to “fix” makeup that she found outside the facial coloring lines, with spit.

Johnny would simply remove me, as evidenced in the dragging around the basement episode.

It would go something like this, “Want a ride?” he’d ask. “Sure!” I’d say. He would then give me a ride out of his way and often out of the room. By the time I was six or seven years old I did catch on to this, and would say I had somewhere else to be when Johnny offered rides. Despite the rides, I followed him around the most.

He was as horrified with the shovel incident as everyone else was that day. It was a scary accident on an otherwise wonderful day, and as usual, I had been standing too close to him.

We had been to the junkyard. Grandpa John, Grandma Beanie and all six of the kids (Uncle Dave had not yet been born) climbed into the Country Squire, faux wood side-paneled station wagon and went to a junkyard somewhere to find bricks. Grandma Beanie wanted a garden with a brick border constructed on the east side of the house. We were successful in our brick hunt, and with all of those little hands, it didn’t take long to collect enough bricks for the garden and haul them home. We were all very excited to do that job for Grandma Beanie.

Once home, we pulled weeds and sod away from the side of the house and Johnny used the shovel to level the soil around the perimeter of a nice-sized rectangle leading from the sidewalk at the side door to the southeast corner of the house. We stacked the bricks in neat rows around the rectangle and a garden emerged from the ground. We each had a mental picture of how pretty it would become when Grandma Beanie worked her magic. Flowers liked her. They liked to grow for her, and we were the beneficiaries of that beauty.

We were finished. With our young hands—the oldest of us was ten years old that day—we had created an amazing thing for our amazing mother. Although Grandpa John had actually done most of the real work we were quite pleased with ourselves, admiring our accomplishment. You can still admire our work; just walk out the side door of the house. Enclosing the side ground cover garden and sunk into the earth, the bricks are still there.

Johnny was swinging, back and forth, back and forth, the shovel he had used. And well, the rest of that was almost predictable. Grandma Beanie and I were off to the hospital while Grandpa John took care of the others who were looking a bit freaked out (head wounds bleeeeeed). But no malice, no aforethought could be ascribed to the incident during which my left eyebrow was split open with a shovel.

I got in a lick of my own once, in an accidental happening that I would never had done on purpose, just as Johnny would not have intentionally whapped me in the head with a shovel. It happened in a vacant residential lot, two lots down from our house. Though it was a simple weedy lot with a few scraggly mulberry and catalpa trees (we called them bean trees), it was a magical place for most of the neighborhood kids. It backed into two other empty pieces of land, equally weedy and wonderfully mysterious. We built forts in those lots. We burned stuff and smoked cigarettes. We were bad.

The big boys of the neighborhood, defined as being in their early teens, had built a special, hidden fort that took us little kids, defined as being pre-teen, almost two weeks to find. It was a six-foot hole in the ground that required two 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood to cover it, upon which the big boys shoveled dirt and then scattered weeds and leaves. It was probably fortunate that we little kids found it before the whole danged thing fell in on the big boys’ heads.

Once found, the secret fort had no magic, so it had to be destroyed. It had to be burned, as was our way. Into the hole went the plywood and anything nearby that looked as though it might burn. Someone brought marshmallows and we all had a ball toasting them and lighting them on fire, until Johnny lost control of his fiery marshmallow and, still aflame, it rolled down my arm. I was standing too close, once again. The marshmallow left a sticky white and black burning mess. I reacted without thinking and kicked Johnny away from me, directly into the burning pit. He stood flattened against the dirt side of the pit, arms out, hands clawing the dirt for dear life. He was just inches from the blaze. I was terrified for him.

The other big boys leapt into action, reaching down to grab Johnny’s hands and hoist him out of the pit. He was unhurt. I was burned and scared he would be furious with me, but he wasn’t. That was the way he was. It took a lot to get him mad. What a cool guy.

Johnny wasn’t kind only to me; the summer that he worked with the traveling carnival putting together the Tempest ride, he brought huge stuffed animal gifts to Linda, Cindy and me. For Linda he brought a red elephant, for Cindy, a pink and purple frog, and for me, an orange donkey. Yeah, he was a cool guy.

As we grew older I stopped following my older siblings in a fashion that resembled stalking, but I still admired Johnny and he seemed to have come to terms with it. He talked to me and showed me things, like his secret plans to build his very own catamaran. He demonstrated, and I followed, how to slide down the slimy, green algae-covered dam at the Isaac Walton League land that was our childhood hangout, on our feet. We landed in a deep, cold hole in the creek bed, created by the force of the water spilling over the dam. If our bodies and necks were intact upon landing, we had been successful. We had also been lucky. Many years later while I was dating Grandpa Frank I demonstrated the feat, pulling my feet out from under me at the last second and landing on my bottom in the dark hole at the base of the dam. Grandpa Frank tried to emulate but cut up his feet and legs, landing in an awkward tangle in the stream. He didn’t try that again.

Johnny taught me how to re-load shotgun shells and showed me how to dress and skin a rabbit, then a deer. I wasn’t allowed to handle a gun or hunt with the boys but I could handle a hunting knife and he showed me how to clean the shotgun. If he had lived longer, I bet he would have eventually taken me hunting. I would have worn him down.

The best I could do until Johnny saw the light and took me hunting was to follow in some of his footsteps. He was a patrol boy at school; I became a patrol girl. He was a boy scout; I was a girl scout. He was interested in camping; so was I. He didn’t have to show me how to love wildlife. I think that must have been the same gene switched on in both of us. We loved nature.

When I was eleven years old I wanted to follow Johnny to work at Mr. Aubrey Simmons’ leased farmland about three miles from home. Johnny, Chuckie and some of the other neighborhood boys picked corn and beans and brought them from the fields to the vegetable stand at the roadside. Mr. Simmons filled the rest of the stand with tomatoes, peppers and any other vegetables he grew in his large home garden, two doors down from our house. I thought this would be one of those instances when I was told that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, but Mr. Simmons was quite progressive. The boys worked the fields and he allowed me to work the roadside stand. The boys made 75¢ per hour for their physical labor and I was paid 5o¢ per hour to sell vegetables.

He was an old soul, our Mr. Simmons. The grooves in his face were cut as deeply and as surely by the passage of fluid as any in the Grand Canyon and as deeply stained, too. Though metals stained the rock of canyons, it was chewing tobacco that stained the deep grooves to either side of Mr. Simmons mouth. Dark brown rivulets dribbled as he chewed and spat, and once in a while he shared his lode, as he once did on Grandma Beanie’s arm.

Our house was located on the corner of a very quiet street and a relatively busy road, between two houses owned by members of the same family. Between their two families were 11 children and with our home boasting 7 children, we lived on quite a busy corner. The next home down from our neighbors on the quiet street belonged to our Mr. Aubrey Simmons and his wife, who were the parents of the matriarch in our next-door-neighbor’s home.

Between the four homes ran a short-cut path from the quiet street to the busy street, which took any of us to a grocery store, dry cleaner, bank, vet, church, school, and even a pizza place. The path was well traveled back and forth by members of all of the families, and one day it brought Mr. Simmons and his chewing tobacco, and Grandma Beanie and her laundry, to a head.

Grandma Beanie was hanging laundry on a line strung between two cast iron poles sunk deep into the earth and anchored with concrete somewhere below where we could never see, and their corresponding cross posts, which were common in that time. Also common were the bees and wasps that made homes in the ends of the cross posts, which were open-ended tubes awaiting infestation by something native to the area. The something native in Grandma Beanie’s cross posts were wasps, and one of them landed on her arm and stung her as she moved to hang a wet laundry item. As she recoiled from the sting, our Mr. Simmons was sauntering down the path between the houses and saw Grandma Beanie’s distress. He decided to help and approached her. Without a word, he removed the wad of chewing tobacco from his mouth and plopped it square on Grandma Beanie’s arm at the site of the sting. Mr. Simmons told her not to worry, the tobacco would draw out the stinger.

Grandma Beanie was no longer worried about the stinger or the sting. She was worried about keeping herself from retching, looking at the gooey mess that dripped brown juicy stuff from her arm to the ground. I don’t think she has yet recovered from our Mr. Simmons’ remedy for her wasp sting, but she no longer retches with the memory.

It was this colorful Mr. Simmons who picked us up from home in his ancient blue Ford pickup truck each morning at 6:00 a.m., shuttled us home for a couple of hours at lunchtime and then back to work, and finally dropped us at home shortly after 4:00 p.m. every week day during the peak of the summer harvest season. When we arrived at the farm I watched the Morning Glories snaking through the neighbor’s chain link fence slowly open their souls to the sun. Throughout the day I watched their slow retreat into spiraled tubes resting for the next morning’s glory, while intertwined Four O’Clocks began to display their afternoon regalia and perform self-perpetuating drops of wrinkly black seeds to the ground below. When the Four O’Clocks lifted their fully opened faces to the sun, it was time to go home.

Mr. Simmons knew the value of a dollar and the value of a day’s work. Every dollar he owned came from the sweat of his own brow, because if one shed sweat working for him, one could be certain that Mr. Simmons’ sweat was at least triple. He was a fair employer who worked well with children and taught us lessons that guide me to this day.

We were paid on Fridays. I loved being paid, but remember very little of what I did with any of the money. It would be fair to bet that a good portion of it went to purchases of David and Sons sunflower seeds and Reese’s peanut butter cups.

I do remember the payday ritual Mr. Simmons performed each week. We lined up outside the front door of his tiny house, awaiting our turn to enter while Mr. Simmons was seated in an armchair in the living room with a TV tray in front of him. On the tray were lists of work schedules written in a hand that only the elderly seem to produce, a stack of dollar bills and a metal box containing loose change. As each of us entered and sat with him, his wife would offer us something to drink. We would politely drink while Mr. Simmons reviewed our hours worked and he would usually say something about our work for the week. It was always positive. He would then pay us. One dollar at a time. And before he handed us each dollar, he would kiss it. He kissed it goodbye.

We laughed about Mr. Simmons’ payday quirkiness, but over the years as I recalled his tiny house and the hard work he did every day of his life, I saw his money kissing as the best lesson I ever encountered to convey the value of a dollar. It wasn’t just a dollar. It was something that I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to earn, and fortunate to have earned it from a man whose sweat was always at least triple to mine.

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