An Education Second to None


My birth family what is referred to as land poor. We had a big house surrounded by a number of acres of both open fields and wooded areas. My family ancestry shows we were the second family to settle Andover, Massachusetts, which today is call North Andover after an 1855 split. For the most part we were farmers, sometimes minutemen, then factory owner and by the 20th century men who commuted to Boston to work.

 

My mother and father met by an arrangement between friends and it was probably love at first sight for both of them. Unfortunately, I never asked that question, but I know my mother adored my father and my father deeply loved her. I thought I had the most perfect parents any kid could want. It never occurred to me that relative to everyone else who lived in our neighborhood, we were quite poor. Each of my parents worked hard and my sister, brother and I were well taken care of. That gave us the illusion that all was well. And in general, it was, but I now know that my parents struggled mightily to keep things together.
I found out when I asked my parents for my first bicycle that the ability to afford things was rather restrictive. The bike they found cost $10, a large sum in the later 1950s. It was well-used, but I managed to get many many miles out of it before it literally fell apart.
I believe I was about six years old when a neighbor kid asked me if I wanted to make 25 cents shoveling snow. Now in those days, in my mind, 25 cents translated into 5 candy bars. My parents could not afford to give any of us an allowance, so I was introduced to getting what I wanted via work. Much of this early work was what I was already doing around my house, taking out the trash, shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and raking leaves. In those days we could burn a pile of leaves alongside the road. In the country-side one of the harbingers of fall was the smell of burning leaves in the air. It was everywhere and something I miss.
The lady for whom I shoveled snow I offered my services of mowing her lawn which she accepted along with taking care of her flowers. My business spread to other people in the neighborhood and I always had money in my pocket at lease briefly. My weakness for chocolate what as great then as it is now and I saw no reason to resist. But I bought other things with my money, a wallet, a pair of boots, a speedometer for my bike and other things.
When I turned 12 I was old enough to work a paper route for the Lawrence Eagle Tribune. My first route was rather lengthy, but I learned a lot. When it came time, each Thursday, to collect from each person the tidy sum of 42 cents for a week’s worth of newspapers. They were 7 cent a day, six days a week. The blue-collar and middle-class people would always give me 50 cents, an 8-cent tip, which I always appreciated. But the wealthy people always waited for their change with the exception of one man, Sam Rockwell, who was a wealthy Boston banker and as kind a person a you could know.
At age 14 and 15 I work on a vegetable farm about a mile from my house. For my 8 hours labor in the hot fields, I received the tidy sum of 3 dollars a day or 15 dollars a week that first summer. The next summer I got a raise to 5 dollars a day. Farms were then, and I expect now, exempt from paying minimum wage which at the time was $1.25 an hour. The farm was run by two Italian brothers and the fields were always filled with their parents and grandparents. I know at least one woman was in her 80s, and because she was widowed, she dressed completely in black every day regardless of how hot it got, and you never heard a single complaint. There were a number of these older women who were dressed in black. It was very hard labor, very demanding, and I got another lesson in work that I feel proud about.
When I turned 16 I knew I could find a job that paid better than the farm. As good fortune had it, there was a man who lived a very short distance from my house. This man I knew owned a mill in Lawrence. I had no idea what was made in the mill, but I went to his house and rang his bell. He answered the door and I introduced myself and told him what I was looking for. A 16-year-old does not recognize when he is properly impressing someone with his industry. Mr. Segal did not even give it a moment’s thought. He simply told me to show up at the mill office and there would be a job waiting for me. I had no idea that this job, though it lacked excitement, would give me a life lesson that I carry in my heart to this day. Mr. Segal’s mill was named Service Heel Company. His factor produced women’s shoe heels which when finished were shipped off to another company, actually several of them, who would use the heels we made to finish their shoes.
The mill was what used to be referred to as a sweat shop. That simply meant, people worked in a place that was hot and un-airconditioned in the summer and cold and poorly heated in the winter. The mill building itself, originally the George Kunhardt Mill, was built around 1890 and was part of the giant woolen industry in Lawrence. I would like to say that the people who I worked with ran the entire spectrum of a community but in truth it had one small sliver. Most of the people employed their had an 8th grade education, if that, and had worked the same job, in exactly the same location for 30 years or more. I know that for fact because I asked that question of several people there.
The thing with these people, almost without exception, is they were what was called “the salt of the earth.” If you worked there you were one of them and no one person was any better than another person.
I was a “floor boy” which meant I dragged boxes of unfinished heels to various stations where work was done on them. It being a union shop, I could work there for only 90 days without joining the union which was more than enough for me because it was only a summer job. Also, I was getting my $1.25 hourly wage which grossed me $50 a week, the most money I had ever earn. Those were the days that you had a time card which you had to punch in and out as you went. If you were one minute late you were docked 5 minutes of pay. That happened to me but a single time but that was enough for me to appreciate the idea of being somewhere on time.
The floor supervisor was a big man named Tony who had now problem rolling out his prejudices. Probably during my first week he took me to the rear of the shop and point out the window to the mill next to us. He said, “that’s where the spics work” and told me I had better not associate with them. In the early 1960s Lawrence already had a sizeable Puerto Rican community which some people like Tony could not tolerate for reason that make no sense. Ironically, I found none of that with the people who worked the stations in the shop. They were kind and very helpful. I got absolutely no training upon my arrival there and of course was quite lost with how to find what was needs and how to tell where I should be taking these boxes. It was the people who needed the boxes who train me of where to find things and how to get them to where they needed to be. They also made me aware that occasionally time sensitive heels would come through and I needed to be on the look out for them and drag the as soon as I saw them to the proper station. By the way, I actually had a metal rod with a hook on the end to drag these boxes around.
One of the stations was in a second building separated by a hallway and a large steel door. This was the paint shop where certain heels were spray painted. OSHA did not exist at that time and the man who worked the shop, alone, only had a face mask to protect him from the paint fumes. He did not have the oxygen mask that would be used today. I don’t know what, if anything, ever happened to him but considering the noxious fumes he inhaled, it is difficult to believe he was not damaged in some manner. But such were the mills back then.
I really do not remember the names of the people who worked there, some were but a few years older than me and others were easily old enough to be my grandparents. But to a person they were not but kind and considerate of me. I never heard them complain about anything. There was a level of respect between employees that was exemplary. I learned the life lesson of not judging people by their station in life. Rather look at the character of the person and you will know who you are dealing with. These people were of the best character.
The next summer I got a job at Raytheon Company in Shawsheen, MA, a part of Andover MA. I believe my basic title was clerk. I worked on the 9th floor of a 10-story building where there built radar systems to the US Army. I did not have a security clearance which occasionally got in the way of my job. The floor I worked on was concerned with completed radar components being properly finished and tested. It was the quality assurance section.
The job site, as opposed to the previous one, did employ a large spectrum of people. But there was something amiss with this group. There was lots of prejudice and angst between the various groups. People who worked in the metal shops and fabrication shops were looked down upon by those in the engineering department of which I was a part. Worse, this shop was also a union shop which had recently gone on strike. A number of men crossed the lines and of course became “scabs.” I had the bad manners to sit down and each lunch with one of the scabs and was told if I did that again I would be treated as he was, poorly. I hated that because I have never thought ostracizing anyone served any useful purpose.
I encounter one other type of prejudice quite unexpectedly. There was a young lady who I worked with, we both worked out of the same office but had different jobs but were otherwise equals. I found I that I was making 5-cents more than she because of my gender. I knew even than that that was wrong. I remember thinking that she had told me things about herself the left me believing that if anyone should be make more money it was her. It had to do with her background, but I do not remember exactly what.
I was glad to leave that job at the end of the summer. They offered me a full-time position with the added incentive of paying for my college education which I was starting that September. I turned down their offer, it was not a place I wanted to work.
And so there you have the first 18 years of my life and the informal, though extremely useful, education I received along the way. If you consider that I started work at the age of 6, I worked continuously for 52 years before I retired. I learned new things each of those 52 years but the best education I received were those years for age 6 to 18. They served me well and I am grateful for every person along the way who took a moment to show me something that was useful. God bless them all.

 

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