This afternoon while I was inspecting a cherry tree that is about to burst into blossom, with my neighbor and good friend, word arrived that the wife of my oldest friend died last night. I have known her for 65 years. Her journey to the West is now complete. My own journey, for reasons I cannot fathom, continues its erratic and inevitable path.
My first couple of years at the University were so chaotic and mostly unpleasant that I do not recall very well everything that happened, or the precise sequence of events. I know that the first year was taken up with courses that were required: English 101, American History, Zoology, and some Physical Science course that was basically designed for Dummies who didn’t really want to take science courses, and, of course, the ROTC requirement that I could always depend on for an “F.” I think I took an Introduction to Sociology course that spent most of the time on the question of race, and I dimly remember maybe taking some kind of Art Appreciation course and something having to do with Literature. The grades I received in the courses I liked made up for my failures so I knew I would be able to return the following year.
That summer (1948) I returned home and worked as a laborer. I first worked for a contractor called “Hurry-up-Johnson.” He was nicknamed that for obvious reasons as time was, of course, money. My first day on the job required me to carry heavy bags of cement and load them on a truck. As I was thin (135 pounds), and not exceptionally strong, I thought I might perish before the morning ended. As it turned out that was the easiest part of the job. We were to build a cement foundation under an apartment house that had been raised up to make it possible. There were forms to take the cement all around the building and a 12” plank walk on which to wheel loads of mixed cement in wheelbarrows. To access this narrow walkway there was a narrow, fairly steep ramp. A wheelbarrow full of liquid cement is quite heavy, and very difficult to manage on a narrow plank. I managed for about two hours when I suddenly found I could no longer even lift the wheelbarrow. I was then put to the task of simply mixing cement which was much easier. When that job finished we moved on to an ordinary ditch-digging gig. As I was unused to such work, and not very big, I managed, but hardly distinguished myself as a ditch-digger when compared to my older, stronger, and more experienced co-workers. It became apparent to me that (1) I did not like this line of work, and (2) Hurry-up-Johnson didn’t think much of my performance. I quit after just a few days. My only positive remembrance of this job was when one of my co-workers threw a muddy rock at another, who ducked, thus causing the rock to accidentally hit Hurry-up in his white shirt right in the stomach.
My closest friend, Bill, was working for the Montana Power Company and managed to get me a job working with him. This was also basically a laboring job but there were many different things to do that were not quite so difficult. I guess we were technically known as “Grunts,” assistants to Linemen who climbed the poles and such. We stayed on the ground and sent things up to the Lineman as requested. For a time I worked with a Lineman who had a harelip and whose diction was less than perfect. If I made a mistake and sent up the wrong thing he would throw it back down at me, cursing in some strange language of his own. He was a nice enough guy otherwise and taught me to climb the poles with the “spurs” they used, although I never got to be very good at it. Then I got to work with Bill under the supervision of a kindly old Swede Foreman. Whenever something went wrong or broke he would say, “vat do ve care, ve don’t own it.” This did not make work much easier, however. Once we had to clean out some huge transmission containers. This involved getting down inside them in a narrow space and cleaning them with gasoline. I am absolutely positive this would not be allowed today and we both almost passed out before finishing. Our next job was to move some “stubs” up a power line to reinforce the existing poles. This was really a job for horses but the terrain was so steep and rocky that would have been impossible. These stubs were heavy and could not be carried, so we had a gadget that would hook onto them, sort of like a giant pair of ice tongs, and then, with one of us on each side, we would drag them up the mountain, just like a team of horses (I don’t remember what this tool was called). This was not easy, but compared to the next job, it was breeze. The power line went up a very steep mountainside in Burke Canyon. Some of the crossbars on the poles had to be replaced. This was long before the ready availability of helicopters, which meant that we had to carry them up, one on each shoulder. They were heavy and awkward to carry. I recall throwing them down every little way and threatening to quit on the spot. But with Bill’s encouragement (he was a bit bigger and stronger) we finally managed. I was beginning to understand the benefits of a University education.
Every day after work Bill and I would stop at Babe and Jim’s for drink and a snack. We couldn’t drink beer but we were allowed to sit in the bar and have cokes or whatever. And everyday Babe would hear me complaining about the rigors of my employment. One afternoon he suggested I work for him as a bartender. He needed a bartender and for some reason thought I would suffice. Of course I wasn’t old enough to tend bar, but everyone knew me and no one seemed to care. This was a lifesaver as far as I was concerned. I eagerly accepted. This simple decision came to play an important role in my life.