Monday, October 24, 2005

Jobs, Great and Small

(Run originally 4/18/04 on our old site)

Ernie Simpson

The work ethic certainly has come full circle in some ways in our society and, although many believe luck has a lot to do with success, I believe the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Of course, everything I say here may be wrong, don’t forget.

In high school days, anywhere in the 50s, it was an accepted fact that school and jobs were what you did. This defined the essence of most kids, and brought many to the same level, not from the money earned or station in life, but from the togetherness that doing a job caused by just knowing you had paid your part to society by doing what was right by having a job.

Early on, I reached out for a “real” job: picking strawberries and chopping cotton were killers. Everyone should have to pick strawberries, and chop or pick cotton. That’s a real motivator to improve your place in life.

The old ladies who ran the Mayfair were both no-nonsense sisters and nieces, and not much smiling went on between them. I don’t know why I asked for the job, but it started first as a bellboy, then waiting tables. Most fun I had was recharging the fire extinguishers in the back parking lot: turn them upside down, and the little jar of acid inside reacted with the bicarbonate and, wow!, they could shoot fifty feet, at least.

Miss Phyllis Smith never called me Ernest, she always said, “Misto”… not mister, just misto, an abbreviation like, “I need you to carry these bags, Misto’.” She reminded me of a grumpy Olive Oyl, or a cheerful Mady Armstrong. I compare them because of her stride. I’d set on Grandma’s porch on Rock Branch Road, and watch as Mady and her dogs strode north, her with her long black dress, black shoes, black hat, and hiking pole. She had a five-foot stride, and covered ground like an old lady truly on a mission. Get there quick, and cut off some teen age girl’s shorts, I guess.

Soon tiring of the Mayfair, I asked Mr. Troy Haile about pumping gas at his station on the corner of Main and Race, and sure enough, pumping gas, doing windshields, checking the customer’s oil (“You’re ‘bout half a quart low, Mr. Baker”), and washing cars became a solid job. Conversations from customers went, “Gimme a dollar’s worth of regular.” It was truly a high roller who came in and said, “Fill ‘er up with high-test.” That’s premium, right?

I also learned the dangers of that work, when Mr. Haile had cleaned the inner part of a truck tire with solvent, probably gas and, when he put air in the tire (they took about 100 pounds of pressure, over 3 times what you put in your car tires today), the retaining rim on the wheel blew off, almost taking his arm. That arm was crippled the rest of his life. Lucky he wasn’t bending over the tire looking at it. The rim went almost telephone pole high.

Messed up once, though, with a little grit on the wash towel, and I rubbed a little too hard on this guy’s new ’55 Chevy coupe. We were able to get it out with polish, and the guy went away happy … thankfully.

I learned about customer service from Mr. Haile. His partner Spud Pearson, though, was the service station grinch, but that was fine, I liked him. Spud and Mr. Haile were a good balance.

A short summer job doing night clerk work at the Rose-Ann Motel was interesting. Mr. and Mrs. Morris were fine people, and my high school naiveté kept me out of trouble. Of course, that is a whole ‘nother story. The motel was new then, and one of few places besides the Mayfair to stay in Searcy.

Mr. K.K. (Deacon) King was one of the toughest we faced as a boss, for those who worked at the Rialto. He fired me at least twice. Don Boggs didn’t give me a clue as to what to expect when I started. Carolyn (Reed) Hill was a true friend, and could turn out popcorn that was unparalled in the movie business, before or since. When I worked the Sunday matinees, there were a few girls from Harding who always came to the door early, and asked to be let in the lobby, since they had walked from their dorm, skipping on Sunday afternoon quiet hours. They didn’t ride in cars, and they appreciated getting in the theatre early to avoid dorm supervisors who might see them out.

Black patrons entered the side door of the theatre and went upstairs. Those were the rules laid down by Mr. King. I often wished I could sit up there: I really think they had the best seats.

Bonnie and Clyde’s car came to Searcy in the mid fifties when I was working at the Rialto. It was making a tour on a flat bed truck. It parked in front of the Rialto, and everyone gawked, of course. It was a beige ’34 Ford, shot full of holes. It was a part of a promotion for a black and white movie about Bonnie and Clyde. Later, around 1995, I saw the car again at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. It was exactly as I remembered it. At that time, the car was on loan from the State Prison Museum at Huntsville.

The hardest, most physical job of them all was hauling hay. No quarter asked, no quarter given, and no prisoners taken. Dan Randle, Robin Moore, Norman Richards, sometimes George Payne. We started after the dew was off, about 10:00 A.M., and kept going until about 2:00 A.M. We averaged picking up and putting in the barns about one hundred bales an hour, typically. We were paid 5 cents a bale: a penny each for the team and a penny for the truck. We generally made $10-$12 a night each. That’s probably the toughest ten dollars I ever made for a day’s work. You had to avoid the snakes that were sometimes baled in the hay, too, especially if they stuck their head out while you were trying to lift the bale.

Summer jobs were enough to buy a couple pair of Levi’s from Morris and Son -- $4.75 a pair -- a little gas for the ’52 GMC and, maybe, take Elois to a movie once in a while, down at the Rialto.

Those jobs gave us all a sense of direction, good or ill, and set us on a good path, in my opinion. I wouldn’t trade the memory for anything … now. Then, however, some of those jobs were simply to be endured, your place in life for being a teen.

Tom Pry

Ernie, “premium” gas is what we call it today; then, we usually called the good stuff “Ethyl,” after the additive that determined octane, even though it was also in the “Regular,” just in lesser quantities. This was the brand name for “lead” that is supposedly not in gas today. If you wanted “lead-free,” you had to buy it at an Amoco station: they had the corner on that market – and charged a slightly higher price for it, too. It took a real sport to fork out that extra nickel a gallon for Ethyl™, although some of the cars of that day wouldn’t run well at all without it.

Of course, there were a lot of cars on the road that could’ve run on tractor fuel, which was a strange mixture of gas and kerosene (does anyone remember kerosene, or “coal oil”?)

I think most of the latter were driven by us.


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