Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Early Career in Lewistown

Now that I’m retired my thoughts turn to all the jobs I had in my career. It wasn’t exactly a career, but I can list the start. I began working at the “Dash-Inn,” a local fast food place in Lewistown, Montana. My good friend Jack Barney and I were hired to pick up the waste paper and trash in the parking area and put it in the trash barrels. We were paid 25 cents each a day to perform that task which probably took us about 15 minutes. I don’t know how old I was then, I guess around ten years old. I soon got tired of the work and Jack took over the job alone making fifty cents a day.  (Jack was always better with money than me.)

Soon I was working in my dad’s grocery store. He was partners with my grandfather and they ran a store in town that was bigger than most, but smaller than the really big ones like Buttrey’s and Safeway. I started at a dollar a day. I would stock shelves, sweep the floor, and box groceries for customers. Soon that became my steady job. I worked weekdays after school until we closed at 6:30 PM and on Saturday from about 9:00 AM on. It was steady work, but not what I hoped to have as a career.

My grandma gave me $100 and co-signed for a loan for another $100 and I bought my first motorcycle, a mo-ped from Sears. I paid off the loan at $10 a month and was driving all over town until the cops threatened to take away the bike if I kept driving it without a license. I was only 14.

That's my grandpa there. It did snow a bit in Lewistown.

As soon as I turned 15, I got my driver’s license. That was the legal age in Montana in those days. Soon I was driving the store’s panel truck and making deliveries every day after school and twice on Saturdays. Now that was more like it. Our store had telephone delivery and charge accounts to set us apart from the other stores, and I loved hitting the road with the ’52 Chevy sedan delivery truck and double clutching into first gear.

I love to drive and I’ve always been good at it. I have only had two accidents in my whole life. Once was while driving my brother and sister and friends to school one very snowy morning. A guy stopped at the stop sign, and then pulled out in front of me. I t-boned him as the road was like a skating rink and I couldn’t stop. He tried to tell my dad that I was at fault because he had stopped, but my dad took my side and said, “stop signs mean stop and wait, not stop and go.”

My second accident was when I worked in Denver teaching at Electronics Technical Institute. I slowed down on the interstate due to traffic and the guy behind me rear ended me. So, in just short of 50 years of driving, only two accidents, and they were both the other guys fault. Now I did wreck a lot of motorcycles, but that was all off road and on race tracks and doesn’t count. Some day I’ll tell you about breaking my collar bone and the crazy ride to the hospital with my buddy Woody at the wheel. But let’s get back to jobs.

As I approached high school graduation I took on some other summer jobs. One summer I worked for Vitro Minerals company prospecting for gold in the Belt mountains near Lewistown. We had a Joy rock drill. It was self-propelled on tracks with air motor power from a giant compressor.

(It was not exactly like this picture. It had no cab or motor, and was powered by air from the compressor. You would walk behind it to drive and move it. Once in place it would drill down, and you would add 12 foot drill shafts as it bored into the ground. It was designed to drill blast holes into rock and was a common sight at road construction.)

We used it to drill up to 100 feet down into the ground and collect samples. I was the general go-fer and collected and bagged samples tagging them as to hole number and depth. These bags of dirt were sent off to assay and we were creating a profile of the claim. (I think it was this experience plus the geology professor I made friends with one summer when he lived at our motel … my dad also owned a motel .. that ended me up at Montana School of Mines studying geology instead of Montana State studying electronics. That was a mistake!)

I worked all summer at that job getting a good tan and collecting quite a good salary for a high school kid. By then my dad was paying me a dollar an hour rather than a dollar a day, and that was a pretty good wage in those days. Vitro paid me $2.50 an hour, and I was rich. Bought a car and had money left to buy gas … well, gas was a lot cheaper back then, only 25 cents a gallon … can you believe it?

 The next summer before college I got a job with the Bureau of Land Management fighting forest fires. I worked in the warehouse and drove trucks and station wagons to fire sites bringing food and supplies. We had these things called five gallon hot food and five gallon hot liquid containers. They were big tin cans that nested in two cardboard boxes for insulation. The hot food can had a big round lid like a paint can and the beverage can had a screw on lid. I would take these to little, small town restaurants, and order 200 eggs and ham with toast and 30 gallons of coffee. They’d fill up the cans and I would load them into the station wagon and head for the fire site to provide breakfast.

Once I was driving up north of Lewistown to a fire site on the Missouri river breaks. It was around mid-night and I had worked over twenty-four hours straight. I was driving, bleary eyed, down a deserted highway when I heard someone knocking on the roof of the car … bang, bang, bang. I completely freaked out. I pulled over, got out of the car, and looked on the roof — no-one there. I walked all around the car — no-one.

So I got back in and headed on down the road. Pretty soon, knock, knock again. I pulled over. This time I looked under the car, over the car, behind the car, in front of the car. I was about to open the hood when I noticed the mirrors. Now this was a U.S. Government vehicle and it was painted gray and had what we called “west coast” mirrors. Those are those big old mirrors you see on semi-truck and they let you see around a trailer that you might be hauling. Since this station wagon was set up as a utility vehicle, it had a water bag hanging off the mirror. These were big canvas bags and you kept water mostly to put in the radiator if needed. The wind had picked up the empty bag and banged it against the top of the station wagon and that was the noise i heard.

I was still pretty shook up and after the adrenaline wore off, I got sleepy. So I pulled into a bar that was open and went in and ordered a cup of coffee. Now this was Montana, and it was no big deal for an underage guy to be in a bar.  There was no problem getting served a cup of coffee. But, up to that point, I had never drank coffee. My mom was a big coffee drinker, but it had not appealed to me. So, I drank it down straight, black that is … no sugar … no cream. That’s the way I’ve drank it ever since. The Navy turned me into a real caffeine addict and I’ve worshiped that magic bean ever since.

Strange as it may seem,
I don’t take no cream,
I drink it just three ways
Hot, black and a lot.

Well I’m a freeze- dried flunky,
A pre-perked punky
A drip grind druggy
And a Maxwell House monkey.

It’s been years since I’ve left social drinkin’ behind.
If I want to get high, I hit the grounds,
But look out baby when I’m comin’ down.
This black magic livin’ ain’t bringin’ me no peace of mind.

That’s right folks. That was when I got my first taste of the delicious brew, and a child became a man that night. I’ve started every morning since with a cup or ten of that hot beverage that my baby pours. You people with your four packets of sugar and you ladies with your little pitcher of cream, you don’t know what I mean. I drink my coffee black and my whiskey straight, and my cigarettes don’t have no filter … wait, I digress … they were Luck Strikes — by-the-way.

The job with the BLM would of been a very good summer time job for a college student if I had lasted more than one year in college. But it was not to be. After flunking nearly every course I took at the Montana School of Mines … you know, it turns out that you have to study to succeed in college … or, at least, actually attend the lectures. Ah, my Freshman year, I learned so much, but none of it was taught in class.

100 year old — in 1965 — Engineering Building at Montana School of Mines, now referred to as Montana Tech of the University of Montana. A lot has changed over the years, but they're still using this building. They built to last in those days!

 So, there I was,flunked out of college, got the draft board breathing down my neck — seems there was some little conflict over in Vietnam that they wanted my input on. So what to do: “Well, I’m a lumber jack and I’m OK. I sleep at night and I work all day. …”

Yes, you know the rest of that song. No, I didn’t become a cross-dresser. I went down to White Sulphur Springs and got me a job in the lumber mill. I was “pullin’ on the green chain.” Me and some buddies, sorry, some buddies and I were working in the mill and living in this sort of motel like apartment. Seems there were about 10 or 20 of us there, never really counted all the heads. But that led to trouble and I was literally run out of town by the local sheriff after spending a night in his little old hotel.

Then things got to changing. My grandpa and grandma both died of heart attacks while I was away at school and so my dad sold the grocery store and motel and went to work for the F.A.A. as an air traffic controller. He was always big on aviation, flew his own plane, and had worked as a controller back when they were first married. I had lived in Alabama and Florida and even Casper, Wyoming as he transferred around. But, when I was about five years old, he left the F.A.A. and became partners with my granddad in Lewistown and that was where I lived until I was 19. He and the family then started moving from Lewistown to Great Falls to Livingston to Bozeman and finally out of Montana to Spokane, Washington. That is where he lived when I got out of the Navy, and I lived there for a year before moving to Colorado. My parents moved on to HIllsboro, Oregon, near Portland, shortly after that and that is where he finished his career and lives still.

B&B Motel

So I went with them to Great Falls and got a job with Anaconda Copper company working at the smelter in G.F. I enjoyed the work. I shoveled a lot of dirt and finally got promoted to driving a little electric train and haulin’ dirt. Eventually I left that job and drifted up to Libby, Montana where I wound up pulling on the green chain again. Many of my H.S. friends were up there, including Ron and Gary who we called “Toad,” never mind why. We had a little trailer and played music and rocked to the newly pressed “Sgt.  Peppers Band.” But, I didn’t get away from the long reach of the draft board. But, I fooled them. Before they could draft me, I enlisted. I tried the Air Force first, but didn’t get in. Remember that jail time in White Sulphur? Well, I had a checkered childhood and a few scrapes with the law. I was the kind of kid my folks didn’t want me to play with. So, the Air Force decided I wasn’t moral enough to drop bombs from planes, so I ended up in the Navy. I guess they weren’t so picky. I did see my records later and I got a waver from some admiral in Washington, D.C. that allowed me to enlist. Next thing you know I’m going to school and I’ve got a top secret security clearance. So the boy from Montana with the record gets certified legal to keep Uncle Sam’s secrets.

So there I was, in the Navy, for SIX YEARS! But it was a good time. I learned a lot, matured a lot, met some wonderful friends that I’m still in touch with and will see in September at our little reunion in Virginia Beach. It was the Navy that prepared me for the rest of my career, and I’ll save the rest of that story for another time.

This is the world famous "Wagon Wheel" from the Dash-Inn. It's a wonder to behold and delight to taste. It's made from two pieces of bread smashed with some sort of waffle iron like machine. If you're ever in Lewistown, get yourself one.

 Originally written April 6, 2011.

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