When I was a child I worked for my father, a part time farmer in New Jersey who raised what today would be called market crops, which included strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, lima beans, okra, eggplant, cantaloupe and squash. All of the children helped in this enterprise, the older ones assisting my father in planting, cultivating, weeding and picking and the younger ones selling produce at our little roadside stand.
Dad had an enviable and uncommon attachment to the soil which I never completely shared. While I will ever remember the sweet smell of freshly turned soil from a spade or a plow, the smell of dew laden cornstalks and the sound of twisting off ears of sweet corn, the taste of a juicy freshly picked New Jersey tomato, or the sweetness of a strawberry right off the vine, my love of the soil and the gifts it gave was never like his. I can remember rebelling and telling him that I didn’t want to spend my life “planting lima beans eyes down”, that I wanted more from life.
My father also had a peculiar attitude about work. If someone was sweating and breathing hard, if they used their muscles, he admired them because they “knew how to work”. The nature of the “work” did not matter, nor the results, nor whom the work benefitted. To my Dad, moving pianos was honorable work, stacking bales of hay was great work, hoeing weeds in the hot sun was worthy work. I can remember clearly that one of my brothers, a successful building contractor, described an employee using the words “he can really work!” – a legacy from our father no doubt. Although I did work hard as a boy I don’t think that I ever earned any “he can really work” accolades from my father, although another brother always did.
But the ethic of work was nevertheless firmly established and I always thought I should be working. So I did – I worked at a wide variety of jobs before finally earning my degree and committing myself to a career in education. Although it was sometimes difficult to obtain work (I can’t begin to tell how many hundreds of applications I have filled out over the years), I always kept trying until someone called and offered me the job. Also, I look back on my work history before education with great pleasure – I worked with good people, learned to appreciate all kinds of work and learned skills that I have used all my life.
My first job (for real, regular money, unlike working for my father) was with Van Chesky’s Nursery, a place close to my home that I had traveled past many times as a child. Mr. Van Chesky was an old Dutchman whose rows of healthy and carefully tended shrubs, trees and flowers had earned a substantial market in central New Jersey. My job was hoeing weeds down these long rows of plants for 75 cents an hour, actually not too bad for a young kid of 16 years old. This was familiar work too, having done the same for my father for no pay for a long time. I really enjoyed the work and happily cashed my first paycheck of $30.00 in one dollar bills, so that I had a huge wad of money that made me feel very successful and powerful.
Another job I had later in high school was painting for a local gentleman who suffered from “shell shock”, called PTSD today, evidently caused by combat in World War II. Sid Johnston was a big man with a head of snow white hair whose malady caused a number of nervous mannerisms – sudden movements (very bad when cutting in windows!), emphatic and varied wheezing noises and a colorful vocabulary of curse words, which punctuated and flavored our workday. Sid also had a curious attitude toward Catholic nuns whom he evidently felt had extraordinary powers. On our drives to a job, if encountering some nuns crossing the street in front of us or strolling on the sidewalk in town, an explosion of wheezing accompanied by a stream of colorful invective would result, and he would be convinced that somehow he would have a bad day – spill a bucket of paint, fall from a ladder, have a flat tire or encounter some other terrible misfortune.
But I learned valuable painting skills from Sid Johnston that I use to this day, some 55 years later. And recalling the days of working with him as well as with several other friends that he also employed, notably Joseph Wenger, my best friend in high school and Jack Vorhees, an older, college age friend (our employment was somewhat sporadic, depending on the jobs Sid would obtain), gives me pleasure today. Sid was a strange caricature of a troubled and wounded man who nevertheless had a big heart and a generous and ready checkbook when the account was flush.
During my high school years I also worked, again with Jack Vorhees, for a painting contractor in Plainfield, New Jersey. The jobs we worked were a combination of exterior and interior painting in the Plainfield area. Two things I recall about our boss. First, many of his paychecks bounced, requiring frantic calls to him, new checks written, and repeated trips to the bank which finally put our earnings in our pockets. And secondly, this contractor faked paint quality to increase his bottom line. An elderly lady had wanted her house interior painted with what was then the premium interior latex paint – DuPont Lucite. Our boss bought the cheapest latex paint he could find and then had Jack and I pour it into empty DuPont Lucite cans which we then used to paint this lady’s rooms.
After I graduated from high school and returned to New Jersey from Ohio I obtained a summer job at a dye company in Plainfield, New Jersey. The name of the company escapes me now but it was a small place which mixed dyes to color products manufactured by a variety of other companies, I believe mostly paint and plastic companies. I and the other employees worked at benches where we prepared shipments consisting of whatever colors and quantities were ordered. The dyes were contained in metal barrels and employees prepared orders by weight. Since the dyes were strong and concentrated, the quantities were accordingly rather small, so colors were weighed out and placed in specially labeled paper bags for shipment. In retrospect, working in this place during pre-OSHA times was likely quite dangerous. I can remember blowing my nose after work and being amazed at the multi-colored mucous that appeared in the tissue. I should probably have been very thankful that this job was short lived.
During the summer of 1960 I worked at the Westinghouse plant on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey which at that time manufactured television sets. The position was an assembly line expeditor, a job whose function was to make sure required parts were on the assembly line so that the line did not slow down or stop. So it was my task to make sure that the proper coils, capacitors, condensers, circuit boards, connectors, wire bundles, cases, knobs and other parts were on the line and available to workers assembling the television sets as they moved down the production line. On several occasions the quality control department would reject certain lots of parts and I when I could not locate quantities of approved parts, I was surprised to be directed to get these on the line anyhow, simply to keep it going. I recall the plant being toured by a group of Japanese people and I couldn’t help but think they must be chuckling to themselves at Westinghouse’s production methods. And knowing that rejected parts were still going into these television sets certainly determined that I would never buy a Westinghouse television.
Later I worked at the Union Carbide plant in South Bound Brook, New Jersey. This plant had had the distinction in the early 1950’s of manufacturing an early plastic called Bakelite, which at the time because of its non-conductive properties was used for telephone casings and radio cabinets. It was also used in the manufacture of many household items and children’s toys. At that time the term “Bakelite” was often used as a generic term for any kind of plastic, in much the same way that the name “Frigidaire” was commonly used instead of “refrigerator”. At the time I worked at Union Carbide, the area of the plant in which I worked manufactured rolls of vinyl covered fabric material known then as “naugahyde”. My work was to assist in the mixing and dying of the vinyl and operate the machinery that heated, extruded and pressed the vinyl material onto the base textile material and wound it into huge rolls for shipping. This was the first job I ever had which required rotating shifts – successive weeks of days 8-4:30, then afternoon-evenings 4-12:30 and after the nightshift 12-8:30, back to days. Frankly I don’t know how people do this. Days and afternoons were fine, but the night shift killed me. I simply could not sleep soundly enough during the day to get ready for a shift starting at 12:00 midnight. It’s no wonder that it’s still commonly called the “graveyard shift”.
Recently I saw a documentary on Free Speech TV called “Plastic Planet” which mentioned a link between exposure to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the material I worked with at Union Carbide and Reynaud’s Disease, also called Reynaud’s Phenomenon, a malady which affects my fingers and hands when I am cold. The problem first appeared in my mid-thirties and it’s quite likely that it is caused by my time at Union Carbide. I am sure that today, federal regulations require protection for workers from this potentially harmful exposure, but unfortunately I do not recall being required to wear any protective clothing, masks or gloves at the time I worked there.
In the summer of 1961 I had finished my sophomore year at Rutgers and was deeply in debt to the fraternity that I had been invited to join that year. In spite of waiting tables, doing dishes and whatever else I could do at the fraternity to defray my expenses, I still owed considerable money for meals and dues. So late that summer I was overjoyed to have obtained a job on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company’s Metuchen assembly plant.
Working at Ford was an incredible experience, seeming like it was on the front line of American industry. As a new employee, I worked at a variety of stations on the assembly line, mostly filling in for absent workers or workers who were on vacation. They ranged from screwing on nuts and bolts to installing window trim to applying some kind of substance to specified areas on the car bodies before painting. The duties at each assembly line station were carefully calibrated by time and motion studies to exactly fill the time each car came by, as I recall, every 90 seconds. So you had to really hustle, moving along with the car body doing whatever the job required, then dropping back to do the same tasks all over again during the next 90 seconds. The job was mind-numbing for its repetition and inherent boredom. So many times my mind would drift off and suddenly I couldn’t really remember whether I had gone through all the motions or not – doing the same thing every ninety seconds can freeze one’s awareness completely.
And since each set of tasks was meticulously structured to take exactly 90 seconds, when I was learning a job, it was really difficult to keep up, even working at top speed. If I fell behind I couldn’t call for someone to slow down or stop the line. I just worked in a frenzy, as fast as I could and if I fell behind and was following a given car up the line so far that I was in the next worker’s territory, I just had to skip a task in order to catch up and simply hope that someone in quality control would catch the skipped task later down the line.
I thought it really interesting that some car bodies had a metal disc hanging from the top, indicating that this particular car was going to be purchased by a plant worker. This circle was the sign to do an extra careful and thorough job on the car: the guys welding the bodies gave it double welds and so on.
I met some wonderful people while working at Ford. There were many highly educated Hungarian refugees on the line, since this was a few years after the Hungarian Revolution and many Hungarian emigrants had settled in nearby New Brunswick. I also recall a very bright man from North Carolina, Joe Sprinkle, who became a friend and confessed that during the mental paralysis imposed by endless repetition on the assembly line, he exercised his mind by composing poems and then writing them down during his breaks. And as I recall, they were pretty good poems.
This job was an opportunity to get to know unions a bit better also. I was a member of Local 980 of the United Auto Workers, which represented the 800 or so workers at the Metuchen plant and as a member, participated in several wildcat strikes. I guess I should not say participated, because I don’t recall ever knowing the causes. I just remember the assembly line slowing and then halting and the UAW shop steward telling me to stop working, leave the plant and join the other workers at the Union headquarters close by. I regretted the strikes because I lost my high hourly pay, about $2.70 per hour, for the time we were on strike. But it was pleasant to always feel part of something bigger and to share in the considerable power the UAW wielded.
I will never forget the distinctive smell the Ford plant had – a not unpleasant smell and best described as the odor of hot metal, that you got a first whiff of as you approached the plant and entered the parking lot. I can remember years later smelling this familiar odor if the wind was right while driving by the plant on Route 1 and having the memories of my time on the assembly line at Ford come flooding back. The cars we assembled then were Mercury Comets and Ford Falcons. The Metuchen Assembly Plant was to later make Mustangs for many years and had been assembling Ford F150 pickups before it finally closed in 2004.
Mixed with my mostly positive memories of this mass production assembly line job was the sad experience of being called to the personnel office and being informed that I would no longer be employed there. Back x-rays which were taken during the very thorough physical when I got the job, had finally come back, revealing that I had scoliosis, a condition which up to that time, I never knew I had. And since Ford feared that I perhaps could not perform up to their physical standards, or perhaps that I might injure myself on the job because of this condition, I was dismissed. This news dashed my dreams of saving enough money to return to school second semester, but at least I had been able to pay off my debt to the fraternity. The job had lasted only seven weeks but in that short time had provided a huge number of vivid and indelible memories.
After the trauma of losing my job at Ford and seeing my dreams of financial solvency dashed, I left New Jersey, moved to Colorado and found a job as a file clerk at the Navajo Freight Lines main headquarters on Santa Fe Drive in south Denver. This was a very boring clerical job, filing freight bills alphabetically and numerically in an area of high metal cabinets full of long file drawers. But the surroundings were pleasant, the job was easy, I worked with some very good people, and in this, my first clerical job, I could dress well. I will always remember several of my colleagues in this job – Barbara Erickson, a lovely girl from Iowa (or was it Kansas?), Trinket Barksdale, who lived in Broomfield, north of Denver, and a very good friend, Dwight Long, with whom I had a great relationship. Later, when I left Navajo Freight Lines, Dwight had also quit, so we drove back east in a little caravan – Dwight and his wife driving their two cars and I driving my ’62 Corvair. Dwight and Jeanette were returning to Pittsburgh and I of course was returning to New Jersey to resume school again.
While at Navajo Freight Lines I was involved in an interesting professional experience that I have often related to others. After serving as a file clerk for a number of months, a job opened up for a clerk-typist position which required a minimum typing speed of 30 words per minute. I could not type but badly wanted the raise that came with this possible promotion so applied for it anyhow, lying about my apocryphal typing skills. On a Friday I was informed I had the job providing I pass a typing test to be given on Monday. So that evening I rented a typewriter and bought a typing instruction book. By Sunday night and after about 30 hours of furious self-instruction and practice, I could type at about 40 words per minute. So I passed the typing test on Monday with flying colors and got the job. I guess I have often told that story as an example of being resourceful and tenacious, not as an example of lying and being forced to make good on the lie.
When I returned from Denver in 1962 I lived at home again (still chaotic but it was great seeing my little brothers again) and resumed my college career, enrolling in night school at Rutgers. I found a job working at Mack Truck Parts in Somerville, again a clerical job with various duties including typing. This center sent parts from its huge warehouse to Mack maintenance and repair facilities all over the country. The job itself was not very noteworthy and did not pay well but it kept me going as I started night school and searched for another job. The highlight of my time there was buying Mack t-shirts for my little brothers with the Mack bulldog trademark and the legend, “Built Like a Mack” on the front.
I do not recall if I found the next job at Nu-Car Carriers because Mack laid me off or because it was the higher paying job I was looking for, but at any rate sometime in 1962 I began working in the dispatch office for the company that transported new vehicles to dealerships across the east that were manufactured at the very same Ford plant at which I had worked a couple of years earlier. I enjoyed this job very much, not only because of the assembly line memories that returned with the hot metal smell occasionally wafting into the office from the adjacent plant, but because of the gracious people with whom I worked. The dispatcher, Dave Dowling, was an extraordinarily bright young man who enjoyed sharing his knowledge and views on every subject imaginable and with whom I had many stimulating conversations and arguments. Angelo (can’t remember his surname), the other main guy in the office, was a kind and sociable man with a great smile and sense of humor who teased me by posting my engagement announcement on our office bulletin board with his written comment, “and she makes more that he does!”, which was true.
At Nu Car Carriers, my job consisted of clerical duties relating to matching orders from Ford dealers spread along the east coast with the cars driven from the end of the plant assembly line to our storage lots. Vehicles were then queued up for loading onto our trucks and the loaded trucks were lined up for our drivers to board and drive to their dealer destinations.
From 1963 to 1965, while I was still going to school at night, I worked as an accounting clerk for Johns Manville Research, a facility in Finderne, New Jersey, a couple of miles from the big Johns Manville plant in Manville. In this position I simply made calculations with figures from different sources and prepared daily, weekly and monthly reports. It was here that I learned how to use a 10 key adding machine very efficiently without looking at the keys, a skill that, like typing or riding a bicycle, has never left me.
It was also in this job that I learned how to skillfully waste time. Since the job had a set number of periodic tasks, I got very good at them and found a little extra time on my hands. So I learned how to walk around the research facility with a pencil over my ear and a bunch of papers in my hands, looking like I was on a mission to obtains some facts or figures, but really going nowhere in particular, just having a good time finding out what was happening in different parts of the building and making some new friends.
I seem to recall all the people that I worked with in this office quite easily, even after more than 50 years, perhaps because this is where I worked when President Kennedy was assassinated and of course, like everyone else at that time, remember where I was and whom I was with. Mr. Leo Bartolonzo was our boss, the director of finance for Johns Manville Research. I remember being quite impressed with Mr. Bartolonzo because he was an art history major working in finance and as such, was a living example of the value and broad applicability of a liberal arts degree. He had a very attractive secretary, whose name I do not recall. Others in the office were Tony Pappas, my boss and Bob Mullen, another accountant, who also worked some evenings and weekends as a football referee in high school and college games. Pete Skierski was another accountant, as well as a young lady, Georgene Harding. I was in this office with these people when Tony’s wife called and gave him the tragic news about President Kennedy.
Everyone at Johns Manville Research was a pleasure to work with and I missed them all very much when I finally earned my bachelor’s degree and left for my first teaching job. It was at this time that Bob said to me, “Gee Ralph, you are leaving this eight to five job with two weeks of vacation a year, for a job working six hours a day and Christmas and spring breaks and all summer off, you lucky guy!” Right, Bob did not know, nor did I completely realize at the time, how wrong he was. Being “on stage” for six hours per day and keeping 30 or so little fourth graders interested and involved in their learning was infinitely more tiring than my eight to five days at Johns Manville Research. Plus evenings and weekends were always filled with grading papers, writing lesson plans, taking courses and writing papers. During my first year of teaching I was busier than I had ever been in my life. And “summers off”? I never had a summer off as an educator. I was always working, taking courses, earning a degree or taking district staff development courses.
Before I leave Johns Manville, I want to digress in order to describe a phenomenon relating to that corporation’s key ingredient in its products – asbestos. We lived on church property located about two miles from the main Johns Manville plant in neighboring Manville, New Jersey. One sunny morning in early summer we were shocked to wake up and see what looked like snow outside because the grass, trees and bushes everywhere were coated with a white fluffy substance. These white fluffy particles were asbestos which had mistakenly been somehow released from somewhere in the Johns Manville factory and had been blown our direction by the breeze. This summer “snow” disappeared quickly in the wind and rain so my family and I thought little of this incident at the time and were in fact amused. But years later it was chilling to learn about the deadly qualities of this then commonly used mineral and to realize that our proximity to the Johns Manville plant and direct exposure to asbestos in this incident presented a serious threat to our health. In addition, I have often thought of the many times I observed asbestos being experimented with at Johns Manville Research and have wondered if I will suffer any ill effects someday because of this exposure.
After I began teaching, even though I was working at my new profession full time and taking Masters Degree courses from Rutgers on the weekends and summers, I unfortunately found it necessary to augment the family income with part time work. One of the part time jobs I had was again working for a trucking company – Moore’s Trucking Company in Piscataway Township, New Jersey. This job began at 9:00 at night and could end anywhere from 11 or so to around 1:00 AM, depending on how many shipments were waiting on the docks, which determined how quickly the trucks could be loaded for the next day’s trips. I would usually try to take a nap when I got home from teaching so I would have the energy for this evening job. And when I came home late, it was sometimes very difficult to get to sleep so that I could do my little kids justice in the classroom. Since we had a veritable pharmacy in the bathroom cabinet back then, thanks to my spouse’s professional contact with drug company detail men, I got into the habit of taking a pill to relax me for the nap after teaching, then another pill to wake up to go to the evening job, sometimes a pill to go to sleep again, and then perhaps a pill to energize me for the day of teaching. I don’t recall exactly what these pills were but I guess they were in the families known as “uppers” and “downers”. Yes, and today I wonder what effect these drugs have had on my health at this point in my life.
During my first three years of teaching I also held two other part time jobs. For awhile I worked in the evenings for Morrison Steel in New Brunswick as an inventory clerk, going through piles of invoices and subtracting quantities of steel pieces that were sold – angles, channels, T’s, beams, pipes, plate, rolled steel and so on, from inventories. A pleasant man by the name of Tom, again I can’t recall the surname, taught me the job and worked with me on this task every evening. This job began at a specific time and was over at a specific time, so at least my sleep did not suffer.
The third job was working for a janitorial firm that cleaned offices every night. I reported for work nightly at an office building in New Brunswick and emptied waste baskets, dusted and mopped floors and cleaned bathrooms. I do remember being very surprised that the men’s bathroom was much easier to clean that the women’s because frankly, the women were much sloppier, something that I was not expecting. In this job I did learn some additional lifelong skills – how handy paper towels were to shine up sinks, fixtures and faucets and when you did it right, how quickly a bathroom could be made to sparkle.
All three of these jobs were, thankfully, short lived. During my first three years of teaching, thanks to boundless youthful energy, I was able to not only teach joyfully and successfully and increase our income successfully through these part time jobs but also complete a 46 credit Masters Degree at Rutgers which provided full certification as well as the degree, which I received in the spring of 1968.
I performed the one final non-education job in my life in 1971 after my year in Cambridge, Massachusetts attending Harvard University. I guess this was my most significant experience about being overqualified for certain jobs. During the last month of my year of school, my search for an administrative position was rewarded by being appointed Assistant Principal of Duxbury Elementary School in Duxbury, south of Boston. I was overjoyed to get this position in a pro-education community like Duxbury, but unfortunately the job did not start until August and having finished my year of school in June, I badly needed to find a way to earn some money to tide us over until my first Duxbury paycheck. I applied for many jobs but was turned down for all, I am sure because prospective employers knew my qualifications and rightfully decided that I would not stay. So in desperation, I took a job that required no degree, no experience, and unfortunately, no pride or self respect – door to door surveying and giving out free samples.
I recall that I was to ring the doorbell, introduce myself and inquire if I might ask a few questions and then leave some samples. Many times doors were not answered, or were slammed in my face. But those who were innocent enough, idle enough or lonely enough, did choose to answer the questions and receive my samples. This goody bag contained a variety of products, several of which I cannot recall, but I do remember Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid and Chipos, the former being a good product and really nothing much new, but the Chipos, I guess a forerunner of today’s highly processed Pringles, were a “new fashioned” potato chip made of “dried potato granules”, very tasty but probably not very nutritious.
So I and several colleagues loaded up our vehicles (a job requirement was to own a vehicle) at a depot in the morning and set out for residential sections of several towns west of Boston – I do remember that Dedham was one of them – and carve up these areas with code symbols that we wrote on the pavement with huge pieces of chalk in order to indicate if we had entered an area or had finished it. My God, what a job! When I looked at myself in the mirror in the morning and saw a man with a BA, an M.Ed and a Certificate of Advanced Study from very prestigious universities and then went out to survey unwilling people door to door distributing samples of Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid and Chipos, I had a tough time generating any self esteem. But I had to earn money somehow and this seemed the only way at the time.
So why do I think that this little autobiographical sketch of places I have worked in addition to my chosen profession of education is worth recounting? Well, I think that any one of these jobs and all considered collectively, gave me valuable insight into the general world of work and have provided an understanding of and sensitivity to the people who do different kinds of work. Experience on manufacturing assembly lines gave me firsthand knowledge of the principles of mass production and of the emotional stress of doing such jobs; the dangers I unwittingly encountered at Johns Manville, Union Carbide and the dye plant have made me aware of the need for government regulation to protect workers in the factories and citizens living nearby. Experiencing these different vocations has given me a strong sense of the honor of work, any kind of work, and of the necessity of different kinds of work being accomplished so that our society can function. Working in all these places has also convinced me that all work should be fairly rewarded. Working at any one of these jobs full time should have provided a decent living for anyone doing them. The rewards of worker productivity should be shared fairly with the worker, not go exclusively into the pockets of stockholders, managers and CEO’s. All workers, no matter what they do, should be treated honorably, since all this work, no matter who does it, is absolutely necessary.
And although I enjoyed all these jobs and learned a great deal from them, I am thankful that I found education as my real profession. Working with children, teachers and parents has been very rewarding but looking back over what now has become a reasonably long life, I am thankful too that I was able to experience so many other kinds of work and make those experiences important parts of my personal history.