The tittle refers to the bygone memory that many of us have of entering the work world as young kids, fourteen and fifteen years old. Then as now, children under the age of fourteen were protected under child labor laws from working any job except as news carriers, some farm work or in entertainment. Well, today very few kids have a paper route as print journalism is sadly going the way of the Dodo Bird, and adults seeking back to the earth experiences pay farmers big money for the opportunity to pick their carrots, shuck their corn and milk their cows. And it’s probably exploitative to pay kids to entertain us.
In my day, summer work had one purpose – money. My two older brothers went to the Essex Aggie. Kevin, the eldest, aspired to a life of a poultry farmer, probably somewhere in the far reaches of rural Maine or North Dakota. He got sidetracked in his quest to become another Frank Purdue and made a career as a Veterinarian – Pathologist in Pennsylvania. Denis, the middle one who caused all the trouble, craved all things mechanical; tractors, fast cars (borrowed, bought or otherwise obtained) junkyards, and big trucks. His mechanical aptitude got him into the Air Force and eventually attracted him to the world of firefighting. He spent thirty-two years with the Logan Airport Fire Department working in all aspects of the profession, from crash crewman to fire-boat captain to Assistant Chief.
As for the baby of the family, after doing nine years of hard time under the watchful eyes of the Sisters at Saint Stanislaus School on Washington Street, I was ready for a looser, less restrictive, high school experience. The Aggie had obvious appeal to me. I noted that my brother Denis always had cash in his pocket, and this was because Aggie students were required to have full-time summer jobs in “appropriate, agricultural-related fields.” And the best part was that summer at the Aggie meant anytime after April 7, when school got out. Five months of no school and a paycheck every week. Sign me up!
The first step to legitimate employment was to obtain that very prized working permit from the local school department. For those of my era, this meant a trip downtown to the Superintendent of Schools office located upstairs in the Tyler Block above Quint’s Drug Store. Mr. Stella was the Superintendent at the time and I presented myself to his very helpful secretary and announced the reason for my visit. Sensing I was a little on the numb side, she produced the permit application, which I recall was a green colored card, and patiently instructed me that I needed to have my perspective employer sign off on the from, then get a doctor to sign off that he had examined me and found I was capable of the work intended, and finally have my mother give her written approval. Then I signed the application, and returned it with great pride and expectations to the Superintendent’s office. The permit apparently remains in effect, for after nearly fifty years and a dozen different jobs, I’m still working.
Child labor laws then as now prohibited youthful workers under sixteen years of age from performing certain hazardous jobs considered too dangerous for the age. Today, workers under eighteen cannot drive a vehicle, use saws, wood chippers or work on a roof. The under sixteen crowd is prohibited from using power-driven machinery, riding in a vehicle unless seat-belted, loading and unloading trucks and climbing a ladder. Waiting on tables, scoping ice cream, poring coffee and bagging groceries are about all that seems left for enterprising young folks to do.
My first officially sanctioned employment was as a groundskeeper for Doctor Stavros when he owned what is now Candlewood Farm on Essex Road. I was fourteen and for a $1.10 per hour, I mowed, raked, hauled, lifted, pushed, pulled and performed a bunch of other manual tasks related to keeping the outside of his stately home presentable. He had a Farmall Cub tractor which he patiently instructed me how to operate without killing myself or anyone else. He was very tolerant in allowing me to stall it out, jack-knife the trailer and dig ruts in his lawn. After a while I managed to run the thing without creating too much damage to his property while learning to dodge the many errant golf ball blasted from the duffers at Candlewood Golf Course across the street.
The Doc could give me only twenty hours of work per week, which was fine with lazy me, but the Aggie Dons were breathing down my neck to get the required forty or return to the school for a summer of mucking out the cattle stalls. Holy cow, did that get my attention! I searched high and low and as fortune had it, landed on the summer crew for the Ipswich Park Department. This was forty hours a week at a $1.40 per hour, with a promised raise to $1.60 if I didn’t screw up and get fired. In those days, the Town was a significant source of employment for Ipswich youth, with perhaps twenty-five or more us working for the Park, Recreation, Cemetery, Highway, Forestry, Electric and Water Departments. The next largest employer was Crane Beach – Castle Hill. Others found work at Marini Farm, Hill’s Department Store, the A&P, Dairy Queen, Yello-Glo Bananas, their parents businesses and other places.
Some considered Town work as a last resort, intended to keep idle hands busy and out of mischief, at least for the daylight hours. The cream of Ipswich youth, those hoity-toity athletes and scholars, floated to the top of the summer job hierarchy and enjoyed a more prestigious racket as Crane Beach lifeguards, maintenance crew workers and reservation rangers, an early iteration of rent-a- cops. While we mowed the parks, pulled the weeds, dug the holes, picked up the smelly trash and painted playground equipment, they enjoyed surf, sand and endless views of pretty girls. All right, I’ll admit those guys working at the beach were smarter, better-looking and more athletic than me by a long shot, but how unfair! I suspect that the seeds of a future cynical policeman were sown in this humus of envy and resentment.
Apparently, child labor safety rules were liberally interpreted by the Town then. A typical day with the Park Department would begin with a half-dozen or more of us dangling from the tailgate of a town truck loaded with lawn mowers, trimmers, axes, chain saws, shovels and other sharp-edged or otherwise hazardous equipment, bumping along the streets to do the dirty work of keeping the Town’s landscape in pristine condition. Sprained fingers, lacerated limbs, blistered, sun burnt skin (we didn’t have sun screen then) insect bites, hornet stings and poison ivy infestations were a daily occurrence. It just seemed natural.
The Park Department work was interesting and diverse for a young kid. One day we would be mowing Bialek Park or the South Village Green. The next day we would be setting out the boardwalk from the residents lot at Crane Beach, or cleaning and painting the inside of the Beach House for the up-coming party season. Jim Daly was the boss then, and seemed to be everywhere at once and very adept at catching me loafing off. He got my number early, and often fingered me for the misdeeds that I pulled and some that I was innocent of. But his judgement was final, and I certainly provided him a wealth of reasons to think the worst of me.
Likely my laziness is what prompted an eventual transfer to the Forestry Department, which was the most dangerous and demanding assignment. We teenagers worked as the support staff to local legends Armand Michaud, Joe Racine, Chuck Foley and Rolly Chapman; the big men who cut the trees, trimmed power lines and manned the chain saws, sky-lifts, and brush kings. We would drag or carry the cut logs and brush to the chipper and toss them in while trying to avoid being pulled through and ground into kid-burger. Armand was gruff and no-nonsense, but this was only to prevent us from being maimed or killed. Being aware of your surroundings and the operations taking place was the rule and if you were not paying attention, he got your attention, loud and clear.
There was good reason for this. As an example, once when my brother Denis worked a summer job for the Water Department, he was riding shotgun on a moving back-hoe when it came to a screeching halt after striking a raised man-hole cover on Argilla Road. Denis was thrown from the machine, but not without first striking his head against the cabin frame on his way through the windshield. Obviously, this required an ambulance ride to Cable Hospital for a few dozen stitches and a neck brace. He had a full head-wrap bandage as a precaution against a fractured skull, but was home in bed before the four o’clock quitting time. Our folks, being old school, didn’t even think of a law suit. They just hoped the Town would continue to hire the Keenan boys in the summer.
In my sophomore year, having a justly earned reputation as a slacker, I was optioned off from the Forestry to the Cemetery Department, and would spend many seasons of unrelenting labor under the watchful eye of Superintendent Walter Hulbert. The work was boring, mostly pushing a lawn mower or trimming gravestones for eight hours a day. In the hot, humid weeks of August, we hand-cut the overgrown, vertical terraces in the Old North Cemetery using ancient, blister producing sickles, hatchets and sling-blades (just like in the movie). Hornet attacks were common, with a trip to Cable for those suffering allergic reactions. Most days, it was a pleasant diversion just to get to dig someone’s grave. John Kelley, Jim Graffum, Armour Chapman and Lloyd Irvine were the grown-ups who worked along side of us, offering wisdom, guidance and a good kick in the ass as needed. I had my first illicit, after work beer with the boys at the P.L.A.V. while employed there. My dirty clothes and sweaty face must have convinced Bob Kroll the bartender that I was close enough to legal age, at least for government work.
Walt Hulbert was a hard boss. A former Army Master Sergeant in W.W. II, he was always around, constantly pushing his troops to keep moving. The workday began at 7:00 am, when Walt would collect forty-five cents from each of us for a small coffee and do-nut he would pick up at Marty’s on Central Street. Coffee break was at 8:30, no exceptions. Walt would dispense the canteen and hang around until fifteen minutes lapsed then rouse us with, “Well boys, let’s get to it.” Break-time was over and any further hydration came from the water spigots dotting the cemetery avenues. I was always a skinny kid, never more that 150 pounds soaking wet. By the end of a Cemetery Summer, my weight would be down to 135-140 pounds, no matter how much after-work beer I drank.
But with the alleged wisdom that comes with age, I have to admit that Walt was a good boss for someone like me who preferred the easy path. It took him a few summers, but he eventually broke me of my natural lassitude, at least some of the time. And when I needed work in the off-season, he would put me on as much as he could. He was a good man.
The Park Department is long-gone now, and all those summer jobs with it. Today, the Cemetery crew does most of the work with power-driven machinery replacing the sweaty, gawky kids like me who spent their summers pushing a twenty-one inch full cut Toro mower through gardens of stone. The work was tedious and hard, but in retrospect, I feel fortunate to have had those experiences. They not only taught me the value of work and money, but perseverance and perhaps some much-needed humility. I was able to pay my way through North Shore Community College and Suffolk University by summer and weekend work. Ten grand and change, with no loans.
I’m sure many of you can relate to these memories, and have your own version to share. I’m going to guess that you may agree that things were better for us then. Today, college tuitions have increased exponentially and summer wages probably don’t pay the cost of one semesters books (if colleges still use books). Rather than grunt work, many parents now want their offspring to accumulate “meaningful” work experiences that will build an enviable resume for admission to outlandishly expensive universities requiring two lifetimes to pay off the student loan debt. Unpaid internships or ones that even charge for the privilege to participate have nudged honest sweat and after-work beer into the recycle bin. And after deep reflection over a cold one, it seems to me that the ongoing experiment we call modern life is taking all the fun out of being a kid. Phooey.