My Early Work Life

My Life As A Worker

Tom Burnett

July 15, 2007

When I was twelve and living in Harrisville, Utah, the next-door neighbor asked me to mow their lawn. They were sticklers for quality. They showed me what to do because I was to use their equipment, and told me if I did a superior job they would add $5.00 to the pay. I held the regular pay to be adequate; I did not covet the bonus. But I tried, for pride, to earn the higher pay. They inspected at stages; they understood management. They set out lemonade, which I felt guilty stopping to drink. I do not remember them awarding the extra $5, though I tried every minute to mow with superior quality. I wasn’t asked to do it again, but perhaps that was because they only needed me the one time. The detail of the $5 is somewhat vague; perhaps that is melded in from a moralistic tale I have heard over the years. I do remember being anxious to please, and timid. I had never run a lawnmower before. This was my first work for pay. Our parents did not give allowance.

In Deer Lodge, Montana, Mrs.(Sheldon? Miller?) asked me to be lot sweeper and truck unloader at 4-B’s Restaurant where she was the manager. The lot needed sweeping most Saturday mornings and the truck came in at various times. Sweeping was dusty, lonely work, in easy view of patrons. A surprising quantity of fine gravel and dirt was deposited between sweepings. The truck drivers sent their cases of 4 one-gallon cans of pie filling shooting down a long roller cylinder conveyor ramp into the basement. I received these and shelved them. Part of my pay was breakfast at the counter. I ate meekly while people smoked around me. Mrs., (Sister), Miller reminded me to order anything and as much as I wanted, but I tried to order modestly. I particularly liked the canned grapefruit sections. I must have looked like a backwards, impoverished kid.

Del Raye and I had a GRIT newspaper route. Grit was short and thick, filled with non-news, like Nebraska’s largest pumpkin and the history of Clydesdales. We ordered 25 most weeks and peddled them for 25 cents. Some housewives would regularly buy a copy. Some would have to defer for lack of money, or in an effort to get us to quit coming around. We tried to build our base of regular buyers by soliciting new homes every week. We were probably encouraged by Mother. There were promises of prizes in addition to the inducement of extra cash. After selling so many, you got a radio, walkie-talkies, a watch, or even a bike. One prize I earned was a speed-reading course. It consisted of reading selections and a variable speed motorized viewer. As your ability increased, you could increase the speed with which the viewing arm passed over the page. You were tested for comprehension, too. Rhyll and Del purchased an implement for bust development, basically a heavy rubber band for building pectoral muscles. This they discovered in the back section of GRIT, near the Atlas Body Building program, advertised with a photo of Charles Atlas with his shirt removed and his muscles inflated. I knew the promise of quick, easy, guaranteed muscles was hyperbole. I was also afraid that I would be the first customer ever to have to request my money back. I would rather live with my scrawny arms and chest than mortified having to file a claim of program failure.

The Montana Standard needed paper boys and I became one. I walked and bicycled a long route every morning, fending off grouchy dogs, even once befriending a wild fox, persuading it to join our family. I can still picture the doorstep where I discovered the fox sniffing around a bush. The fox came home and we fed it. It hovered around our vicinity for a few days, to our great amusement and delight. One Sunday morning the fox took a tour through Bertoglio’s house, (the door had been left open for air and sun). Bertoglios clubbed it with a bat and called the police chief. He came to the neighborhood and shot and hauled off our fox. I considered a great injustice had been done and scowled every time I passed the motel the police chief owned and lived in.

On the coldest days, my father would drive me around the paper route. Usually, the temperature had to be -15 degrees or colder to qualify. My boots were often inadequate. Collecting monthly charges from the poor citizens of Deer Lodge often required more than one visit. This was one of the more challenging aspects of the job. The coordinator who received the money was an aloof woman who lived near the high school. She smoked through our accounting sessions. At 6:30 a.m., John Jones’ dad’s bakery on Main Street wafted tantalizing smells. How I wanted a maple bar! I eventually saved enough money, ( I think Frank Lewis, the school superintendent, paid half), to buy a hot orange bicycle, a “Dominator”. I could use it almost every day, except most Sundays when papers were too fat for all 75 to carry in two bags, one hanging left and the other to the right. Then I walked.

Pete Beck and Pat Gilmore were my two wrestling buddies. Pet’s dad, Charlie, farmed seed potatoes. After supper we loaded 100 pound sacks on dark rail cars, stacking them at a height over our heads, no small feat considering that both Pete and I wrestled a weight class under 103 pounds. Charlie paid $15.00 for working several nights. Doing this made me feel tough, as if maybe the next time I put on a wrestling leotard I wouldn’t look so much like a famine victim, though of course, there is nothing you can do to make a 94 pounder look threatening in a leotard.

Charlie hired summer help to move sprinkler pipes. Pete told me to talk to Charlie about it. He hired me, knowing I would have to board in their basement as my family was moving to Bozeman. The pay was $600.00 per month, a fabulous wage for a 16 year-old. I worked seven days a week. I only went to church once that summer. I had a line move before breakfast for a couple of hours and one after supper for a couple of hours. Mid-day I was to fix sprinkler heads in the shop and patrol the lines fixing broken risers which caused geysers and washouts. I also had time for napping.

I felt spoiled by three ample hot meals each day cooked by Charlie’s aunt, Helen. The meals had multiples courses, potatoes in one of their many guises always being one. One night we had Rocky Mountain Oysters. I had rarely seen so much tasty food. I gained 20 pounds of sheer muscle.

It was a job that had run off guys twice my size, like a varsity wrestler that weighed 160 pounds. Pete told me he had only lasted about half the previous summer. I was scrawny but I knew I could outlast the weak-of-heart. I liked the challenge Pete had thrown down. Besides my uncommon tenacity, there was the fact of my parents’ move and my lack of a car that kept me at Becks.

Moving pipe was,short of fishing on an Alaska trawler, the most difficult job I could have landed that summer. Mud was Enemy Number One. Mud, laced with potato vines oozed three to twelve inches deep under my step. Plunge the forward foot down, suck the trailing foot up and out, untying it from tangled stems. Alfalfa was generally easier to walk in, though when it was tall, it too tangled. My groin muscles were exceedingly sore from drawing forward my legs against the resistance.

Mosquitoes plagued me like they did the Egyptians when Moses was heckling them. I held a 40′ aluminum pipe in the middle. Wind would grab and spin it. So, though the pipe was not heavy, both hands were required. During each fifty foot march, mosquitoes feasted on my face, ears, hands and neck: “Choose from the menu!” When I could, I raised a muddy hand to attack them in return. They clogged my ear canals and crowded my nostrils. I tried various repellents, even turpentine, but my sweat washed the protection away. If I had to do this again, I would wear rubber gloves and a beekeeper’s helmet, (duh!) Wind and rain augmented the trials. I knew that I was toughening my muscles as well as my spirit. When I got to Bozeman with my pay, a handsome total for any 16 year-old, my sisters took me out to buy clothes. I quickly spent most of the money, the first time in my life I felt clothes-ready for a new school year. And being new to the Bozeman School District, it was important to look decent and up-to-date.

In Bozeman I worked at the 4-Bs as a dishwasher and bus boy. I enjoyed the staff comraderie. I had a favorable impression of our manager, Joe. He seemed fair and exacting at the same time. I still see Cherilyn Braaksma and Kerry Bickel who worked there. I worked some Sundays. This made me feel disobedient. Sometimes I worked until late at night. One night after a shift that ended at 2:00, I drove off the road on the way up Bear Canyon. The Ford Falcon slipped over the road bank near Will Adams’ house, finally braking to a stop on a dogwood bush. It seemed the only thing keeping the car from rolling onto its right side was the strands of the barbed wire fence, 3-4 posts of which I had knocked over. The driver’s door lifted heavily, having to be heaved skyward. I walked home and told Dad. Within a couple of days we went down and fixed the fence. The steel posts we put in are still there. From then on, we, Rhyll, Del and I, drove a dented Falcon. My school acquaintances called it the Burnett-Mobile, partly in derision, partly in good humor, I think.

The only other work I did my junior and senior years was loading hay for Dad some summer afternoons, and one short-term job for Bill Phillips as a construction helper. Dad also worked for Bill on that addition.

After graduation, I went to Arlee to work for Uncle Clint. He was building cabins at Grey Wolf Lodge, 30 miles east of Arlee, near Placid Lake. Dave, my cousin, was my partner. Our abilities and effectiveness lacked. We were frequently low on materials, tools, instruction, and even food. Our home was the picturesque old Lodge, whose screen door bore deep bear claw marks. One night before retiring, I cast a log in the fireplace, mistakenly hitting the chimney damper handle. Dave awoke a few hours later; the great room was dense with smoke. For lack of knowledge, deadlines, or a pay-for-performance system, Dave and I played horseshoes to 100 points, and as bad as we threw, that took hours. Nailing tongue-and-groove boards on the A-frame sides, I laid an end board that was not quite long enough. When we got all the boards up and strung a chalk line to mark the cut to the extending peak, that board was seen to be short by a foot. Uncle Clint ground his teeth, again, and I felt sheepish about my mistake. That A-frame ended up with a lesser extension at the peak.

Weeks later, Uncle Clint was running a few days late bringing up a load of groceries from Arlee. We were famished. In the cupboard we had Corn Flakes, flour, chicken boullion cubes and instant potatoes. We shot a squirrel with the 16 gauge, and after skinning it, discovered that its meat might be equivalent to what you would find on the index finger of the average American male, so we discarded the carcass. I undertook a batch of gravy using the flour and chicken cubes. I had to experiment with the proportions by adding first more flour, then more water, then more flour. In the end, we had 2 gallons of inedible, pasty gruel, though its texture was superb! We ate none.

We had long since emptied the Corn Flakes, so now we choked down some reconstituted potatoes and prayed for Clint to arrive, which he did before thoughts of cannibalism even crossed our minds. The food was strewed around the bed of the pickup, a copious amount, far better than our work deserved.

In Great Falls, I bought a 1954 Ford pickup. In Arlee, I sanded it a little bit, paid for Maverick Grabber Blue paint, and one of Clint’s friends painted it one night. I loved the look of it. The transmission was reluctant to shift gears, producing a monstrous clatter every time.

About year end 1972, I moved back to Bozeman. Washing dishes with Mother one night, she asked when I was moving into the Liahona House in town. I replied, “Oh, in a couple of weeks”, wondering why she seemed so interested. I had only been home a week. She made it plain that she considered it important that I not put it off. She was craftily pushing me out. I worked for Mike at Red Lion Supper Club, busing and prepping tables, attempting to be a ski bum. Mike tried to cure me of whistling noisily as I walked around the tables of diners, but I never understood that he really meant it. I know now why he would object. He needed to sit me down and tell me face-to-face, and explain why. Whistling steals from an elegant atmosphere.

One day on my way to Bridger Bowl Ski Area, the left front wheel came off the blue pickup, rudely halting my progress. The pickup was stuck somewhat in the way of traffic, canted at an angle toward that forequarter. The axle spindle had plowed the dirt road as it hobble to a stop. I had the “bum” portion of ski bum mastered. When school ended that afternoon, Dad came up to the scene of the wreckage and helped me get things right.

In March of 1973, Kent Hodgson, the Elder’s Quorum President, announced a job opening in Townsend at Bruce Seed Farm. Lane Adamson warned me to insist on Sundays off if I applied. I did, and was that ever good advice! This job would be my way to earn my portion of mission funds. Associating with the “enthused” young people of the University Ward had motivated me to served a mission. I worked for Andy Bruce for 6-7 months, prior to my September departure for London, England. I mostly drove tractors, sacked and loaded seeds and grains. I fed a dozen weaner pigs of my own. Andy provided the pens and culled grains. It was a profitable deal even though two of the dozen died of pneumonia. The price of hogs peaked the week I sold and I felt blessed, and grateful to Andy. Dan Quackenbush was my trailermate. He and Andy split after a nasty confrontation.

The hog pen had a water dispenser on a 5′ square platform, 4” thick. The pigs rooted under the edge, inch-by -inch over the hot summer weeks. They found the plastic supply pipe. They chewed a hole in it and a sizable puddle commenced rapidly to grow, making the platform an island. Fetid water and muck was a few inches deep at the perimeter, and a couple of feet deep in the center of the twelve foot diameter body of water. The repair was up to me. I propped the massive, wet platform up at an angle. Reaching into the murky mess, I could feel the rupture on the polyethylene pipe. I was able, by feeling, to cut out the bad section and hose clamp a piece there. The process took two evenings. I was up to my armpits and chin in that thick slurry of hog waste. My skin smelled foul for days afterward.

That was my last job prior to my mission. While plowing from supper to breakfast, I had memorized hundreds of scriptures. In the trailer, I had read volumes of books of doctrine and inspiration. One night, while fixing an irrigation pump, I thought that by earning money the hard way, I would appreciate my mission days more and would be less likely to complain or lose heart facing the comparatively minor privations and hardships there. (Little did I know that the hardships in England would be different, and every bit as hard, excruciatingly hard! But farm work did increase my ability to work and this applied directly to missionary work.)

From GRIT to farm laborer, I considered myself a worthy worker, all except for the Grey Wolf Lodge job. I thought my employers considered me average to above average for effort and dependability, though they rarely gave me reviews or praise or training. I had to guess. Bill Phillips criticized my work, with my Dad present. (That hurt, as it seemed intended to.) I didn’t know what to do to improve, or precisely what I had done poorly, so the session didn’t improve my performance, it only soured me.

Some things that my bosses might have done that could have increased my productivity and worth as an employee were ; better teaching, observations of my work with further teaching, praise when I was reaching expectations, some pay based on reaching standards, more frequent communication. Clearer guidelines would have helped. The neighbors in Harrisville were the best for setting standards and reviewing. I must remember this observation and apply it in the future. President Leach cited a study of restaurant workers who churn among jobs. Why do they quit? Low pay? No. They said they didn’t know what was expected of them.

Such was my early work life, the very pinnacle of variety, glamor and prestige.


3 Responses

  1. Hey, Good on you, Tom. Your work history was an interesting read. I’m glad you alerted me to it. Keep on writing. Elinor

  2. Tom, What a hoot! at 11pm I am reading this rocking my daughter to sleep. She is having a hard time sleeping for all laughter that your piece incurred. I am going to have my kids tead this tomorrow.
    Love Dawn

  3. Hey Tom,

    Wow, that’s cool. I have had a very interesting work history as well. I was looking for something on the web regarding the Liahona House because I lived there for awhile in 1971-2. I also worked for Andy Bruce the summer before my mission to Australia.

    I know Clint, Bonnie, and their family because I am from St.Ignatius, MT. I also know George, Del Raye, and I think I may have even met you. Did you have a company that sold indian blanket seat covers?


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