Boomer Grandpa: First jobs often provide our first big tests | Lifestyles


As I sat at a table of distinguished gentlemen at a recent Quarterback’s Club luncheon in Rochester, I asked a few of the guys what their first job was. Wow, the stories I heard!

One guy said that every morning before school he helped his dad in his bar and restaurant. He would clean, sweep the floors and fill the coolers before heading to school. He started the job when he was 9 years old and did it until he graduated from high school.

My grandson is 16 years old. He is wondering about the job application process. This summer he will be looking for his first job. I think he’s a little apprehensive, but he’s a smart kid and I think he’s ready to experience some cash flow in his life.

Back to the luncheon. The guys at my table continued to articulate those remarkable tales that parents of today would be aghast to hear. Another got up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to milk the cows. He started this when he was 10. He would also help neighboring farmers bale hay for the day and get paid $5.

My grandson has already developed a taste for coffee and those fancy, foo-foo coffee drinks, so that sort of establishment will probably be his first choice. Who knows what his first job will be and if he, like most of us, will remember it all his life.

Some more first job stories at my table included working as a bellhop at the St. James Hotel in Red Wing. He was in eighth grade at the time. Another person was a soda jerk for 25 cents an hour at age 15 and someone else told me he was a printer apprentice at a newspaper office at 13 years of age.

Speaking of very hard work, I’m currently reading a book, “Ghosts of Gold Mountain,” by Gordon Chang. It is the incredible story of the thousands of Chinese men who were a huge part of building the transcontinental railroad.

Thousands and thousands of men came to America from China and went to work for the railroad on the western portion of the Transcontinental. They began this incredible task of laying railroad track in areas like the Sierra Nevada Mountains while the Civil War was still underway. Needless to say, there were no smoke breaks, vacations or weekends off.

I think you can speculate that the Chinese workers were not treated particularly well or paid fairly. They survived by supporting each other. They kept together and were able to celebrate their culture, customs and religion. They also had their own cooks.

Many died because of harsh weather and unsafe working conditions. The description and scope of the work that these young men did for years was hard to imagine. I worked on the track for Burlington Northern Railroad for a few summers as a young man. We had machinery and equipment, but it was still the type of labor that could push you to the limit.

Even in my day, some guys didn’t make it. When told by a supervisor, “It’s my way or the highway,” some proceeded to the highway.

All the Chinese men who went to work for the railroad didn’t have much help to get the job done. They had black powder to blow up giant rocks and hillsides, nitroglycerine for even more punch, picks, sledge hammers, carts and shovels. They literally carved up mountains by hand to make room for the track.

There was no quitting. Most were away from their families for years at a time. Human strength in spirit can be beyond description.

First jobs can test one’s inner toughness and ability to deal with and handle criticism. Maybe you’re told what to do and how to do it for the first time. We also know early job experiences can help with interpersonal skills, work ethic, and maybe finding something that you enjoy doing.

Those stories I heard at my table were remarkable. One person shined shoes for 10 cents an hour while in sixth grade, another worked in a canning factory as a teenager during the labor shortage during World War II. Someone else said he worked part-time at his college for around $30 a month — enough to pay his tuition.

I know my grandson won’t have to dig tunnels in mountains or blow things up. He won’t do the type of work our parents or even we did as baby boomers. The work for each generation changes and evolves in remarkable ways.

Whatever it is, he’d better always be on time and do his best, or he may hear from his grandpa.

Loren Else lives in Rochester and also writes the Post Bulletin’s Day in History column. Send comments and column ideas to Loren at [email protected].

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