Wednesday, March 11, 2015

v5 n 18 part 4 Lawler Chronicles

Episode IV: Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s off to Work We Go!

Before we (Barrie, Pat, Denis, and I) left the Mountain View home, we had all been hired for jobs of various kinds, one of which was fruit picking. To be fruit pickers we needed transport, as the orchards were a considerable distance from us, and the public transport system was virtually non-existent. Barrie, the only member of the clan who possessed folding money, was the purchaser of our transport, a magnificent 1951 Studebaker, for the princely sum of $45. One picture is worth a thousand words, and here are two photos of our pride and joy. I’m featured in one, and Barrie, in the other.
Note the oil spilled on the road in the first picture. There was no bargaining when our car was purchased. It was a take it or leave it proposition. The dealer did offer to help us get it off the lot if necessary, but we managed to get it moving without a clutch start. There were, however, two major problems with our newly acquired asset.
  1. It’s consumption of oil exceeded its petrol consumption. What didn’t blow out in a large plume of smoke would drip onto the road (another complaint registered by the Christiansons).
  2. Its top speed was 50mph, and that was on a downhill slope.

Both deficiencies resulted in traffic fines. The first was when I was driving on the Bayshore Freeway. (Yes, by this stage I did have an American drivers’ license.) A police motorcycle came through the smokescreen coughing and spluttering and pulled me over. He issued me a ticket for not reaching the minimum 50mph speed limit on the freeway. I disputed the charge as I explained that it was the car’s fault and not mine. He examined the registration slip and issued the ticket in the name of the owner, Barrie Almond. I hear rumours that Barrie is still being sought by the Californian police. I do know for a fact that they sent follow-up notices to him at the University of Houston. Tsk! Tsk!

The second fine was for polluting the atmosphere and included a notice to repair the car to stop the smoke. This was best attended to, we thought, by not putting oil into the car. Our method did work: the smoke plume was substantially decreased, and the oil spots on the road were largely eliminated. Of course, the inevitable happened. On a bright summer’s day the motor seized up, and the “Studie” came to a complete halt on a suburban road. There it stayed until an enterprising scrap metal merchant offered $10 for it, no questions asked. It was too good an offer to turn down, and that fine piece of automotive engineering was no longer ours ─ or Barrie’s, to be precise. When the seizure occurred, Barrie was already well on his way back to Houston on a Greyhound bus, and, as far as I know, he has never been reimbursed by the one who pocketed the $10.

When we took possession of the Studebaker, about a week after we arrived in Mountain View, the fruit picking season began. Four of us, Denis, Barrie, Pat, and I, drove to one of the apricot orchards seeking work.

The deal, as best I remember it, was that we would be paid 10c for every bucket of apricots we picked. Those picked, we were told, must be fully ripe, not green. As nature would have it, the ripe apricots were at the top of the tree when the season commenced. To access the top we were each given a twenty foot ladder. Having hooked your bucket to the ladder, the technique was to balance on the top rungs and use both hands to pluck the ripe apricots. Speed was all important if you wanted to make any type of money in the fruit picking business.

From the ground level a twenty foot ladder doesn’t look all that high. I think it’s because your head is already six feet off the ground ─ only fourteen feet more to the top. But when your head is four or more feet above the top of the ladder, it can be a fearful sight to glance down some twenty-four feet to the ground while balancing without a handhold. We watched the Mexican workers go at it before we tried picking fruit ourselves. They shinnied up the ladders and, with both hands working like machines, were down again in a breath or two with a bucket of choice apricots ready to be tallied.

Our ascents were far more cautious, and releasing your hold on the ladder to pick with both hands was mind-numbing. After four or five hours and precious few buckets to our credit, Denis and I were fired. Denis was told he was far too slow, and the field manager accused me of eating more than I was picking. He wasn’t wrong there. The apricots were delicious…and free. But in the days that followed I did pay the price of consuming an excessive number of the little beauties. I’ll leave that bit to your imagination.

Towards late afternoon Pat was dismissed. Apparently, he fell off the ladder and broke some limbs (tree limbs, that is) on the way down. Barrie managed to keep his job until he was caught shaking the tree, a method that deposited both ripe and green apricots on the ground. It was a technique that did improve his productivity, but arranging the green fruit on the bottom of the bucket and covering it with the ripe fruit wasn’t considered kosher.

So it was that, come late afternoon, we were all unemployed again. In those days there was no redundancy payment or even worker’s compensation for Pat’s injuries. Even if there had been such a thing, we would probably have decided that in our particular case, suing for wrongful dismissal may not have been worth pursuing.

But the commencement of the fruit picking season also meant that the fruit canneries started hiring casual workers to process the newly picked fruit. So Denis and I joined the mass of humanity outside the gates of the two local canneries: Libby’s and Richmond-Chase. We lined up at separate canneries, hoping to display our talents to a wider market.
Denis was successful. I guess he looked more Mexican than I did. After awhile, I figured out the way into the system. Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters’ Union controlled the canning industry in California, and you had to belong to the union before you could be rostered on by the company. Here’s the “catch 22”: you could not belong to the union unless you were employed by the company. Much later I figured out that you had to slip the union delegate $25 to break the nexus. But even if I had known earlier, I didn’t have $25.

With nearly half the summer gone, I was like Orphan Annie. Barrie secured full-time work at Track and Field News; Pat got a job with an insurance company; Al was on his way to the Olympics; lovesick Ollan was getting ready to head east, and the banana and the dime had long since disappeared. My total income for the summer was half a day’s pay for picking fruit and a few hours’ part time work stuffing envelopes at Track and Field News. I was home alone, the only unemployed member of the household and its sole dependant. So what to do? Repairing the table I had demolished wasn’t income producing, and summer casual employment was now non-existent.

I started looking in the employment section of the paper for permanent positions, thinking, “Well, what the heck? I’ve got to get some work.” I was living off my mates, and none of them were exceedingly wealthy. In one of the local papers I came across an advertisement for a paint salesman for a hardware store in Palo Alto. Now that was something I could do. Selling Bibles? No. Picking fruit? No. But selling paint? Yes! For five years I had worked in a paint factory as a sales clerk, and before I had left Australia for the United States, I had been promoted to a position as junior salesman. I knew paint technology extremely well, having completed a course at night school and worked in the paint laboratory.

I called, was interviewed, and got the job, starting immediately. My credentials were impeccable for what they wanted. But my credibility as a fulltime employee was not the best. I have to say that I did not tell the truth about my intentions to remain in California. I flat lied. And I still have pangs of remorse about deceiving the wonderful couple who employed me. My dilemma was that I knew I could not survive the following year at university without at least some money in the bank for personal expenses. At the interview I had said that I was an Australian student who had completed one year of college and had decided that one year was enough study. Instead of continuing with my education I had applied for American citizenship and planned to stay permanently in the United States.

The hardware store was Hubbard’s Paint, located in a small shopping centre north of the Bayshore Freeway. I think the suburb was North Palo Alto. The owners, Mr and Mrs Hubbard, were well into their sixties and looking to limit their time in the store. Paint was the main product sold, but they also stocked a full line of hardware. Mr. Hubbard was less knowledgeable about the paint business than he was about hardware in general, so when I showed up with a head full of paint technology, I was like manna from heaven.

With half the summer gone, the best I could give them was seven weeks, and I have never put in a more earnest or honest seven weeks’ work than there at the hardware store. I mixed paint, advised buyers about the type of paint best suited to their need, explained the correct techniques for preparing the surface, and raced up and down the Bayshore Freeway in the company’s delivery truck. At the end of each day, I could reconcile the takings with the sales dockets and close the shop.

Exemplary work practices have their downside. After five weeks of labour that was way beyond the call of duty, Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard told me that they were hoping to slowly withdraw from the day to day activities of the business in order to begin enjoying the fruits of partial retirement. As they had no children, they wished to know if I would be interested in buying, or more likely, earning my way into the business as a partner.

What to do? Telling them that I was leaving in two weeks to go back to school would be hard enough. Now that they wanted me to go into partnership with them, I couldn’t face the prospect. I don’t mind telling you that I did not feel really good about this. Call it cowardice if you like. I could not come out and say that I had deceived them. I just did not have the courage, and more importantly, I didn’t want to cause any hurt or feelings of betrayal – especially as they had come to trust me implicitly and wanted to share their business with me. Instead, I compounded my earlier deceit with a new fabrication.

With one week to go, I said to them that I could not accept their generous offer of a junior partnership in Hubbard’s Paint as the United States government had drafted me into the Marines. I explained to them that, as I was unemployed when I applied for citizenship, I was a candidate for military service when citizenship was granted. Moreover, I said, the notice required me to report in one week’s time to the Quantico Military Base for basic training, after which I would be attached to the Marines for two years.

One week later I was on the Greyhound bus for “Quantico” (via Abilene, Texas). An earlier epistle revealed my encounter with the Border Patrol, so I won’t recount it here.

As for my one year of military service, I never did quite make it to boot camp. However, I did have a friend from college who, after graduation, signed up with the Marines and was stationed at Quantico. I felt so bad about what I had done that, for a little over a year, I mailed him a few cards and a letter addressed to the Hubbards and asked him to forward them, postmarked Quantico. None of them had a return address, of course, as I did not want letters arriving at Quantico addressed to Private first class John William Lawler.

Towards the end of this one year of my correspondence, the Vietnam War was getting underway, and I considered writing one last letter to the Hubbards informing them that I had paid the ultimate price for my American citizenship but that had an obvious flaw. In the end, I just stopped weaving my “tangled web.”

Two years later I was back in the Palo Alto area for another summertime work stint, and I drove past the paint store. The name “Hubbard’s Paint” was still there, but I did not make my presence known. I was not up to concocting another fantastic tale and could not face telling them the truth.

So, dear reader…what do you think? Were my actions utterly deplorable, and will I be removed from your next years Christmas card list? And consider for a moment what you would have done once your half share of the banana and the dime was gone.
I can only hope that my grandchildren do a better job than I did when they have to face what appears to them to be an insurmountable problem.

The next summer the saga continues:
  • Driving a yellow cab from New York to Roswell, New Mexico…
  • Working on a missile base with a construction crew that included a known murderer…
  • Busboy duties at the University of Houston cafeteria while being pursued by the campus police.

The prospect of making the summertime sagas into a TV series was considered and rejected by the major networks on the grounds that the stories were too unbelievable and would certainly not get a “G” rating. Disappointing, as I was hoping Russell Crowe might want to play the lead.

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