My first summer job

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(Host) Commentator Will Curtis reflects on that staple of the season – the summer job.

(Curtis) Our youngest grandson, home from his first year at college, has a summer job earning what seems to me to be an enormous hourly wage. I try to be careful not to say, “Why, back when I had a summer job I was lucky to get a dollar an hour!” (It’s all too easy to sound like an old duffer forever saying, “when I was young…”)

James tells me that he’s getting only the bare minimum wage, and anyway, years ago when I had summer jobs the dollar was worth a dollar! Looking back, it WAS an awfully long time ago, that first summer job. In fact, it was right in the middle of the Great Depression. I was lucky to get any sort of summer work. As I remember, I had just gotten my driver’s license, and I was certainly happy to chauffer Mrs. G. Howell Hall about town in her big black Buick. While I was glad to get the .50 cents an hour she paid me, it was awfully boring sitting, waiting in that hot old Buick, while Mrs. Hall went to tea parties.

Next year I got a real job, waiting on tables at the yacht club. I had to wear a black tie and trousers and a white shirt; waiters were dressy back then. I think I got that dollar an hour but what I really relished were the tips.

It was my third summer that I had a job I really liked, working for Mr. Conroy, the Irish-moss king. Irish moss is used for all sorts of things. It’s a thickener and used in ice cream, evaporated milk and gun powder. The moss was collected off the rocks by men in skiffs using long rakes. When they had gathered as boat load they off-loaded the moss into four-handled creels then carried by me and another worker to a beach where we spread the load evenly on a huge canvas. The wet moss was a rich, brownish red but in a few days it dried to a pinky-white if it didn’t rain. I didn’t get paid on rainy days.

Every afternoon we had to gather it into piles on the canvas and cover it to keep off the dew and each morning carefully spread it out again.

Finally, when it was completely dried, we would tramp in into whiskey barrels cut in half, cover it with canvas secured by a tight wooden hoop. Every few days trucks pulled in to load our barrels and off the dry moss went to Chicago, to be made into gun powder.

Mr. Conroy had a big business going, a new war was brewing in Europe and he paid well, well enough so that I could take a girl named Jane to the movies every week.

Will Curtis of Woodstock, Vermont.

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