Growing Up in Idaho - Cool and Crappy Jobs

So, the question of the day is, “What kind of cool or crappy jobs did you do as a kid?” Now I’m not necessarily talking about cleaning your bedroom or doing the dishes. Those chores are foisted on pretty much every kid in existence and we can all agree those chores are just painful, but they have to be done if, as a kid, you want to stay in the good graces of your mother.

What I’m talking about are those jobs where, as a kid, you made money and had a boss. But you had to accept the job because it was the only one available for a kid your age and you needed money and your parents refused to give you any! Something like scraping out pig sties or cleaning the milk barns or hauling wood for the stove. Maybe you were the lucky kid who had a cool job running the sluice at your uncle’s mining claim. That sounds like fun, for about five minutes. Then shoveling all that dirt is just hard work. But who knows? There’s a lot of interesting things kids do to make a buck. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

This discussion is based on a chapter in my book, “Growing Up in Idaho,” where I reminisced about some of the jobs I had as a kid back in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. I had my share of crappy and cool jobs! But I needed money because I had a car that needed gas and I had insurance to pay. Plus, there was a social life that needed to be financed. Everything we do requires money in some way. And yeah; I had to earn that money. No kid I knew in those days had anything handed to them. Even the so-called rich kids had to pay their own way.

Before I break into the description of my first crappy job as a professional sprinkler pipe mover, let me tell you about the coolest job I ever heard of for a kid. Growing up in my hometown in Idaho everyone is involved with the Salmon River that runs through the middle of town and flows clear through the center of Idaho’s primitive area. Most folks just swim and play in that river. Some make their living on it.

Back in 1978, when we were in ninth grade, my friend Merlin had to take a week off school so he could help with a river trip. You see, his family owned a rafting company and the Carter’s were coming to town to take a trip down the river. That’s Carters, as in, President Jimmy Carter and his family. In fact, the president signed Merlin’s note requesting he get out of school.

It was Merlin’s job, if I recall, to run the food and supplies boat. Now, the food boat is the most important one on the river. It’s the food boat, for heaven’s sake! Every other boat can flip upside down in a giant wave and be gone, but if the food boat flips, well it’s a sad day.

Think about it. If Jimmy’s boat goes over and Jimmy disappears, there’s US constitutional guidelines in place to replace him. But if the food boat that Merlin’s in charge of, flips and the food disappears, then folks are going to be eating bugs and pine needles. The thought of having to go a whole week on the river without steaks and drinks makes me shudder! I’m starting to slip into depression just talking 
about it!

So, anyway, Merlin was in charge of some important stuff and he represented well. If I was to do comparisons on the coolest jobs given to a kid, I would rank being a boatman on the Salmon River near the top.

My first paying job was foisted upon me when I was in seventh grade. My brother and I contracted with some ranchers to move their sprinkler pipes. There was ranch land all around our little place at the mouth of Perreau Creek, most of it pasture and alfalfa. In those days, manual sprinkler lines were used to water all that ground. And those lines had to be moved once a day.

We loaded into our ’68 Ford Galaxy 500 early every morning except Sundays and headed off for a few hours of paid misery. Speaking of that Galaxy, that old white Ford not only served as our pipe moving mobile, it got us all over the hills and mountains of Central Idaho. We didn’t have a license to drive yet, but who cared about that? Nobody!

Thankfully in those days, Ford built indestructible oil pans and tie rods. We took that car where Jeeps wouldn’t go! Dad, if you’re listening to this podcast, sit down and take a deep breath. This happened over forty years ago. Everything is alright now!

So, if you’ve ever had to move sprinkler pipes for a living, you probably have the memories of that experience suppressed somewhere in the depths of your mind. Someday when you’re least expecting it, all those memories of suppressed anger and rage caused from moving pipe will come boiling out and you’ll need to be contained in a padded room for a short time.

I submit, all the vile, foul words contained in the English language, originated in the alfalfa fields of Idaho where some kid just had his line tip over because he forgot to put water through it while he was moving the pipes! You learn quickly, there’s a right and a wrong way to do things. The learning curve quickly comes full circle. And so does learning to swear like a sailor.

Halfway through my eighth grade year, I was sick of hearing the same ole narrative from my parents, “Sorry son, don’t have any money right now. Go get a job!” You’ve probably all heard the same crap from your parents. By then, I knew I was tired of Sears Tough Skin Jeans and cheap sneakers. I needed to raise my stock among the women folk and the ability to buy fancier clothes was the quickest route to that end!

So what is a thirteen year-old kid to do? It’s simple. Go to work! Moving pipes was out of the question. That was seasonal work and didn’t pay enough. I needed a steady income. So, I called my Uncle Ralph. He was running Wally’s Café and I hoped he was in need of a kid who would do anything for a buck. Well, almost anything.

“Can you do what you’re told and not mouth-off at people when they tell you what to do?” my uncle wanted to know.

“Yeah, I can do that,” I replied.

“Alright, then. Come in tomorrow after school. We need a dishwasher,” he said.

My boss in my new profession as dishwasher in Wally’s was a little old lady named Elna Rose. I learned a few basics of work ethic from Elna that I still use today. “Show up 15 minutes early and be ready to work. And get crap done!” That simple mantra, I learned, fit well with just about any job or profession I would ever have.

And Uncle Ralph, that quiet, gentle soul, was the epitome of gracious and steady. He was the best short-order cook in the entire state of Idaho and probably in the North West. He had a style of leadership where few words were spoken, but you always felt motived to perform your best.

One day near the start of my dishwashing career, I put a plate in the stack that had a small speck of food that somehow didn’t get washed off.

“Jeff, the customer may not notice that small speck, but I know it’s there. And I can’t use that plate,” he said.

That was all I needed to hear. I got the message.

You may be thinking that to a rough and tumble kid, washing dishes would be a real crappy job. But you gotta know, in addition to the two dollars and thirty cents an hour I made, I also got one free meal for every four hours I worked! I had hit gold! Free food was my biggest motivation in life at that time!

So, I grew up in a family with a strong sense of tradition and pride in our work ethic. I think most of my peers at that time were in the same boat. Family tradition brings responsibility. For me, there seemed to be this sense that I shouldn’t let my relatives and even my ancestors down when it came to my work ethic. My dad often reminded me that Hicks’ were hard workers and always took pride in the results of their labors. And that went back centuries into the Hicks Ancestry! Even in the seventeen hundreds when John Isaac Hicks cut a wide swath as a proud Virginia land owner, that still held true. I came from a long line of rugged individualists.

My grandfather, Harry Hicks was a hard-rock miner. He carried a man’s load when, as a boy, he worked with his father running a pack train in Central Idaho. They kept a steady supply of food and tools going to the miners working operations down the Salmon River.

Grandpa had a lot of stories about his days running that pack train. If you look across the Salmon River as you drive towards Corn Creek, you can still see the pack trail he worked. In fact, you can see his handiwork in other areas, too.

If you drive past Cove Creek a ways, just off to the side of the road, you will see some “Indian writings” on the face of a rock wall. There’s some interesting writings with teepees, stick figure horses and lots of scenery. Also, there are a bunch of hash marks of varying degrees of color just above the other artwork.

My grandfather, as a twelve-year-old boy, on one of his pack trips, took his horse across the river and was playing around on the other side during a short break. He found some Indian writings and decided to add his own to what was already there. So he crushed some red plants, mixed in some water, and went to work writing. In his own words, he said he made those hash marks in order to get his dye the same color as what was already there. After he was satisfied it was the same, he drew some of his own artwork, fairly closely matching the original.

Archaeologists have studied those writings for years, trying to decipher what they might mean. Little did they know, half the artwork was made by twelve-year-old Harry Hicks. Fact is, however, the art can still be classified as Indian writings because Harry was half Indian. Just goes to show, you never know what will happen when a kid has too much time on his hands when he gets a break.

As kids, we all had jobs that were foisted on us by our parents. These were jobs that were important to the success and survival of the family, but which there was little or no monetary compensation. Some kids actually got an allowance of cash each week for doing those jobs. That wasn’t the case for me, however. My allowance was three square meals every day and a roof over my head.

My brother and I were required to keep the wood box filled during the winter months and make sure the fire was started in the morning to keep the house warm throughout the day. All we had was a big, pot-bellied stove to heat the whole house. During winters when temperatures could dip to 30 below zero, that stove was essential to our family’s survival.
We got most of our wood from the saw mill. Every fall, dad and us boys would drive a dump truck down to the mill and pull ends and pieces off the conveyor as they were sent up to the giant burner. Those ends and pieces were essentially rough-cut two-by-fours.

My brother and I had the job of ricking those ends and pieces into evenly stacked square piles so the wood could dry out and burn better. For any kid who understands that process, you know that ricking wood is one of the biggest crap jobs of all time, probably even worse than moving sprinkler pipes. For an eight or nine-year-old kid, I hated ever second of that job. It was a time when my brother and I would aim our spite towards our dad who made us perform such hard labor.

One particular year, as fall and cold weather had set in, we found ourselves with the assignment to rick a couple of dump truck loads of those ends and pieces. We felt abused and picked-on for having to do it. To add to our misery, the rest of the family was in our nice, warm house resting and watching TV while Mikey and I were in the Siberian Gulag, working like concentration camp workers.

This little window into my life is a good microcosm into a reality of human nature. I did not much like my older brother at all at that time. But on that night, he and I were equals in our oppressed state. And together, we aimed our angst at dad and our opinion that he was an overbearing, unfair taskmaster. So, I became confederate with Mikey in my temporary dislike for dad. I was determined to get even with “The Man” and break out of my oppressed state. For a few moments that cold, fall night, I knew what it was like to be a slave.

As we begrudgingly went through the motions of wood stacking, our minds were busy figuring out how to get out of doing this terrible chore and even better, how to get even with dad for forcing such hard labor onto his sons. We decided that this night would be our last in this family. We would run away and live like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer down by the river. There was an old abandoned cabin down there and that would be our home. Of course, that meant that we wouldn’t have to go to school anymore, either. The idea seemed brilliant! 

After much discussion on the matter, we decided I would go in the house, sneak into the food room, take some canned goods off the shelf and pack them into my backpack. Mike would be busy grabbing our sleeping bags and a few extra blankets. Of course, we would also throw in our knives and guns. I had my Buck knife and a .22 rifle and Mikey had his shotgun and we had plenty of ammunition. One never knows when he will be set upon by wild animals like bears or wolves. Plus, we would need to kill a deer once in a while to eat so we could stay healthy. Our packs would then be topped off with some warm winter clothes and we would be ready for a life of happiness living on our own with no more damn chores to do. We went over every minute detail and had it all carefully planned.

I imagined mom weeping over the loss of her sons and dad feeling terrible for making his boys do hard labor. I had a feeling of smugness as I thought about how those people were going to regret their parenting mistakes. I figured they would just have to learn their lessons the hard way.

Suddenly, dad opened the door and said, “You boys finish that load you have and then come in for dinner. Mom has everything on the table ready to eat.” 

As he closed the door, the smell of chili and cornbread wafted out of the house and right into my nostrils. Man, that smelled good!  My mouth started to water as I imagined mom’s chili being washed down with cold milk and topped off with cornbread, smothered in butter and honey. But no!  We had a plan. We were running away and nothing was going to stop us!

I neatly stacked the wood that I had in my hands and Mikey did the same. As we walked back toward the house, he said, “What do you think?  Maybe we ought to eat dinner before we run away. At least we will have one last decent meal before we’re gone for good.”

I agreed. We would sit down with the family for one last meal together before we set out. But after that, there was no looking back. So we walked into the house and washed up for dinner. Running the warm water over my cold hands made them hurt and they throbbed. But within a few minutes they felt warm again!

We sat at the dinner table in our usual spots and loaded up. Our bowls were filled with scrumptious thick chili with giant chunks of beef. We served-up oversized portions of cornbread. The steam rose off the bread as it was cut in half and the butter was spread. The heat from that bread caused the honey to melt and run down my chin as I shoveled it in my mouth.

Mom set a huge pitcher of ice cold milk on the table. We were expected to drink all of it! Everything was perfect–too perfect, in fact, for two boys who were planning to run away. How could we turn our backs on something as heavenly as great food?  That and the question of intense warmth and comfort from that pot-bellied stove crept into my mind. I looked at Mikey out of the corner of my eye and he wasn’t looking back.

A half hour later, we had finished eating. I followed Mikey into our bedroom.

“Are we still going through with our plan to get the hell out of this place?” I asked.

“Well, let’s wait until this weekend, he said. That will give us more time for packing and getting everything ready.”

Deep inside, I knew we would never follow through with our plan. Why?  Because great food and a warm house always trumps spur-of-the-moment plans for young boys to run away and live like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer down by the river. No question about it, my parents had that one ‘ace’ to play in their game of raising a family, when their goal was to keep their kids living at home until they were mature enough to live on their own.

Throughout the years, every time I smell chili and cornbread I immediately think back to my home on River Street in Salmon, Idaho where I and my brother learned the essence of life–that hard labor is okay, especially when good food, the warmth of home, and family are the rewards. My feelings of oppression were soon forgotten as I went to bed that night with a full stomach. At that moment, I figured life as Mike and Birdie Hicks’ young son was probably tolerable, but only if mom kept good food on the table.


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