A person’s work ethic has early genesis

Now and then while doing interviews, I often ask about first jobs. It’s a good icebreaker. Most people, if of a particular vintage, have fond memories of bussing tables, working behind a counter, doing some sort of labor. It’s the thrill of getting that first paycheck, away from the purview of parentage.

There’s a sense of pride. Giving it some thought the other day while driving, I’ve had three weeks of unemployment since leaving school. A long three weeks.

Would believe many feel the same way: would rather work than play. Labor Day 2013 has a similar sense.

••••••

Like a lot of sons who grow up in their father’s business, my first job featured a slew of “character building” exercises. Before computers, offset printing and the Internet, newspapers were typically “hot type” operations. My first job was making “pigs.”

Pigs were made of molten lead, then cooled and set, oblong in shape and weighed about 30 pounds each. Used type was tossed into hellboxes from around the composing room — it was collected, melted into liquid, then molded back into the pigs, which were hung from the Linotypes from which new type was generated. Recycling, before it was cool. It was also mind-numbing, repetitive and, looking back, a bit dangerous.

The pigs were made in a room about the size of a broom closet and on a hot August day in east Texas, it felt like the surface of Venus. Our father was “close” with the dollar, in that he could get labor like mine rather inexpensively. (My older brother, too, made pigs and had similar jobs in our father’s newspapers. He’s a CPA/tax law expert these days, always smarter than his younger sibling. Digressing, alas.)

The glamour of having a real job while my friends mowed the neighbors’ grass, wore off pretty quickly while pouring hot lead on a hot day. The composing foreman, a joyless man by the name of Harry, would yell above the clanking and clamor of Linotypes: “more pigs, dammit!” I suppose he thought Dammit was my first name.

••••••

Another career path not taken was tending bar. The occupation is rife with risks — rife is on the same page of the dictionary as “riffraff.” Bar tending often finances a college education. I did it for three years.

The Bar G Western Palace in Commerce, Texas, was a long way from the chummy atmosphere of “Cheers.” When the stuffing came out of the barstools, they were fixed with duct tape. Not everyone knew your name.

It seated 600 when the fire marshal wasn’t looking and featured a long bar, pool tables, plenty of restrooms (and walls to put your fist through), and all the accoutrements of a country-and-western roadhouse: pickled eggs in big jars, longneck bottles of beer and frozen pizza. Two brothers opened it after suddenly coming into some money. What better way to invest the nest egg, than in a bar, eh?

We had a loud house band three nights weekly and big names once a month like Ernest Tubb, Faron Young, Hank Thompson. Waylon and Willie played there as well and were always the best with the crowds, signing autographs and body parts. They tipped the bartenders, too.

The clientele was a mix of cotton farmers, college students, local business types, rednecks and hippies; a night out for some, romance for others. Crop-dusting was discussed, phone numbers were exchanged — you know, bar talk.

One memory was from New Year’s Eve 1974 and a “regular” who had been drinking steadily all night. Just as the New Year was about to be rung in, I was inexplicably gripped with a sense of ethics and refused to serve him any more because he appeared drunk. He didn’t agree with the diagnosis and placed a .38 on the bar, saying nothing. The message clear, I replied: “Tommy, this one’s on me.” The owners 86ed him, and I lost a good tip.

It was also a primer in business and management.

With customers two, three deep at the bar on busy nights, I asked one of the two brothers to get another cash register. Sure enough, the next night, he brought in a cigar box. Another night, when looking for change at the main register, I found it empty when just minutes before, it was stuffed with hundreds of dollars. Told to “go see Billy” (the younger brother), he was in the back office throwing dice with his pals. In essence, an accounting issue at night’s end. Not at all unlike what happened to Enron.

These days, the Bar G’s a church.

 

Have a safe and happy Labor Day Weekend!

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