Great Jobs 17-Other Jobs A Few Bad Ones And Then Good
Between 1946, when I married Audrey, and later in 1950 when the Korean War started, I had an abundance of jobs bad and good. It seems that as the war effort production slowed down and factories readjusted to peace time production of cars and appliances that had not been produced since 1941. The need for large work forces leveled off and no longer were second and third shifts required as was the case during the all out war effort.
During those years, we had sort of a recession, not serious as was the case before the war, but just serious enough to make job hunting a bit of a chore again. After the experience at the Tanning Plant, it became a bit more difficult for me to get a good job. The old problem of course, and newly enforced insurance requirements pertaining to employees and employers tended to slow me down a bit. A Republican Congress hell bent on ‘finding Commies’ and the passing of the Taft-Hartley Law designed to put down Labor Unions had the effect of making it more difficult to find jobs even for workers in the best of condition. However, ‘never say die Leo’ found several.
Jimmy McAteer told me about a job at the city steam plant, across the street from City Hall. That plant was originally supposed to provide steam and electricity for the City Buildings, but the generators were never put in, only the boilers which provided heat. The job was for a ‘Coalpasser’, which job consisted of unloading two railroad hopper cars each day. There were two of us on that job and when we had completed the days work we could go home. I stayed at that job until winter, as this was an outside job where the rail siding was next to the building not in it. Usually these cars came from the mines in Illinois where the coal was ‘raked’ through cleaning ponds, a way of eliminating dust. And in the cold winter the wet coal froze solid in the hopper cars on the trip to its destination.
In the summer the cars would empty in a matter of a few hours. Actually it would empty as fast as the bottom hoppers would allow it to empty. The only slow up was the conveyor which carried the coal to the top of the building to the coal bunkers. And, we had to direct the flow to the proper place. Old coal had to be used first, so the bunkers were filled in a rotation order.
Saint Louis is noted for some real bad winter days, not all winter but mostly in spells; days of extreme cold with warmer periods in between. On those cold spells those hopper cars would freeze solid on their trip. We would get to work early and actually build fires under those cars. We also had big steam hoses to spray high pressure live steam over the frozen coal. Two or three hours of that would finally get the coal to flow from the hoppers. The cold weather was not as bad as the damp clothing and wet boots and shoes from the steam and the melting of the ice clogged coal. Another good job gone down. At that time I was a member of the Firemen and Oiler’s Union, Local 6.
Later, I got a job at the Federal Barge Line’s empty barge docks. That was easy to get, had a history of good work there. I could have returned to the river boats, but did not want to be away for long periods since I had married. At the docks, we repaired and cleaned the barges. Open barges that carried everything from grain to coal to sulphur had to be cleaned, checked, and repaired where necessary for the next load. Grain does not mix with sulphur or coal, coal does not mix with sulphur, and sulphur does not mix with anything. The job there was to wash down the various leftover of whatever it was that was left from the last load, and check the barges in general. Work orders usually came with them. I worked there till the next winter. Outside jobs are not fun especially on the river in the winter.
So I got another job at International Shoe Company, this time in the warehouse and of all places in the Sample Department. The job in that department was to get all the returns from the salesmen’s samples and put them in bins to be sorted. The salesmen usually have one shoe in their sample cases, not two. If you ever looked in your shoes you will see numbers of all sort printed or stamped on one side near the heel. These numbers not only tell the size and width of the shoe, but there are factory codes, color codes (what you thought all shoes were black or brown? well yes they are but depending on the date they were made the color may be different. One by one, black shoes look black or brown look brown, but side by side on your feet they may look different shades) and various other codes. Thus all these codes had to match in order to pair the shoes. Once paired, they were then refinished and sent back to shoe stores, or they may be sold as seconds or sale items. In those days the shoe companies had their own Brand Shoe Stores. I worked there for almost another year. Not much chance for any sort of promotion there.
And then, there was one last job, where I lasted exactly one half a day The fact is if I could have quit in the first hour I would have. This job happened to be at General Motors. At the time the Chevrolet plant was in north Saint Louis at Union and Natural Bridge. It just might have been a good Union job, but I was put on the assembly line and all I had to do was put two wheels on the right side of the car as it went by. Well, Chevrolet was selling a lot of cars by then and the line was moving pretty fast. I think I missed a few lug nuts and there was no getting away from that line until a relief man came by to give you a break. No matter what you could just not walk away from that line, but when lunch time came I left. No way was I going to work on an assembly line and keep up with putting on two wheels and getting all the lug nuts tightened in a matter of seconds. I don’t remember if I ever went back to collect my pay either.
Well, by then it was 1950 and although I had a few bar tending jobs (yep, there was a Bartender’s Union then, long before HERE took over all the Hotel and Casino Jobs) and a couple of other odds and ends, I was not doing good as far as what I thought I should be doing. The last straw came when I applied to the city to get a Stationary Engineers license. I thought that I knew enough about steam and diesel plants to be able to pass that exam. And, actually I did pass, but was told by the board of examiners that I had a lack of stationary (as opposed to marine) experience and to come back for the next exams. Whatever that meant I got the point; actually the engineers were a close knit bunch and allowed only so many new passes each year which meant you needed a good ‘sponsor’ thus they kept their members all working and made the job a premium opportunity.
By about June of 1950 we got into the Korean War, and then I was told I was still eligible for the draft and some 4F classifications were being reconsidered for ‘desk jobs’. That did it; I told Audrey that I was headed back to San Pedro and getting back where I left off.
Well I did just that, hitch hiked all the way to California in the fall of 1950 and got there in a matter of about a week. Went right down to the National Maritime Union and was able to get on one of Union 76’s Tankers as an Oiler headed right to Korea with Airplane fuel. The San Luis Obispo was a new T2 type and had good speed. Stopped at Pearl Harbor for supplies and got to Pusan Harbor where we unloaded our fuel and was sent to the Persian Gulf for more bunker fuel for the Navy ships. We brought that back to Pearl Harbor, and then returned to the states.
Union 76 wanted to send me to the Maritime School at Alameda, but I was not sure I wanted to be a lifelong seaman. In any case I signed off that ship and worked as a Port Agent for a couple of months out of the Union Hall. That was not a great job and being on shore in California was expensive. So, I finally shipped out on another Union 76 Tanker, the San Juan Capistrano, A sister ship to the San Luis; most all the tankers that were owned by Union 76 were named ‘San’ whatever saint.
We again returned to Korea with fuel and supplies. At the time the North Koreans and the Chinese had pushed us back to about a 25 mile radius around Pusan, and we were there to either take our supplies or whatever troops out of there or support them. When we finally moved ahead and gained ground in the north we pumped off our fuel and supplies and headed for the Persian Gulf for more fuel. We made a few more trips between the gulf and Pusan to supply the Navy and Air Force. And finally, while sitting in the Pusan Harbor, after a long bunch of negotiations the war came to a standstill. We are still in Korea over 50 years later. But I returned to San Pedro in August of ’53.
After all that time at sea I had become slightly rich, and had even sent home monthly allotments for Audrey and even some for mom and she fixed up the house on Arsenal Street. No more coal furnace, she had gas put in and a new gas water heater. Used to have a little trash hot water heater which was fired up for baths and laundry. You have to remember it was still the 50’s and many homes were still coal and stoker coal heated. Mom even got a window air conditioning unit
In any event when we got back to San Pedro, I signed off and was deciding whether to go home or not, or what my next job might be. Since the war was ‘over’, I didn’t really want to ship out again, and after almost 3 years without getting home, I had just about convinced myself to catch the next Greyhound, Train, whatever. While mulling all this over, me and a buddy, Russ Prescott, who had been on the San Juan all that time with me, wandered on down to a bar to discuss our situation. After a few beers we knew we had no desire to ship out again, and while catching up on our drinking we ran into a very sad trucker who was crying in his beer about losing his rig. So, beer and conversation goes a long way sometimes. We finally decided to look into the ‘new career’ of driving over the road. Thus after we all consumed enough to float the San Juan all the way back to Korea, Russ and I decided a new career was in order and we made arrangements to take over the payments on this big rig.
We all decided to meet the next day at the bank where our new found friend (to this day I do not know this guy’s name, I knew it long enough to get all the papers signed and part company) and Russ and I took possession of a tractor and trailer. What a rig, a 1952 Brockway, with a hood long enough to take up a couple of parking places, A great big in line 6 cylinder gas engine, 7 speed with a three way transfer case, direct, over, and under, and a tag axle for weight distribution. A tag axle was quite common in those days as opposed to differential transfer of power to an additional set of drive axles. Most tractors today have power to two sets of drive axles, back then tag axles supported the weight. The trailer was a 42 foot, drop center, soft spring ride, furniture van.
“Wow”, we thought, “we’re in business”.
Maybe we were, and again maybe not. Where do we go to work with this thing, Well our bar buddy had told us where the North American Van Lines warehouse was and I got the first shot at driving on down there. What a rig, the trailer was empty, so I put ‘er in direct drive, ok for the city, started ‘er off in second gear and we got to the warehouse without ever getting into 7th gear. Traffic and all, would not allow me to get that beast much over 5th gear. Russ even decided my sea legs turned trucker's feet were doing a pretty good job as I pulled into the lot at the warehouse and in we went, hell bent on loadin’ up and leavin’ town for wherever.
“How do we get a load out of here”? we asked the warehouse boss.
“Who the hell are you guys and how did you get that rig”?
“Signed all the papers this morning, and took it over from the bank”.
“Oh jeez, a couple of drunken sailors, found my drunk driver! Well, I hate to tell you all this but, I can’t load you out of here, you guys ain’t even qualified to drive that rig”.
“What the hell you mean I ain’t qualified”, I asked, “I just drove the damn thing down here. Ya’ want me to show you how to do a wheelie or whatever”?
“Hey guys, hold it, I ain’t questioning your driving skills, I am just telling you that you will have to get a license to drive that rig”.
“Well, we both got licenses to drive,” said I. “I got a Missouri license and Russ here has a Michigan license.
“Let’s see ‘em”.
So we pulled out our driver's licenses and handed them over for a look see, they were good licenses all right but they were driver’s licenses for driving cars.
“Hate to tell you the sad news but those licenses won’t let you drive that rig. You all will have to get a CDL license to drive”.
“So, what the hell is a CDL license”?
“Come on you drunken sailors; let’s go get some lunch and I’ll try to tell you”,
So the boss takes us in his car down to the local eatery, and tells us we can pay for the lunch. That was no big deal, but, then he started to explain all about getting our licenses so we could drive our new purchase and even make some money with it. He told us about the ICC, the PUCs, the DOT, and a bunch of other things we didn’t quite absorb at the time. But, then he also explained how we could get all squared away at the company training center.
North American Van Lines had a training center at its headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Russ thought that was great; since it was just a little over a hundred miles from where he lived in Michigan. The warehouse boss also told us who to see there and pretty much what we needed to do to get started.
Well, we thought that was pretty nice to give us all the information we needed to get started and we thanked him and asked him if we could drive our rig home and then to Fort Wayne.
“Well”, he said, “you guys own it, so drive it home, but don’t try to haul anything in it or you sure as hell will get arrested if you do. You can drive yourselves home, if you want to, and I hope you all have good luck with your new job”.
So, home we went, in that big rig, what a gas guzzler, but then we didn’t realize that a big in line six gas buggy with cylinders about the size of buckets and even empty, except for our clothes, dragging a trailer would use more gas than a six cylinder passenger car.
“Hey, sweetie (Audrey that is), we are stayin’ over tonight and in the morning we can pack up your stuff and move to Michigan, Russ has his own trailer and also a three room house that we can live in”.
“Move to Michigan? What are we going to do there”? Audrey was a great gal, she thought nothing of going anywhere in her young life, just as she thought nothing of peddling booze in Arkansas, or going to the JP in Conway, Arkansas. Moving to Michigan was just another adventure.
“Work, after we finish schooling, you don’t have a job here do you”?
“Nope, just taking care of my mom and helping your mom, your grandpa has been sick for a while”.
So we packed up and moved to Dowagiac, Michigan, and Russ and I spent about 6 weeks at Fort Wayne getting educated in driving big rigs, loading and unloading big rigs, packing furniture in ways that we never knew of, and finally getting our CDLs. That’s an interesting story too. Had to find a doc who gave you a good physical but had some old time eye charts as well, and found one in Elkhart, Indiana, and of course passed all my tests with flying colors. I was always healthy as a horse even if I couldn’t see his head from his tail.
Sure was nice of North American or we would have been broke before we ever got started.
Russ and I were partners, until he died of lung cancer in 1960.
Watch for Helmer's next chapter on Great Jobs in the May issue.
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