By:  James F. O’Neil

“Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.”  –Horace

October.  Summer is a memory.  Schools are back in session for a new year, a new term.  “What I Did Last Summer” is long finished.  But wait!

What did teachers do “all” summer?

In my entire college education, I had only one course in economics.  I did not understand much of it; the plain grey-covered textbook weighed at least 15 pounds.  My transcript shows that I received a C in Econ 152 Intro to Economics.

My work-life began with a Social Security card, and a job in the produce department of Wieboldt’s in Chicago, on 63rd Street and Green.

 Wieboldt's 63rd and Green


This job brought me my first real paycheck and my first taxed Social Security earnings ($21) in 1957.  At sixteen, I was on my way to retirement (and the not-yet-known-Medicare), but certainly did not know it nor understand what was ahead for me in the work force.

In 1957, I was a junior in high school.  I had no earnings to speak of until 1963, the year I began teaching, the year I was married.

The Intro to Economics course taught me nothing about budgets, doing income taxes, withholding, rent, income, health insurance.  The GNP and Adam Smith did not help me with my first checking account.  (We did money orders for the first two years together.)  

We newlyweds had rented a nice one-bedroom apartment, 2nd floor, in a three-story building with long balconies, and dumpsters in the parking lot in the rear.  Wonder bread was 25¢ a loaf.


PHOTO CREDIT: garry-gay

We could fill the tank of the ’62 Corvair for $3.00; and my Camel cigarettes were 25¢ a pack.

However, we soon realized near the end of the first year together that my teacher salary of $4300 a year was not going to be adequate for our lifestyles of fast cars and nightlife at the drive-in. 

During the summers after a school year, most young teachers, having reported final grades, and having cleaned their classroom and done other bureaucratic duties in order to receive the final paycheck, had to find work for the summer. 

In the summer of 1964, I unloaded boxcars for Jewel Tea Company. 

jewel tea box car

Photo of Model Boxcar:

Unloading boxcars was, without a doubt, the hardest work I have ever done in my life. 

I was a lean, mean machine who could unload fifty-pound packages of bags of sugar, emptying a “sugar car” in an hour.  Green beans and SPAM took longer.  Ketchup cars were often scenes of massacre as the cars were “humped,” sending cartons of ketchup smashing against walls and ceilings.  After the broken glass, crushed cartons, and sprayed blood-red ketchup were disposed of, the remnants were able to be stacked in proper form on the pallets, awaiting the two-pronged forks of the lifts.

Summer could not end soon enough, with sandwiches made with ground baloney and mixed relish for lunch.

After the next school year?  No more bloody boxcars. 

“Fuller Brush!  Good afternoon!  I have a few specials to show you today.”

fuller brush man

Photo: Fuller Brush Man

The work was fun and the products were good (like the DCW–Dust, Clean, Wax–cleaner).  And the brooms never wore out.  My territory was mostly in the Palatine area near Chicago.  Selling, carrying that Fuller Brush case, then sorting orders and packaging and then making deliveries, was the routine.  The best part?  Meeting people–and no baloney sandwiches.

My territory got too big; my manager wanted me to do more.  I quit. 

After the snows melted and the spring rains came, I knew summer would come after another school year finished.

I drove a dump truck.

dump-truckDump Truck

I worked for a landscaper.  I was a real “sod-buster,” taking the truck to the sod farm, getting sod or loads of dirt, and delivering–safely, through the streets and on the roads of northwest Cook County–to the job sites. 

My sod-busting and sod-laying and plant-planting work brought me home every night looking like a Welshman from the mines. 

At the end of the summer of 1966, that chapter of my life, which really began long before at Wieboldt’s, concluded.  We left Chicago and headed up to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  It was to be our first big Adventure in Moving.  But more summers would lie ahead.

I was only 25….



© James F. O’Neil  2013


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