Monday, September 06, 2010


This writing gig is an absolute joy, and it’s often hard to keep from feeling guilty taking money for it. For that reason, I can’t really write about this trade in reference to the Labor Day holiday. It just doesn’t apply. But, I’ve had some jobs in my life, and on this beautiful weekend here in northwest Arkansas, some of them come to mind.

The first job I had, in the 7th grade, was a subcontracting partnership between me & Chris and Rosco King, down at the Dairy Queen on Harrison Street. We picked up trash on the parking lot, way early in the morning, before school.

Following that, we landed some short gigs: working for Paralee Rust at the flower shop; stocking stores; cutting grass – stuff like that. Then, when I was in the 10th grade, we (me & Chris and Randy Tovey) discovered they were looking for some help out at Midwest Lime. I really don’t recall if we came upon that as a result of me dating the electrician’s daughter, or my dad being friends with Y.M. Mack, but there we were, again, independent contractors. Our job was to clean the debris out of the railroad cars (gondolas & hoppers), and plug the holes, so they could be loaded with agricultural lime and rock. As I recall, we were paid $2 per car, which we split between the three of us. They paid us the money whether the cars were empty to start, or half full of metal shavings, iron ore…whatever. From there, all three of us finding we liked being quarry men, expanded to other jobs, like mill operator, truck driver, loader operator, etc. We stayed for years. To this day, when strangers ask me where I grew up, I tell them “Midwest Lime.”

Being that there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a rock star (a job running concurrent with the Midwest experience), one day I took off my boots and, per a tip from my father-in-law who left before me, interviewed for a nice, cushy Industrial Engineer Trainee position at Arkansas Technical Industries. I figured the clean-up time after work on Friday nights would be considerably quicker, and I could get to our music gigs without all that white dust in my long, flowing hair. I walked out of that interview and got in a welding truck with James Kelly and rode to Dallas to pick up a single piece of drill steel for Midwest, never giving a thought to the idea that they’d actually hire me. When I got back, I found out that they had.

A year there, and then the layoffs came. The economy in 1974 was about as sweet it is now. But, all I had to do was ask and Mike Low took me back – rock star or no. I don’t think he even really had a job open at the time. Before I took up driving a Payhauler, they’d often find things…anything for me to paint. I painted the whole world gray.

Around ’76, I think, my dad had another friend who was running the Noland Company store out across from the airport, and got me a job there as a “management trainee.” I did a lot of training back in the day. Rock ‘n Roll continued in tandem with that job until I took off to seek a career as an electrician. But the guy we were working for got into it with Guenzel and fired him one day, so a few minutes later I quit and went to hang out with Larry at his apartment. After all, I’d get it all back when our band, Orion, had our first top 40 hit.

Then came the really lean times. Bad as the economy was, I had no concept of what that meant. There were no jobs anywhere, especially for an Arkansas College dropout. I started hanging out at a plumbing supply house on Lawrence Street (having experience with that trade, at least), and ultimately bribed my way into a job there in “outside sales” with six cases of beer. This was notwithstanding the fact that I had absolutely no experience or training in sales, but Kimbrough seemed to be doing OK back at Noland Company, so, I thought, could I. Well, it didn’t take me long to discover that I couldn’t sell a life jacket to a drowning man. Most days, I’d tell them I was going out to call on factories and contractors, then drive up to Ash Flat and shoot pool in a gas station diner until time to come back and clock out. I was in Newark one day and stopped by a little shack on a side street there where somebody told me “they” were hiring for some kind of job on the construction of the Independence Steam Electric Station. An interesting man named Bob Keller interviewed me and hired me, on the spot, to stand under an 80,000 pound hydraulic hammer, under the boom of a crane, and count the number of times it took the hammer to drive metal piles every foot down into the ground…at night. How could I refuse a job like that? Even I could count.

I rode that horse for everything I could, going from position to position within that construction testing company until, about 5 years later, the place was built and there was nothing else to do. And I still wasn’t a rock star. And I applied for emigration to Australia to work more construction jobs. And they told me to take a hike.

Enter the ol’ man again. He talked me into moving to northwest Arkansas and training (once again) to be an insurance adjuster. That was 1983, and I’m still doing that, while I wait to become a rock star.

Maybe all this “real work” does have something to do with my writing after all. They tell me you write about what you know. I’m always finding myself using characters and places and situations I’ve experienced working all those jobs in my books and short stories. And they paid me to work the jobs. And now they pay me to write about them. Is that cool, or what?

Happy Labor Day everybody!

© 2010, Rick Baber