If there’s one thing my little brother and I learned from our parents, it was a healthy work ethic. We started working early. I don’t mean that we went out and got paper routes when we were five or anything like that, but we started early being responsible for chores around the house.
We lived in the country growing up, so there was no shortage of things to be done around the old homestead: lawns to be mowed, fences to be built and maintained, horse stalls to be mucked out, animals to be fed, barns to be tidied.
And indoors, of course, Mother expected us to clean up, not only after ourselves but after meals as well, and on Saturdays I vacuumed and dusted. Mom taught me how to iron when I was about six. I practiced on pillow cases and sheets and Dad’s undershirts. I learned how to use the sewing machine and how to wield a needle and thread. I became adept at hemming my own jeans.
When I was 11 or 12, Dad and I fenced in our acreage—we pulled barbed wire around 70 some acres together. We split and stacked so much fire wood. And then things changed. We left the country life and became townspeople, and the nature of our work changed.
During the summer of 1976, when the nation was celebrating America’s bicentennial, our family moved across Washington State, from the foothills of the Cascade mountains in Sultan to the rolling wheat fields of Columbia County. We could not have moved any further south and east and still remained in the state. No longer content to work for his father at The Bellevue American, the Eastside’s pre-eminent weekly newspaper, my father decided to purchase and run his own weekly newspaper: The Dayton Chronicle.
There were (and still are) only two very small towns in Columbia County: Dayton and Starbuck. The entire county had fewer than 5,000 inhabitants when we arrived (I’m pretty sure there are fewer now). Most of these folks subscribed to The Dayton Chronicle, relied up on this tiny weekly rag for their news: who was in the hospital that week, who got married, who died. What the price of wheat was, when the almanac predicted the next round of rain.
Getting this news written, printed, and delivered fell to us, our family of four (and a couple of other employees and at least one intern from Washington Statue University which was, more or less, just up the road). Dad attended city council meetings, school board meetings, high school football games. Mom answered the phones, wrote obituaries, and learned how to operate the typesetting machine. Once Dad pounded out the stories on his ancient manual Royal typewriter, Mom typeset them. She printed them out in long strips, columns, ran them through the waxing machine and pasted them up for printing.
I developed rolls of film and learned how to create the halftone prints that went into the paper, but the real work that fell to my brother and me happened in the basement of the Dayton Chronicle building. There, in the dank dark bowels of the hundred-year old building, we stuffed advertising flyers into those newspapers, and if it were a particularly newsy week, we also stuffed the second section of the paper into the first section. All 2500 copies.
We arrived immediately after school and set to work, Brucie standing on a stool because he was only in 4th grade and small for his age. As mom ran the addressing machine, which was much like a treadle sewing machine, we stuffed newspapers. Open the flap of the first section, shove in the second section, open that and shove in the advertising section. It was good to have a big paper, a fat paper. That meant Dad had sold lots of ads. Ads paid the bills.
There was a rhythm to the afternoon: the addressing machine squeaked each time Mom depressed the pedal and inserted the folded newspaper so that the address would be printed across the white space on top of the front page. Squeak, squeak, stamp. Squeak, squeak, stamp. Squeak, squeak, stamp.
Our hands grew black with the newsprint as the afternoon wore on. I ran up and down the steps, bringing down the bundles of newspapers from the back of the delivery van (which doubled as the family vehicle—an army green Ford). I’d pull the bundles down the steps by the oily utilitarian twine that wrapped around them. The smell of ink and twine and musty basement permeated our clothes and hair and skin.
Eventually, the piles of papers diminished from our side of the addressing machine, and grew on mom’s side. I tried to keep the stacks neat as I toted them, addressed now, back up the stairs, back to the van for delivery to the post office.
We didn’t just stuff newspapers. We also ran a printing shop in the back of the newsroom, and at least once a week we worked addressing and stamping mailers to go out to the town folk. I remember stacks and stacks of white envelopes and huge rolls of stamps. Brucie and I had to daub the stamps on a damp sponge and then affix them in the upper right corner of the envelopes and then insert whatever mailer was to go out. Brucie had trouble, being only 8, keeping the stamp in the corner and many envelopes sported postage stamps dead center.
We got paid for our efforts—or at least I did. I can’t speak to my brother. I still have the paycheck stubs that my dad typed out every two weeks. I made $2.38/hour. I think I grossed maybe $20/month. Each payday, I’d walk down the block and deposit my paycheck in the bank.
I can still conjure that basement, still feel the rough twine, the oil on my hands, the way it smelled. The ink, the black smudges it left on the papers. When I think about how I learned how to work, I think about that basement—the shining silvery stacks of pig iron (for the printing press upstairs), the old wooden cabinets full of ancient type, the boxes and boxes of yellowing pictures with curled edges. But mostly, I remember my family, working together. Complaining, surely I complained, after all, I was 13, 14, 15. But, learning to work, nonetheless.