The work ethic was certainly drilled into all the kids I grew up with. Of course, 16 was the legal working age, but if we wanted money, we had to find ways to earn it. This was especially true during the summer when allowances, scant though they may have been, dried up. I mowed a lot of grass, took soft drink bottles back to stores for the few cents of deposit money, cleaned up construction sites, washed cars and worked at anything else that brought a buck or two.
I knew some youngsters who gained filthy lucre by illegal means and, a time or two, I was given the opportunity to participate. I look back now smugly and think of myself as having had integrity, even though it was probably fear of what Mother would do to me that kept me honest. One opportunity to go wrong came when a boy notorious for his evil schemes wanted me to take the back seat out of my 1939 Chevrolet so we could “haul scrap metal.” It sounded like a pretty good deal until I figured out that the scrap metal he had in mind belonged to a drilling company. When I refused, he called me a sissy mamma’s boy, which is, in my estimation, better than being a bold jail bird.
Jobs were plentiful for boys that turned 16 in the 1950’s. Many got paper routes, some worked at grocery stores, others delivered for drug stores and a few got jobs pumping gas. Self-service at filling stations was unheard of back in those days. I got my job as a Western Union messenger boy because of my mother’s friendship with the boss man at that company. My Social Security records show that my income was meager there, but it was steady. I worked until dark after classes, all day Saturday and Sunday mornings during the school year and five or six days a week during the summer. I was not allowed to deliver messages in my car and it felt a little funny to drive to work and then mount the bicycle for the duration. Also, I was a tad embarrassed when my classmates saw me riding through town on a bicycle while they drove by in their hotrods, but I just kept saying under my breath, “Money is money.”
I do not remember ever reflecting about having a work ethic, though. It was just part of the fabric of life. If you want to live, you have to work. Life did not owe me a living. Quite to the contrary, I owed life work. That frame of mind sustained many of my friends and me as it took us to attitudes of independence. Even in the military, we gave “the man” an honest day’s work, knowing all along that we owned our job—the job did not own us. In short, work was a means to an end, not an end in itself. I have never been a workaholic, but I know which side my bread is buttered on.