Saturday, July 18, 2009


I have no idea why I had to work so hard as a kid. I just don’t remember the reasons!
by Charlie Leck

Within a few days of beginning my first job in life, I was fired from it. I haven’t the slightest idea why. I never got an explanation. I just remember sobbing like crazy when I was booted. As I cried, I begged the nasty fellow who let me go to explain why he was doing it.

“It’s just best,” he said, “it’s just best.”

It turned out it was. Rid of that 50¢ an hour job, I was able to take another for 50% more. You’d probably think me crazy if were to tell you that losing that first job still rubs me raw and hurts my ego, but it’s true.

I was 11 years old when I took the job and I was put to work with another boy who was a year or two older than I. We were to mow and groom the cemetery up by the old Congregational Church in my home town of Chester, New Jersey.

I’d never used a power mower before, but I don’t remember that as a problem. Our boss, a fellow who lived right there on the north edge of the cemetery, showed us how to fuel them, start them and use them safely. Because we were young, we were only asked to put in a few hours a day and only a few days each week. It all seemed simple to me.

I was a big kid compared to other boys my age. I was taller and broader and stronger than most. Work didn’t frighten me either. I’d been given plenty of jobs around home and in my father’s general store for a few years already.

“Charles Henry,” my mother would often call out, “put the bottles away.”

In those days, folks were diligent about returning their glass coke and root beer and orange soda bottles. They got 2¢ for each one they returned. The bottles were just put down on the floor in a far corner of the store, just off to the right of the “meat box,” as we called the big refrigerator where the cold cuts were stored. When the spread of bottles got so big that it was impossible to walk around them to get to the soda fountain, some one of us kids had to tote them into the “back room,” a large storage room, nearly as big as the retail area.

At an early age I learned to fit one of each of my fingers down into a different soda bottle and cart 10 of them at a time back to where all the sodas were kept in storage, waiting to go into the big coolers behind the fountain. It was important to put them in their proper cases so the Coca Cola driver didn’t end up getting Pepsi bottles in his cases. My father would get his 2¢ refunded for each bottle he sent back to each different and various bottling company.

I was either putting bottles away or helping with the task as early my 6th year of life. I was burning trash by the time I was 10 and working at the cash register by the time I was 12. I also worked on assembling the Sunday morning newspapers by the time I was 10 (I wrote here before about this regular Sunday morning ceremony). I was sprinkling sweeping compound and cleaning up the floors of the store when I was 10, too.

None of this includes the regular chores I had in our own living quarters of the same big building. I regularly dusted the floors and the furniture and made and changed the linens on, at least, my own bed. I was also assigned to regular yard clean-up duty.

My point is that I came out of a family that expected work and responsibility fulfillment out of each of the children. I didn’t mind work. I wasn’t afraid of it and I wasn’t put off by it.

So, I was quite stunned the day the old caretaker of the cemetery let me go. My dad wasn’t very happy about it either, but he didn’t see it as a crying matter. He booted me in the seat of the pants and told me to “cut it out.”

He arranged for another job for me within a day or two. I don’t know why it was so important for him that I work. I can’t remember. I don’t think I was expected to contribute anything to the family. Early on in my life, however, my parents had explained banking and savings to me. I was expected to have a savings account and to contribute to it regularly and to grow it. I was never allowed to withdraw from it. If I had a big purchase I wanted to make, like a bike or ball glove, my dad always came up with the money for that. I think it just had to do with my old man’s own work ethic. Work was important to him and to society in general. It also kept a kid out of trouble.
So, a day or two after being fired from my cemetery job, and a month or so before my 12th birthday, I was working down at Fred Mosel’s gas station, pumping gas, checking oil and cleaning windshields. It was a job I liked much better than mowing grass and trimming weeds in the cemetery. I had a chance to talk to people who were very much alive. I worked off and on for Mr. Mosel right through my freshman year in college. He was a good man who both looked and acted like he ought to be a college professor. He had a beautiful, brilliant and charming wife who had grown up in the south and still carried the accent in her voice.

Fred paid me 75¢ an hour and a few of the richer guys in town, like Arnold Nichols or Abe Meyers, would often give me a dime or quarter tip. Fred knew I was a ball player and he always respected that and made sure I was done in time every day to make it up to the ball field for evening practices and games.

I pumped gas for a lot of the same people that I waited on in our little general store. Chester was a pretty small town back then and, if you lived in the borough, you were pretty well known and knew everybody else by name. You also knew many of the folks out in the township.

In the summer of ’53, as I was approaching my 13th birthday, I went to work on the magnificent Chubb estate down off Pottersville Road, about 3 miles south of town. Again, it’s a job my father arranged for me. Jud Russell, a regular customer at our store, and a guy who became a close friend of my father’s, was the farm manager on a part of the estate called Highland Farm. I’m sure my father told Jud about my baseball activities because he always made sure my work day ended in time for me to get back to town and up to the ball field on time for my games or practices. It was an easy bike ride down to the estate, but, as I remember it was all pretty much uphill all the way back to town. An old, quiet road, the Old Chester-Gladstone Road, ran parallel to the highway and that made it a pretty safe rout as well.

Farm work, as I learned then and know now, is tough work that makes a man out of any boy. And, I really liked it a lot. It never bored me and I never really got tired of doing it. I spent a couple of summers working for the Chubb family. I worked with really good people and the experience made me a better person.

Combining oats – the way it was done when I was a boy – was the hardest, toughest and nastiest job I ever had. Any other job on the farm seemed easy after combining.

While Renee Webb, a full-time farm employee, drove the tractor around and around the field, I drew the job of riding back on the combine. I sat on a little bench in front of two tubes from which the oats, separated from its straw grass, would come rushing down into the bags that I had attached to the opening of the chutes. My job was to get one filled up, to tie it quickly and drop it down a slide on to the ground, while a second bag, fixed to the alternate chute, was filling up. One couldn’t miss a beat at this job or there would be an overflow problem and oats would be wasted on the ground. It called for a good and fast tying job and the fixing of another bag on the chute before I could change the lever that directed the oats into the new bag. Then I would quickly pull the opposite, full bag off, tie it and drop it down the slide. On with another bag, change the pouring direction, tie and drop. On and on the job went and round and round the tractor and combine went. The dust was thick and covered every inch of me from head to toe My nostrils filled with the dust and so did my eyes.

Renee had begun the whole operation at a time that he knew would get me on my bike and back into town in time for my baseball responsibilities – and a quick bath. I don’t think I ever missed a practice and I know I never missed a game. Working on that farm did wonders for my game, too.

I played in my first Little League game in that same summer. I was pretty excited about the trip down to the Brookside ball field, just east of the town of Mendham. Boy, there were fences out there and flags flying, just like a big league ball park. My first time up in a real organized baseball game, Tommy Pugh threw a whopper up there to me and it was just under letter-high and it hung there as if inviting me to strike it. To this day, 55 years later, I can remember the ball sailing far above the fence in left field and climbing even over the trees behind the fence and landing in the brook beyond the trees. It was the happiest moment I ever had on a ball field and it was due, I fully knew, to those big bags of oats I had to haul around – and to the bales of hay I had to stack on wagons and then move into the hay barns – and to the bullpens I had to clean out pitch fork by pitch fork – and to the fence posts I had to haul off of wagons and drop into the holes I had dug for them.

One of my most extraordinary experiences at Highland Farm happened to me one day when Renee and I were out repairing some fencing along Pottersville Road, south of the main farm. The fence ran alongside the road, on the top edge of a steep bank that fell away into some thick brush. We’d just placed a post in a hole we’d dug for it and Renee was holding the post in a nice level position while I refilled the hole with dirt and then tamped it down firmly, so that it was as hard as concrete. As I moved around the post and the hole, tamping, tamping, tamping, my foot got planted on some very loose dirt that gave way beneath me and, before I could catch hold of anything, I went tumbling down the bank and crashed into the thick brambles and right into a large next of yellow-jackets who were not happy about my visit. I was immediately under attack and the bees got quickly underneath the legs of my jeans and under my t-shirt. I came scurrying up the bank and Renee saw what was going on. He tackled me and rolled me over and over on the hard ground, trying to kill the bees that were under my clothing.

I had to be hauled down to Gladstone, a town just a few miles south, to visit a doctor who treated my dozens and dozens of bee stings. Work ended early on that day.

Cleaning the bullpens would not have been a good experience for most people, but I enjoyed it. The Chubbs raised magnificent cattle. They were prize winners at cattle shows all over the eastern United States and Canada. To produce great steers, a farm needed great bulls. When a farm had a great bull, that animal was taken care of in a pampered, careful way.

I had finished cleaning out a stall in the bull barn one day and leaned outside the barn to give Renee the word that I had finished. I pulled open the door that allowed the bull to move between his outside paddock and his barn stall and then I hurried out of the bull’s way through the sliding door that led to the aisle of the barn. Renee wanted me to do a minor clean up of the outside pen on that day. So, we needed the bull to be inside so we could close his door and I could safely clean the pen. It must have been so nice a day that the bull had no inclination to go inside, so Renee climbed over the fence to herd the big animal into the barn. I sat on the top of the fence and watched and waited.

I was pretty shocked when I saw the bull turn on Renee I was more shocked when my supervisor lost his footing and went down and the bull was on top of him in an instant, butting him with his head and poking and bashing the downed man. I panicked somewhat and I was at a loss for what to do. I tried shouting and screaming at the bull. Finally, I looked around and saw there was no help. I ran around to a place where I could climb to the top of the fence and reach the bull’s back with the pitchfork I held in my hand. With all my might, I drove the pitch fork into the bull’s back. Fortunately, he responded to my strikes and turned on me. Just as he crashed into the fence post where I had stood, I jumped back ward to the ground. Renee was struggling to get back up and the bull looked over to him and then to me. To distract the bull from the target inside the pen with him, I climbed back up on the fence and waved and screamed at the bull. When he charged me again, I jumped back again to the ground and hoped the fence would hold. The sound of the bull’s head smashing into the thick, wooden boards sticks in my mind now as I write this. Renee had made it into the barn and the bull’s stall and managed to slide shut the door to gain his sanctuary. I disappeared from the bull’s sight so that he would calm down. I ran all the way around to the front of the barn to find Renee. He lay on the floor inside the bull’s stall. He pointed to a phone on the wall in the front of the barn.

“Better call for an ambulance. I ain’t feelin’ too good.”

We knew the telephone operators by name is those days and nearly all of them knew Henry Leck’s children. Dotty Thompson heard the fear in my voice and she put out an emergency call for the volunteer rescue squad in Chester and we heard the sirens approaching within five minutes or so.

It’s exciting to think back on those days. They were extraordinary learning experiences for a young kid. I took them with me on my travels through life and now, here in the quiet that comes with my current age, I can think back on them and shake my head in wonder.

The two years (summers anyway) working for Mr. Chubb were pretty special. They were good for me both physically and mentally and probably intellectually, too. It’s all part of my Chester story and the story of growing up as one of Henry and Milly Leck’s boys.

During the summers, I did farm work all through my high school years. I moved up to Pleasant Hill Farm, north of town, after two summers at the Chubb estate. That was a big dairy operation that moved me up to a $1.25 per hour. Every day was consumed with barn cleaning. Though there were automatic conveyors that moved enormous amounts of manure out of the barn and into waiting spreaders, the owners wanted everything to be made spotless each day. It was a showcase kind of farm, owned by a guy who made a fortune with a chain of roller skating rinks – America on wheels.

All the barns had piped in music, playing soft and soothing music all through the day. It was done to increase milk production. I wonder if it really worked.

When we weren’t cleaning barns, we were working with hay bales. I and the other high school boys who worked up there moved thousands and thousands of bales of hay from the fields into the big lofts in the barns. We didn’t have bale-throwers back then, as we do on our farm today, so we had to move each bale from the ground to the big hay wagons and then from the wagon on to an elevator that dropped the bales on the floor of the lofts. Then they had to be neatly and tightly put into stacks that eventually grew all the way to the tall, vaulted ceilings of the barn.

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