The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Monday, March 11, 2013

Summer Wages

I turned 18 in 1958 and like most young men, I faced many temptations. And like most temptations, they weren't so easy to ignore and set aside. But thankfully, I had a strong desire to leave home, get out in the world on my own, and, most importantly, go to college. To do that, I had to save my summer wages.

Right after I graduated from high school, my family moved to Texas. I got a job driving a truck hauling eggs. I saved about 95 percent of what I earned (around $700). It was a staggering pile of cash for an 18 year old who was used to getting along on meager fare. It amounted to about a sixth of what the average worker earned in a year in those days. The major temptation was to buy a fairly good and sexy used car. I could have used it to pay half down on a used '55 Chevy V8 210 post, which could be had for $1200-1500. Like most '50s teens, I loved cars; they symbolized freedom and unlimited possibilities. Believe me, that Chevy, or something like it, was very, very tempting. But that would have meant delaying college and working to pay off the payments.
Somehow I kept my wits about me and used my summer earnings to pay for a full year of tuition, room, and board ($220 per quarter) at Martin Junior college in 1958-59.

The next summer, 1959, I worked at Nashville Electric Service, on one of their construction crews laying conduits in new substations. I operated one of the most important technical inventions in the history of mankind. A shovel.
I wielded that sucker by following after the necessarily destructive efforts of a man nicknamed Coleslaw who broke up the earth with either his clay digger or jackhammer depending on the nature of the soil/rock. He broke it up, I shoveled it out of the ditch. It was blazing hot work. I slaved, sweated, and turned brown in the sun. I can't quite explain it, but the work made me feel pretty damn good, too. Again, driven by the same motivation, I saved almost all of what I earned to pay for another year of college.

But that year, there were other sirens calling me as well. One was to hit the road. Travel around some, see what's over the hill. Again, I think most young men feel that urge. Some go on an extended trip with friends, just driving around the country and raising a little Hell. Others, with money, go to Europe, or at least they did in the old days. Still others join the service. I believe the drive that gets in the heart of a young man is a basic, instinctive urge to roam, to go to strange places, to see the world, to have an adventure. But I guess maybe I'm not the adventurous type...I suppressed that urge and stayed on course.

In the summer of 1960, I again worked for the electrical utility, this time in a pole setting crew. It too was hot, hard work.  I again used a shovel, a small one this time, to remove the dirt and rock from the deep cylindrical holes being dug for new poles.
Frequently dynamite was used to loosen the earth and rock and getting down in the hole meant inhaling some of the residual smoke. This resulted in many nitrite induced headaches which were as bad as any I've ever had.

I worked at the electrical utility from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. I got home around 3:30, bathed, and made it to work at a local grocery store from 4:00 p.m. till 10:00 p.m.

I worked 13 hour days M-F and then on Saturday, worked at the grocery from 2:00 p.m. till 10:00 p.m. I again saved almost all the money I earned. I had no free time but I loved it. This time I had a little added motivation for being careful about those summer wages...I was getting married in mid August.

After all these years, I can still remember the strong temptation, especially in '58 and '59 ('60 not so much) to throw caution in the ditch, forget my plans, and spend that summer money, the most I'd ever had in my pocket in my life. I felt a strong desire to take the risk, to blow it all, or maybe gamble the whole stash on some wild, off the wall, crazy  undertaking.

But somehow, someway, I kept my head down and didn't give in to the temptations to spend those summer wages. I'm not criticizing anyone else who took the risk, rolled the dice, hit the road, or perhaps followed some wild dream. But I don't envy them either.

People take different paths and the lucky ones make the one they choose their own. I'm comfortable with my choice and glad now that I didn't blow those summer wages.

Ian Tyson's..."Summer Wages, sung by Tyson, Emmy Lou, and Sylvia."


  1. I don't think Mr. Tyson saved HIS summer wages. ;-)

    I admire you for your maturity at such a young age, Dan. I've known a few people like you in my life... those that have a plan from Day One and stick to it... but most of the people I've known do NOT fall in that category. Good On Ya.

    I'd have bought the Chevy (or run away and join the AF and THEN buy the Chevy). ;-)

    1. You're definitely right about Tyson.

      And, it was his song that sparked the reflection which led to this essay.

      I did reach my goal, and I'm comfortable with my choice, but as you can tell from the essay, I still wonder what I might have missed. I think that's true whichever fork in the road you take. You're bound to wonder what taking the other path would have been like.

  2. Good story. I knew a lot of guys who had their goal with in their grasp, and threw it all away for a walk on the wild side. I often wondered what happened to them.

  3. Scooney, I've known a few like that myself. Hope everyone's fine up on the Ridge.