The first time I could get a work permit when I was growing up in New York was when I was 13 and the first summer job I had was as a stockroom/delivery boy for a wholesale button place in Manhattan’s garment district. This was during WWII and there was a manpower shortage so I probably could have gotten an office job but I didn’t know any better. The button place hired me again the next summer, but by the time the summer after that came around WWII had ended, veterans were coming back, and so my career in the garment district also ended.
However, a friend from high school, Richard C---, had worked the previous summer out West in the Forestry Service and was going to work there again and he told me he was sure I could also get a job there. He said it was a good deal because you had your room and board, made time-and-a-half if you worked on Saturday and, above all, there was no place to spend your money so everything you made was clear. I was convinced. I’m not sure how it came about but I obtained the job and Richard and I were supposed to meet at Grand Central Station and then go someplace from where we’d then hitchhike out to Idaho, where our jobs were. The hitchhiking was his idea and of course I didn’t tell my mother, who thought we were taking a bus.
In any case, I was at the appointed place at the appointed time in Grand Central Station but no Richard. I waited but it seemed that somehow we’d missed each other. I don’t remember how now, but I somehow got to someplace at the edge of New York City from where I could start hitchhiking. By the way, I’d never done this before and I’d never been outside of New York City before. Despite my inexperience I managed to get several rides, of which I have no recollection, but I do remember the last one of that day. It was in the back of a pickup truck with a few other young kids like myself on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One by one the other kids hopped off and only two of us were left. It was getting dark and it was cold so the other guy and myself got very close to keep ourselves warm. I also remember seeing the bright red fires from the steel plants that were then in or outside Pittsburgh. I don’t recall what happened to the other guy, but I was dropped off at a YMCA, where I spent the night. I was on my way out West.
My destination was a forestry service camp in Kiniksu National Forest in Idaho. I was to meet someone from the camp in the nearest town, Priest River, at a certain date. I’m not sure how but evidently I managed to hitchhike my way across the country to Spokane, Washington. I think most of my rides were with salesmen who wanted some company. At the time, hitchhiking wasn’t considered dangerous. A lot of the returning veterans hitchhiked and maybe some drivers thought I was one, although a pretty young-looking one. I don’t think that I’d perfected my rules of hitchhiking at this stage; maybe I learned as I went along. The key thing was to be at some point in the road where drivers could see you and could slow down. After a time, I’d ask the driver who stopped how far he was going and if it was just to the next town I’d politely declined. After all, I wanted to get to the other side of the country. Of course, if the driver seemed drunk or if for some reason I didn’t like his looks I wouldn’t get in.
I reached Spokane in about a week, staying at YMCA’s when I stopped at night. From Spokane I took a bus to Priest River. I’d arrived a couple of days ahead of the meeting day so I stayed at a hotel, which was probably something like $2 a night. I had no idea if someone would actually arrive to get me but someone did, a good thing as by then I’d run out of money. I’m sure the Forestry Service guy drove a pickup truck. We drove into the forest and after a while reached the camp. My friend Richard was already there and I guess he explained how we’d missed connections. Maybe he’d left the day before I’d thought we were to meet. Whatever, I’d made it and my Forestry Service adventures were about to begin.
As far as I can remember there were at least two dozen of us at the camp, maybe more, and we slept four to a tent. We had a fireplace and as it was cold in the morning, the first one up started the fire. The bathroom was an outdoor privy. There was a building where we ate and maybe another building or two. The camp was by a stream, which was where we got our water. It was clear and cold, the best-tasting water I‘ve ever had.
The food we had was also pretty much the best I’d had to that point. The camp cook was ex-merchant marine and he knew his job. For breakfast we had everything we could eat---eggs, pancakes, cereal. Some guys did have everything. Then we had sandwiches, big ones, we took for lunch. I don’t remember what we had for dinner but it was always good and I’m sure tasted even better after a day’s work out in the field. And there were always cookies to eat at night. The only thing we didn’t have was ice cream as the camp had no electricity. We did have ice cream delivered at least once and that was a great treat.
There was a head Forestry Service guy, maybe he was called a foreman. Under him were crew bosses. As it happened it had been a rainy spring and summer so although we did have some training sessions we never had to fight any forest fires. In light of what I’ve read about the fatalities from recent California forest fires this was just as well.
So what did we do all summer? Our job was to eradicate a weed called ribes, which caused a disease, blister rust, among the evergreen forest trees. This we did by pulling out the weed with a hoedag, which had a combination spade and prongs, as in a hammer, at its end. Ribes, as I found, came in all sizes, from little sprigs to large bushes. After breakfast we were loaded up in pickup trucks and transported to the areas we were to work that day, marked off by string. Then we got to work, looking for ribes big and small and rooting them out with our hoedags.
The problem, or I should say my problem, was that ribes, to me, looked pretty much like all the other bushes and shrubs around. I was after all a city kid, what did I know about all those green things in a forest. Our crew boss was a bulky man named Leo, who looked like a meaner version of Charles Laughton playing Captain Bligh. Leo would suddenly appear at odd times during the day (he moved quietly for such a big man) and he always found a lot of ribes that I’d somehow overlooked. After a couple of weeks he held a kind of meeting with us and said that anyone who couldn’t do the job would “shag his ass down the road.” I felt that he was looking at me when he said this.
So there I was, facing the prospect of being out of a job and having to make my way back to New York for the rest of the summer. Then one day it happened. All of a sudden I could recognize ribes; they seemed to stand out among all the other green stuff as if outlined in black ink. I even saw ribes when they weren’t there, as inside our tent. The important thing was that I could recognize them out in the field. When Leo suddenly appeared to check on me now he found maybe one or two small ribes I’d missed, then after a while none. I wasn’t going to shag my ass down the road after all.
One more thing: Leo had a kind of branch he carried which he called his “ribes wand.” In my last couple of weeks there I cut off a branch, shaved it down and had my own ribes wand which unerringly pointed to the offending weed. Once I became a ribes expert the job settled into a routine and the summer passed quickly, My friend Richard was right, there was nothing to spend our paychecks on so all the money I earned went straight back to my mother in New York, a lot more than I would have earned with a summer job back there.
I have to describe my trip back to New York for reasons that will become apparent. Once again, Richard and I, I don’t remember just why, went our separate ways and I hitch-hiked back by myself. I imagine I got a ride from camp to Priest River and started from there. What I remember vividly is that after a series of short rides, which weren’t getting me very far, a pickup truck stopped for me. There were two men up front, a driver and a passenger. We were somewhere in the mountains of Montana so I felt obliged to get in the back.
The truck had about half a dozen boxes in it and pretty soon I noticed that the boxes, including the one I was sitting on, were marked with X’s, indicating, I was pretty sure, they held dynamite. After a while a beer bottle came flying out from the passenger’s side and broke on the road. After another while a beer bottle came flying out from the driver’s side and broke on the road. Yes, I was a little worried at this point. In another short while, to my relief, the truck stopped and driver and passenger got out and began arguing over which one was too drunk to drive. Needless to say, I’d grabbed my gym bag and hopped out as soon as the truck stopped. I moved back down the road and watched while the two men argued. They then got back in the truck and drove off. I doubt if they remembered that they’d had a passenger in the back of the truck.
So after surviving the summer in the woods I wasn’t going to be blown to pieces when the drunken driver crashed the truck full of dynamite. The only trouble was that here I was on a winding mountain road where no car coming along could see me until they’d driven past, not that there were any cars in evidence. It was late afternoon and getting dark. I wondered if there were any wolves in these mountains. To end the reader’s suspense, I was walking along, hoping to get to a straight stretch, when a car sped by me, stopped and then began backing up. I ran up to the car and hopped in, no questions asked. The driver was a teacher who’d spent the summer out West visiting his sister, I think, and was going back to Waterloo, Iowa. I stayed with him, stopping at motels overnight, for three days and when we parted I was more than halfway back. I have no memory of the rest of my trip except that on my last ride I was dropped off at a subway station somewhere in the Bronx or Manhattan and from there I took a subway back to Simpson Street and then home.
That hitch-hiking trip back was to become an important event in my life. I retired when I turned 61 at the end of 1990. I had no idea of what I’d be doing. When asked, I’d say I’d probably be playing a lot of tennis. By a series of incidents, which were either accidental or destiny, I started writing for a weekly alternative newspaper in downtown Sacramento called the Suttertown News. This was a volunteer job, no pay. At that time the local paper, the Sacramento Bee, had a weekly section called Neighbors for the different localities in the area, including Carmichael, where I lived.. Neighbors had a feature called “My Story” where readers would write in about something of interest in their lives. If printed, the story would pay $25. My wife called this to my attention. As I was now a writer I wrote a slightly fictionalized account of my hitch-hiking experience with the truck full of dynamite and sent it in.
I got a letter back saying they’d print it and asking me to call to give some biographical information. I called, gave the information and asked if Neighbors used free-lance writers. They did and what’s more paid $50 a story. I was referred to the Assignments Editor, Linda Beymer, who said to write a couple of stories and submit them. I wrote two stories, one about the senior tennis players in a nearby park, of which group I’d become one; and the other about a neighbor (and friend), a woman who’d formed an anti-drugs organization. I brought them in and Linda Beymer liked them. Eventually they were both printed in the Carmichael Neighbors, along with a third story I’d done, about the Carmichael Art Center. My “My Story” appeared a little later under the headline “Aside from the Dynamite, Drunk Driver Trip Was Uneventful.”
So, what if I hadn’t worked in the Forestry Service that summer and what if I hadn’t had that hitch-hiking experience? Maybe I would have submitted another “My Story” to Neighbors and it would have been accepted. But maybe not. Whatever may have happened, that brief ride in a truck with the drunken driver and dynamite was a key element in my becoming a free-lance writer for Neighbors. After ten years or so the Sacramento Bee discontinued the Neighbors section. By this time I was writing two columns for a monthly senior paper, the Sun Senior News, which goes to about 10,000 households in two retirement communities, and which I’m still doing. Along the way I also started writing short stories, over 500 of which have appeared in online magazines. I have to add that with one exception these online magazines didn’t pay anything. I tell people I write journalistic articles for money and stories for fun (as nobody will pay me for them).
I could have gone back to my Forestry Service job the next summer but for some reason I didn’t. That may have been the summer I dislocated my right knee playing handball. In any case, I have mostly fond memories of my Forestry Service summer. It was a good experience for a New York City kid who’d never gone west of the Hudson River. I still remember that clear water, the outdoor air, the stars in the sky. I remember the guys I met, different from anyone I knew in the Bronx. I got a sense of how big and diverse our country is. Most importantly, I survived in the woods and maybe played a part in protecting one of our forests.