Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chapter One - My First Labor Day

It’s funny the things you think about when you have some time on your hands. Faced with early retirement, that’s what exactly I had. Time. And plenty of it. All this extra time that was thrust upon me made me think about a multitude of things. Like, who am I and where am I going? The first part was fairly easy – I was Pete Vertucci from Pike River, Wisconsin. I had lived in the small Midwest city that was located on the western shore of Lake Michigan all my life. The rest of that question is a little trickier. Where am I going? Hmm…

Eventually my considerable head began to ache as I considered the possibilities. Frustrated, I decided that it would be much simpler to think about where I had been and what I had accomplished so far. Being single and without children, most of my notable past involved the places that I had worked. During the years of my adult life, I was employed in at least a half dozen different occupations. Some of those jobs were enjoyable, while others were dreadful. However, there was one that stood head and shoulders above all the others for a variety of reasons. That would be Kraus Inc., my first adult job.

Traditionally, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September. My inaugural Labor Day was the second Monday in June 1975. It was four short days after I graduated from Simmons High School. This was my first official grown-up job. I had worked at Marc’s Big Boy and McDonald’s while I was in school, but those were high school jobs. This was a real job. Thanks to my folk’s good friend, Nadia Bebow I had a job as a laborer at the infamous Kraus Inc. fertilizer plant. She worked in the office and told me to stop in if I wanted a job. She told me to ask for the plant manager, Frederick Neubauer.

So that’s what I did. On my last day of school my buddy, Kevin Pankowicz, and me jumped in my yellow ’70 Rebel and took off in search of Kraus Inc. I had no idea where this place was, just an address – 2700 31th Place. After driving around the near north side of Pike River for about 45 minutes we finally stumbled upon the fertilizer plant. It was located just a few blocks south of the Big Spot drive-in, a local hamburger joint that emitted delicious odors that filled the air for blocks in all directions.

Unfortunately the appetizing smell was overpowered by an odoriferous stench that grew in intensity the closer we got to Kraus Inc. plant. To say it was unpleasant would be an understatement. When I pulled up to the small office adjacent to large dilapidated plant, I asked Kevin if he wanted to come in with me. With his t-shirt pulled up over his nose, he grunted, “Hell no.” and added, “Roll your window up.” I muttered a less than enthusiastic “thanks” and quickly made my way into the brick building.

When I approached the chest-high counter, a short white-haired man greeted me. I told him that I was looking for Frederick Neubauer. He grinned and replied, “That’s me, but call me Fred. Nadia said you were coming.” As I nervously filled out the application, Fred treated me to a continuous diet of corny jokes. When I finished, he took the papers, shook my hand and told me to be there at 7:00 the next morning. Whoa! I quickly told him that tomorrow was my graduation day. He paused for a second and said, “Okay, be here Friday morning.” Not sure of what I was getting into, I negotiated a starting date of the following Monday, June 9, 1975. My first Labor Day.

This was a bona fide, real-life job where I went to work each morning five days a week and received a paycheck for $91.18 each and every Friday afternoon.

The amount of $91.18 was after taxes were taken out. My gross pay was $120.00 for forty hours. Insert your own joke here.

Hey, I said it was a real-life job, I didn’t say it paid a lot. For my $3.00 an hour I got to lift 40-pound bags of fertilizer in a hot, sloppy plant with slippery mud covered floors. In the winter we were treated to 50-pound bags of ice melter in a building that had no heat whatsoever. Although we were freezing, at least the floors weren’t muddy. Now they were covered with a toxic dust that you inhaled all day long.

Did I mention that Kraus Inc. featured no running water? Most guys simply stepped to the nearest open dock door to relieve themselves. Otherwise, if you wanted to use an actual restroom you had to maneuver through the entire plant, walk down a long flight of stairs and go across the yard to the “Jap Shack”.

The “Jap Shack” was nothing more than an old storage shed with a few beat-up lockers, a couple of picnic tables, a number of rats and a toilet with a sink. This venerable structure received its colorful name because it allegedly imprisoned Japanese war prisoners during World War II.

Don’t ask me, I just worked there.

And so did a multitude of fascinating characters. People like Vaughn Tidwell, Dead Man, Bone Head, Slim Bebow, Rock Engen, Travon Wilson and Ratzo Grabowski. Each one possessed unique characteristics. They obviously had to, with monikers like those. They all left a lasting impression on yours truly. Maybe “scar” would be more accurate.

But none like the legendary Augie Schultz. I could easily write a story about Augie each day for a month. This ornery “old” German was well known in every drinking establishment between here and Meadow Lake. I say old because he was about 36 and I was only eighteen years old at the time.

The only problem about sharing stories about Augie is that it would take so long to clean up the language. With Augie, cursing was an art form. He made Dice Clay, Earl Weaver and other high-profile foul mouths look like choirboys. Let me give you an example.

Because of his propensity for filthy phraseology, he was often asked to “watch his mouth”. One classic moment was when a burnout named Sparky challenged Augie that he couldn’t go the whole day without cursing. Augie’s response? Cover your ears mother.

“Fuck you, you stupid motherfuckin’ cocksucker.”

That was one of the things that I learned on my first Labor Day. How not to talk! Kraus Inc. made me realize why my sainted parents, Ernesto and Margaret Vertucci, had been drilling that stuff into my head throughout my childhood. Now I was experiencing why in my first real-life job.

On that first Labor Day, I honestly considered making a run for it during first break. I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had. Do I regret not quitting Kraus Inc. on my first Labor Day?

It doesn’t really matter because I ended up working there over sixteen years. Things could have definitely been different. Maybe better, perhaps not. Who knows? One thing that I am sure of, staying at Kraus Inc. on my first Labor Day was only the beginning of a strange journey. A journey that soon became a sentence. An unusual and often grueling sentence.

Until next time…from the booth.

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