Roy Exum’s article on Tennessee Plywood reminded me of my youth and the days I actually worked at a family owned lumber yard. When I was 15, my Dad used to buy his lumber for little household projects at S & M Building Supplies, then located down on Broad Street. He mentioned to them that he had a son that needed to work over the summer break and they agreed to put me to work. This was in the days before insurance companies could tell a business not to hire kids due to liability problems.
Mr. John Martin owned S & M Supply Company and they had about 20 employees as I recall. Most were grown men, so I was “educated” in the ways of manhood, possibly before my time. They didn’t take it easy on the new kid, either. I went on delivery runs, swept and cleaned the warehouses, put up and stacked new lumber and supplies, and learned some about the business. I made the minimum wage then - $1.60 per hour. We worked 8 hours per day and 4 hours on Saturday, giving us 44 hour per week. I made about $70 a week take home pay and I felt as if I was rolling in the dough. At 15, I didn’t have much to spend my money on – maybe a bicycle tire or some baseball cards – so I banked most of it. It would come in handy a year later when I bought my first car and started going on dates.
I remember the day I got a raise to $1.80 per hour. They told me I was doing a great job and I was thrilled to become even wealthier. This was almost $10 per week more! I even got a bonus, just like the regular men there – I think it was $50.00. All at once! In cash! $50 would fill my car up with gas about 10 times, since gasoline was but about 39 cents a gallon or so.
I too was yelled at for being late or goofing off. Like I said, they treated me like a man and expected me to behave like a man. Some of the employees were black, and some were white. I had never even gone to school with a black person, much worse worked beside one. One of these men, named Romie, took me under his wing and taught me how to carry sheetrock and plywood. Whenever he had a big delivery, he always requested me as his partner. I asked him if it was because I was just a kid and he could boss me around if he wanted and he told me no – it was because he had taught me the proper way to carry supplies and I did it the right way, making it easier on him and me. Together, we could carry two bundles of 4 X 12 half inch sheetrock in to a new house with ease. We could deliver 200 pieces in quick order and not get each other hurt. Afterward, he would treat me to an ice cold beer, despite my being a couple years too young to legally enjoy it. It was just part of growing up in a different time than in today’s world. I felt pretty good about myself and my newly found work ethic and carried that through my entire life.
I worked there every summer until I was 19 and went off to the U.S. Air Force. The Martin family owned the business until just a few years ago, when they sold it. Often, I find myself missing those hot summer days, where I learned about life, work, girls, and earning a paycheck and some respect from real men like Romie.