It is Thanksgiving, a holiday centered around being thankful and expressing our appreciation for all that we have by eating everything in site. I thought I would share a little different perspective relative to food.
At the age of 15, give or take a few months, my father delivered me to the commissary at Ft. Leonard Wood, where I became acquainted with the concept “gainfully employed”. To the uninitiated, a commissary is the military equivalent to a Piggly Wiggly….except it is located on a military reservation and is for the use of military personnel and their dependents. The manager of this store was a gracious but very tough lady named Mabel Steward who resided in the thriving metropolis of Evening Shade, Missouri, just south of the post. As you might expect, the pricing scheme in these stores was established at a level below the local economy thus guaranteeing a busy environment, especially on payday each month.
The first indication of the demanding nature of my new job was the requirement that I wear a “uniform” consisting of a white shirt and dark trousers. A tie was optional and constituted an occupational hazard as you entered the back seats of cars, placing bagged groceries onto the seats and floorboards. My compensation was in the form of tips…..plain and simple. You were accorded no “draw” or salary beyond the tip you received for bagging groceries, rolling them to the curb and loading them into the conveyance your customer drove up. By now, I am confident your excitement level is ebbing a bit…but hold on, there is more!
Bagging groceries, if done correctly, is not for the weak mind or back. We used paper sacks, double bagging the can goods, but being careful to not overload a bag being unloaded at home by a dimuitive housewife. Naturally, extra care was required with bakery goods, eggs and chips….Commissaries typically are aware of the ethnic preferences of their patrons and we packed many interesting commodities. I can recall a carton of chitterlings ( you may know this as “chitlins”) leaking and falling through a sack as I lifted the bag into the back of a car. Piled around my carefully shined shoes was 2 pounds of intestines…….they were sticky and it was hot. I remember they smelled like….well….intestines. This incident was hilarious to my fellow baggers….not so much to the lady who owned the guts. Weather was also an occupational hazard, rain and paper sacks were not compatible. Ice presented a unique set of problems as well……a 20 pound sack of can goods being hefted into the back of a car on poor footing resulted in more than one of us sliding under a car, raking our shins and uttering a pleasant oath as we extricated ourselves. On another occasion, likely near the end of the month when business was slow, one of the baggers, a country boy who was easily amused, caught a horsefly, inserted a broom straw in it’s rear end and turned the hapless insect loose in the store. The horsefly, with a gallant effort, managed to buzz by a number of horrified patrons, trying mightily to gain a little altitude. A number of our customers were appalled as the critter droned by slowly, appearing to have impaled himself on a straw……Mabel was not amused.
In spite of the less than ideal compensation scheme, we managed to make between 10 and 30 dollars a day, a considerable wage in 1966. There were a number of baggers who counted this job as their primary source of income. We often made more than the checkers, who were salaried to run the giant, old manual registers from this era of non-automation.
About the moniker “Food Packing and Transfer Specialist” the title of this revealing essay. I quickly ascertained that being a “bag-boy” was not sufficiently impressive to the young ladies that I was interested in….so I coined this descriptive to add a little pizzaz to my misunderstood, temporary but rewarding vocation.
You could tell alot about the young ladies from their reaction to this descriptive….