I confess, I spoiled my children. During their childhood I let them play and watch a lot of TV, and I bought them video games and they did not work until they were young adults. They turned out mostly fine, but don’t ask them what a Philips head screwdriver is, or how to change the spark plug in a lawnmower. Its foreign concept to them, like a politician telling the truth, or the federal government balancing its budget.
My siblings and I, on the other hand, learned the value of hard day’s work at a young age. I am sure several child labor laws were violated, but in rural Kentucky most kids worked on the farm about as soon as they learned to walk. I still remember when I was 13 years old and received an actual check for helping set tobacco all day. It was for $17.50. It was the most money I had seen in my life. I felt gloriously rich and dreamed of what I would spend my fortune on, a new car, a nice leather jacket, or an ELO cassette. I ended up buying a pair of Jordache jeans with white stitching which were the rage in the late 70s. I wanted to go school with new jeans and not old hand me downs from my brother Paul or my cousin Michael Orlando. This was before old ripped jeans were cool. Today, kids pay good money for worn out jeans with hole in the knees and seat. I wonder if they realize that if they go help their parents do yard work, they can get authentic holes in the knees and seat for no extra charge.
I worked wherever helped was needed but most of my time my siblings and I helped my dad at Seltmans’ estate in Union. My Dad had a full-time job working the evening shift at Trans World Airlines (TWA) but in the morning and on Saturdays he was the groundskeeper at the Seltman Estate. The Seltmans were rich business owners who owned a large estate and my Dad helped manage the large property, mowing their massive lawn, fixing things around the house, cutting firewood, landscaping the grounds, and whatever needed to get done. At the Seltman farm my Dad was the man, and he managed the estate like it was his own. It was like an alternate universe, and in this world he was not a poor blue color worker, but a man of means, a man of distinction, gentrified. The estate was indeed massive. Surrounded by white board fences, (more on that later), with a long curving paved road leading from Route 42 over a mile back to their sprawling house. The front of the property was acres of green rolling fields and a large lake stocked with blue gill sunfish and bass. On many Sundays my Dad would take us to this lake (and the back lake) to fish for Sunday dinner. Us kids with wooden cane poles and my Dad with his trusty fly rod. He was a master of casting the fly, like an orchestra conductor leading a symphony, gracefully waving his rod to land the fly at the perfect spot. Years later, when I attempted to master the fly rod all I ever caught was the grass behind me. We loaded the hooks of our cane poles with worms we found wherever we could, and waited patiently for our corks to bob, and we waited, and waited. That was back in the day when I had more time and was more patience. When the cork did bob we gave it a quick jerk to set the hook then pulled the surprised fish out of the water and to shore. We then pulled the hook out his moth and if the fish was small we tossed them back, if it was a good size put him in the fish basket. After a couple of hours fishing we loaded up the basket of fish (mostly caught by my dad), and headed home. We then cleaned the fish using bottle caps nailed to old wire brush handles, scrapping the scales off to make the fish easier to eat. I admit that it was not a task I savored. Cutting their heads off and gutting them made me squeamish, and still does. That’s probably why I don’t fish now, that and the patience thing. I guess I could catch and release, but I don’t see the point in that, it’s like going to the liquor store and browsing for 2 hours and not buying anything. The best part of fishing though was when my mother fried them up for dinner. There is nothing like fresh fried fish and a couple of hush puppies for Sunday dinner.
My Dad maintained these rolling green hills like fairways at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. He diligently mowed them about twice a month using a John Deere 2020 or 1520 tractor pulling a dual blade rotary mower. There was also about 40 acres in the back that he mowed too, but only about once a month. It was arduous work, but my Dad made it an art form. The John Deere and large mower could not turn sharply, so my Dad had mastered a mowing technique that did not require sharp turns and the fields always looked pristine. My dad was a master of his craft, like Picasso with a paint brush.
Surrounding these beautifully manicured green fields were miles of those white board fences that I mentioned earlier. The fences did not serve any useful purpose other than to keep out the riff raff and announce that the Seltmans were wealthy and could afford miles of white board fences that served no useful purpose. The fences had to be painted about every 5 years and that’s where my siblings and I came into the picture. When it came time to paint them my Dad ordered a dozen or more 5 gallons buckets of white creosote paint and put us kids to work. So, on Saturday morning we all packed into in the family Dodge Aspen station wagon and headed out to the Seltman estate. We then loaded up the paint and brushes in the small wagon pulled by the white and yellow Cub Cadet and drove out to the fences and started painted. Kids on each side of the fence, older kids had the top 2 boards, younger ones the bottom 2. You had to paint the front, the top and the bottom of the board, without dripping too much paint on your brother. And we painted, and we painted, and we painted some more. It was beyond tedious. To make the time go by we would occasionally “accidently” paint our brothers or sisters pants, or shirt, or face. Its what kids do. After a few hours the paint on the pants dried and you could barely bend over or walk. My dear mother could not even attempt to wash these pants, so we left them at Seltmans as our painting pants. At the end of the shift we took them off in the old milk house where we stored the tools, and stood them in the corner, like the bottom half of zombie, only white. Once, when my brothers were painting out front near U.S 42 a reporter stopped by and took their picture and they made the Kentucky Post. The caption read, “The boards of education”, and that was so true. There is nothing like working out in the blazing sun for 8 hours at the ripe old age of 12 to make you appreciate the value of hard-earned buck.
Painting and mowing were just a few on the many chores we did. Every Spring the Seltman ordered a tractor trailer load of mulch and when it was delivered guess who got to put in around the flower beds. And it wasn’t like a few bags, or a couple of yards, it was a tractor trailer load, a mountain of mulch. So, we loaded up in the Dodge Aspen for a few Saturday mornings and spread mulch until we couldn’t stand the smell anymore. The Seltmans had flower beds surrounding their large home, and all had to be hand mulched. All day long we filled up the small wagon pulled by the Cub Cadet and drove to the beds, and hand spread the mulch, and spread, and spread some more. There were no paint wars to break the monotony, and no reporters snapping photos with captions like “Mulch Madness” or “the bark is worse than the bite”, just mountains of mulch to spread. At the end of the day though all of the flower beds looked exquisite surrounded by the mulch. To this day, if I smell mulch it reminds me of Seltman’s farm and oddly, I kinda enjoy mulching my flower beds. I could afford to pay a landscaper to do it, but I get some serene satisfaction out of mulching my own flower beds. I don’t know if its nostalgia, or just old-fashioned satisfaction from an honest day’s work.
But not all of our days working at the Seltman estate were as hard. In the spring it rained often, but my Dad still wanted to earn a buck, and he wanted us to earn a buck too. So even on rainy days we went to the farm and did odd chores. We greased the tractors and mowers, we sharpened mower and shovel blades, and polished the tractors (yes you heard that right.) My Dad ran the farm like clockwork, and he kept all of the equipment clean, well maintained, and looking new. Our favorite chore on the rainy days was moving the equipment from one side of the barn to the other, sweeping that side, then moving the equipment back and sweeping the other side. My brother John called these “Make Work” days from the movie Cool Hand Luke, where the inmates spent half the day digging muck out of the swamp, and the other half of the day throwing it back in. At the end of the Make Work day every piece of equipment in the barn shined like new, the tractors glistened form the fresh waxing, and the floor was so clean you could eat off of it.
In the Fall our attention turned to cutting firewood, the Seltmans still owned several fireplaces and its was my dad’s task to keep them stocked in firewood. So, on those cool fall Saturdays we got the John Deere 1520 and the large wagon and head to the woods surrounding the Seltmans’ farm. My day would find a large dead tree and cut it down with a large McCollough chain saw. He would then proceed to cut it into large pieces of firewood and the kids loaded them onto the wagon. We then drove the heavily loaded wagon to where we stored the wood and my dad split the larger pieces and we stacked them in neat rows. This was tiring work especially for my Dad, and at the end of the day we were beat, but we did it every Fall.
We even worked in the winter. Whenever we had significant snowfall my Dad took a couple of us kids and drove to the farm. He then hooked up a large snowblower or snowplow to the John Deere 2020 and proceeded to clear snow off the long drive. The kids’ task was to shovel all of the sidewalks and we did so promptly so we could get back into the barn where it was a little warmer. It was good to get a little spending money during the Winter because by then our summer earnings had been spent on back to school cloths, candy, and more ELO cassette tapes.
At the end of each Saturday of work our last tasks was to clean and put away all of the equipment and my Day went into the Seltman home to settle up his weeks work. I think they had a beer, and my Dad told them what work was accomplished that week, and what work he was going to do the next. He kept track of all hours worked in a little red address book, and the Seltmans paid him and us for our weeks work. We were excited when we saw him returning to the car because we knew were getting paid and at that time every dollar mattered.
Of all the chores we did at the estate our favorite was helping out at the lavish parties the Seltmans’ threw a couple of times a year. At these extravaganzas the Seltmans invited friends, local politicians, and an occasional celebrity and the Westermeyer kids were the hired help. Some of us worked the coat check for the winter parties, admiring the fur coats as we checked them in, and others helped around the house. The best task to have by far was working the valet parking. As teenagers with minimal driving experience, we got to drive and park an array of luxury cars; from Lincolns that were the size of yacht and cost as much, to leather filled Cadillacs, to an occasional Mercedes, BMW or foreign sports car. To go from driving a Dodge Aspen to a luxury automobile blew our minds. This was how rich people lived, it was a different world. None us did anything stupid like the Ferrari scene in Ferris Buellers Day Off because if we did and our Dad found out we wouldn’t survive to see our next birthday. But it was a grand experience and the tips were fantastic. I am amazed that the Seltman’s took the risk of letting teenage boys park luxury cars, but this was long before the days when litigation was a national pastime.
After the hard day’s work each Saturday we had the ritual of stopping at Traders, the local bar and eating establishment where my Dad would relax and have a few beers and spin yarns with the other constituents. My siblings and I took some of our hard earned cash to buy a soft drink (It was a rare treat because we didn’t get them at home), and some candy and maybe listen to a Johnny Cash tune on the juke box. The oldest of us had the task of bringing in the case of my Dad’s empty Pabst Blue Ribbon quart bottles from the Dodge Aspen and exchanging it for a case of filled Pabst Blue Ribbon quart bottles.My dad used to joke that you don’t buy beer, you just rent it for a while, so true.
In looking back, I realize that our Dad instilled a robust work ethnic in all of us that we all still have today. My Dad use to say that he graduated from the school of hard knocks, and me and my siblings studied there as well. Many of us went on to get formal college degrees but the “boards of education” was the best schooling I ever received.