My father used to joke that, when he was a boy, it seemed like his family moved every time the rent came due.
The family moved several times, but not quite that often. Besides, my grandfather paid his debts. He was a stickler for honesty, and he wouldn’t buy something if he didn’t have the money.
However, my grandfather didn’t hesitate to move to a new job. There was a time, before and after The Great Depression, when people followed the money. They had no choice. That’s the way it was for the first half of my grandfather’s working life.
When he was young, local economies ran like a hit-and-miss engine. That’s an engine where the cylinder fires every other revolution of the crankshaft, not on every revolution like most internal combustion engines.
In many locations during the first half of the 20th century, the economy would boom, then slow, then pick up again in an endless cycle of ups and downs.
My grandfather’s first job (when he was 9) was with a logging operation. It lasted until he was into his teens, then the forest played out, so to speak, and the mill moved. By then, Grandfather had a set of skills, chief of which was the ability to sharpen steel.
He could put a razor-sharp edge on anything used to cut, chop, scrape or dig. So when the loggers moved, so did he — in a different direction. A talc mine needed a new sawyer. Grandfather interviewed for the job and got it when the mine foreman — his future father-in-law — was more than pleased with his talent.
There were many more jobs; each required moving: Working to form a watershed, helping set up a forge, employment with various farms and stables, and road building.
Before Daddy was born, my grandfather hooked up with the outfit picked to pave a section of road in Wilkes County. Some reshaping was involved and the roadbed had to be completely rebuilt.
The work was done with plows and drag pans. The muscle was provided with mules, horses and trucks modified to move heavy loads. Grandfather’s sharpening skill was vital for that type of work, and he had plenty of experience with logging and managing horses.
The project took many months. Much of the time, the family lived in a tent. My grandmother said life wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t intolerable. She said the two times the family was able to live in a barn were wonderful.
The children especially liked the barns, although barns and tents are just alike in rainy weather — mud all around when you step outside.
Grandmother said the kids went to school. There was more than one family connected with the road project, and the children were ferried to school every day by wagon. Even if it rained.
Eventually, my grandfather found a permanent job as a welder, and the family settled down for good.
He didn’t talk much about all the moving, but he never apologized for following the work. At times, moving was hard on the family, but my grandfather was determined his family would not live in the kind of shack in which he was born.
Poverty was the main reason he went to work when he was 9.
I’ve known a lot of people who go where the work is. Some have used changing jobs to see the world, literally. Others kept their bags packed because they know economic realities can change in a moment.
The itinerant life may not be ideal for most folks, but my grandfather took every job as a challenge, so said my grandmother. He learned a lot in all those moves, so when he got the chance to settle down, his skill and experience enabled him to keep that last job as long as he wanted it.
He remembered the people who helped him along the way (and apparently there were many), and he couldn’t forget the disconcerted souls who stumbled over their own resentment.
Grandfather wasn’t preachy, but he let all of us know that when you take a job, do the job. And when it’s time to move, hit the road. The key is knowing when to take root.
I did not go to preschool. By the time I finished the third grade, I had attended five schools spread over two states a thousand miles apart.
Before I became a full-time journalist, I worked 10 jobs in two states.
When Dad and I finally put down roots, we put ’em down deep.