Regular paying jobs for Military Brats were scarce or non-existing on many military bases, but somehow we found ways to earn a little extra money to stretch our weekly allowance.
For Military Brats, finding paying work on base was a real challenge.
Most bases had an endless supply of military wives who took most of the part-time jobs available at the PX, commissary and other places on base. And there were also a lot of military personnel who needed extra money for families back home or for vacation money who “moonlighted” on base.
If you were under sixteen and without any transportation except for your feet, it was almost impossible to find a part-time job on base. But if you were resourceful, work could be found.
Have Mower, Will Travel
When I was about 10 we lived in El Paso, Texas, on Biggs Airfield. We had just returned from Germany and my father introduced us to yard work, including a Sears lawnmower and grass clippers that were hand-powered.
Given the desert climate, I’m surprised anything grew on base except tumbleweeds. Soon we were experts at cutting the grass and watering the lawn.
Another Military Brat who lived a few streets over from us, approached by brother about us working with him to do some lawn cutting. He didn’t have any equipment, but he had lined up some customers for us.
Soon, we had a handful of lawns we cut on a regular basis.
My brother and I would each get on our bikes and then use one hand to grab the mower’s handle and after an awkward start we were flying down the street, pulling the mower between us.
We would meet up at the customer’s house and one of us would cut the front yard while one of us would clip around the edge of the yard, and the one without any yard tool would stand and watch.
We would switch out on the back yard and after we were done and the yard passed inspection by the customer, we were paid.
In those days a lawn cutting ranged from about $1 to $1.50, but considering that a package of gum or a candy bar was only 5 cents, we could split the take and still have some money to blow at the PX.
Most mothers were at home with kids, but needed to go shopping at least on pay day or have a child-free night out with here husband.
If you were willing to put up with neighbor kids you could make some semi-steady income.
When we lived at Fort Knox and I was a freshman in high school, I did some baby sitting for an officer’s family.
I had babysat for my own younger sisters from time to time, and could usually keep them in line with the, “If you don’t mind, I will tell Mother when she gets home,” but I was not prepared for the “monsters”.
On my first assignment, within minutes of the door closing and my new “employers” leaving for dinner and a movie, their three kids pulled all the sofa and chair cushions from the living room furniture and made a huge bouncing pad in the middle of the living room.
As I started to put an end to this, I glanced around the room and saw shelves of cut crystal, fine silverware and other artwork which I was sure would be broken.
I was told, “But our other baby sitters let us jump on the cushions!”
After a couple of minutes of discussion, then a well delivered threat (to tell on them), I did manage to get the kids to put the cushions back.
Suddenly I realized why my own father had sometimes referred to us as “house apes.”
We watched some TV together and the kids behaved fairly well, except that every ten minutes they wanted a fresh can of Coca-Cola or a bag of chips or something. Finally about two hours later they went to bed.
I watched a couple of “Fright Night” movies in black and white and about midnight the parents came home. I did not mention the cushion incident, but apparently the kids put in a bad report on me and I didn’t get to babysit them again.
Many Military Brats worked on Saturdays and on pay day bagging groceries. It was not a paying job, but you could get “tipped” for each bag.
In the 1970s tips ranged from maybe ten to fifteen cents a bag, and sometimes a little more.
Given that on pay day, which was the busiest day of the month at the Commissary, a bagger could easily make between $1 and $1.50 for about fifteen minutes work, including taking the bags out to the customer’s car.
With minimum wage being about $2.00 an hour, if you hustled a bagger could make over $6.00 an hour and pay day could be great as long as your legs held up.
I can remember going with my Mom on payday and seeing absolute mayhem. If you didn’t arrive early enough in the day, soon many of formally well-stocked product aisles would be picked over.
My mother usually paid ten cents a bag, unless the bagger wasn’t careful with the bread or eggs. Usually my brother or I would go with her and help to pack the bags into the car.
“Professional” baggers were a sight to behold. They would quickly double bag paper bags then, without looking into the bag, use one hand to toss up items into their other hand which was hovering over the bag, quickly dropping each item into it’s proper place.
In those days, the cashier had to read the price off the item, and key both the price and the product type into the cash register, so a typical customer’s two shopping carts of groceries would create a real log jam if the bagger was slow.
Sometimes baggers would team up and split their earnings. By partnering they could quickly get the customer through the checkout line and out the door. One bagger would stay and start bagging for the next customer while the other bagger took the huge carts that easily weighed twice what the bagger weighed out to the customer’s car. Good baggers would carefully load the bags into the car trunk or back seat, collect the tip and run back to join his partner.
We had a carnival that came into Fort Knox every year. It would spend a week or so taking everyone’s money and rewarding gullible game participants with cheap plastic prizes and stuffed animals. Even if the odds were against you winning anything, it was a lot of fun.
While the carnival didn’t hire many to actually work during the carnival’s run, they did hire some of us to help break down the carnival rides after the carnival was over.
My brother, myself and a number of other strong backs spent an entire Saturday helping to disassemble rides and move pieces of the rides onto trucks. This was by far the most exhausting work I had ever done, and no one was willing to admit we had gotten into something potentially dangerous.
Some of the pieces of the rides required 6 to 8 people to move, and with sharp edges and most of us workers being skinny kids, it’s surprising no one had their foot crushed or experienced a reuptured hernia.
Somehow we made it through the day and it was the first time I stood in line and collected “wages” in cash from a company’s “purser”.
Compared to the $1.50 or so I typically got for cutting a lawn, the stack of dollar bills I got from the carnival was the most I ever had in my pocket before.
Later that day, we walked home like zombies and literally fell into bed, totally exhausted.
After seeing how carnival rides are put together up close, I didn’t go on another carnival ride for decades.
U.S. Recreation Services
After high school, I was able to find a job working for the U.S. Recreation Services, which is responsible for running craft shops on U.S. installations.
I had taken some shop classes in junior high school and I had a solid art background, and had spent a lot of time growing up in craft shops on base, so I thought, why not be an instructor?
After completing my application and getting an interview, I learned that while I met most of the qualifications in terms of age, being a dependent, etc., I needed a little more training.
I spent a few weeks in Butzbach, working in their craft shop, honing my woodworking skills, learning how to cast silver and turning lumps of clay into tall lumps of clay on the potter’s wheel.
Finally, my instruction was over and I got my own shop, located at Kirch Gons, also lovingly referred to by the soldiers stationed there as, “The Rock”.
It was a very small base, and my shop was one of the smallest craft shops I had ever seen.
For the first few weeks I shared instructor duties with a master sergeant who worked after-hours. I never saw him and the idea was to “share” the one position so the shop could be open nearly full time.
After I went to full-time, the job was really a lot of fun. During the day, I didn’t have that many customers, so I could work on my own projects. I saved scraps from customer’s projects and I made some stereo speakers, did some jewelry making, and chatted with off-duty personnel while they did leather working, and assisted others who wanted to build wood projects.
A few months later I landed another job that paid more and had regular hours, which was a film inspector . . . but that’s another story for another time.