Working from the Bottom Up
“Without ambition one starts nothing.
Without work one finishes nothing.
The prize will not be sent to you.
You have to win it.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
My First Job – Painting my Brother’s House
The three Brothers from Left to Right; Peter, Adolf and Gerry
Arriving in the late afternoon at Gerry’s place on Fyffe Road in Calgary, I felt as if I was receiving a warm welcome way back home in Germany. Gerry greeted us in German. He introduced me to his wife Martha, who also spoke German in a strong southern dialect. The only one I could practice my English language skills with was their three-old son Wayne. Gerry, always straightforward and forthright, told me that he had some work for me. He wanted me to paint the house, while I was searching and applying for a paying position on the job market. I was eager to get my hands dirty and do something real useful after all this loafing around during the past two weeks. I really surprised him with my cheerful reply, “Why, can I start tomorrow?” Well, it turned that he had to buy paint, brushes and other equipment first, before I could start doing the paint job.
Gerry and his Beautiful Wife Martha
My sister Erika, who had come by train a few days before us, had already run afoul of Gerry’s house rules, not the least of which was that he and Martha alone were in charge of their son’s upbringing. Any criticism no matter how constructive that might seem to be to our sister was therefore not welcome. As I have indicated in previous chapters, as long as I could remember, she was always inclined to speak her mind, indeed a valuable attribute of one’s character. However, when her tongue was faster than her mind that was supposed to control the former, the problem could easily escalate to a downright family feud. Fortunately for her, she soon moved out, as she had found work as a nurse’s aid in a rural hospital in the small prairie town of Bassano 143 km southeast of Calgary. She had found out that recognition of her German qualifications as an RN would depend upon the successful completion of her senior matriculation. So she had a long arduous road ahead. Tenacious and ambitious like all of us Klopp children she went back to school, attended night classes and studied hard to obtain her grade 12 diploma. This was all the more remarkable, as she did not have the advantage of having learned English in school.
Painting my brother’s house was more involved than I had anticipated. First, I had to sand the old flaky paint off the wood sidings, which was a dusty and laborious task that would take days to complete. While the job was time consuming, standing on a ladder and holding the electric sander above my head to reach the soffit boards was very tiring and not altogether pleasant with paint and dust particles flying into my face. The thought occurred to me that Gerry definitely got his money’s or, more accurately stated, his food’s worth of work out of me. Yet, I was enthusiastic about a job, where one could see its result for years to come. The best part of it was that I could take as many breaks as I felt necessary during which I drank some refreshment, which my sister-in-law so kindly provided from time to time.
Everyone was at work. When Gerry came home from work, he checked the progress I had made during the past eight hours and most of the time commented approvingly on the quality of my workmanship.
On the second week since our arrival in Calgary I was ready to paint. I enjoyed that part the most, because with each passing day the new white color had advanced a noticeable distance on its tour around the house. Not familiar with the use of brush and roller, I stained myself at the beginning with the paint dripping and splattering on my hands, face and clothes. But as my work progressed, I gradually looked more like an experienced painter at the end of the day. By the time June came around I had put on the second and final coat and Gerry’s home turned out to be most beautiful among the bungalows on the Fyffe Road loop.
Occupational Dreams and a Trip to the Dairy Queen
Downtown Calgary in the Mid 1960’s
Every morning before breakfast the newspaper boy came by on his bicycle and dropped off the Calgary Herald at the front entrance. Actually he only dropped it off on rainy days, which happened very rarely in this semiarid climate. On all other days he would not even get off his bike. He would grab a paper from his bag and in a precisely calculated arc would land it right in front of the door. Before you knew it, he was already on the way to the next house. Later in the morning, when I granted myself a break from painting Gerry’s house, I would rush into the house and grab the Calgary Herald, which my brothers had left on the kitchen table. There was only one section in which I was really interested. I did not care about local, national or international news. Instead I quickly thumbed through the thirty odd pages of this massive newspaper until I reached the classifieds. There I soon found out what was hot on the job market. Day after day I noticed that there was an incredible teachers’ shortage in the province as evidenced by the large number of teaching positions in practically all subject areas, but especially in math both at the junior and senior high school level. The children of the baby boomers were flooding the school system, while many teachers were retiring.
Peter’s Nephew Wayne 1965
But I did not ignore the ads from the mining, oil and other resource based companies, which were trying to attract high school graduates offering free training in their respective fields with pay. Reading about all these promising positions was like entering a dream world. In a sense it actually was a dream world, more accurately put a fantasy world. I did not recognize in my unrestrained enthusiasm that it was a long, hard road from the effortless reading of an ad to landing the job of my dreams. I found out much later that the positions had often been filled at the time, when they finally appeared in the newspaper. However, as to the openings in the teaching profession, I had a fairly realistic picture in my mind. I further learned that the farther one was prepared to move away from the few major cities into isolated areas, where young city slickers would not be eager to live, the greater were the monetary and housing incentives that school boards were willing to offer. It was not uncommon in those days to offer $500 up front for each year a candidate would commit himself to teach with subsidized housing and isolation allowances to sweeten the pot.
Of course, in spite of Biene’s and my agreement we had made with each other to wait for two or even three years, deep inside we were always hoping for a quicker way of getting us two back together again. The first hint that Biene shared the same desire perhaps even more so came when I wrote her that I had almost made a foolish mistake in my career planning by responding to an ad from the IBM Company, which was looking for trainees in the fledgling computer industry. Indeed I felt, I would be the right candidate with my high school diploma and aptitude in math and analytical thinking. From Biene’s reaction expressing regret that I did not commit such foolishness, I could see that she too was counting on a shorter waiting period for our wedding date. In spite of these occasional flights of fancy that I allowed myself to paint a different future for Biene and me in Canada, I squashed any ideas that smacked of immediate gratification with regrets to follow in its footsteps. I realized that I could only be a good husband, father and family man, if I found fulfillment and satisfaction in my professional life. As one of Gerry’s friend so correctly once stated, work you enjoy doing is not work at all, rather it could become a source of relaxation and happiness. It was my hope and aspiration that one day teaching would do the same for me, and so also for Biene and the family.
Peter’s Brother Gerry and his Wife Martha – 1965
One day, after I had finished my paint job to Gerry’s complete satisfaction, he drove the family and me to the nearest Dairy Queen. He mentioned to me that I had a special treat waiting for me. I did not quite understand what he was ordering and wondered as to why he kept repeating the word Sunday. ‘What a strange world, in which one had to order a dairy product two days in advance’, I thought to myself. But then what a delightful surprise it was first for my eyes, then for my taste buds, after Gerry handed me on a large cardboard tray with a gorgeous ice cream sundae served with syrup, whipped cream, chopped nuts and strawberries! It was truly a heavenly treat, even richer, creamier and more delicious than my grillage torte my mother used to order for my birthday parties in Germany.
Splendour of the Rocky Mountains and Disappointment at the Employment Office
On the weekend before I began to actively look for work, Gerry took his family and me for a ride into the Rocky Mountains. Even though the mountains were partially concealed in a shroud of low clouds and fog, the stark unspoiled beauty of the wild scenery was stunning. Half way up to Banff, Gerry suddenly stopped the car at a viewpoint at Lac des Arcs. There we took a long admiring look at the majestic beauty of the Three Sisters, a trio of peaks in the Rockies named Faith, Charity, and Hope. Then my brother handed me the car keys and encouraged me with his peculiar tone of voice that did not leave much room for refusal, “Now Peter, you drive.”
Except for one day of driving lessons in an army truck I had never sat behind a steering wheel before. I received a one-minute lesson on the use of the power brakes, gas pedal and the simple way of putting the automatic transmission into gear. As it turned out, driving an eight-cylinder American car was a piece of cake. I enjoyed it so much that I did not notice how fast we were going on the four-lane superhighway, until Gerry remarked, “Watch your speed, Peter. For a greenhorn like you this is way too fast.”
At the gate of the Banff National Park Gerry took over the driving again, and I had time to marvel at the mountains that began to close in on us from either side of the highway. Words cannot describe the splendour of the landscape with its rivers, mountain streams, lakes, and forests. I mailed Biene a booklet about the park, so she would be able to experience vicariously what I had seen with my own eyes.
Peter at Lac des Arcs – June 1965
On Monday morning bright and early I joined the ranks of the job seekers at the Canada Employment Office. While waiting in the long line-up for my turn to register, I listened in to the conversations among the men in front of me. What I heard and what little I understood was not very encouraging. The government workers here received daily memos from companies, which were looking for skilled, certificated workers, preferable journeyman ticket holders with years of experience.
“How would I ever get experience, if nobody hires me?” I heard one man in his thirties complain.
“They drop your name and application form into a file and tell you that if anything comes up they will notify you. It’s like playing in the Irish Sweepstakes. If you are lucky, they pull your name out of the hat,” said another.
“Then tell me you know-it-all. Why are you wasting your time here?”
“Because I sometimes get lucky playing the lottery!” was his smug reply.
When I had finally advanced to the front desk, I had from all the talking around me the distinct impression that I would be going nowhere with my search for work at least not here, where the only people who had work were the government employees. In a sudden surge of sarcasm I felt that they were being paid for the number of applications they processed in any given day, for shuffling papers from one stack to another, and then burying them in their gigantic filing system, thus squashing the hopes and aspirations of people like me. I filled out the forms that the main clerk had handed to me and filled them out as well as I could. I wondered who would ever find the time to look over the detailed responses we were expected to provide. With a feeling of gloom and doom I stepped out of the Canada employment office into the sweltering heat.
Happy Family Life at Gerry’s Place in Calgary
“Welcome to the Calgary slave market!”
Learning the Difference between Up and Down
Calgary Hudson’s Bay Department Store 1965
Leaving the office building, I noticed a commotion at the street corner to the left. Someone near me shouted, “Quick! They are hiring over there.”
I ran as fast as I could to see what was going on. Half a dozen men were standing on the back of a half-ton truck, which was parked at a slant with two wheels on the sidewalk. The brawny looking men apparently were the lucky ones, who had been hired. A short man with the looks of an aggressive army sergeant was carefully examining those left standing on the sidewalk as to their suitability for hard labour. His keen eyes immediately spotted me and noticed that I looked healthy, well fed, and physically fit for the kind of work he had in mind. He merely pointed to the six men on the truck and said, “Up you go!”
In utter surprise by this speedy hiring process all I could do was stammer questions in my peculiar Oxford English mixed in with a strong German accent, “What kind of work is it? What is the pay? Aren’t there papers to be signed?”
Instead of answering my questions he barked, “Do you want a job or not?”
When I climbed onto the truck, he only answered my last question in a vague sort of way, “We will do the paper work later.”
When the man, who turned out to be my future boss, had collected altogether eight strong men, he critically looked them over once more weeding them out in his mind and fired half of them before they even had done any work. I was not among those who had to jump off the truck.
“Welcome to the Calgary slave market!” whispered a husky young fellow with a heavy foreign accent into my ear. I had just become a labourer in the work crew of Milne Construction Limited.
Barely thirty minutes later we arrived at the construction site, where an upscale apartment building was to be encased by a wall of bricks instead of the usual wood panel sidings. Mr. Milne assigned me to the foreman for placement at the site. He was from Yugoslavia, as were most of the steady labourers, who spoke only a few words of English, and therefore, as far as I could see, had been enslaved to provide cheap labor within the narrow confines of a construction company. Two masons were already clamouring for bricks and mortar. It did not take very long to recognize that this was not merely an introduction to my work routine, after which I could go home to have lunch, put some work clothes on and report for work in the afternoon. No, I was expected to start my job immediately and provide mortar and bricks to the impatient looking masons. Apparently my predecessor had been fired or did not show up for work this morning. After I had with the help of a pulley hoisted up a pail of mortar, I picked up the first two bricks with my bare hands and laid them on the heavy board, on which the masons were standing. In no time at all I had figured out the rhythm of providing a pail of mortar followed by twenty or thirty bricks in thirty-minute intervals. By the time lunchtime came around, I was very hungry and thirsty. One mason with a heart seeing that I had nothing to eat threw me a bologna sandwich over to the pile of lumber where I was sitting. I wolfed it down with plenty of water from the tap. He also talked to me in detail of what my job was all about. This was not a union outfit. If I didn’t like it, the only way for me to file a complaint was to quit. Also this was the beginning of a new building project. So at first, work would be relatively easy. But he warned me that once the wall would grow higher, the masons would continue building it at the same pace. That meant only one thing, with all my climbing up the scaffold I would still have to provide the same number of bricks within the same time frame. Mr. Milne came by to tell me that I was hired at $1.80 an hour and could keep it for as long as the masons weren’t complaining about me. That was indeed good news. For the next day I decided to buy some durable work pants and a pair of leather gloves to prevent my hands from bleeding.
Peter during Happier Times in the Canadian Wilderness
A few days later my mason friend entrusted me with the preparation of the mortar. That gave me a little break, because during that time another labourer had to move the bricks to the ever increasing new heights on the scaffolding. I also received my first lesson on the proper use of language on a Canadian construction site. My school English, especially when presented with a strong German accent, would just not do around here. My friend almost had a laughing fit, when he heard me ask, “Sir, shall I fetch a bucket of water and shed it on the mixture to soften the mortar?”
Good-naturedly he replied but with the intent of teaching me a valuable lesson. “Peter, you don’t talk like that. Your Yugoslav coworkers will not understand a single word you saying in your stilted Shakespearian language. This is how you should put it, ‘Hey you! Should I get a pail of water, pour it over this f…g mix, and stir till it turns into that soft sh*t the masons like to work with?’ I got the drift. This was the real world with hardworking people with both feet on the ground without that highfaluting talk raining down from academic ivory towers.
Another time, when the midday heat was almost unbearable, I was dragging two heavy boards up the rickety scaffolding frame. I was standing on the third tier taking a short break to catch my breath. Standing near the new stone wall with its heat radiating back, I was about to lift the boards one level higher into the steel frame above my head, when the boss looked up and to his dismay saw me what he thought to be loafing on the job. Pointing to the load I was carrying, he hollered, “Up!”
Noticing my hesitation to respond to his simple command, he shouted all the louder, “Up!”
What he did not realize at that very moment was that I was engulfed in a state of total confusion. ‘Ab’ means ‘down’ in German. I was thinking, ‘Even if the order makes absolutely no sense at all, I must obey. After all he is the boss. He must have his reasons’. By now the boss was seething with anger about the delay and he screamed at the top of his voice one more time, “Up!”
What happened next, he had not expected at all. “There,’ I cried and let the boards drop to the ground. It turned out that Mr. Milne in spite of his stern, autocratic style also had a sense of humour. He laughed and laughed, as he walked away from the scene of my embarrassment, ordering a little more kindly, “Of course, Peter, it goes without saying, you still have to deliver these boards all the way UP there”, pointing to the masonry people on the fourth level.
The three brother at a pretend poker game