My Dad did independent contracting jobs in the 1970s to earn extra money. When I turned thirteen he drafted me as his laborer for glorified donkey work. I dug ditches for foundations, scraped wood siding on houses before painting them, hauled bundles of shingles up ladders, trundled wet cement in wheel barrows, and cleaned trash and discarded belongings out of abandoned rental units. He paid fifty cents less than minimum wage, but I knew better than to complain.
Dad landed a cement job the summer before my junior year. A man who owned a frame house in east Dayton wanted a front porch. I helped dig a trench for the foundation. The project was on time and profitable until a neighbor saw that my father hadn’t posted a work permit on the site. He reported us to the authorities, and they did a surprise inspection after the foundation of concrete blocks had been laid. They fined Dad and told him that the foundation was a few inches too shallow. We had to pull out the blocks and dig deeper. The foundation was reset, and a cement mixer truck rumbled up the street early one morning and poured a load into the wooden forms Dad had built around the foundation. He and I spread and smoothed the heavy, gray sludge with shovels, rakes and trowels until we had a fairly uniform slab. The cool, overcast weather kept the cement from hardening quickly. Dad decided to knock off for lunch figuring that we’d have plenty of time to do the final surfacing work that afternoon.
While we were away the sun came out and the temperature shot up five degrees in an hour. We discovered when we returned that the cement was nearly rock solid. He and I worked frantically with our tools but couldn’t properly trowel and edge the slab. Dad swore at the concrete, at me, at his edger, at the sun. We all had conspired against him.
The owner refused to pay for the porch. He knew a shoddy job when he saw one, and so did my Dad. The next week we took sledge hammers, broke it up and hauled away the debris. Then we hired a cement mixer to dump another load into rebuilt forms. This time we stayed on the job until the surfaces were slickly finished on the edges and across the whole expanse of the porch. At the end of the day the owner finally handed my Dad a wad of cash.
I hadn’t gotten a cent up to that point, but when we got home Dad kept his wallet firmly wedged in his pants pocket. A few weeks later school started, and the juniors got order forms for class rings. My sister had gotten one, bought and paid for by my parents a few years earlier. But Dad’s company was in the process of laying off workers, and our family finances were about to take a severe blow. I didn’t know how my parents would react when I showed them the photo of the gold and garnet ring I favored. A few days went by before my Dad spoke to me about the ring. He grumphed, “I took a loss on that porch job. That’s why I didn’t pay you. I’m going to buy you your class ring, and we’ll call it even.” I nodded in agreement even though I knew that he was shortchanging me. I figured that something was better than nothing.
Dad got laid off in November right before Thanksgiving. His former employer mailed him his twenty year pin a few days after giving him a pink slip. The pin came with a letter thanking him for his loyal service. Dad decided to turn his back on finding another factory job and attempted to grow his part time work into a full time business. We scraped along for the next eight months on savings and the cash he brought in from remodeling and light construction projects.
I got the ring and enjoyed wearing it until I lost it midwinter. It snowed one night in January, and on the following day the weather stayed frigid and dry. My brother and I fought a snowball battle in the side yard after school, and we had to take off our gloves and use the heat of our bare hands to pack snowballs that held together when thrown. I bombarded Tony for as long as he was willing and taunted him when he retreated inside. That evening I noticed that my ring was gone. I searched my bed covers, the kitchen counter and table, under my bed, on my dresser. Then I remembered the fight, how cold my fingers had been, how my ring slid up and down easily on my wet finger. I realized that I must have thrown it off my hand when I whipped a snowball at Tony.
I desperately searched the yard the next morning but couldn’t find it in the melting snow, mud, and needles from a nearby evergreen. When I went to school I noticed guys twiddling their rings on their fingers, tapping them on tables. I saw girls wearing their boyfriends’ rings on chains around their necks.
I reported the lost ring to my parents that evening and asked them if it could be replaced. I wasn’t surprised when the answer was “no”. They weren’t going to pay for a second ring when I had been stupid enough to lose the first. I didn’t argue that I had paid for the first with my labor. At that time our grocery supplies came up short by the end of each week, our cars were old and dying, and Mom wore a strained look on her face whenever the topic of finances came up. A ring could wait.
That spring my Dad gave up on his dream of self-employment. He couldn’t afford the necessary equipment to make his business profitable enough to support a family. He took the first of a series of dangerous and unpleasant factory jobs while still doing small projects on the side. I continued to work for him in the summer. He bought us lunch and cheap beer for the end of the day, and he paid me fifty cents less than minimum wage. I took it, saved it. Something was better than nothing.
I met my first girlfriend while working with Dad building another concrete porch. Marge brought me lemonade and asked if I wanted a radio to listen to as I shoveled and hauled. Dad let me off early one afternoon a few weeks later when she invited me to come with her to a swimming pool. I gave him a look of stunned disbelief as we pulled out of her driveway, and he grinned back.
I spent all the money I earned that summer on dates with Marge and forgot all about buying myself another ring.