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School was in for summer

MEMOIR | During the carefree summer of ’77 life classes were still in session

Boss Walter Jacobson — Mr. Jacobson to a young employee — provided many life lessons.

Who could have guessed that classes were still in session during the summer of ’77. Grade 11 had ended, yes, but life classes began in earnest.

As one of four Manitoba farm boys, Mom said I could get a summer job. Maybe I could make a few dollars, have adventure, and discover the rewards of the workaday world. My two younger brothers would cover for me with Dad and the Basswood farm chores. The situation sounded carefree – freedom and cash!

I had heard that the Minnedosa Esso station, 12 miles east on the Yellowhead Highway, needed a gas jockey. My dad let me take the farm’s 1960 blue Chevy half-ton pickup and I raced 20 km for my first-ever job interview. The owner, Mr. Jacobson, appreciated the work habits of farmers’ sons. And in no position to bargain, I agreed to the minimum wage, $2.95 an hour. Yikes!

The station stood at Manitoba’s crossroads — the No. 4 — Yellowhead (later that year it was renamed No. 16) trended east/west, and Highway 10 headed north/south from Brandon to Riding Mountain National Park (and onwards to Dauphin).

My summer job there became a 10-week short course for life. The “school teachers” were mainly customers, my boss, and the family. I was their 17-year-old student. These were the lessons.

All that’s left of the station today is an empty lot adjacent to the busy highway. photo: Supplied

Pay Your Way

My first task was to negotiate with Mom for the use of a vehicle for the 40-km round trip to work. She suggested a modest $2 per work shift. That included the gasoline. I mostly had dibs on the old half-ton, trusty, but dusty and rusty. Part of the deal was that I might have to run errands for her in the big town of 2,200. No worries. I couldn’t get lost in Minnedosa.

Songs Anchor Memories

I can still hear two songs from that summer wafting through my head: Reba McEntire’s “Makin’ Me Glad I Waited Just for You,” and Kenny Rogers’ “Daytime Friends.” Music defines life moments and these two songs were hits in ’77 on CKLQ Radio out of Brandon. Two years later I was a fill-in morning disc jockey at a college radio station in Indiana. I know I played those songs too often.

Fame Fever

A brush with fame came in the form of The Rhythm Pals from the “Tommy Hunter Show.” photo: Supplied

In August, Mike Ferbey, Marc Wald, and Jack Jensen, better known as “The Rhythm Pals” of TV’s “Tommy Hunter Show,” drove up. Mike and Jack explained they had recently fallen out with Tommy, alas. I relayed that information to Mom, their biggest fan.

The hefty Marc didn’t explain anything though – he snoozed, sprawled out in the back seat.

In July I had pumped gas for hockey superstar Bobby Hull.

Although I was excited with these “brushes with fame,” I kept calm and served them as regular customers. These famous people seemed like ordinary people.

Years later, I worked for and with a well-known Canadian – the prime minister of Canada.

Gripes of Wrath

I knew little about customer complaints, but I had to learn quickly: the price of gasoline, the highway construction, the careless drivers, the cantankerous vehicles, or the fickle weather. For some reason, they wanted a listening ear and mine was handy. I figured out though that they didn’t need their problems solved. Who could? However, they did want empathy. I offered them that – easily done. No extra fee.

Brothers as Friends?

I had always thought “friends” were my buddies at Minnedosa Collegiate Institute, and they often were. That summer though, my younger brothers, Tim, 14, and Ron, 12, suddenly seemed to grow up. They became peers instead of just being “little boys.” They took on my farm chores and pitched in to help Dad with the haymaking. Dad even entrusted them with tractor driving. Imagine that!

My older brother David had already left home, but I had two great replacements. I actually confided in them, and on rare occasions, I even sought their advice. And to this day, I have managed to keep brothers as friends.

Saving Money = Making Money

The Voyageur Restaurant next door was a temptation. I knew if I forgot to pack a sandwich (or was just lazy), I could buy lunch or supper there. The meal would taste good and only cost me a few dollars. Yet my dollars kept vanishing. It took a paycheque to replenish my hungry wallet.

I soon learned that if my university fund was to grow, I’d better bring Mom’s homemade pin cherry jelly/peanut butter sandwiches, grab a few garden-fresh carrots, and sip cool, but weak Freshie from Dad’s borrowed thermos. That farm boy lunch kept me fed, and kept me humble.

The big town of Minnedosa was a real attraction to a young farm boy in 1977. photo: Supplied

Keep Promises/Apologize Quickly

At age 17, I had all the energy in the world. Yet I recall once after a long evening of hauling baled hay, and my gas jockey shift beginning at 8 a.m. the next morning, I failed. I had told Dad that I could help haying again at 5 p.m. when I got home. However, I had finished an exhausting workday. I powered out. When I got home, a 15-minute rest on the couch became an hour-long nap. Ooops.

Mom chose not to wake me up, saying I needed “rest in order to grow.” I bicycled out to the field where Dad and the brothers were baling hay. I apologized for my slothful ways. Dad said all was in order and maybe I could head home and begin the evening chores. I survived. Whew!

‘Let’s be Careful out There’

Perhaps because I felt somewhat guilty, I offered to change the worn tires on Dad’s hayrack. A customer had bought four new tires at the “4 & 10,” but the old radials still had plenty of wear. Mr. Jacobson said I could have them. I had learned to use his tire changer machine. I soon fitted the old tubes into the newer tires, put the rims back on and inflated them – good to go.

During the process though, I severely pinched a finger. I held back the tears to “save face” and carried on. Later, I showed the bandaged wound to Mother. I received a good dose of sympathy – and a mild scolding.

Takin’ Care of (Mr. Jacobson’s) Business

Unknown to me, our station was rare along the Yellowhead. We stayed open until midnight during the endless summer.

One July Sunday evening at about 10 p.m., a parade of trucks and horse trailers began to fill the seven “stalls” at our gas pumps. I was working alone. We had no Self-Serve pumps either. At about 11, a mild anxiousness took hold. I could not keep up.

Somehow, I calmed myself down and I thought “one at a time.” I parked the blue Chevy half-ton to block one stall. The customers seemed to understand that I was on my own. Sure they created lineups, but I could handle that. I realized the patrons were just so grateful they had found a gas station still “Open.”

Later, I discovered a rodeo had ended that evening at Swan River, and one would begin the next day at Morris. The participants had to travel 530 km. I kept the Esso open until 12:30 just to help out a few stragglers.

My extra hustle had doubled the cash receipts for the eight-hour shift. Mr. Jacobson was pleased.

Tried, Tested, and True

I valued my mild-mannered high school buddies, or my “gang,” as a sister once called them. My friends brought me food and company. They’d hang around during the fading hours of a summer day. They were low maintenance. They never led me astray. Simply the best!

Sadly at age 69, Mr. Jacobson died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1991, reports his Minnedosa son, Calvin “Skip” Jacobson.

On a cross-Canada journey a dozen years ago, I routed through Minnedosa. I swung past the old Esso. Nothing. Bulldozed. The vacant lot is home to memories only. The carefree summer lessons linger.

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