It was the summer of 1966. I was in high school and went looking for a summer job. I honestly don't remember how I found out that our local amusement park was hiring -- maybe I read it in the local paper; or my dad might have made the suggestion; just possibly I figured out for myself that an amusement park might need kids to work there in the summer.
Anyway, I was hired for the minimum wage at the time of $1.25 an hour. I started working in a food stand in the park, selling fountain drinks, ice-cream bars, cotton candy. I was only working there for a few days when the manager -- did he recognize my innate talent, my executive potential, my high-class upbringing? -- asked me if I wanted to move into the main snack bar. It was considered a more favorable place to work (for one thing, no evening hours), and so I said yes, sir -- although there was no pay raise that went with the new job. I guess, these days, you'd call it a lateral move.
The main snack bar was a big place out by the picnic tables. It opened early so park employees could stop off and get coffee and a bite to eat before the park opened. A lot of the employees came over to us for lunch as well, since we offered an expanded menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and fries.
Also, since we were near the picnic tables, groups like a busload of kids from the city or a school class trip, would come over for their main meal.
I learned a lot that summer. I learned how to make coffee in a big urn -- and it was pretty good coffee, too -- and I learned how to make hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches (the hot dogs were okay, the grilled cheese sandwiches were pretty awful). I learned how to stack inventory, a skill I use to this day in our kitchen at home.
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However, I also got my first introduction to the unintended consequences of government regulation. The snack bar was open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Employees worked 9 hours, with one hour for lunch. But I was under 18, and so according to State of New York child labor laws, I was not allowed to work more than 8 hours. But instead of being able to come in an hour late, or leave an hour early, I got two hours for lunch. It wasn't enough time to go do anything, to leave the park and come back (besides, I rarely had my own car). So all I did was sit around for two hours and not get paid.
The amusement park was about ten miles from where I lived, about a 20 minute drive. My family had two cars. My dad took a train to work. My mother had one car, and I had to vie with my two older sisters for use of the second car. So I didn't get to take it for the day very often. Instead, I usually carpooled with a fellow named Billy who lived near me. He was older, maybe 22 or 23, and going to college part time.
The summer of '66 was a hot one. I remember being happy working out by the picnic tables, under the trees, where it was cooler, instead of in the middle of the park. I got to know kids who ran the rides, and I rode the big roller coaster a couple of dozen times. Then I got bored, and when I wasn't working I sat around the picnic tables and read books or magazines.
About halfway through the summer I was asked to help out with the ice-cream truck. That was a lot of fun. The truck delivered ice-cream pops to the stands around the park. I got to ride on the front bumper of the truck. It stopped at each stand, while I jumped off, ran around to the back, and pulled out the ice-cream order for the day.
There were six or eight kids who worked at my stand. Joe was the boss. He was a distinguished-looking older man -- tall and thin with graying hair, and he took the job seriously and ran the stand by the book. His assistant, Walter, was even older, and he was a fellow we could pretty much ignore.
One August afternoon, we were all looking forward to getting back to school, back to our real lives. Business was slow. Joe was off doing something else in the park, leaving Walter in charge. I was sitting at the cash register, when Billy tumbled out of the back of the stand. He was laughing. A second later I saw a shot of red go flying over his shoulder. Then another kid came through the door. He was armed with a ketchup squeeze bottle in one hand, and a mustard squeeze bottle in the other.
The kid squirted the mustard bottle. One line hit Billy in the shoulder; another missed him and landed on my pants. Billy grabbed a mustard container from the counter, turned, and fired back at his assailant. Then he shouted to me. "Come on, Tom. I need reinforcements!"
Just then, another kid came out of the back, shooting with both hands, ropes of ketchup and mustard flying through the air. I grabbed a mustard and a ketchup, and joined Billy, fighting off the other two kids.
Within seconds, four or five kids were running through the stand splashing mustard and ketchup all over one another, and also getting it on the counter, the floor, and a couple of customers. Walter was yelling, "Stop it! Stop it!" But, like I said, nobody paid attention to Walter.
I remember running through the back of the stand, over to the other side, when Billy came up behind me. He vaulted over the counter and started shooting at someone. Just then, Joe walked into the snack stand.
He put a stop to everything, real quick. Billy was fired. He was gone in less than an hour. So were a couple of the other combatants.
I was not fired, I got away with a reprimand. Maybe it was because I was the youngest kid there, or maybe because Joe knew I hadn't started it. But I was demoted. I was taken off the morning ice-cream route, and put to work cleaning and scouring shelves.
The incident occurred toward the end of August. I worked through Labor Day, then the park closed. I do remember, at the time I'd been hired, there'd been some mention of an end-of-season bonus if I stayed for the entire summer. I didn't get the bonus. That's another lesson I learned -- if you want your bonus, behave yourself. But at least I can say, I was never fired.