Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part two

The other job I had at the north pit was that of clay picker. The traveling belt that carried the gravel to the Cedar Rapids crusher passed by at a high speed. Every once in a while, clay would be mixed with the gravel. This clay messed up the crusher and the screen plant that sorted the gravel, so it had to be “picked.” This was the most boring job in the world, standing and staring at the moving belt for 11 or more hours per day. This would only be broken up by intermittent periods of furious picking when the clay ran heavy. Most of the time, you did nothing.

At Harlem High School, I had a wonderful teacher. His name was Paul Mann. He taught chemistry and physics, two subjects I excelled in. I did not think I would be able to go to college, so I did not sign up for the PSAT (Pre Scholastic Aptitude Test). Paul Mann came to the class I was in, pulled me out and paid for the test out of his own pocket. I believe I scored the highest of any student in my class. He was a graduate of Beloit College, and he encouraged me to apply there. My counselor, Dick Dresser, discouraged me. He said I would never be able to compete with the East Coast kids, that Beloit College was out of my league. When I made the dean’s list the first semester, I made sure to stop back into his office to show him my grades. Some people simply shouldn’t be counselors.

I enrolled at Beloit College, and my classes were scheduled to start in the fall. I bought a car from Alan Campbell Used Cars at a lot close to the Hilander store on Rural to take with me to school. It was a 1956 Opal station wagon. I had to learn to double clutch to drive it; the part that caused the gears to mesh was gone. On my way home from the gravel pit one night, I hit a Volkswagen in front of the potato chip plant on Windsor Road. They had put a new stop sign up while I was at work, and the sun was in my eyes. I couldn’t afford to repair the Opal, so I fastened a front bumper out of a plank and took it to college that way. That got me by fine until a Beloit cop pulled me over and said to get it fixed or get it off the road. He said it had been a joke for long enough.

After I had been at Beloit for a year or so, I bought another car, a Ford Anglia. The synchro was gone on this one, too. In addition, the floorboards were rusted out. I covered the rusted floor portions with sheet metal, but the sheet metal would shift when you turned corners, and the body flexed, causing snow and sleet to spray into the driver’s compartment. In the winter, the Anglia wouldn’t start, so I always parked it on a hill. Even then, the help of three or four fraternity brothers was sometimes required to push start it. I was dating a girl from the East Coast, a debutante. Her father was on the board of admissions of Harvard Medical School. After one ride in the car, she called her father. What kind of car did I want to drive? she asked. I was too proud, even then, to accept. I soon stopped seeing her.

After three years at Beloit, I was forced to drop out. I just couldn’t keep up with things financially. My mother and Uncle Frank had a phobia about filling out financial aid forms. My bill got larger and larger. The pressure became too much for me. I dropped out and got married to Robin. We had a son, Drew. I was working at the National Can Company in Loves Park in the shipping department. I drove a forklift and loaded out trucks and boxcars. I got so good with the forklift that I could load a boxcar without help. This brought me a lot of overtime on Sundays.

The other jobs at the can company included slitter operator. This required you to rack the metal sheets that formed the can bodies and pull out the short ones before you put them in the hopper. If there was a miscut, it would jam the hopper and shut down the line. In addition, you had to keep the end machine full so that the ends were there as needed. This was pretty tricky. A college student, Jack, was promoted to the slitter, hopper, end area. The first day, he went home with cuts all over his hand, and his mother was aghast. He jokingly told her that he got the job because the last guy who had it cut off his finger.

I was really getting tired of the factory mentality although National Can paid pretty well. I wanted to find something else. I tried selling vacuum cleaners for the Traxel Compact agency. It was run by an ebullient man of giant proportions, Wally Traxel. He was the type of person who could sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

More next week

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

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