Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Salvaging Bricks

From a very young age I learned how to work. "God helps those who helps themselves" is not a Scriptural proverb, but it was definitely a guiding principle in my family. If we insisted on a real Bible verse we might hear, "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

As I have mentioned before, I grew up in a hotel in small town Nebraska. The Mary-Etta Hotel was built around 1905 as a railroad stop. We took over in the early 1960s, and the place had never really been updated. So lots of things needed attention and improvement, and my dad was always at work repairing and restoring and rejuvenating. And we didn't just have the hotel to attend to - the Mary-Etta also included a cafe, a tavern and party rooms.

Our corner apartment was on the top floor. 
The cafe is at the lower left, the tavern was just out of the picture to the left.

Running four separate businesses under one roof meant lots of work to be done, and everyone in the family was expected to pitch in and do their part. When I was young, this meant helping carry stuff from one place to another, or sweeping the steps. Sometimes my job was just staying out of the way. We had no lawn - first time I ever mowed was when I was 15 or 16. But boy, did we have sidewalks! When it snowed, we had almost an entire city block 4 sidewalks wide to clear. And my father was not one who would settle for a one-scoop path. No, we had to shovel the whole thing. (Not without complaint, I might add. Although not when Dad could hear.)

Around 1970, Dad got the idea of opening a steakhouse. He bought an old tavern building a half block south of the hotel, along with the sewing machine repair shop next door. For the next year, our family worked to turn the building into a nice restaurant. I don't remember any contractors being hired, at least not for the demolition and construction. We were doing this on a budget, while we continued running the hotel and related businesses. And Dad wanted to keep this project under wraps, so few people outside of the family were involved. Actually, even WE didn't really know what he had in mind.

One of the first things required was to remove the brick wall running right down the center, separating the building into the bar and repair shop. I thought this process would be pretty cool, blasting the wall to smithereens with a sledgehammer, maybe even some explosives. But no... as mentioned in the last post, my father doesn't believe in wasting anything. Though we did use a sledgehammer, we had to very carefully tap the wall, removing bricks one at a time. And then we hauled the loose bricks outside and piled them on the trailer that had been salvaged from a rowboat. Dad owned a little house one block east of the hotel, used strictly for storage and for a garden plot. That's where the bricks ended up, stacked against the wall.

After a year of remodeling, we finally installed carpet, heating/air conditioning, kitchen fixtures and everything else we needed. The business was ready to be opened. For the next year, our family actually ran five businesses simultaneously. And I got my first paying job, at age 14. I was the dishwasher/busboy for the steakhouse. I do not recall applying for this position. I think it was just assumed that, as a member of the family, I would do my part to help the business succeed. And I got paid! My salary was 75 cents an hour, less than the federal minimum of $1.60 - and I was thrilled to actually earn a paycheck.

That's Mom on the phone at the end of the bar in our steakhouse, circa 1973.

I worked at the steakhouse for over a year, till I picked up a job at a local greenhouse for the princely amount of $1.25 an hour. Still below the minimum wage, but a decent pay raise.
I started that job in late February of 1973 at age 15. I was responsible for watering all the plants, moving them from building to building, pulling weeds, sweeping and mopping and all that sort of thing. I liked the job fine and was shocked when, about the end of May, I was informed my services were no longer required. It wasn't that I had done a bad job - the plants were mature and mostly sold already. There just wasn't enough work to keep me busy. So I was laid off.

My 16th birthday wasn't till the end of August. Most businesses wouldn't hire anyone younger than 16. And my dad had hired replacement dishwashers, so that option wasn't really available. So I was facing a summer with little to no spending money. I did pick up a little contract work, helping a local farmer haul bales from the field to the barn. But that was only good for a couple of week's pay. (Plus great lunches cooked by the farmer's wife!)

My father had a request for me since I had time on my hands. Remember those bricks we had knocked out of that wall? He wanted me to clean all the old mortar off them so they'd be ready for a new project. Now, he wasn't offering to pay me for this task. It was just expected, as a family member, that I'd want to do my part. The problem was, I didn't. I wanted to earn some money, not work hard in the sweltering summer for no pay. So I avoided the job, hoping something better would come along.

I continued procrastinating the whole summer long. Dad didn't hassle me about it - just reminded me every once in a while that the job was still waiting. I had become a serious Christian the year before, but I still needed a lot of character growth. Finally, the Holy Spirit convicted me that I wasn't honoring my father as the Bible instructed. (Colossians 3:20) And I read the proverb about the disgraceful son who won't help when there's work to be done. (Proverbs 10:5) So grudgingly, at the very end of the summer, I made my way down to the 4th street house and started knocking mortar off bricks.

It was my second afternoon of brick cleaning, and I had managed to get grimy, hot and sweaty. One of my friends came running up around 4 p.m. He told me the big supermarket up the street was looking for a few new guys. He'd been hired, and he thought they had room for me, too. It was too late to go home and change, so I walked the block or so to the market and put in an application. I was dirty and smelly and had obviously been outside working. I don't recommend this method of job search, but they hired me on the spot. I turned 16 a week or so later and worked there until after I graduated high school and moved away for college.

Waiting for my birthday to come gave me just enough time to finish cleaning all the bricks. 
If I hadn't obeyed the prompting of my conscience to do what my father wanted, I wouldn't have been in the right place to get that job. I believe God was training me to listen to the wise counsel of His word. That good steady job was a reward for obedience.

Blessings have almost always come in my life when I've been actively pursuing God's will. Rarely if ever have I been blessed by sitting around waiting for something to fall into my lap. I have found God expects us to do what we know to be right and let Him guide and direct our steps. The brick story has served as an object lesson for me ever since. 

God blesses obedience and faithfulness, not idleness and selfishness. I wasn't thrilled about cleaning up those bricks, and can't say my attitude was stellar. But I was there working, because it was what my father wanted and I (finally) was willing to obey. And God blessed me with a good steady job to reinforce that it's always the right choice to obey His word. 

It's been a guiding principle of my life ever since.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the whole brick story. I hadn't heard that last part before. It's funny how God uses everyday things like bricks to help us grow.