It’s Father’s Day and Juneteenth. That unusual confluence has me thinking about a professional underground railroad of sorts that kept my father, mostly, employed, and my family with a very modest roof over its head and a lifelong appreciation for opportunity, kindness and in today’s terms, a damn good network.
My father grew up without, as he would say, two nickels to rub together. After serving in World War II where he was a decorated hero for capturing a house of 32 Germans, he used his aptitude for math to become a draftsman, then chemical engineer. He soon became well-known in the trade in the New York City area but that didn’t mean job security.
For most of his life he didn’t work directly for a firm, but rather as what was known back then as a “job shopper,” basically a freelancer. Competition was fierce for those jobs which paid well but last only as long as the project. The key was to land the next gig before the current one ended. To wait too long meant missing out on a limited number of openings.
Knowing that, my father and his most trusted fellow job shoppers formed their own secret network decades before the internet and sites like Linkedin changed the game.
We knew a job was near its end when our phone would start ringing more than usual in the evening and the calls were for my dad or he grabbed the phone and started dialing. The conversations were short and serious. The jobshopper network was deep in its mission, trading information on when projects were believed to be ending and where the next ones were starting and staffing.
It was a tenuous way to make a living. Sometimes the network’s information was a little off the mark or too late and spots were filled. While it served my father fairly well over the years, there was a time it didn’t and he was forced to sell air conditioners at Sears for a short time to earn a paycheck.
Oh, while on an engineering job, my father made good money but we never moved from our 440 square foot garden apartment in Queens. We’d go out to Long Island and march through model homes, my mother would fall in love with some and hopes were high we’d finally move to an actual “private house” as we called them back then.
Didn’t happen. My father was spooked by the poverty in which he grew up and the whole Sears salesman experience and feared another period when engineering jobs dried up, making it too risky to get tied up in a 30-year mortgage.
So we stayed in that apartment with its balky heat and crappy circuits that died when we attempted to use window air conditioning units in the heat of summer.
But the jobshoppers network kept at its work. My father never actually had a lull again, working steadily until he finally landed an on-roll position at an engineering firm for the final decade of his career, after a tip from the network.
Only after he retired and my brother and I were gone and married did he feel confident enough to buy a home in Florida where he and my mother enjoyed the final 20 years of their lives. In the end the jobshoppers network completed its mission.
So here’s the epilogue.
While I was in college and seeking summer employment the network showed it never forgot a favor. One of the members named Colin who had opened his own engineering firm called my father. He said, “Dick, you helped me all through my career and I want to repay you in some way. I know you’re not looking but maybe one of your sons needs a summer job. I have an opening for a clerk.”
It was a great job. Paid well and I learned a ton about how the piping in a nuclear power plant is created and how the plants operated.
The next summer I was in need of a job again. I went calling on Colin to see if he could use some help. At first he frowned, saying he now had a full time clerk and I thanked him for his time. Before I could leave his office he called after me.
“Ed! You start Monday! There’s plenty of work for two clerks and you did a good job last summer…besides, it’s the least I can do after all your dad did for me.”
A tribute to my wonderful dad…and his network. Always appreciate your father. Always cultivate your network.