The man who answered the door was wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt – one of those narrow strap things some of our mothers forced us to wear when we were kids – that only barely covered his big midsection. It was shortly after 9 a.m., but he held an open can of Grain Belt beer in his right hand and a cigarette in his left. “What the %$&# do you want?” he snarled.
I told him that I wanted to give him, free of charge of course, a new set of encyclopedias. If he’d let me come in, I’d be happy to show them to him and his wife. Naturally, there was no obligation and I would only take up about 15 minutes of his time.
He turned away and yelled something to his wife about some %$&#@ salesman at the door and would she bring the shotgun downstairs. I didn’t wait around to see if his wife actually did what he asked her to do. I quickly backed down the steps, out to the sidewalk and disappeared as quickly as possible.
And, I realized, this has to be the worst summer job anyone could ever imagine.
Having just completed my first year of college, I – like most everyone in my situation – had sought a summer job. Despite dead end after dead end, I’d finally landed one. Looking through the help wanted ads, I’d found one that sought people just like me. “College-age men, clean cut, no experience necessary, no sales. Interviews next Monday at the Kirkwood Hotel in Des Moines. Ask for Mr. Barnes.”
After all these years, I’m not sure, of course, that’s what the advertisement actually said. But, it was words of that nature.
I couldn’t wait to get there. Mr. Barnes turned out to be a young man himself, probably no more than 25, but he offered this fantastic opportunity. All we had to do was to give away sets of encyclopedias, free of charge. I thought that sounded like a pretty neat deal, so I agreed to go through the three-day training session before I was actually turned loose to give away encyclopedias. On the final day of training we learned that anyone who accepted the free encyclopedias would, quite naturally, want to keep the books current and to do that they would have to buy the yearly “up date.”
Still, it seemed like a pretty good deal to me. I could understand that if you took a free set of encyclopedias, naturally, you’d want to keep them current for your kids’ educational benefits.
Boy, was I wrong.
As for earning money, well our pay would be based on the sets of encyclopedias we actually placed in homes. We’d get $10 for every one – no hourly salary, just $10 for every set of encyclopedias we were able to put in Iowans’ homes.
It took less than a day to learn that was much easier said than done. We were hauled to all areas of Iowa – from Cedar Rapids to Exira, from Oskaloosa to Webster City. There were five of us on the team. We’d leave early in the morning, then we’d spend the whole day going door to door with our memorized “spiel.”
By the third week, I’d not been able to place a single set of encyclopedias anywhere. In fact, only once had I actually been invited into the living room to sit down with the residents to fully explain things. I was beginning to realize that this was nothing more than a scam, that I was among thousands of college kids nationwide giving the same memorized speech to parents. Finally, that morning in Des Moines was my undoing. As I backed away from the man’s front door, I could see a sneer on his face. I imagined his wife in some upstairs closet grabbing a shotgun standing in the corner. I didn’t want to stick around to find out.
“%$#@$#, you’d better git,” the man yelled as he hurled a final barrage of epithets my way.
Things worked out, though. I decided I didn’t want to make any more calls that day. I found a Little League diamond nearby and was pleased to see there were games being played. I sat and watched, game after game, eating a couple of quarter hot dogs at noon. Finally, it was time to return to our designated pick up spot and we were taken back downtown to our cars. I drove home and never went back.
Fortunately, my dad had found me a job with a construction crew building new homes in northern Polk and southern Story counties. After two days of wielding a hammer, my hands were red and raw with popped blisters, so painful I thought I’d never be able to pick up another beloved baseball.
It was worth it, though. After a week or so, my hands healed. And, I never had to deal with pot-bellied men in underwear holding a Grain Belt beer and cigarette at 9 o’clock in the morning.