Hot-wiring a bicycle

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Carroll McKibbin, guest columnist

As the summer of 1949 moved along, I delighted in the thought of moving to the top of the elementary school ladder as a sixth-grader. But I despaired over my unemployed, penniless plight during my daily pilgrimage to Booth’s Sporting Goods to eyeball a red Schwinn bicycle in the display window. If dreams could buy, I would be riding the two-wheeled beauty on the streets of Guthrie Center. The $30 price tag said otherwise.

My yearning for a bike turned to thoughts of sharps and flats as I stepped into the high school band room for a cornet lesson on a sultry August day. Mr. Evans, the music director, had not yet appeared in the seemingly vacant building when I heard desperate shouts.

“Help! Help!”

Muffled cries seemed to come from within the band room walls. But how could anyone be inside the thick plaster of the large basement room?

“Help! Get me outta here!”

This time it seemed the distressed voice might come from Mr. Evan’s corner office. Students were not allowed to enter without permission, as a large “No Admittance” sign warned. But when I again heard “Help, help!” I entered the forbidden territory and identified the source of the cries as coming from a small olive-green door next to the ceiling.

I climbed the handles of a file cabinet beneath the foot-square door and opened it with a yank. On the other side of a wire grill I discovered the sweaty, blackened face of Dale James, the school custodian.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” he gasped.

“What are you doin’ in there?” I asked.

“I was stringing wires for our new intercom system and got caught in this narrow ductwork. I can’t back up and I can’t get through this grill. Go call the town phone operator and tell her to get some firemen up here right away.”

I climbed down from the file cabinet, picked up the phone on Mr. Evans’ desk, and heard the operator’s familiar “number please.”

“Joyce, Mr. James is stuck in the ceiling of the school band director’s office. He said to call you and get some firemen up here to help.”

Seconds later Guthrie Center’s undulating fire whistle summoned its volunteer force. A dozen men soon appeared with heavy-duty tools and freed an exhausted and grateful Dale James.

As the firemen were departing Mr. Evans arrived and learned of the situation. “Are you OK, Dale?” he asked. “You’re too big to be crawling through the ventilation system.”

“Yeah, I’m all right, thanks to this little fella. But you’re correct. We need someone smaller to drag those wires.”

I settled into a folding chair and began tooting through arpeggios and scales. When I finished a half-hour later, a freshly-showered Dale James entered the band room. “Hey, kid,” he said. “Would you like a job?”

Presto! The next day I began my first big-time employment as an intercom wirepuller. I was allowed an assistant and chose a small, wiry friend, Gordon “Squeak” (short for “Pipsqueak”) Hunt.

The school stood three stories high and covered a quarter of a block. The ductwork system narrowed to as little as 18 inches wide and a foot high, and extended along a lengthy network to every room in the huge structure.

Squeak and I entered with our wires through the fan compartment next to the furnace or through a vent opening in a room. We taped a small flashlight to the bill of our baseball caps, in the fashion of a coal miner, and looped one end of the intercom wire to a strap on our bib overalls. Thus equipped, we crawled commando-style into the dark, stuffy hot bowels of the school heating/ventilation system. While one inched along pulling the wire the other fed the line from a large coil. Our ductwork route, filled with a thick layer of dirt and dust, included an occasional dead mouse or bat, and more spiders, living and deceased, than I want to remember.

A week later we finished a job that today would call into question child endangerment. But we were proud of our accomplishment and thrilled to shower at the end of each day in the high school boys’ locker room.

With our work completed, we discussed our potential wages and negotiating approach with the school superintendent, P.H. Jarman.

“That was an awful dirty job,” I said to my co-worker. “We oughta get something extra for that.”

“Yeah,” Squeak replied. “And it’s dangerous. Just look at what happened to Mr. James. He might’ve suffocated.”

“And without us the school wouldn’t have an intercom system,” I added. “How much d’ya think we oughta ask for?”

“Buck an hour,” Squeak retorted.

A dollar seemed a bit steep to me at a time when the minimum wage was 40 cents an hour and I could attend a movie for a dime. I decided to let Squeak, who in adult life became a lawyer, do the talking.

We entered the superintendent’s office at his invitation and stood beside his desk. Mr. Jarman began the bargaining process: “Dale James said you boys did a fine job in stringing the intercom wires. So how much do I owe you?”

Squeak, at the same height as the seated superintendent, retorted with no hesitation: “Buck an hour!”

The sharp response from the pint-size kid startled the school administrator. “Oh, my goodness, we can’t pay you boys those kind of wages!”

“It’s dangerous, dirty work,” Squeak replied tersely. “Buck an hour!”

Mr. Jarman struggled to catch his breath. “Look, boys, I only pay Dale James seventy-five cents an hour.”

“He couldn’t finish the job,” Squeak challenged. “We did. Buck an hour!”

My buddy had stood his ground, while I stood two steps behind. Mr. Jarman opened with resignation a register with three checks on each side. “What does that add up to?” he asked.

“Thirty bucks apiece,” Squeak replied.

The next day I pedaled about Guthrie Center, from the county fairgrounds on one end to Howard Gillespie’s apple orchard on the other, breezing along on my new bicycle.

P.H. Jarman subsequently moved to Anamosa as school superintendent. Frustration with two small fry versions of John L. Lewis perhaps contributed to his decision.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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