As a youngster in Elizabethtown, I went door to door collecting empty soft drink bottles. It was amazing how many ladies were glad to get rid of them. It was a time in life when people would invite me into their home, point toward the basement or garage and say, “Take all you want.”
Most of the bottles were bringing five cents each back then, and grocery stores even had a bin to place them in when they were returned. Keep in mind this was before cans and plastic had arrived; the bottles were all made of glass. Many people didn’t want to fool with carting them back to the store, so while I was helping them out, they were likewise helping me. In other words, I was fulfilling a need and making money. The job was considered respectable for a kid.
It was a great summer way to make some money, as 12-year-olds were not easily employed. On most days, I could collect 100 to 200 bottles. Not bad – $5 to $10 a day – for a kid pulling a rusty wagon behind his bicycle. I’d usually fill up the wagon and pedal directly to the A&P store downtown before returning for another load.
Glass soft drink bottles, especially Coca-Cola, were once considered valuable, usually not tossed away. But there was a reason stores paid for returned drink bottles. The bottles were expensive to produce, so to ensure that customers would bring them back they put a value on them.
For me, I was glad that people didn’t want to load them into their car and pack them into the store. Carrying cartons or cases of empties around was not always easy.
Even though I was paid by the grocer, it was the drink bottler who actually footed the bill. As many of the bottles were clearly embossed with a name and logo, there was no doubt that the bottle would go back to that company to be reused. For that, the bottler would shell out money to the store.
Into the early 1960s, Coke bottlers embossed the name of the town from which it came on the bottom of each bottle. Later in college, I played the “bottle game” with friends. We’d each put up a quarter and when we’d get our Coke from the machine (usually a dime), the one whose bottle was from the furthest distance won the quarters.
There were some in my college dorm who took the bottle game to another level. On a weekend, they would do the “bottle game” by agreeing to hitchhike to where the Coke was bottled. Of course, they had to return with something to prove they had been in that town. That’s a game I never played.
With the 1960s came lots of changes, and soon more generic-type bottles appeared on store shelves. No longer were the fancy, high-cost logos visible, but instead “No Deposit, No Return.” Effectively, the little cottage industry for kids like me was put out of business.
Mowing yards was always there for me to make some money, but I never had what I called regulars every week. I guess you could say I was a “pick-and-choose” kid when it came to yards.
My family had one of those reel mowers, and the horsepower was my skinny little body. I would pick the day I wanted to mow, and choose the yard depending on its size. My bicycle once again was my workhorse. Turning the mower upside down so just the wheels touched the pavement, I would tie the handle to the back of the seat and head out.
The mower rolled easily behind my bike as I peddled past houses looking for those that had small yards, but more importantly ones with grass that wasn’t overgrown. Pushing that motorless lawn mower through weeds wasn’t easy. Once I found a yard that needed mowing, I would knock on the door and – putting on my best Eddie Haskell approach – I proceeded to tell, usually the lady of the house, how good of a job I would do. Charging a couple of dollars and another 50 cents to hand clip their sidewalk, I could sometime mow four or five yards a day.
The bottle collecting and yard mowing were great summer jobs sandwiched around Little League baseball. In the winter, I shined shoes at a downtown barber shop. So even as a pre-teen, I had something going on that provided me with enough money to buy a baseball glove that I never dreamed possible.
As an 11-year-old slick-fielding second baseman for the Modern Woodmen Giants, who hit mostly singles and doubles, I was good enough to make the all-stars one year. I give credit for my success to the glove I bought at the Western Auto store in downtown E-town.
In 1954, there were no what you might call “sporting goods stores” in town. But, for sure, the Western Auto Store met all of my needs. Walking through its front door, immediately on the left, was a long wall with peg board stretching all the way to the ceiling. On it was an assortment of baseball gloves. Catcher mitts, first baseman mitts, five- and three-finger fielder’s gloves, baseballs, bats, catcher’s masks and caps.
To me, it was better than a candy store. Nowhere to be seen or even heard of were batting gloves. If a kid showed up wearing one of these in the 1950s they would probably have been laughed out of the game. I think it was sometime in the late 1960s that a major leaguer came to the plate wearing a glove. The story goes that he had played golf the day of the game, wore blisters on his hand and decided a golf glove would help. The rest is history as far as batting gloves go.
Everything I ever wanted was in that Western Auto store. I saved my money and bought a three-finger Spaulding “genuine” leather glove. To help break it in, I put a baseball in it and wrapped it tightly with string to form the perfect pocket. For good measure, I actually slept with it under my pillow for several nights.
At least once a week during the summer I was in Western Auto. My routine was to try on every glove, even a catcher’s mitt, although I knew I’d never play that position. But what the heck, that didn’t stop me from buying a black Whitey Lockman model first baseman’s mitt. I never played that position, either, but just in case, I had the glove.
I loved going to sporting goods stores. There was one in Bowling Green my grandmother would take me to almost every time I visited her in Smiths Grove when I was young. She would always let me pick out something ... usually a baseball.
Then there was the Mecca of all such stores.
Sutcliffe’s Sporting Goods in Louisville might as well have been Disneyland at the time. I had never seen anything like this place. Even in the 1950s, it sold anything and everything sports related. Football, basketball, baseball, helmets and golf, shoes for all sports and uniforms. I must have walked around for two hours swinging bats, trying on baseball gloves. I did it all. Never bought a thing. What a place it was just to visit. Reported to be the largest sporting goods store in the South, it closed down or sold out in the late 1960s.
As much as I liked to make money, I never had any desire to deliver newspapers. At the time, Louisville had a morning and afternoon paper and it seemed like every house in E-town got one, and then another door-to-door delivery opportunity came with the local paper.
I was not opposed to hard work, but delivering papers, I remember thinking, was really tough. There were times when a friend of mine would spend the night with me and he had to be up and out of bed at 5 a.m. to get his papers, rubber band them and load them into his oversized bicycle basket on the front. Not only did he have to deliver the papers every day, but go back and collect for them every week.
No, thank you.
Now, thank goodness, I’m writing for newspapers, not delivering them.
There’s no excuse. So get up, get out and get going.
– Gary West’s column runs monthly in the Daily News. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.