Upon writing a blog about the Coronavirus in packing houses, not too many people are aware of my extensive background in the meat packing industry. It’s not a career I would choose, but it was one I fell into.
My first job was mowing lawns in the quiet little town of Vail, Iowa. Most of my clients were little old ladies, and occasionally a little old lady and her husband. A lot of those clients invited me in for a Coke and a cookie when I had finished mowing their yard. Although I’m a Coke drinker now, I was a Pepsi drinking as an adolescent. And those homemade cookies were awful. I swear every one of them had raisins in them. I’m not a big fan of raisin. But I ate the cookies and drank the Coke from a glass with too much ice in it. Those clients loved me because I trimmed as well as mowed. Other kids in town trying to compete with me didn’t understand that fast is not always the best method of making money. I was making close to sixty dollars a week throughout the summer of 1964.
That fall, as the mowing business was winding down, Marvin Rehbein, the owner of Marvin’s Provisions, approached me and asked me if I would be interested in working for him. I didn’t even ask what salary he planned on paying me, I told him I would have to check with my mom. Of course, she was thrilled. I wasn’t so sure. I was making more money mowing lawns, and the shoveling snow season was around the bend. Shoveling snow was a lucrative business for a young entrepreneur like me. Also, when the streets and sidewalks were covered in ice from an ice storm, I slipped on a pair of skates (I had 3 pair: hockey, figure, and roller) and skated to stores and back to old people’s houses to deliver groceries, salt, and mail, making some easy money.
Reluctantly, I chose to work at Marvin’s. I worked two to three hours after school and eight hours or more on Saturdays. I made twenty dollars a week. I began work at 4:00 pm, or whenever I could get there after getting off the bus, going home, changing clothes, and running the three blocks to get there. I began wrapping beef. That meant accumulating so many huge wax-coated wrapping bags, and slipped each bag from the bottom of the meat hanging on a rail, over the front, back, or cut, folding it over, and placing a clip toward the top to hold it on. The bags came in four sizes: front quarter, hind quarter, chuck, and loin. Using a black wax pen, I had to legibly write on the wrapper the name of the customer. It was cold in the cooler, and the cooler fans were powerful. It was like working outside in a blizzard.
Marvin always had two high school students working for him. Before me, there was Bob Steadman, and Laird Vergith. Bob worked with the other men out front while Laird wrapped the beef and conducted the dirty work on cleanup. When Bob went on to college, Laird moved up and I was the younger guy that had to wrap the beef and perform the dirty work on cleanup.
During the summer I got to work every day. It was the same old thing:
“Go get me a 14-17 pork loin.”
“Wash this out.”
“Help the ladies out front.”
Half of the building was the wholesale meat company; the other half was a grocery store. Often, I was called up front, as they called it, to help bag groceries, carry out groceries, or even assist the delivery truck with unloading staples into the hallway (between the grocery store and barber shop next door).
The senior high school kid was also responsible for cutting a specific item for the grocery store’s meat case once the full-time staff and Marvin headed down the street for a drink or a beer. For instance, Daisy Lidgett would come in a little before closing and want five pounds of ground beef, or a chicken cut up for her restaurant up the street. At least once a week, some guy who thought he was a wheeler and dealer, would come in after sitting in the bar a few doors down and want a steak cut much different than the ones we had in the meat display case. Without failing, they always settled for less than what we knew was already in the meat case. It’s pointless to argue with a drunk.
When Laird moved on, I became the senior high school kid. That also meant that I would now get to take the Ford Econoline (which was nicknamed the Weeny Wagon) out to the Vail Dump to unload all the day’s trash and start it on fire. That was the highlight of the afternoon – any afternoon. Unfortunately, Marvin eventually contracted with Mick Niehaus to haul away trash and the trips to the dump were over. The high school kid to follow me was Marvin’s son, Cory. He didn’t work out. He was trouble from the beginning. Because his dad was the owner, he thought he could do anything he wanted. Boy, was he wrong!
One evening, the Niehaus boys and their dad loaded up the truck with the day’s trash. Bob and Rod were giving Cory a hard time, as I think most teenagers did. Cory took a huge handful of bone meal from the meat saw and threw it at them, just as they were closing the dock doors. Splat! The bone meal hit the doors and splattered all over the place; most of the place I had finished cleaning. I instructed him to clean it up. He told me “no”! I said he was going to clean it up or else. “Or else, what?” He snapped back at me. One thing led to another and I punched him in the nose.
He went crying to his mom, holding his hands over his mouth. His mom was the head bookkeeper. She came out of her office and immediately fired me. “Okay,” I said. I was standing next to the time clock. I punched out (no pun intended).
Marvin came into the store as I was getting my work apparel hung up. He asked Cory and Helen what happened and came to me as I was heading out the back door. He didn’t even ask me for my side of the story. He asked me to punch back in, finish cleaning up, and that I should expect to be back at work the next day. I never saw Cory again. As far as I know, I was the last high school kid to work at Marvin’s.
Marvin Rehbein was the fairest man I have ever known. He was the father I had wanted, having lost mine when I was 6-years-old. Marvin was covertly adopted by me. I would do just about anything he asked. The tables turned a few years later, but that is a blog for a later date.
Cory, who with his sister, was adopted by Marvin and Helen from the country of Greece when they were infants. Today, Cory is using his birth name as he sits in a maximum-security prison in Tecumseh, NE, serving a life sentence for killing a man in Omaha. Sometimes, I pray for him.