Story and Illustration by CLIFF THOMAS
My first realization that I needed to make my own money was in the fifth grade. It was 1977. Star Wars had just come out. I wanted action figures.
My mom and dad were great about buying them for me, but once they acquired the movie’s starring cast they thought the job was done. They couldn’t understand the importance of having a full squadron of stormtroopers or enough aliens to populate the cantina. After a bit of negotiating, I managed some additions to my basic chores in the form of a list of extras. To the right of each item a number showed how much I could earn upon completion of that particular task. With proper scheduling I could not only build a rebel alliance, I could afford a few X-Wings for special missions, too.
By middle school I was selling holiday and greeting cards door to door. Over the next few years I would help clean chicken houses, follow a flatbed trailer through the fields loading square bails and mow many a neighbor’s lawn. But the first real job I had, the first be-there-on-time-clock-in-clock out-organize-your-weekly-schedule-around-your-work-job was for Dickey Motors.
Dickey Motors was a small used car lot owned by Bruce Dickey. That name will be familiar to many of you I suspect Bruce has done quite a few things in Russellville for nearly a half century now. When I met him he was building his own home. He hired me to help him move tools and equipment. I can’t imagine that my sixth-grade self was that much benefit to him, but he did pay me and he was fun to be around. At that time he was also dabbling in photography and selling his own pottery. Bruce was a neighbor so landing the job at his lot a few years later wasn’t hard. He needed someone to detail cars and I needed to put gas in my newly acquired 65 Bel Air.
Detailing cars was, as I said, the job description but that was just the beginning. There was so much more and all of it was a blast. If a vehicle needed repairs Bruce would tell me to do it. My first effort was replacing the water pump on a 1971 Chevelle, thing is, I didn’t really know how to do it. I thoroughly messed up the gasket. Bruce helped me take it apart and showed me where I’d gone wrong. We fixed it together and it worked perfectly. After it sold I would sometimes see it in town and I always got a swell of pride. In addition to repairing cars, I also got to help steal a couple. OK, that’s not entirely accurate. We were in fact quite legally repossessing them, and usually after Bruce had been incredibly generous about helping the owner arrange to cover the missed payments. But at 16 sneaking up to a home and taking a car away, that’s exciting. Not as exciting as hanging out of an airplane as it skims the treetops, but exciting. And I’m not quite to that part of the story yet.
The airplane rides were an entirely unexpected benefit. Bruce was getting his pilot’s license and looked for any opportunity to fly. He would buy a car in Morrilton or maybe Oklahoma and he would fly me to its location and I’d drive it back to Russellville. I was getting paid to ride in an airplane! As if that weren’t enough, Bruce had a new idea. He’d taken aerial photos of some of his friends’ homes and given them as gifts. Everyone really loved them so he thought maybe we could sell some.
I think what I am about to describe would probably get someone arrested today, but it was 1982 and things were a bit more relaxed then. I’m also pretty sure that the statute of limitations on child endangerment is well expired after three plus decades. I can’t remember if we removed only the windows, but I really do think that we actually took the doors off. I can remember the incredible wind as Bruce flew, it seems to me now, mere feet above the treetops. I can remember how I gripped his camera as he tipped the wing on my side of the plane, pointing at the homes he wanted photographed. And I can remember my heart thudding against the harness as I hung there shooting pictures, the plane nearly perpendicular to the ground to afford the best view. Did I mention that he was actually paying me to do this?
After a day of shooting, Bruce developed small sample pictures. I would return to the area and go door to door. We gave them the 3×5 as a gift, and if they were interested they could buy larger prints that Bruce would develop and I would deliver. I can remember that I really wanted to sell copies, not just for the additional commission I’d earn but so we could go up again.
Bruce eventually sold or closed the business to spend time building a larger home for his growing family. I know he actually taught building trades at the Career Center for a while. I haven’t seen him in years but I know that he now hand builds guitars and other string instruments, and I’ve seen on Facebook that he has traveled the globe with a missionary group helping on building projects.
As summer jobs go, I knew the one at Dickey Motors was great. I managed to keep the Chevy rolling to Whatta-Burger, and I always had enough cash to buy a double. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was learning something really important. Bruce was the first person I’d ever been around who approached work as more than a way to make money. It was important to him that he have fun doing it. That stuck. I’ve managed to hold on to that, always finding something to enjoy, if not love, in whatever I’m doing to pay the bills…and of course keep a full squad of stormtroopers.