Sunday, October 7, 2007

My first real job

Prompt #25 at Miriam Midkiff's Ancestories 2 blog is for "Your First Job." She has a series of 10 questions to answer. I'm not going to follow the questions exactly, but I'll try to cover most of them.

My first "real" job was working for my favorite football team, the San Diego Chargers during the summer of 1963. I didn't apply for it, it just happened by luck. I was 19 and hanging out with another guy named Randy Lee, who had a car (I didn't) and we were having fun riding around, going to the beach, and playing music on his pirate station. His father was an independent TV producer, and was part of an investment group that owned a dude ranch in the San Diego backcountry called "Rough Acres Ranch." There were about 20 cabins with 4 bunk beds each, a kitchen and program building, and several football sized fields.

Early in training camp, Randy's dad took us out there on a Saturday to see the team practice. We got there just in time for lunch, and when we walked in, Sid Gillman (the coach) came over to meet us and asked Randy's dad "So are these my new camp boys? I need two." His dad said, "well, what do you think? Want to give it a try?" Of course, Randy and I said yes. We stayed that night and learned the ropes and looked agog at the players we knew only from the newspaper and TV.

The Chargers were started in 1960 and played in Los Angeles for a year. Then they moved to San Diego and were the AFL Western champs in 1961, losing the championship game to Houston. In 1962, the team faded when QB Jack Kemp (yep, that Jack Kemp) got hurt and they finished out of the playoffs. In 1963, Sid Gillman claimed that they had to get tougher - so it was out to Rough Acres Ranch, a curfew during the week, no women, just work hard and get strong.

Our jobs were to sweep and mop the floors and clean the toilets every day in our assigned set of rooms. I think we probably had 10 rooms each. We did this while the team was at morning practice. In the afternoon, we could watch the practice. After dinner, the players would sit outside in small groups and shoot the bull, play cards, or pull stunts. The favorite stunt was for some country boys to get a rattlesnake rattle, put it on a stick, find some city boys sitting around and try to scare them - it usually worked! The other stunt was to catch a scorpion in something - a bottle or bag), wait until the targets were in their room with the door open (no A/C then), and the toss the scorpion into the room - you should have seen the big guys scramble to get on their bunks and not get stung by this little guy with his stinger running around the room.

For a young San Diego sports fan, this was an ideal job! I got to see and know (well, sometimes it was a "hi kid"!) Sid Gillman (head coach), Al Davis (coach), John Madden (coach), John Hadl (QB), Yobin Rote (QB), Lance Alworth (WR), Dave Kocourek (TE), Paul Lowe (RB), Keith Lincoln (RB), Ernie Ladd (DT), Earl Faison (DE), Chuck Allen (LB), Frank Buncom (LB), Charlie McNeil (CB), and many others - now I can't remember the names off the top of my head.

The job for me was 6 weeks long. My friend Randy Lee lasted about 4 days - he hurt his back and went home to recover. I don't remember how much I made - perhaps $50 a week plus room and board. And free pre-season tickets for my brother and I. I brought a rattlesnake skin home as a trophy - my folks hung the smelly thing outside, and when the flies came around, my 8-year brother caught them for his turtle.

The most memorable experience was the night that Ernie Ladd (6'9" tall, 300 pounds, he was later a pro wrestler). The team had a special bed built for him, but hadn't ordered extra length sheets. Ernie was a holdout until the last week of camp, and when he signed, we had no warning. We were already in our room in bed, when there was a knock on the window and a gruff voice saying "Hey kid, make mah bed!" I scrambled, found some sheets and a blanket, and hurried over to his room and made the bed and quickly disappeared without hearing a "thanks, kid" from Big Ernie.

One of the players made friends with most of the camp boys, and he took us out hiking and hunting in the evening and early morning. We climbed the hills, looking for snakes and rabbits, and saw several beautiful morning sunrises. Frank Buncom was a prototype linebacker, 6-2, 230 lbs, a big, well-spoken, happy black guy from Mississippi (I think) who graduated from college in 1962. He was in his second year and had a heart of gold and a tremendous hunger to prove himself on the field. Unfortunately, Frank got traded to Cincinnati in 1964 and died on the field in 1967. What a tragedy.

One day, I asked my mother if we could invite Frank over for dinner. She said OK, and I called him up through the Chargers office. He accepted and came by on the appointed night. My little brother wanted to play catch with a real football player, so we went out on 30th street and threw the football around. He was so nervous that he couldn't run his routes well - he was really awestruck by Frank. My father was too - he had never known many black people, and was amazed that Frank had a college degree and was looking forward to being a teacher. My mother really appreciated Frank that he had befriended me and broadened my world a little. I don't know what we had for dinner, but my brother and I have always remembered that evening.

The Chargers went 11-3 and were AFL champions in 1963, beating the Boston Patriots 51-10 at Balboa Stadium in San Diego. I was there with my brother. That is the only championship team in major league sports for a San Diego team. The Chargers finally made it to a Super Bowl in 1995, but lost to the 49ers by 49-23.

While the job was fun for me, and not mentally challenging like my college work was, it provided some spending money and raised my stature in the eyes of my parents and brothers. I "knew" the players on the team.

This was not the biggest or most important moment in my life - that would come later with marriage and children. But it was my first step to independent living and I learned that I could stick with something and succeed on my own. I had a little help from a friend, but I did it my way (mixing my Beatles and Sinatra there, but you get the idea!).


Anonymous said...


This is not a comment on your post so much. I did enjoy it and I could only imagine how much fun it would be to be at a training camp for my favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys!

I just wanted to drop by and say that I will be in your neck of the woods this week. I'm flying to San Diego to pick up my son from Marine boot camp! I've been waiting for this for a while! If you have any suggestions on things to do Wednesday and Thursday evening, give me a holler!

Take care,


cheekygnome said...

Great story. I wish my first job was as memorable (although it was an experience!). I graduated from NC State so I've been pulling for the Chargers (as long as they aren't playing the Panthers!) since last year now that you've got Phillip Rivers at QB.