It was late spring of 1959. The year before we’d moved from the small coal mining town of War, West Virginia to the big city of Bluefield, Virginia. (At least I thought it was a big city after growing up in War.) I’d just turned 13 and like most teenagers I was looking forward to getting out of school for the summer and spending time riding bikes and playing with friends, but an opportunity presented itself I couldn’t resist.
The city had a new water filtration plant under construction near where I lived and workmen were laying lines from it to serve communities throughout the area. The way lines were put in back then was totally different from the way it is done today. All of the ditching was done by hand. A foreman oversaw a crew of men who dug the ditches, laid the pipes and then refilled them. It was an interesting process.
The men were stretched out along the ditch line for several hundred feet. The lead man, wielding a mattock or pick would loosen the dirt down 4-6 inches and the second man would shovel the loose dirt out of the ditch. Then behind this pair, two more were doing the same thing and the ditch would get a little deeper. More pairs of ditch diggers followed until the ditch reached the desired depth. The men in each pair would trade jobs periodically to spell each other or to break the monotony of the work.
Once the ditch was deep enough, the pipe layers followed behind joining new sections of pipe to extend the line. Behind the pipe layers were additional two man teams filling in the ditch. In these teams, one man would shovel in about 6 inches of dirt and the second man would follow with a heavy tamp packing down the loose soil. Additional two man teams would repeat this process until the ditch was refilled. In total there were about 30 men on the work crew and depending on the soil they could install from a few feet to a couple of hundred feet of line each day. It was this exhausting hot dirty work, which presented me an opportunity to make some extra money that summer.
Unlike my friends, who all received allowances from their parents, I had to earn whatever spending money I had. I guess this instilled a bit of entrepreneurial spirit in me, because when I saw these men toiling in the hot sun, with sweat streaming off their bodies, an idea came to mind. I had a sturdy bicycle, with a large basket that I’d used to deliver newspapers; what if I offered to bring them ice cold soft drinks to go with their lunch instead of the lukewarm water they got from a container on the crew bus. Was there a way I could do this and earn a few dollars?
To try out my idea, I took one of my mother’s quart canning jars and filled it with ice. I poured water over the ice until the jar was full and then poured the water off into a measuring cup. It measured just less than a pint. With this knowledge I went to a nearby store and bought a quart bottle of Coca Cola. I took it home, filled two quart jars with ice and used it to make two quarts jars of ice cold Coca Cola that I took down to the work site just before lunch time. I offered them to the workmen for $.50 each and sold both immediately.
I waited around while they ate lunch and then got back my jars when they finished. Both men asked if I would bring them another drink the next day as did eight others on the crew. I was in business! The quart drinks cost me less than $.25 each, I borrowed my mother’s fruit jars and the store let me have ice for free. Since one bottle made two drinks, I was making over $.75 on each bottle which was not bad money for 1959. Soon I was riding my bike to the worksite each morning, taking orders, going back and preparing what each man wanted and then delivering the drinks just before their lunch break. Within a month nearly everyone in the work crew was buying drinks from me.
My friends all laughed and made fun of me, but while they were out playing I was making money and learning about business. While they were getting a couple of dollars a week allowance and doing nothing, some weeks I was making $5 to $10 and by the end of the summer had made several hundred dollars. Had I turned my back on this opportunity because of their criticism and negative comments I would have missed both the experience and the money. Unfortunately too many people let peer pressure derail their financial success.
Here’s a tip! When opportunities to improve your financial position present themselves, don’t worry about what others think. It’s your life, not theirs that’s being affected. Opportunities are all around you if you will just look for them. When you start thinking creatively about ways to turn those opportunities into cash, not only will your financial picture improve, but so will your knowledge and confidence.
Whether that one experience at age 13 gave me the confidence to start my own business later in life or whether it was the series of similar ventures I attempted as a child, the bottom line is I never doubted my abilities or let fear or peer pressure control me. When you start with successes in small ventures, especially ones that others aren’t willing to attempt, you gain knowledge and build self confidence and those are the keys to becoming successful in almost any endeavor. Look around! What opportunities are you passing up?
Original text from article for Asheville Citizen-Times, 20th week of 2007