My introduction to the wholesale trade came at a very early age; and wound up having long-lasting impacts that I never expected. Life is sometimes like that.
Our parents had very clear expectations for me and my four younger brothers, growing up.
We were to “mind our manners” and stay out of trouble, do our chores without complaining, get good grades in school, and go to church every Sunday. Any infractions would be met with swift consequences; but they were rarely needed.
Outside of that, we were normally allowed to ride our bikes or play ball in the afternoons after school, unsupervised, and then do homework after dinner.
But, for all of that, I was totally unprepared, when I turned 16, and instead of getting to spend another summer at the mountain camp in North Carolina I had enjoyed the past two and a half summers, as I had hoped, they decided it was time for me to get a summer job and start saving money to pay for college.
So, after school got out, in June of 1967, I went to work as a stock clerk in the family wholesale business, learning the inventory in a 50,000 square foot warehouse, kind of a cross between a Kroger’s and a Wal-Mart. It was huge!
That building was a very busy place. Incoming freight was delivered by truck and sometimes railroad boxcar, all day long. One small crew was responsible for checking it in and putting things where they belonged, either restocking smaller items (“shelf goods”) in bins, or stacking larger items (“floor goods”) on the other half of the building. Another crew worked orders all day long, and then loaded trucks in the afternoon to ship them out. The office staff included a typing pool who prepared the invoices to customers; a bookkeeping staff, who posted checks received from customers in the morning and prepared outgoing checks to suppliers in the afternoon; and the buyers and desk salesmen, who took telephone orders all day long. Boy, was that a different sort of education altogether. Nothing I had experienced previously had prepared me for that. For one thing, it was hard work. I laugh now, and say I “put on muscles” those first couple of summers that I’ve never lost; but it’s true. This was back before fork lifts became common; we only had oak-and-steel hand trucks and jitneys to move freight around; lighter-weight aluminum hand trucks had not yet been invented.
Everything was moved by hand.
Neither had plastic pipe. All the plumbing supplies we sold at that time were cast iron or steel, and quite heavy.
Most boxes of pipe fittings I had to haul around were 50-60 lbs. each. Not to mention the 50-lb. boxes of nails, various tools, and all the other items that were part of my daily routine. Or the 60-lb boxes of shotgun shells we sold a lot of in the summer months.
For another thing, I was still a boy, on the edge of a man’s world. I had never been exposed to warehouse workers or truck drivers before; and while they were all good people, they were a world removed from my Catholic school upbringing. It was a real culture shock.
I also began to see the different divisions in the world I now inhabited: City people versus country folk; Black versus White; working men versus working women; office staff and warehouse workers, outside salesmen and our business customers, local and out-of-town – all of whom could have been from another planet altogether, to my 16-year-old mind. Then there were Chatham County folk versus Effingham County folk, Baptist and Lutheran, Protestant and Catholic. It was almost like being in a zoo, observing all these different kinds of new species, each with their own language and ways.
It was both shocking and spell-binding.
I slowly learned to fit in, and absorbed more than I realized, to the extent that I discovered, both of my first two years in that warehouse, that the “proper English” I was taught in school and expected to use in my everyday life, suddenly did not apply. It literally took me two months, in both of those first two years, when I returned to high school in the fall, to learn to go back to using that “King’s English” I was expected to use. That was a surprise.
Among many others.
Rafe Semmes is a native of Savannah and a proud graduate of (the “original”) Savannah High School on Washington Avenue and the University of Georgia. He has resided in Liberty County since 1986, where he and his wife share their half-acre with six cats and assorted wildlife.