Summer of 1993
Chapter 5--A Paid Vacation

      While ACMNP was the reason I came out to Yellowstone National Park, the bulk of most of my days was spent working for the Hamilton Stores in Grant Village.  I want to relate to you a little bit about the concessionaires in Yellowstone, their relationship with each other, and my first experiences on the job in the midst of it all.
    Hamilton Stores, Inc. was founded by Charles Ashworth Hamilton in 1915.  Based out of West Yellowstone, Montana, the company grew to become the park's principle concessionaire for Yellowstone souvenirs, camping supplies, photography, and groceries.  Although there were souvenir shops operated by TW Services, Hamilton Stores had at that time a monopoly on certain merchandise including products which said "Yellowstone."  Most of the company's stores in Yellowstone, with the exception of a store in Mammoth Hot Springs, were only seasonal.  Although it owns and operates several businesses in West Yellowstone and no one really knows the extent to what they own because they are a family-owned business, Hamilton Stores derives most of its revenue from the summer tourist business.  Even with a three month window for profits, the company seemed to be doing quite well.
    The average Hamilton Stores consisted of several small departments.  Although the entire store probably would not have been as large as the area of some large departments in some of today's giant superstores, the large crowds of people made dividing the store into small departments more than necessary.  A typical Hamilton Store consisted of a Fountain department (which at Grant Village was the Village Grill Restaurant), a grocery, an apparel department, an Indian Handcrafts and Jewelry department, a Gift department, a Fishing and Camping department, and a Photo department.  Each department had its own manager, its own shift supervisors for both the A and the B shifts, its own register with someone manning the register at all times, and different amounts of workers depending upon the demands of the department.  Some had their own person to work in the warehouse.  When one threw in the store managers, the janitors, the Employee Dining Room employees, and the Dorm manager, a large store like Grant Village had about one hundred employees.
      At any concessions store in Yellowstone, there was a tremendous age gap between the youngest and the oldest employees, and this was especially true at Hamilton Stores.  Most of the employees at Ham's were older, some much older.  Bob Wilson, the apparel warehouseman for my first two years in the park was over eighty years of age.  There were a great many workers who were in their sixties and seventies.  In fact, the vast majority of workers at Hamilton Stores were over the age of fifty-five.  Most of the rest of the workers were under the age of twenty-five.  With a few exceptions, this was the rule, and it does not take long to figure out why.  Most people in my age class had no families and had no difficulty making a summer job of Yellowstone.  Most older people were retired or semi-retired and had no obstruction to a summer working in the parks.  Most people inbetween, however, either had families or careers that forbade them from taking a summer adventure working in Yellowstone.  Exceptions like Jay Clayton were often enough teachers who had the summer off.  The few others who fell through the cracks usually were single and made a career of seasonal employment in tourist resort areas.  It was not uncommon for someone to work at the Grand Canyon two-thirds of the year and work in Yellowstone the other third.  Other resort areas visited Hamilton Stores during the summer to recruit workers for winter seasons.  Many younger and older people in Yellowstone lived transient lives migrating from seasonal job to seasonal job.
    The pay at Hamilton Stores was very poor.  Minimum wage at that time was $4.25 an hour, but Hamilton Stores paid a starting wage of $4.50 an hour with a meager five cent raise for returning employees.  Shift supervisors made slightly more as did a few other positions.  The best job to have for the sake of making money was waiting tables.  Not only were they paid the same starting wage as everyone else, but the waiters and waitresses got to keep their tips.  However, most jobs did not pay that well.  Furthermore, the state of Wyoming did not follow federal law on overtime.  Wyoming, something of a backwards state in its laws regarding labor, only offered overtime for people who worked 56 hours in a given week.  This meant, given our 37.5 hour weeks that no one ever got overtime.  However, in all fairness to Hamilton Stores, the pay situation was much, much better than it looked.  The reason for that was that I only had to pay $8.25 a day for my wonderful dormitory and three meals in the EDR.  How many of you would like to have room and board in Yellowstone National Park for $250 a month?  It was an astoundingly good deal unless you needed to make lots of money and lived at home.  Many employees had their own campers and camped mostly in an employee campground on some high ground in the southern part of Grant Village.  That, too, was inexpensive.  We also received a 20% discount in our stores on almost all merchandise.  All-in-all, it was a good deal.
    The other major concessionaire in Yellowstone was TW Services, and it was much larger.  TW provided the lodging in the park, ran the campgrounds, operated several restaurants, gift shops, and many other things.  Unlike Hamilton's, their vast majority of workers were young people.  On average, what differed between the average Hamilton young person and the average one for TW was that the average Ham's employee was better educated, whiter, and more conservative.  This is not to say that the average Hamilton's young person was a church choir boy, far from it, but that the average TW employee (at least as stereotypes suggest) was very liberal in appearance, generally poor, and much more likely to be uneducated and transient.  TW, however, was extremely diverse.  Whereas, it is far easier to stereotype a young Ham's person because there were so few of us, the hundreds of TW young people came from all backgrounds and all walks of life.  Whereas Hamilton's was very strict about our dress and appearance, TW was not.  TW had a high turnover rate of employees, was quick to fire, and therefore had to offer higher incentives to keep the workers they had.  Whereas things like days off and schedule were very stable at Hamilton's, TW employees by and large had very unstable schedules.
    There was something of an invisible wall that often existed between the two concessionaires.  Although people in the company repeatedly told their employees not to discourage visitors from visiting each other's stores, that wall existed nonetheless.  The older people at Ham's often grumbled about the noise from TW cabins.  They did not like them coming into the store to buy beer every paycheck.  More often than not, an older person at Hamilton's had so stereotyped the average TW worker as a washed out juvenile delinquent that it was common to hear jokes being made at work.  On the other side, the TW workers made fun of the decrepit Hamilton's contingent.  To them, the average Ham's worker seemed incompetent and doddling on the edge of insanity.  They grumbled to themselves about standing in line while an older cashier struggled to punch in the right numbers on the cash register.  While both stereotypes had a kernel of truth, both were gross exaggerations.  As for young people at Ham's like myself, no one quite knew why we barely associated with the people at TW.  Price and I both thought that it probably had more to do with the fact that we did not sleep, work, and eat with them than with any intrinsic prejudice.  Even so, only one of our young workers that summer regularly socialized with the people at TW.  Greg, the fraternity boy from California who would not eat with us, regularly partied with a couple girls at TW.
    The final concessionaire was the one for which Matt Perkins worked, YPSS.  They only had about a dozen or so workers and were generally to themselves, except that they interacted much more with TW workers.  The reason for that was simple.  YPSS consisted of mostly young workers, and they ate in TW's EDR.  The company was jointly owned by Hamilton's (majority owner) and TW.  Because of that odd marriage, YPSS workers were the only ones in the park to get a discount at both TW and Ham's.  At Ham's, they received a 10% discount (which was raised to 20% in 1994) and were allowed to pay the employee rate for an employee break drink.  At TW, they received a full discount.
    I did not know the world I was entering when I prepared to face my first day in the Village Grill.  As I have stated before, it scared me.  The world of battling concessionaires seems so much smaller now that I know a few of the details.  Yet, that first day in my dormitory, it was all a mystery.  I did not even know what it was I was going to be doing.  Food Service is a vague thing, I thought.  All I could get were images of my disastrous first job at Long John Silver's.  I suppose, if I had stayed there, I might have found out what the world of fast food seafood restaurants was all about.  It might have become smaller and less intimidating simply as I grasped how that world worked.  Beginnings are hard like that.  We fumble and bumble around hoping that we catch on fast enough to everyone's liking.  My big problem, though, was fear.  I had trouble asking the questions necessary to learn.  I had trouble sticking my foot into the water, taking that necessary step.  When you think of Yellowstone, I doubt you think about the person about to begin his first day of work.  I doubt it barely occurs to you that there are relationships between employees and employers, concessionaires and rangers.  It was a much bigger world than I had ever imagined.  Now, in the face of it, I found myself worried that I would fail to catch on.
    Price had told me that the apron I had meant that I would be a waiter.  He encouraged me by saying that although it definitely is hard at first, that I would get the hang of it.  He said that the hardest part was memorizing the notation for tickets.  This was of no help to me.  I knew very well that I could memorize the notation of anything.  This was the sort of thing that I excelled at.  Yet, getting the hang of the entire job of waiting was something I did not believe that I could do.  Not only did I have to ask very simple questions to people all day long, bring them their food without dropping it, and pretend with a smile that I wanted them to know that I was there to serve them, but also I had to master whatever other jobs go along with waiting.  When I was a fry cook, the cooking was the easy part.  It was the cleaning of the vats, the mopping of floors covered in grease and batter, washing the dishes, and many other things that had to be done in a timely manner.  If jobs only consisted of what they seemed to be on the face of it, then I doubt I would have been very bothered.  The world in any job is much larger than it appears on the face of it.  It too was like the world of concessionaires that I have just described, or the infinite complexity of Yellowstone National Park that I hope I have given you a sense is more complex than you or I can imagine.  When I look out over Yellowstone Lake, how will I ever know how many dreams were made upon it?  How will I know whether the fish in her waters wonder upon the stars like I do?  In Yellowstone, we think often of the simple beauty of it.  We cannot let that blind us to the complexity in every simple thing.  On the other hand, all of this complexity I give a very simple title.  That title is Yellowstone.  That title is Wonderland.  A picture is worth a thousand words and Yellowstone worth a billion billions, and the simple fact that I began my job at Ham's the next day is worth at least a few to me--a few of those billion billion words which is Wonderland.
    I got ready for work the next morning by putting on my uniform.  The uniform at Hamilton Stores is quite simple.  It consists simply of a blue-and-white checkered shirt and an apron.  We also had a name badge giving our first name and our state.  Many people may know me much better by "Jim Ohio" than by my real name.  I certainly know many more states where my co-workers were from than I remember last names.  We were allowed to wear jeans and tennis shoes.  The uniform tried to evoke a western informal image, and I think it succeeds.  Very few would find the shirt fashionable, but I was never very much into fashion.  What was great about the shirts was that they cleaned very well in the washer.  Price also remarked about this quality of our shirts.
    Anyhow, the moment arrived when I entered the store to begin work.  I entered the Village Grill looking for Ralph to give me the inevitable job of waiting on tables.  I found him, and I prepared for the worst.  What happened instead made me so happy that I thought that God must certainly have been rewarding me for being brave enough to show up.  For instead of waiting on tables, Ralph told me that I was going to be a cashier.  I could not have been more thrilled.  I had little doubt that I could punch buttons into a cash register.  He took me over to the register handing me over to be trained.
    At the register, Beth was working.  As I arrived, Ralph introduced me to her.  Beth smiled and said something like, "Are your ready for some excitement?"  I said, "Sure."  She then said to Ralph something about how lousy the register was being.  He said, "Well, I think Sam is working on it."
    "Sam doesn't know anything about this.  He didn't know how to get the voids working.  Dodie and I somehow came up with this on our own."
    Ralph did not want to get into it and said, "Well, make the best of it."
    I soon found out that I was being trained on a register that was giving the other cashiers, Beth and Dodie, fits.  Apparently, the void button on it did not work.  Beth explained to me that she and the other cashier spent an hour figuring out a way to void things.  Amazingly, they contrived a six step process to void any single item wrong on a ticket.  She said, "Your first lesson.  Avoid the void."
    Honestly, I did not know what a void was.  It did not take me but a few minutes to figure it out myself, though.  Voiding simply is correcting a mistake made on the register.  I had a lot to learn, me of so little experience.
    My trainer, Beth, was an older woman from California.  She was an old-timer to the Yellowstone experience, working for Hamilton Stores with her husband Art for many years.  Beth thought of working in Yellowstone as a "paid vacation."  In other words, she thought of the idea of working at Hamilton Stores as doing only a minimal amount of work, get paid for it, and enjoy Yellowstone all at the same time.  In her own words, she might have remarked, "Isn't it exciting?"  "Exciting" was her most often used word.  Her typical greeting to me was, "What's exciting?"  I think it was part of her Southern California dialect.  Anyhow, for her, Yellowstone was about recreation, and she felt that she had found the perfect situation.  So many people spend a small fortune for a few days in the park.  Here we were getting paid to spend a few months!  Those thoughts impressed upon me very early that I too was an extremely lucky person.  So often, the rich live off of the sweat of the poor.  For a worker in Yellowstone, he or she lives off the sweat of the rich.  Paradise found!
    Being a person who considered working in Yellowstone a "paid vacation," Beth was not one who was going to do more work than she had to do.  She explained to me that in the past cashiers could leave at night as soon as the money was counted but get paid for a full day's work.  However, she was upset that this year Tom had disallowed the practice.  The grill cashier either had to go home early without pay or help clean up the restaurant.  She chose to do the former.  Naturally, I would have preferred to choose the former as well except that I did not want to appear as someone who was not a hard worker.  Nevertheless, I knew that a job simply consisting of pressing some buttons was a little too good to be true.  It was, but not by that much.
    Beth showed me the ropes on the cash register.  It was not a simple machine, but it was an easy job.  Every ticket written at Hamilton Stores had a code signifying not only to the cooks what to make but to the cashiers so that they knew what buttons to press.  When a person was done eating, they brought their ticket to the register, and the cashier punched in the appropriate buttons corresponding to the code on the ticket.  The only challenge in it was reading the handwriting of some of the servers and dealing with servers who were notorious about writing the wrong codes.  I was shy, so I tolerated it.  Beth and Dodie, however, made a point of chastising whatever server did not use the codes.  They did so especially during my first few days because one mistake on the machine took a six step process to correct.  Any mistake correcting the mistake took another six step process to correct.  Anyhow, the only thing that was in any way difficult about cashiering was initially finding my way around the machine and changing the register's journal tape.
    There were other perks to the job.  Beth had a chair she could sit on as she worked.  No other job in the store was so fortunate.  Beth did not feel comfortable working the register from her chair, but I found it quite easy to get comfortable.  Soon, Beth was simply chatting away with other workers as I was on my own ringing people up.  It felt good to be good at something.  Ralph dropped by and asked how I was doing.  Beth responded, "I think the kid is going to make it.  They are better with machines than all of us worn out old-timers."  Ralph laughed and went on his way.
    The assumption that most people made, and Beth was no exception, was that I wanted to be a server.  She told me that I would become one soon, as openings happened over the summer.  I told her that I had absolutely no desire to be a server, that money was not my reason for working in Yellowstone that summer, and that this job suited me fine.  Most of the younger people working at our store waited tables.  The only exception was Greg who worked in Grocery.  Soon, he, too, was a server.  The reader must believe me when I tell you that it was not because I had money that I had no desire to be a server.  The opposite was the case.  I came to Yellowstone without a dime.  To my chagrin, our first paycheck was not until July 5th.  Dan loaned me $25 for the month.  The truth of the matter is is that I may be one of the few people for whom money is essentially meaningless.  At Ohio Northern, I spent an average of about $5 a week.  Of that money, one dollar went to laundry, and the other four went to junk food.  Some weeks, I would spend less.  Maybe, I am cheap, but I really found myself wanting little that the world wanted.  My financial package at Ohio Northern was good.  I did not want a car.  My only major purchases were on compact discs.  Heck, my freshman year of college I did not make a single long distance telephone call until March!  That, on the other hand, was cheap.  I simply did not want a phone bill.  Instead of calling home, I wrote home.  My freshman year of college was the most frugal I had ever or have ever or will ever be again.  In any event, a life of poverty never had the slightest scare upon me.  Financially, I undoubtedly had less than almost all of my coworkers, but I had a security in my place in the world that I would never have traded, especially for waiting tables.  It is ironic that I could be so secure about some things when I could not even get up the courage to ask someone a simple question.
    From my seat at the register, I could see much of the store.  The register was located just outside the entrance to the Grill.  The caps of the apparel department were at the side of my register, and an area of toys and small kid's souvenirs encircled a poor clerk about twenty feet in front of me.  This area was called the bullpen.  At the bullpen, customers road weary and unsure of where the bathrooms were desperately asked the clerk where the bathroom was.  I could see time and time again dozens of times a day the bullpen clerk pointing in the direction of the grill.  Often these same people would approach not sure of where this bathroom was hidden behind the corner and would ask me where it was.  I pointed around the corner countless numbers of times.  Beth told me that the Park Service did not allow us to put signs in the store stating where the restrooms were.  Since our bathroom was technically a restroom for our customers, they did not allow us to put signs signifying that there were restrooms.  In any event, every clerk at Hamilton Stores is asked where the restroom is so many times, that it is very difficult to remember that it is not the tourist's fault that the place is impossible to find.  Beth and Dodie were excellent at telling who was going to the restroom and who was coming in the grill to eat.  Once in a great while, though, a person who looked lost and seemed to be veering for relief at a urinal would suddenly stop at the hostess's desk and wait to be seated.  We were all so good at recognizing this that it never failed to catch us off-guard when someone so obviously lost actually wanted to eat.  If any of you happen to be planning a trip to Yellowstone and should happen on the Hamilton's Store in Grant Village, the restrooms are in the Village Grill and to the right!
    While I worked, I asked her about my days off.  At that point, no one had told me when they would be.  Beth figured it out by a process of elimination.  Her days off with her husband Art were on Sunday and Monday.  She was the A-shift cashier.  Dodie, the B-shift cashier, and her husband Zach had Friday and Saturdays off.  My days off, therefore, had to be Tuesday and Wednesday or Wednesday and Thursday.  As it turns out, Ralph told me that they would be Tuesday and Wednesday.  This was no good because I needed Sunday off.  I explained the situation to Ralph, but he was not very sympathetic.  At my regional orientation for ACMNP, they had warned me about employers who would not be ideal.  They told us just to be patient and work with it.  The other managers were made aware of the situation, and they told me that they would work on it.  In the meantime, my days off were the ones they had given me.  Ralph told me that I could have this Sunday off, however, because we were not on long hours yet.  It was not ideal, but I was not especially upset.  Considering that a few hours before I was worried that I would have a job I absolutely did not want, I was not really in the mood for complaining.
    At three o'clock, I was in for a bit of an uncomfortable addition to my job.  Obviously, the way the shifts fell for cashiers, on Thursday there was an extra cashier.  Just as obvious was the fact that I was the odd man out.  Well, that afternoon at three, I got a taste of what it meant to be the odd man out.  Because we were on early hours, management had scheduled an overlap of the shifts.  This was very nice of them because it meant more hours for everyone even though all the extra workers were not needed.  Between three and four, the shifts overlapped, and everyone on both shifts were at work.  It undoubtedly looked a little silly to the tourist to see so many blue-and-white checkered shirts milling about, but that was the way things were done.  Anyhow, Dodie came back from lunch to cashier.  Beth was there, too, but Beth just stayed and talked.  What I had to do was go behind the counter at the Grill and work.
    The Village Grill is a sit down restaurant, but it has carry out.  It was nothing fancy.  It was a grill.  There was a soup and salad bar as well, but the majority of the food consisted of hot sandwiches that one could cook on the grill.  The restaurant itself had a counter behind which waiters and waitresses could pour coffee, or hot chocolate or soda, scoop ice cream or make milkshakes, or add up his/her checks.  There were no seats at the counter, but a customer could go up to the counter to order food.  In my later years, every waiter or waitress had to work one day of his or her week behind the counter.  The big drawback to that was that people rarely tip someone who works behind a counter.  However, in 1993, there was not always someone there to work the counter.  It was one of the responsibilities of all servers to handle people waiting for service.  Often, servers were so busy that they intentionally ignored those waiting at the counter.  It was not a good situation.  So, that I was the odd man out cashiering once a week was not only welcome to the waiter or waitress but unknowingly to the Yellowstone tourist as well.
    So, alas, cashiering was more than it was cracked up to be.  While sitting on my butt ringing up checks was a paid vacation, working a hectic counter had the looks of hell on earth.  Maybe, Yellowstone does resemble hell in many more ways than simply smell and appearance.  Working at the counter obviously did not appeal to me.
    That first hour was not so bad, though.  We had so many workers that I mostly stood around and talked to Price.  I avoided learning a single thing about food service.  When there are ten to twelve waiters in a restaurant that normally only has five, it is easy to avoid work if one wants to.  Nevertheless, it was the most discouraging part of anotherwise great first day of work.  I knew that my time would come the following Thursday.  The only perk in it was that I could work whichever shift I wanted that day.
    When I returned to work for the evening, it was enjoyable.  I liked sitting on the chair looking throughout the store.  I liked talking to Beth.  She was a woman with a very strong personality.  She was older than my grandparents, but she clearly had more energy.  In that way, she was common of my older co-workers.  They were different than the average senior citizen.  Of the average senior citizens, many of them were tourists, and many more of them never took the time to travel.  Many have health problems, but the greatest problem I think is simply one of attitude.  There was nothing of the "I'm too old" attitude in Beth or in any other older person with whom I worked.  The only time I heard that was when I might describe a hike in backcountry or some other strenuous activity.  Even though a "strenuous" activity might be climbing the stairs at work, it only convinced me that physical ability had little to do with the vivacious attitude of the older workers.  Beth was a woman with energy and life.  She was young in her heart, and she was bound and determined to enjoy her life.  There was no self-pity, no sense that the world had left her by, and no fear in the adventure.  Many others, of whom Beth was not one, had a strong work ethic. They wanted to show the world that they were much more fit for work than the young people.  While a young person might be young and energetic, the older person brought experience, knowledge, and commitment.  There was a generational gap, but I was no party to it.  For the first time in my life, people three and four times my age treated me as an equal.  We all were workers under the Hamilton's banner.  We all shared in the Yellowstone experience.  We all worked, ate, and slept together.  I enjoyed talking to Beth.  She enjoyed talking to me.  We both wanted to live and to explore and to wonder, and so we were more alike in that than I bet either one of us were to the average person in our own respective age groups.  Yellowstone is diverse, but what ties it together is an unstoppable will of life and grandeur.  Something of the same brought people as different as Beth and I together because that is what we had in common.
    Beth showed me the routine in how the cashier ends the day.  She showed me what to do with the tickets, and the other little things that went with the job.  Often, it was the "little things" that I worried about.  Yet, this truly was little.  I was upset that I could not find a way to stretch out the job so that I would not have to go help the others clean the Grill.  It was not so much that I did not desire to be helpful as that I did not want another opportunity to show the world how incompetent I was at the most menial and easy of tasks.  However, as Beth went home, I asked the shift supervisor, Judy Dilling--the wife of Ron, the assistant manager--what she wanted me to do.
    Judy told me to put plastic over the bowl of fruit on the counter.  This I soon did.  In fact, I found myself always putting the plastic over the fruit whenever we cleaned.  It became my little job that I took pride that I noticed before anyone else did.  Of course, I doubt anyone else was feeling the neurotic stress I was feeling toward the job, and so would likely laugh at my pride as ridiculous.  It was a very simple task.  After that was done, the cleaning was already largely over.  Beth had done a good job keeping me as long as possible.  Also, June is a month in which the first half of the month is not very busy.  So, cleaning the grill does not take an entire hour.  By the time I was ready to help them clean, they had already begun mopping the floors, the last thing to be finished.  Regardless, I was proud that I did not run away from my fear of helping out my co-workers.  I knew that the next time I helped it would not be as easy, but I was happy with myself nonetheless.
    As we waited for nine o'clock, the food servers began counting their tips.  Twenty-five percent of their tips were taken out and divided between the cooks, the food prep person, and the hostess.  I was the only person in the Grill who did not receive a share of the tips, and this was only right.  My job did not deserve anything near as much as those others who did all the hard work in the restaurant.  My job was the easiest in the entire store!  However, they told me that I would get a share of tip out on Thursday when I worked the counter.  Why did they have to remind me that I was working the counter?
    Price and I walked home, and I was happy.  Even though there were things about my job that I knew would be unpleasant, I was no longer afraid of failure.  I had happened upon the one thing in the store that I had the utmost confidence that I could succeed in.  I did not have to wait on people.  I did not have to answer questions I did not know the answer to.  I had to deal with fewer angry people than almost anyone else in the store.  My legs were not tired from standing on them all day.  Some expressed that they thought such a job would be boring.  Boring?  With the crazy thoughts that go through my mind, boredom was hardly an issue.  It was its own Wonderland.  It was Beth's Yellowstone--a paid vacation!


Go to next page
Go back to Table of Contents
Go back to the front page