As a young man, Chester Birt chose a factory job over a college classroom, and he has been working ever since. He is a skycap on the 5 a.m. shift at the Burbank Airport and, since 1972, owner of the company that provides the airport's skycap service. Birt, 51, and his wife, Frances, live in Inglewood.
I grew up on a farm in the state of Louisiana. My daddy was a truck farmer. I used to help him cultivate and harvest. The rough part about it was that you had to get up and be out in the field as soon as it was daylight, picking corn and tomatoes and fresh beans for him to take to market. I thought it was rough at the time, but after you grow up you realize it really wasn't that bad.
I wanted to get away, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a brother who was in school at USC. I came out here with the intention of working for a while and then going to school, but I never did.
I was only here three or four days when I got a job at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica. It was exciting to me to be earning my own paycheck. I worked a lot of overtime. The DC-6 was in demand at the time. That was 1955.
A lot of people have trouble finding work because they're kind of choosy about what they want to do. My theory was to take what was there, and if I found something better, make the move.
I took this job at Burbank in 1965 because I was out of a job and had a family to support and needed work. They hire you on a 30-day tryout basis. I didn't think I would pass probation. The way I saw it, you had to be real friendly, with a lot of conversation, to be a skycap. I wasn't a great conversationalist. After about two weeks, Mr. Willis told me I was a good worker and that I hadn't made any mistakes, so the job was mine. The important thing about a skycap is that he checks your bags to the proper destination.
Skycaps are only paid minimum wage. Here, we pool the tips among the guys on the shift. If it wasn't for the tips, you couldn't survive. It varies from day to day and from season to season. Your best time is the summer, because that is the busiest time. The more people you handle, the better chance you've got of tips. You handle a lot of people now that don't tip at all. That's what a skycap calls a stiff. Now, regardless of how much you do, some of them walk away and don't even give you a thanks. People just didn't do that in the '60s and '70s. They had a little more pride.
Being a skycap has been the most satisfying job to me. You get to meet a lot of people working out there on the curb. A lot of people who are beneficial to you, real kind and concerned with your well-being. I've gotten a lot of good advice from lawyers and insurance brokers.
I met President Ford, Nixon, Reagan. I met Senator Bobby Kennedy, shook hands with him. His plane landed here, and he walked right through the terminal, shook hands with all of us and got in his limo. That night, when I was on the way home, I heard that he'd been shot. I was quite upset. He was a presidential candidate that I felt was going to win, and I really liked him. I had voted for his brother. The type of guy he was, I just felt that he was going to be good for the country.
I consider myself lucky because after working for the skycap company for a while, I bought the company in 1972. If it wasn't for that, I probably would have had a much harder time and would have regretted not going back to school. It worked pretty good for me. I make a little more than the other guys. I have more headaches than the other guys have, too. We handle the paper work, payroll and insurance at home. My wife and my daughter do most of the paper work now because they both are in school studying to be accountants. We do Long Beach Airport also. Between the two airports, we have 30 employees.
What I hope for is to get my kids through school and give them a chance to get an education if they really want to. Then after that, I can survive. I have one daughter, 24, who did one year of college, two daughters in college now, a son in high school and a daughter in junior high. If I can get them through, I'll feel all right.