Monday, April 27, 2009


My career with the Council Bluffs Natural Gas Company was not over after my summer on the pipe laying crew. The next summer the gas company needed a meter reader and after talking to Norman, the Assistant Collections Manager, I signed on.

I read meters for the next fours years during the summer and on most Saturdays during my high school days. When I was home for the summer during college, I worked at night and read meters for ½ day during the day. No wonder my social skills were underdeveloped. I got really good at meter reading and made efficiency my middle name.

I was fast, really, really fast at scurrying through my route for the day. And I guarantee you that no one could do the job today in the time I managed to do it. If there were extensive records kept for accuracy and speed, my records today would surely have an asterisk along side of my name, just like they do in baseball. Why? In the early 50’s people lived differently. Let me expand.

Council Bluffs was a town of around 45,000 people then with two high schools of about 2200 students each. It was a railroad town, mail terminal and a commercial center for farmers to buy their weekly rations. There were not many poor people and not many rich people. The vast majority were middle working class families. Doctors still made house calls. Dentists were getting used to x-ray equipment, but without the warnings of too much radiation exposure. Street cars had been just recently phased out in favor of buses. Automatic washing machines were being purchased in abundance and the wringer washers were being scrapped, except for the motors that were saved in case one thought of a good reason to use one.

Television was new then and those who could afford a TV set had an eight inch round tube black and white set that stood 4 feet tall with rabbit ear antennae that picked up 3 stations from Omaha. If you owned a car, it had a stick shift manual transmission, bench seats, a radio, and a heater. White-wall tires were extra.

I would guess that 90 % of the gas meters in Council Bluffs were in the basement. So it was required to enter houses from the side or rear door to gain access to the basement. Some houses still had basement access through outside cellar doors. Most basements were unfinished then and people used them to store extra things that would eventually become junk after being unused for several years. They were seldom kept clean and cob webs were not uncommon by any means. Some basements still had dirt floors and many times they housed only the furnace, an abandoned coal bin, and a gas meter.
But getting back to the asterisk—in the 1950’s, the woman of the house stayed home and people didn’t lock their doors at night so they were still unlocked during the daytime providing someone was home. So when I came to a house, I would loudly pound on the door, open it a bit and yell, “Gas meter man”. Usually I would wait for someone to yell back, “Go ahead”. If I heard no answer, I would yell again, then, I would proceed to the basement to find the meter. I usually didn’t wait for the door to be answered and very, very seldom did this present a problem. It was accepted behavior.

So I was able to quickly get in and get out of the basements. I cut across lawns (also mostly acceptable) and jumped fences up to 4 feet high in order to maintain a bee line to the next door.

My tools were my meter book, a couple of pencils, and a heavy duty flash light. I also carried a bunch of post cards that I left stuck in the door when no one was home and the door was locked. These cards had duplications of the meter dials and a home owner could draw in where the dial was positioned between the numbers and mail it in.

When I first started reading meters, I would turn my Ever-Ready on when I entered the basement, walk to the front of the house to find the meter, read the dials, and then, write down the numbers into the meter book. When writing, I had to wedge the flashlight into my left arm pit as I held the book in my left hand and wrote with my right hand as I stood before the meter. Then secure my pencil and take the flashlight out of my arm pit with my right hand and hurriedly move to the door, using the flashlight as necessary to make my way.

But I was able to speed things up by reading the meter, remembering the four numbers, moving to the outside, then writing down the numbers where the light was good. It removed the flashlight arm pit maneuver and by eliminating this maneuver 250 times a day, I probably saved 10-15 minutes a day. I rarely forgot my numbers and I would say the numbers aloud as I read them and it helped me remember them for a short time. Once I wrote the numbers down, the numbers were erased from my memory.

Technically, I was given 8 hours of work, but once I read my 250 meters, my work was done for the day. I would usually buy some food and soda at a corner mom and pop grocery store for lunch and 15 minutes was usually sufficient before moving on. I think my average time to complete my daily route was about 6 ½ hours.

But in today’s world with locked doors and women no longer at home to answer the door and privacy fences that can’t be jumped, reading meters has to be much slower than it used to me. Hence the asterisk.

Here is a typical gas meter dial.
You read the dials from right to left. I would come to this meter and say 0321, and when I wrote it down, I would write from right to left so the number came out 1230 in the book. I had to write legibly so the person that ran the billing machine could quickly read the correct numbers.

Each page of the meter book had a place for comments, which indicated where the meter could be found if difficult to find or whether there was a dog that was a problem and sometimes there would be comment that the lady of the house was good looking. I never got bitten by a dog while reading meters. My canine experience as a paper carrier paid off.
I was never propositioned by a sex stared female and never caught anyone naked, although I surprised a couple ladies ironing in the cool basement trying to escape the summer heat with just their slip and underwear on.

One house in the poorer section of town had their meter in a two foot high crawl space and the space was partially filled with debris. I saw that the meter had not been read for a long time and only an estimated amount placed in the recording space of the meter book. There were many “E’s” there to indicate estimates. I was determined to get a reading, and besides, Norman would notice it and give me an “attaboy”. I had half my body under the house and I was inching back out with the numbers in my head, when I felt something hit my legs. When I got completely out, I saw that it was some garbage. Apparently, the people didn’t want their meter read and after I wrote down the numbers, I could see why. The many estimates before were way off. The owners were probably using their gas stove to heat the place during the winter. No doubt Norman would have to deal with this later.

Once, I was in the basement when I heard a loud crash, and by the time I raced upstairs an elderly woman was calling for help. In the front room I saw a smashed glass coffee table and a woman with a severe gash in her arm that was really bleeding. I ran to the kitchen and got a towel for her arm and called the emergency unit and stayed with her until the unit arrived. If I had not been there, the woman may have been in serious trouble.

One week a year, I took over the janitor’s job while he went on vacation. Naturally, I worked as fast as possible, but I still wanted the floors to look awesome when customers came in to pay their bills or sign up new service. I used an industrial sized floor buffer that ran when both levers below the handle were squeezed. So in my haste, I let go of the levers and the handle while the buffer was slowing to a stop and the brush stopped moving but the handle swung around and smashed into a gas range on display in the front of the building. A big piece of enamel chipped off the oven door revealing a big dark area in place of the pristine, glossy white surface. “Oh no, I thought. I am in trouble.”

I had no other choice but to tell Norman what had happened. But he just smiled and said not to worry and he would see that the door was replaced. Norman was a good man.

One of the things I remember about my job reading meters in Council Bluffs for the Gas Company is that I was in almost every house in the city. I would guess that the number is at least 18,000. It occurs to me that if a company wants to do a market survey about what people have in their basements, they should talk to a gas meter reader first.


vikkitikkitavi said...

I should've talked to our meter reader here at my office before I set up a separate entry and security alarm system to allow him, as the company required, to enter when we are not there. The first time he came in, I told him about our elaborate modifications, and he said "Oh, we never enter a business when there's no one here."

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Anonymous said...

I am a Meter Reader and have been for 40 years now and still reading meters at the age of 66 years old.I started as a Prepayment Meter Inspector.My position was to calculate the cost of Gas used as well as calculate deductions for HP,Arrears etc.Today I only read Gas/Electric meters and will read between 150 to sometimes over 250 a day.Most customers have no idea of the amount of miles we cover in a day nor the amount we are expected to read in a week which is 800.
I enjoy my job as I meet people and enjoy the fresh air no matter what the weather happens to be like.
I shall retire one day not sure as to when as I am still very fast on my feet as most of my colleagues and manager will agree.I have been told I should think about writing a book(no names etc)and I know it would be rather interesting!!