The Hated Jobs I Loved the Most
There was a rule in my family as I was growing up. It was never written down or even verbally mentioned. But my brother John and I knew it: Everybody works.
In our earlier years, we had chores around the house that we were expected to do every day. For example, we had to wash and dry the dinner dishes. This chore proved to be a battleground between us. We would take turns washing and then drying the dishes by hand (there was no dish washing machine except the two of us). While one washed the dishes, the other would dash outside to play and let the dishes air dry. The theory being that the dryer would then simply put the air-dried dishes away. But the washer often got irritated because it took longer to wash the dishes and thus often caused the washer to miss the additional playtime before it got dark. So, after washing all the dishes and setting them in the plastic dish holder next to the sink, the washer would wait until moments before the dryer returned and then dump water over all the dishes. Of course, the dryer would complain to our parents who got very good at ignoring this kind of sink warfare. There was also bed warfare (we slept together because only one bed could fit in our room), yard warfare (especially with raking leaves in the fall), and basement warfare (which we were required to keep in order). And so it went with brothers who were only 18 months apart in age. Fortunately, we have grown out of that kind of warfare...just recently...for the most part.
In any case, there would come a time when my brother and I were expected to find a real job--that is, one in addition to our chores around the house. My time came when I was ten. I became a paperboy and delivered the old Cleveland News. The news was the region's afternoon newspaper. My route consisted of three streets--Hird Avenue, the street on which I lived, and the two streets just west of that. I had about 35 customers. After the initial rush of self-employment, I discovered that the work interfered with my playtime after school since it took longer than I had expected to deliver all my papers. I hated that. The situation became intolerable to me when I turned 11. That's when we boys at Sr. Rose of Lima elementary school became eligible to play football on the school team, which was an important right of passage in my peer group. If I continued to deliver papers for the News, then I could not attend football practice. So, I gave up the route with the Cleveland News, and started to deliver papers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which was the morning paper for the region. Now I could play football after school as I went through 7th and 8th grades. But I had to get up at 5:30 each morning to deliver the Plain Dealer, so that I could be back home by 7:00 to have breakfast before walking to school. I hated that. I did, however, learn about high finance on Friday nights when I would do my collections, and came to understand the concept of a bonus at Christmas time if one takes good care of one's customers.
I had various jobs throughout high school. Salesman in a men's clothing store, camp counselor (and official bus driver of the campers), restaurant bus boy, and so on. Everybody works.
All this prepared me for the jobs I had working my way through college.
Each summer break, I had to earn enough money to help me get through the next school year. While my parents helped as they could, I knew that I had to help pay for my own education.
The Blade. I managed to get a good-paying job the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at a company that manufactured cardboard boxes. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Don't be fooled. It paid well because there was an element of risk. Large stacks of cardboard would come down a conveyor belt and stop under a huge, 6-foot wide, guillotine-like blade that would slice across the stack of cardboard to shape it to the required size for a particular type of box. The cut stacks would then be creased by another machine and shipped out to customers for assembly. As I stood in front of the imposing angled blade on the first day of work that summer, the foreman took time to explain the job to me. "Always," he told me, "always know where your hands are at." Sage advice, especially since I noticed that he was missing the index finger on his left hand. I hated that job. I cut a lot of cardboard that summer, and left the job with all my digits intact. I also realized that credibility can come in various guises, like a missing finger, and that listening to another's experience can be essential in doing something successfully.
The Steel Mill. Back in the 1960s, Cleveland had a lot of steel mills. During another summer break, I worked at Republic Steel. Like a lot of manufacturing plants, Republic hired college kids during the summer to fill in for their full-time workers who took vacations from June through August. The mill produced 20-foot long ingots of white hot steel about 12 inches square. From the pouring of the steel, to the fabricating, to the finished ingot, there was always some hard-hat work to be done. The full-time workers there loved to have the college kids do one particular required task before the ingot was left to cool to be shipped out to others for shaping into various forms, like steel sheets. The front and back tips of each ingot needed to be sheared off to form smooth ends. When it was my turn, I had to get dressed in a heavy, rubber-like apron, put on a wide plastic protective shield around my face and eyes, and wear large fire-resistant gloves. Then, holding what looked like a gigantic set of tongs, I would have to grab a chunk of the end of the ingot, clamping the tongs around it, and hold steady while an acetylene torch sheared through the white-hot ingot--a zillion sparks flying all around me. At the very last moment that the torch cut through the ingot, I would then have to swing the 25-pound piece of steel into a bin, and then wait for the other end of the ingot to come bye and do the same thing. I hated that job, but it helped me get through the next year of college. It also taught me that learning what one does not want to do can be just as valuable as learning what one does want to do.
The Assembly Line. I worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company's Engine Plant on Brookpark Road in Cleveland the summer of 1969.
My job on the line was to use an air gun to tighten three bolts in the engine block as it went by every 18 seconds. I did that for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. I became an expert quickly--in a matter of minutes actually. I could tighten those bolts with the air gun behind my back, under my leg and using either my right or left hand. I could tighten them with my eyes closed and with seconds to spare. The person to my left put the bolts on the engine block and the person to my right wiped the three bolts clean after I tightened them. I hated that job. But I learned about language there. It was on the line that I became fully aware of the countless ways that one could use the "f" word. "What the f@#&!" to show surprise. "F@#&! you!" to indicate annoyance. "Are you f@#&ing kidding me?" to show disbelief. Even awesomeness, such as when an engine block fell off the line, just missing crushing the legs of the two workers it fell between, and thus causing others on the line to exclaim in extended wonder, "F@#$*&%$#$#@!" Of course, there were also lengthy soliloquies using the "f" word over and over again in dazzling displays of "f" word virtuosity. After which, the speaker would look at us college guys and say, "Well, excuse my French." We never really thought he was asking us to excuse him. But that would make me consider a question: Is the "f" word really of French origin? We college guys also found ways to use our imaginations to pass the time. For example, we would make up new lyrics for broadway shows. From Man of La Mancha I recall ,"I am I/ a fine worker/the lord of the Ford line/ my foreman will call and I go!" And from My Fair Lady, "I have often worked on this line before/ But the engine always stayed upon the belt before/ All at once am I just a few toes shy/ Knowing I'm on the line at the plant." Could have been hits! In any case, at sumner's end, I appreciated that I might have the chance to pursue a job that I really wanted to do, and I realized that others may not.
I hated these jobs. And I love them. They helped to shape me, taught me lessons that I still take to heart, and allowed me to eventually find not a job but a calling. But that's a story for another day.
Good Health and Good Luck