April 23, 2014

Editor's Page

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

The lessons from young summer jobs can last a lifetime

Mark R. Howard | 8/1/2010

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

Arriving along with the colors, smells and horse-blanket humidity of summer this year are memories of my first summer jobs, occasioned in part by my daughter’s return home after her first year in college and her search for work during the break.

My first real summer employment came through a temp agency, which sent me to a warehouse that stocked parts for Fiats and Jaguars. There, I was put to work breaking apart a giant crate full of straw and boxes of auto parts and then stocking the parts in bins.

Aside from getting to unpack an elegant fender assembly for a Jaguar XKE, the work was much less interesting than the other temp who’d been sent with me. He was 20-something, a transient who was prone to drink a six pack of beer during lunch break and nearly prone afterward. In the afternoon, as we claw-hammered our way through the crate and he sweated out his lunch break, he liked to regale me with stories of his travels and adventures. For some, he provided evidence: On at least one occasion, he pulled up his T-shirt to show me a cluster of small, round scars — bullet wounds he said had been inflicted by a girlfriend, a somewhat older woman who had taken offense after catching him in some stage of infatuation with her daughter.

Elsewhere in the warehouse were two full-time employees whose daily interaction seemed to consist almost entirely of a conversational duel in which each ridiculed the other’s sexual habits, in a much more graphic version of “you’re boring” vs. “you’re disgusting.”

The whole experience, in any event, was exotic stuff for me at that point. And in addition to some fundamental, if fairly obvious, lessons in interpersonal relations, I learned to work at a healthy remove from anyone with a crowbar who’d had numerous malt beverages on his lunch break.

My second job that summer was at a paper mill. There, I worked out of the mill’s inventory control office, located right off the factory floor. The work involved canvassing the factory and warehouse areas, counting and cataloging enormous rolls of newsprint and other kinds of paper that were as big as a room. I was never quite sure how anyone could lose track of a paper roll that size in the first place, but that was an executive matter.

The mill’s full-time inventory control staff, my co-workers, consisted of two men, both black. Their race is noteworthy because they had white-collar jobs and spent much of their workdays in air-conditioning, while all the blue-collar workers on the sweltering factory floor were white. In the late 1960s, this was a striking inversion of the usual state of affairs. I never learned how it had turned out that way, but it appealed to my sense of justice.

My two co-workers were very smart and very funny. To get a rise out of me, they’d tell horrific stories of alleged accidents at the factory. One involved a worker who’d supposedly fallen into the “de-barker,” a monstrous piece of machinery that stripped the bark from pine trees, which were then ground up and soaked in acids and other chemicals in the course of paper-making. “What ever happened to that guy? Did they ever find him?” asked one. “Oh, yeah,” said the other, “he’s in that roll of number 5 newsprint Mark counted today out back of warehouse 2.”

I got to know the inventory control workers fairly well and heard other stories with a different flavor. One of the men, who would have been about 30 then, was talking with me one day about my plans for the future. He told me he’d been a very good athlete and had gotten a football scholarship to a big Midwestern school. Athletes were kings there, he said, but his ego had gotten the better of him; he neglected his books and flunked out, he said. And he encouraged me to stick with school.

He also told me another story. After leaving college, he had joined the Navy. And on his ship, he said, was a fellow sailor, a white man, from the Appalachian region of West Virginia. The hillbilly was poorly educated, socially awkward and became the universal butt of jokes and pranks from his shipmates. A visit from the man’s family while the ship was docked left my co-worker incredulous: “I was used to seeing poor black people,” he said, “but I’d never seen anybody as poor as that family.”

The jokes and pranks continued. Then, one day as a group of sailors lined up for inspection, someone, as a prank, rolled a practice grenade out along the deck. All but one of the sailors scattered. The West Virginian, who didn’t know the grenade was a dud, threw himself onto it, to protect his shipmates. “Nobody messed with him after that,” my co-worker said.

I don’t know whether the story about the de-barker was true, but the look on my co-worker’s face told me the incident in the Navy, or something very much like it, had left an impression on him.

And so I’ve told my daughter that if she finds a job this summer, however much she may earn, to pay attention to stories and people and lessons she may remember 40 years later — things she may not learn when she goes back to school.

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