A recent post by King Banaian at SCSU Scholars and Thursday’s Backfence from Lileks in the StarTribune have had me thinking about the various jobs I held when I was younger and the things I learned before I snagged the college sheepskin.
My introduction to the workforce came when I was 12 and started pumping gas at my father’s service station. These were the days when a service station really meant service, not “self-service.” We washed windows, checked the oil and sometimes the tires, and tried to mollify customers upset when the price went up from 34 to 36 cents per gallon overnight. After a busy summer day it would seem as if I could still hear the driveway bell ringing in my ears. I remember the heat of accidentally laying my bare arm on a blisteringly hot piece of chrome and the chill of gasoline splashing on my leg, and standing on tiptoes to reach the last blob of bug guts in the middle of a windshield.
This was also where I learned that a screw-up by me or one of the other pump jockeys reflected on the man who’s name was on the business, and it was drilled into me how important it was to remember customers’ names, to meet and even anticipate their needs and to build repeat business. In contrast, several years later I went to work for a gas station located on an interstate instead of a neighborhood, and went about my job the first day in the way I had been trained. After about an hour the owner called me over and profanely asked me what I thought I was doing washing windows and talking to people. “Give ’em their gas, get their money and get them out of here to make room for the next guy,” was the gist of it. “You’re never going to see these people again,” he said.
In between those jobs I took a position as a lifeguard at a municipal pool in a small town. I’d already had Red Cross training and I was told it was an easy job sitting in the sun where you were supposed to watch girls. Sounded good to me…except that it turned out that anyone over the age of 12 in that town swam in the river and the young ones who came to the pool were trying to stay in training over the summer for annoying their teachers. I also learned that no matter how I sat, or what lotion I used, I was almost incapable of tanning and that no one trusted a pale lifeguard.
I lasted a month and then took a job on a county road crew cutting brush and repairing pot holes. Here I discovered that I’m not allergic to poison ivy and that ticks can get into the darndest places. Once, when I swung my brushhook into a leafy trunk I cut through an unseen piece of barbed wire which, released from tension, whipped out and sliced through the sleeve of my tee-shirt, leaving me an impressive scar on my bicep that I could later tell my children I received in a knife fight (and watch their eyes get as big around as some of those engorged ticks). I also did stints driving anchor rods into the ground for mobile homes with an 8-lb. sledge hammer or, if the ground was especially rocky, a 20-lb. post maul. A couple of times I also found myself standing on the roof of a mobile home, applying KoolSeal coating to the shiny, aluminum skin in the summer heat while the soles of my sneakers fused with uncoated parts of the metal.
Believe me, this was one kid who never had a problem going back to school in the fall.
Even this wasn’t much of an escape. One Saturday morning when I was home from college my father asked me what my future plans were and how far I wanted to go with my education. Then he said he was going to help me get a PhD – and took me out to the back yard and handed me a post hole digger.
What does it all mean? I don’t know. Sometimes those days come back to me when I feel an ache in my fingers as I squeeze the handle of the gas pump when I fill my own car, or finger the scar on my arm. I know those jobs marked me in subtler ways as well. I’m not nostalgic about them, but they do help me appreciate what I have. I remember that putting others first is ultimately how you build a successful business, that even the biggest job can be whittled down to size if you just keep hacking, that a sledge hammer can get you a better night’s sleep than a spreadsheet. And I know I will never take another job that involves wearing a swim suit.