I’m afraid my grandchildren may miss out on a rite of passage many of us took for granted. Do you remember those part-time and summer jobs we had at tender ages? Do those still exist?
A few friends and I were reminiscing about our first encounters with “real work” and how those early jobs brought us a combination of embarrassment, pride, discipline and a few bucks in our pockets. The most common job shared was an old-fashioned paper route. We discussed the art of dodging frisky dogs and making semi-accurate tosses from our Schwinns—and that was the easy part. Collecting payment from penny-pinching customers proved a more daunting task. Two friends from the Midwest talked about detasseling corn during hot summer days while proudly collecting spider bites and sunburns. Back then, jobs were badges of honor, ripe for sharing exaggerated tales of valor.
My first job was at the age of 12. I was hired to pick up red-striped golf balls at a driving range. Many early rising golfers liked to choose me as a target as I dodged about on the grass. It was tough work, but one perk was getting to play for free on the attached miniature golf course. Here is where I perfected my lifelong habit of missing short putts and forgetting to keep score when I got too far behind.
Early on in high school, I worked as a dishwasher at a big chicken restaurant in Hinsdale, Illinois. I attempted to wash and dry my way up to a busboy position, which held more sartorial prestige (and more money), but it never happened. I told my mom and dad it was because I had perfected my back-kitchen skills to such a level that the management could not afford to lose me. Later in life, this disappointment taught me to never take a promotion for granted, and to work a little harder to get noticed in the right ways.
My last summer job was at a mammoth Reynolds Aluminum plant outside of Chicago. I worked in the cast house, where huge, belching ovens formed huge, glowing ingots and passed them down the line. It was memorable for many reasons. I worked with seasoned employees who gave me a whole new insight into humor, music, early romance and how to outsmart a time clock. I witnessed serious accidents that happened before OSHA inspectors became commonplace. I saw fights break out between union leaders and management. I learned when to keep my mouth shut.
When I tell my five young grandsons they’ll have a great time by rushing out and finding a job, they give me that cockeyed grin that says grandpa doesn’t even know how to use his cellphone. Their parents’ sentiments aren’t much different.
All I know is my old friends and I took these early jobs and applied them to a lifetime of learning. They taught us how to gain the respect of our bosses and coworkers, how to recognize that dollars are earned, not given out freely, and that self-reliance and real joy can come from holding up our end of a job well done.