April 20, 2022–What was your first job, and what did learn from it?
Growing up on a farm before OSHA, my first jobs would violate every federal labor law today. They usually involved unsupervised gangs of 14-year-old boys working 12-hour days operating dangerous equipment with no safety gear, wearing loose-fitting clothing around power take-offs, and wielding sharp, pointy tools.
The baptism for every farm boy was pulling weeds. Industrial herbicides have made this torture obsolete, thank goodness. But there is a part of me that remains grateful for the opportunity to test my mettle against 40 acres of weed-infested soybeans.
The farmer would pile us into the back of his pickup and unceremoniously dump us at a remote bean field. We’d stack our thermoses and lunch bags at the gate as the farmer drove off.
As the sun came up and steam rose from the ocean of plants stretching endlessly ahead, I experienced my first adolescent awareness of futility.
Yet we plunged in, trudging step by step, four rows apart, stooping every few yards to yank out a stubborn jimson weed, or slice a stalk of volunteer corn with our medieval weed hooks. By the time we reached the far end and returned to our starting point, it was time for a break. We guzzled our powdered lemonade mix before rising once again to attack the weeds. By midday, the dew had dried and the sun scorched our skin and blistered our lips.
There was no way we would finish that field, and yet, somehow, we did, fueled only by bologna-cheese sandwiches on white bread and store-brand sandwich cookies. At dusk, the farmer hauled us back to his house, where he dolefully wrote out checks for vast sums that reached into the low-teens. It was the richest we had ever been.
Then we got up the next day and did it again.
There were other joys of working in farm country. Baling hay, where the back-breaking labor was only interrupted by the challenge of not losing a limb to the baler, being run over by the hay wagon, or being crushed under a dozen falling 80-pound bales inside a 120-degree barn.
Shelling corn was another Disney ride. They would send us scrawny adolescents inside the corn bin, where we straddled a moving metal conveyor belt while scraping down piles of dried corn cobs with pitchforks that had tines bent at 90 degrees. The game was to not impale your foot or get caught in the unstoppable conveyor belt snaking between your legs. But there was no way to avoid inhaling the lung-congealing cob dust and corn mold, leading to coughing up the phlegm of a 50-year-old Newcastle coal miner for days.
But the absolute worst first job I ever tackled was scooping out a hog house. In those days, a farmer would house hundreds of hogs inside a long, concrete building. If you’ve never had the chance to smell hog manure, imagine being locked inside a port-a-potty that’s sat in the sun unemptied for a week at a chili cookoff.
But that wasn’t the worst part–a junior high boy can tolerate a surprisingly high level of bad aromas. No, the killing factor in this job was the consistency. There is no delicate way to put it. I faced a stygian task. For every scoop of raw, gamey hog manure I loaded, two more scoops flowed in to replace it. Years later, when I read Sisyphus, I had only to hark back to this hog barn to understand the utter futility of rolling that stone forever up that hill.
Gamely I tried to staunch the flow of foulness. But it conquered me. For some reason, my mom drove by that morning to check on me. She found me sitting on the stoop, crying. I had given up. I had never failed at any task until this one. She tsked into action. She drove home and brought back my younger brother to help, along with a picnic basket overflowing with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and homemade pie.
Somehow between the three of us, we turned back that tide and hours later were rewarded with bare concrete. I don’t remember what the farmer paid us that day, but it definitely was not worth it. I never worked for him again.
But maybe that job taught me the most important lesson.
Shoveling through an endless torrent of offal, shin-deep in manure and permeated with foul odors, in a valiant effort to expose the foundation, prepared me best for what I do to this day: write columns.