Growing up, I had several memorable summer jobs.
From the time I was 12, I used to go back to my aunt and uncle’s farm in Huntington West Virginia most summers. My uncle was a contractor who built sewer and water plants, and he liked to say to those who asked what he did, “It may be !@#$ to some, but to me it’s my bread and butter“.
At one time he was the largest contractor in West Virginia, with jobs from Indiana to Camp Lejeune, NC.
I think my uncle was a character, and he seemed to work at it to keep that title.
That farm for a 12 year old boy was a magical place, with a jeep to drive, horses to ride, and .22 rifles to shoot. It was in the family for 200 years in what was the western part of Virginia and the house, modernized in the late 30s, was originally 2 adjacent two-story cabins. Some of the Wilsons from Lancaster County along the Rappahannock River decided go west and settle there.
When I later went to school in Virginia, I thought nothing of driving the 700 miles round trip on US Rt 60 over the Shenandoahs just to share a weekend with my aunt and uncle.
They were that special to me.
When I was about 16, my uncle let me work as a laborer. I first learned about hard work there, and in the summer the heat and humidity was such that the sweat would just run down my face and fall to the ground. I did things like carry new sewer pipe to be buried, dig ditches, and on “easy days”, picked up parts and tools as a “runner” around town.
One day, along with another boy, we were cleaning out an old barn and as I lifted this old bucket of tar, sitting on a shelf for many decades, the bottom broke from corrosion. The old tar went all over my new work boots. I suppose at that point they were properly christened but from that time on we got the nickname of “The Gold Dust Twins”.
Another time I was in the shop where the heavy machinery was repaired and during the lunch break I fell asleep. One of the mechanics decided to light a fire cracker at my feet.
To much laughter and amusement it didn’t even wake me.
It was exhausting work.
Then there was the summer back in Sacramento when I worked in a fish plant. Even though my town is a good 60-70 miles from the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay, it was the largest fish plant on the west coast. The owner also owned plants in Brookings, OR and Alaska.
And when the salmon were coming in from Brookings and Alaska I learned more about exhaustion. Some days all I would do from 0400 to 2100-2200 or so was pick up salmon (King and Silver) from the iced pallets and put them on the table to be filleted. Only seasoned people would fillet the fish, since any meat wasted – left on the fish – was money lost. It was amazing to watch them – an economy of efficiency and movement, as most pros have. One quick slice on each side and the meat was all gone.
When the salmon were in there could be no delay in processing them.
Oh, and after the salmon were filleted? I would sometimes clean this large machine that shelled shrimp. The machine had reciprocating rollers on an incline with running water, and the rollers would pull the shell off the shrimp as they went down the watery slope.
It had to be laboriously hosed and cleaned for the next day. So sometimes I would come in at 04:00 if the salmon were running and if the machine had to be cleaned I would leave at midnight. I think on those days I slept in the next day. They were thankfully few and far between.
People would get in my car and say “What’s that smell?“.
And I would inevitably reply “What smell?”
Because after all that time in the plant, I lost the smell for fish. But there was an oil from handling the salmon all day that would seep into your skin and all the washing and scrubbing wouldn’t eliminate it completely.
I can remember coming to my parent’s home absolutely exhausted, and my mother making me take off my work clothes in the garage before I could enter the house.
But the last job I’ll mention came about a bit by accident.
My father and I had a huge fight one evening, as sons and fathers sometimes have. And it was a his house, his way or the highway.
So that evening I chose the highway.
It was the worst fight we ever had, and it was pretty intense.
Stormed out of the house about 2000 and drove down Highway 99 in the Central Valley with no idea where I would stop. I just wanted to drive.
Hours later down 99 I came across the turnoff for Hwy 198. If you took it west, in 15-20 miles would be Lex’s old haunt, NAS Lemoore near Hanford.
If you took it east it would lead you to Sequoia National Park. I thought that might be interesting. Besides the options were rather limited that late night. I came across the building for employees and parked my Camaro in the lot, and tried to sleep for the last few hours.
Try sleeping in a Camaro.
I tried it several times, including an amusing time at a campground in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One spring Saturday I was outside in my sleeping bag, and a late snow came that evening. So I tried moving to the car.
You cannot sleep in a Camaro.
Anyway next morning at 0800 I walked in inquiring about any jobs and the ranger says “You are in luck. We have one opening but you have to be here tomorrow with a sleeping bag and some equipment. If you are here, we’ll fly you in a helicopter into the back country to meet a small team for the summer to clear fallen trees from trails“.
I did a lot of driving in 2 days.
I got back the next morning and was given a few words of advice. If bitten by a rattlesnake in the back country, do not panic and run. The helicopter would be there in an hour or 2. If they could make contact. I think the trail boss had some radio device.
Mail and supplies to the team (of 4) were delivered by the helicopter once a week.
Other than that, we were on our own.
We were pretty isolated. Sometimes one would see a few hikers during the week, and then a couple of weeks would go by seeing nobody. We’d stay in one location a week or so clearing the surrounding trails and then, like nomads, pack up and move on.
Didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but did run across a bear or 2.
For the next 3 months I hauled a large chainsaw (the industrial size), and walked up and down trails cutting fallen trees and repairing damage from the previous winter’s rain and snow.
One thing I missed were baths. The few times they were “available” was when we were by a snow-fed stream or river. Let me tell you, getting into that water was a character-building experience.
Through this summer, 2 incidents stand out. The first time, I spent most of a day on a trail by myself. By day it wasn’t bad, even though in one area as I hiked out I noticed a cliff 100′ or more on the trail’s edge. And the trail in some places was maybe a foot or 2 wide. But by the time I started the return, the sun was setting and I was still 5-7 miles from camp. I knew that the cliff was ahead of me.
I had no flashlight. And it soon became pitch black – you couldn’t even see the ground.
What to do?
I decided the smartest thing to do would be to just lay down and wait for the dawn. I had only a summer short-sleeved shirt and it got cold at night in the high Sierras. I can remember laying on my back shivering trying to put my arms under my back for any warmth. Shifting back and forth all night trying to get warm. Didn’t even have matches for a fire.
It was a very uncomfortable and long night.
Yes, and before you ask me, I should have been aware of the time and headed back sooner.
This just reminded me of this book I reviewed here awhile back. When things look bleak, take a moment and step back – pause – try to think it through. Assess the situation.
Don’t panic. Don’t let preconceptions cloud your thinking. Accept your surroundings as they are at this moment, not as you’d hope or as they were.
No guarantees in life but you can improve your odds of survival considerably.
I’ve wondered from time to time how that decision that night affected my life.
The other incident?
The date is easy to remember.
July 20, 1969.
That day, our sleeping bags were under a redwood grove, and that night I looked up through those giant trees to the moon. With my little radio on a distant station from the Valley, I heard Neil Armstrong through the static announce that “The Eagle has landed“.
I just stared silently at the moon through those trees, in wonderment and awe.