Commentary by Bill Buchanan
When you are school-age, is there a more exciting time of year than May? The end of May signals the end of the school year. An entire summer of freedom awaits you. That is, unless your parents were like mine. In that case, summer meant getting a summer job.
I had a variety of summer jobs growing up, most of them either boring, back-breaking or both. One of my earliest summer jobs involved baling hay. For the uninitiated, baling hay meant lifting 40- to 60-pound bales of hay off the ground and throwing them into a moving truck. On the surface, this might sound hot, sweaty and physically exhausting —- but it was actually much worse. Once the truck was full, you had to unload it. For our crew this meant either lifting the bales off the truck and passing them up into a hay loft, or storing them in an old chicken coop. The chicken coop was the worst. The hot summer sun cooked the old chicken manure into a disgusting mess (think Tim Robbins’ escape in “The Shawshank Redemption” here). The odor was so strong that you almost prayed to lose your sense of smell. But it was great incentive for speedy work. No one wanted to hang around the chicken coop for very long. Those trucks got unloaded in record time.
I spent another summer working in the local steel mill. I found the various machines fascinating as we used saws, punches and grinders to shape the steel into a variety of useful products such as rods, grain blowers and silo steps. It was amazing how the machines cut, ground and formed that hard steel. Unfortunately, it was also amazing how those machines could also cut and grind human flesh. I found this out “firsthand,” so to speak, when the piece of steel I was working on slipped off the platform and my pinkie finger hit the grinder.
I tried to be brave as I walked up to the first aid station. The steel mill was a macho place, so I attempted to laugh it off when concerned co-workers saw my bloody glove and asked what happened. “Oh, I needed a little break so I stuck my hand in the grinder,” I told them with a little chuckle. My bravado lasted until I got to the water cooler and washed away some of the blood. When I looked into the wound and saw tendons and bone, I almost passed out. The shot I got at the doctor’s office hurt way more than the accident itself, and the finger throbbed painfully for a couple of days before healing up. I quickly decided my future did not lie at the steel mill.
I later secured a job on the loading dock of a company that built pre-manufactured homes. The houses were constructed on an assembly line. The inside of the homes — the floors, walls, fixtures and ceilings — rolled off the line as finished products. My crew loaded one-half of the house onto a semitrailer, along with siding, ceiling joists and other materials to be added at the construction site. This job had its share of perils as well. For instance, one day I was knocked down by a wall as a crane loaded it onto a truck. The guy operating the crane simply had not noticed me standing there. I was finally able to get his attention by offering to throw my hammer at him.
Another time, I was climbing a ladder to the roof of a house when I suddenly felt a strange sliding sensation. It turns out the bottom of the ladder was missing its rubber safety guards, and it starting coming out from under me. I can tell you this, all the fun in climbing a ladder goes right out the window when it slides out from under you. My attempt to catch myself failed and I hit the concrete floor with a thud. My head rocked back and hit the side of the house. My hard hat kept me from being injured, but I saw stars for a minute. As I was lying on the ground, one of the foremen yelled at me to get up and move the ladder “before someone gets hurt with that thing.” I thought seriously about introducing him to my hammer as well.
But I was better off than one of the guys on our crew. This guy was obnoxious and cocky and no one in the plant could stand him. One day he was walking along the ceiling joists, slipped off, and came down right through the roof. Well, not all the way through the roof. One of the ceiling joists broke his fall —- right between his legs. He sat there straddling the ceiling joist with his legs dangling through the two holes he had made in the finished sheetrock ceiling. He looked like a cartoon character, and was making a noise unlike anything I had ever heard come from a human mouth. Once again, management voiced its tender concern for the well-being of the work force. “This is going to hold up the (assembly) line for two hours,” bellowed one of the foremen.
I learned a lot from my summer jobs. I learned that I did not want to pursue a career baling hay or working in the steel mill all my life. I also received valuable training at the manufactured home plant on how not to treat the people who work for you. And I found that as good as it felt to get out of school for the summer, school looked pretty good when it was time to go back in the fall.