Learning on the job

The year I turned 14, my uncle had purchased a Massy-Ferguson Super 92 combine that had been tipped over while unloading from a custom cutters truck. The combine was quite rebuildable, requiring a few new parts and some body work. There had been no header on the combine at the time of the accident, so that much was undamaged. My cousin was a good auto body repairman and he undertook the job of making the repairs to the combine. When I arrived, a couple of months ahead of the start of harvest, eager for a summer job, they put me to work sanding the combine, to prepare it for paint.

A combine is a big machine to sand! I worked day after day after day, filling my hair and my clothes with red sander dust, and occasionally with silver-gray primer dust. I don’t know how long it took to finish the job, but I suspect it was a couple of weeks of sanding day after day after day. When the combine was ready to be painted I was more than ready to head to the field to pull a duck foot for summer fallow with a John Deere R. Put, put, put, around and around the field. When I finished my cousin’s field, I switched to my uncle’s somewhat newer, but still well-used Alice-Chalmers tractor. I was so relieved to not be sanding a combine that I didn’t worry about the fact that neither tractor had a full cab, only sun shades and air conditioning on field tractors was not a part of the ranching operation. Air conditioning anything was not a part of the ranch in those days. When you work out doors all day long, a bit of shade and a jug of cool water is enough.

Then, one day, I noticed that one of the big rear tires on the tractor was getting low. I stopped the tractor and checked the valve stem, which at the time was near the bottom of the rotation of the tire. When i jiggled the valve stem, it came off in my hands and I was thoroughly hosed down with a steady stream of calcium chloride. The water in the tires added weight. The calcium chloride kept the water from freezing. The shower made me itchy. It was a little over two miles to walk to the house. By the time I got there, I was pretty disgusted. I was fairly disgusting myself as well. After a shower, I took the rest of the day off. Days off weren’t a part of ranch life then, either, except for Sundays.

I love to tell those stories. I’ve told our children and our grandchildren and almost anyone else who will listen. Neither sanding a combine nor getting a shower of calcium chloride are experiences I want to repeat. But I can’t say now, after all of these years, that I would wish I had never had those experiences. I grew up a lot that summer. I learned a lot. Part of what I learned was the importance of hanging in there and working even when things get pretty miserable. I can endure a lot more than I sometimes think.

I was thinking about that summer yesterday. We have an eager young man whose summer job involves doing janitorial and yard work at the church. He is an excellent worker and we are lucky to have someone who is willing to work at a wide variety of different tasks. And, so far, he has been willing to do what we have asked of him.

Yesterday he spent most of the day scrubbing, rinsing, waxing and polishing the floor in our sanctuary. It is a big room and we have pews and pulpit furniture and a lot of other objects that either need to be moved or worked around. The polish is stinky. The buffer is heavy. The wax applicator has a short handle. You have to bend over to reach under the pews. There are a lot of parts of the job that aren’t much fun at all.

Actually, I know that routine as well. The next year, after I returned from the ranch, I took the job of keeping the floors in a drug store clean. Every Sunday afternoon the routine was the same. Dry sweep the entire store. Mix wax stripper with water and wet mop the floor. By the time I got to the far end of the stop, the stripper would have done its job. Wet mop the entire store. Repeat, chasing the water often to make sure you got up all of the dirt and old wax. Apply the new wax, let it sit for a half hour. Run the buffer over the entire floor until it sparkles. it will be the same routine the next week.

I no longer have a job like that. There is very little repetition in my work. Most of the time I don’t feel the need to rush to the shower before I can sit down for dinner. I love the work I have done and perhaps some of the drive to complete my education and get the kind of job I have came from not wanting to spend the rest of my life sanding combines. But I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Nor would I trade the summer a few years later when I rode around on the back of a garbage truck dumping cans into the compactor. It takes less time than you might think to get over the smell and just do the job.

Our janitor is a good worker and I’ve already found some jobs that he enjoys doing, so there will be some rewards for him after the floors are polished. But this is a big church and there are a lot of floors to polish. When we get done with that there are carpets to shampoo. Maybe we will even mix it up a bit.

I hope that when he looks back years from now, he will have a similar fondness for the work of his summer job and feel that it helped him become the person he wanted to become. In the meantime, he’s getting good at scrubbing floors.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!