Summer Jobs

Summer jobs. That rite of passage into responsibility. A lot of kids missed out on their first summer jobs in 2020 as a result of COVID. They missed out on a lot. A summer job is the first real opportunity to be judged on one’s abilities. The first chance to show who you really are. Maybe it’s the first time you have someone depending on you. Its where one’s real education begins. When you learn what the horrors of the real world have to offer, that people aren’t always nice. For some, it’s the first time they learn its not all about them. My first jobs were all of these things. They also taught me the lessons of Brahma bulls and public toilets.

               What I remember most about the place is the odor. The smell of cow and hog shit was baked into the paint-flaked concrete blocks of the Cordele Stockyards. I spent the summer of 1986 there. I was a skinny, untested, 15-year old clothed in a pair of Levi’s and a sleeveless Ocean Pacific T-shirt and I had never worked for people I didn’t know.

               Most every rural town of any size in south Georgia had a stockyard where farmers would come each week to buy and sell their livestock at auction. The stockyards consisted of a concrete block building which housed the manager’s office, the auction arena into which the livestock were put on display, and a diner. Behind the block buildings there sprawled a labyrinth of 2 X 4 fencing, gates, and wooden chutes through which the livestock would pass after they were sold. Beyond that, were fenced off areas and pens for gathering and loading cattle in and out. Although technically labeled a stockyard, the locals commonly called it the Sale Barn.

               The job paid minimum wage as one would expect. That was $3.35 per hour in 1986-the equivalent of $7.68 in today’s dollars, so they say. I worked 4 full days per week and half a day on Friday. Presumably the half day added to the weekend was to allow you extra time to get the stench off your body. The days started early—6 am on sale days and 7 am otherwise. Hogs were sold on Tuesdays and cows were sold on Thursdays.

               Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings were for odd jobs—painting the building, mending fences, mowing the grass out front, mainly looking busy with gopher work. Often before hog sale day we ran the grown sows and boars into a metal chute, which closed tight on them so they would hold still while old men with big forearms took what I remember as big loppers, like the ones I now use to prune young pecan trees, and cut off the hogs’ long, razor sharp tusks.

               The hogs would squeal and bleed and grunt and fight against the chute, and who could blame them? I hate dentists, myself. They say hogs are one of the most intelligent mammals walking around but I never saw much evidence of it at the sale barn. They ranked no higher than the rest of us. I despised the filthy beasts and have disliked pigs ever since, as a kid, I learned the Bible story where Jesus casts the demons out of the boy and into a herd of pigs, which he sent running over a cliff. Dumb pigs.

               The worst thing about hogs is the smell. Now, some people may tell you all manure is created equal. But, I’ve had experience in this area and I would disagree. Horse manure is rich, but if you don’t think about what it is, it has an almost pleasing aroma. Cow manure is a little more intense but still has a rich smell that isn’t all that bad unless its concentrated in large quantities. It’s there, but its not quite as penetrating as that of hogs. Hog manure reaches the ultimate level of disgustingness, surpassed only by that of human beings. It has a foul, spoiled stench that envelops and hangs onto everything in its path, even if not in physical contact with the stuff.

               I hated Tuesdays because after spending the entire day from sunup to sundown tending hogs, the stench would seep through my clothes, into my skin and hair. It took several days to get it off and by that time, it was hog-sale day again. If I had grown up on a hog farm I would have run away from home. My parents would have found a note on the bed one morning declaring my independence and I’d have been half way to Alabama by then. But, they would probably have been able to track me down by the smell alone.

               The sale barn diner was there mainly to serve the farmers who came to sell their cattle. It was full of old men with maps of sun-dried lines etched into their tanned faces, clad in checkered plaid shirts and cowboy boots with sweat stains on their Stetsons. The diner gave them a place to gather for meals without having to leave the auction and they could shoot the breeze and gossip and complain about the price with each other. Lunch was the busiest time. I never really could enjoy a meal there though because the hog odor seeped right through the porous concrete walls and infused the food itself. All I can really remember eating in there was the blackberry cobbler. I am a sucker for any kind of cobbler no matter what its flavored with.

               Up until then I always seemed to be able to charm old ladies behind counters. But not at the Sale Barn. Covered in cow and hog shit, I was just as invisible to the lady taking the orders as I was to everybody else there. And that’s how you feel being a kid thrown into an adult world. You feel invisible or in the way. Most days I just brought my lunch and ate it outside as far away from the stench and the crowd as I could get.

               Cattle sale days weren’t nearly as bad. In fact, they were kind of fun. My job was to man the chutes. As cows were released, the men working the chutes would yell out the number of the stall into which you were to run the cows. This was accomplished by shutting all the gates except the one to the stall you wanted the cows in, sealing off all other exit routes.

               You had to be careful with the bulls. Most were rather aloof but they were powerful and could be dangerous when aggressive or frightened. Occasionally we’d have an ornery bull come through . Its bellowing, stomping, and ramming of the gates and fencing broke the monotony of the day.

               One day, a big grey, hump-backed, brahma bull was turned loose from the auction arena. The number was called and I realized I was the closest man to one of the gates that had to be shut. I was never known for my speed but I kicked it into the highest gear I had and raced for the gate. I beat the bull there and swung the gate closed. But, I was still a fraction of a second too late. Just as the latch was about to catch, the bull hit the gate running full speed. The gate burst open and the top board caught me square on the forehead. Fortunately the force with which the old brahma hit the gate generated enough momentum to knock me off my feet and send me flying a few feet to the side. This saved me from a good trampling.

               I wasn’t knocked cold but I did see stars for a while as the blood trickled down my face. In the end, I suffered no more than hurt pride and a big strawberry on my forehead, which looked like a bloodshot third eye. The worst part was when I went to the beach the following weekend and the sun caused the wound to blister and engorge itself with puss. A lovely sight for all. But, at least I could wash the hog stench off in the ocean.

               The following year I decided one summer at the sale barn was enough and I would try something different. Maybe something inside with air conditioning. You know, moving up in the world. My grandfather knew the manager of our local Piggly Wiggly grocery store from church and helped to score me a chance at a job as a bag boy. Couldn’t be too bad. Bag up a few groceries, walk some old ladies out to their cars. No worries about them knocking you over and creating a strawberry on your forehead.

               I had been to church with my grandparents and had met Mr. Hunter. He seemed like a nice fellow. Early 40’s, thick-lensed, squared-off 80’s glasses, and the beginnings of the front porch gut that plagues men of that age. Short sleeve dress shirt with a tie and polyester pants. You get the picture.

               I started work the summer after my sophomore year in High School. In the mid-late 1980s there was no “paper or plastic”. It was all paper. Plastic grocery sacks are one of mankind’s worst inventions. Here we have a single-use plastic that is apparently designed to to dump all of your groceries out into the floorboard of your car or break at the worst possible moment, sending your eggs, milk, and chicken noodle soup sprawling across the parking lot or all over your kitchen floor. It takes a bazillion of them to do the job. You can fit 6 plastic sacks worth of groceries into one old fashioned paper grocery bag. On top of that, these plastic sacks were designed to blow out of the back of your truck and get hung on every bush or tree along the roadside and mimic jellyfish when floating in the ocean so that sea turtles will swallow them and die of constipation. But, I digress.

               The bag boy uniform at Piggly Wiggly in the mid/late 80’s was patterned after the wardrobe style of Mr. Hunter. White, short sleeve, button down shirt with tie and pants. The only saving grace was that the rules did not strictly adhere to Mr. Hunter’s polyester pants. Khakis were permissible. I think he may have seen polyester as sort of a status symbol, announcing his rank as manager.

               Being a good bag boy requires one to quickly sort and sack the groceries as the clerk rings up the items and slides them on toward you. You had to, of course, keep the cold items together, keep the canned goods together, keep the meat separate, keep the bread from being crushed, and keep the eggs from breaking. The cardinal sin of the bag boy profession is crushing bread or breaking eggs. You will forever earn a place in hell and the scorn of old ladies with these two acts.

               Also, never overload the sacks with too many canned goods so the little old ladies can’t lift them. It all sounds simple enough. But, teenage boys have not yet learned to factor in the diversity of opinions the general public has on bagging groceries. It’s a lot to throw at a young man whose mind is occupied with girls, sports, and the diversity of snacks available to him in a grocery store when his break time arrives.

               My favorite part of the job was walking the groceries out to the customers’ cars. Mainly because it was an easy but necessary thing to do. It allowed me to relax and not feel rushed or anxious for a few minutes. Just walk the groceries out, load them in the car, and stroll back with the cart. The pace of bagging could be hectic at the peak hours around noon and again from about 5:00-7:00 pm, or God forbid, on a Saturday afternoon. The rest of the time, the actual bagging was sporadic.

If the store wasn’t busy you couldn’t just hang around and wait for groceries to bag. Bag boys had to remain busy. You could always neaten up the shelves—pull all the Vienna sausages and spaghetti sauce to the front of the shelf, re-stack the macaroni and cheese boxes, straighten up the bread shelves. We picked up trash and cleaned up spills. Mopping up milk, or a busted jar of pickles, or an exlploded 2-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper. You know, “Clean up on aisle four”—that was directed at me.

On break I came to learn the simple pleasures of a pack of cheese crackers or Dunkin’ Sticks washed down with a Nestle’s Quick chocolate milk. On the rare occasion that my break wasn’t interrupted by “Clean up on aisle 4” or a bagging rush, I had 15 minutes to hide away in the back storage area. How I would have loved a smart phone back then. But, it would have only made the break pass faster.

I learned that Mr. Hunter wasn’t the same kind, jovial man inside the Piggly Wiggly that he was at the First Assembly of God. In fact, he could be quite the jerk. To be fair, I was a clumsy, awkward kid, at the time, reluctantly trying to learn some responsibility. Mr. Hunter was just a normal guy trying to make a living for his family by managing the Piggly Wiggly with a bunch of teenage knuckleheads working for him.

The low point of this job came when I was told to clean the toilet, which was supposed to be “employee only” but occasionally customers with emergencies were allowed to use it in a pinch. It seemed someone had apparently eaten an elephant, a big round block of hoop cheese, and then chased it with some undercooked Mexican food just before entering the Piggly Wiggly. The result stopped up the toilet, which had overflowed. I had the privilege of cleaning this up just before getting off work one night, gasping and choking the whole way through. And I thought hog day at the sale barn was bad. Shortly thereafter, my job came to its previously scheduled and merciful end as school and football practice resumed at the end of summer.

Neither the Sale Barn nor the Piggly Wiggly remain. They are part of the faded landscape of my youth. That’s part of why I write these things down. Time has a way of stripping memories away and sometimes we learn that the unpleaseant things are the things that helped us grow the most. It’s important to remember that.

My Dad wasn’t much on giving direct advice and I guess I’m not either. When he dropped me off for my first day on the job at the sale barn he simply said, “You ain’t quittin’. You’ve gotta finish what you start”. At the time, I was too young and it was too early in the morning to understand what he meant.  He knew the job, just as any, would be unpleasant at times. I would have to learn to keep going when things got hard or disagreeable. But, he wasn’t just talking about the job itself. He was talking about life. These instructions echo what I still believe to be some of the best advice one can receive at a young age. It is found in a 1985 song by John Cougar Mellencamp called Minutes to Memories, “You are young and you are the future/So suck it up and tough it out, and be the best you can”.

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