An Open Book: Summer Job

Los Alamos

My Mom finagled my first real job the summer of 1976, joining her at a factory that made Navy lifeboats and where she worked for several years. My first day I was placed at a table in the corner of the factory floor. My task was to put together and shrink-wrap little fishing kits consisting of a few fish hooks, some fishing line, bait made of nasty-looking leathery strips, an instruction booklet, etc. Mowing lawns paid a lot less but at least it was outdoors, and I could get a sun tan. Other than more money (and who cares about money when you are 16?), the only advantage of working in a factory that I could think of was that, in the days before iPods or even the Walkman, you could work while listening to the Top-40 radio station  that was blasted over the factory floor.

It was extremely boring work and done in view of everyone in the factory floor, especially my mother, so I couldn’t really slouch off or day-dream as I was wont to do. Daydreaming is extremely easy to do while pushing a lawnmower; daydreaming while counting fish hooks leads to a lot of pain.

After a few weeks I realized that altering my routine was helpful to break up the monotony.  I decided to figure out how to be as efficient as possible and see if I could outpace the supply stacked by my side. By making little piles of fish hooks and bait, pre-cutting the line, and so forth, I became much faster and efficient. A month into the summer I had run out of fish hooks or bait, or something like that, and this led to my first job promotion ever. I was raised in status (but not in pay) to a new responsibility, manning the gluing station. As you will see, my excitement at this promotion didn’t last long.

The lifeboats were made of rubberized cloth and the machinery that cut the main pieces left over a lot of small scraps of random shapes. These scraps were to be pre-glued and then cut again into smaller pieces to be used for different patches, and my new responsibility entailed applying glue to the underside of these scraps. I was to pick up each piece and smoothly slide it over a cylinder that rotated just over the surface of a drum filled with hot glue. As you might guess, getting the right amount of glue on each piece is easier said than done. If done correctly, this would deposit a uniform, thin layer of hot glue to be placed in a drying rack, which when filled, was pushed to the next worker who cut new shapes. It was as much fun as it sounds.

While survival kit assembly had the occasional embarrassment of stabbing your finger with a hook, running the gluing station was a really, really dirty job compounded by a constantly present and nauseating smell, that might drip on your clothes and shoes. To spread the right amount of glue required a smoothness of motion that was hard to achieve. Whether I had done a good job was reviewed by Mrs. Cutter-of-Scraps who worked in the next station.  Adding insult to injury, if I didn’t spread the right amount of glue, Mrs. Cutter-of-Scraps would complain loudly to our foreman and set the defective pieces aside so everyone would know what a poor job I was doing.

I was now paid the same for a more difficult and distasteful task, one where failure was public and embarrassing. I was learning a life lesson my mother probably did not expect or approve; namely, don’t be so efficient as to work yourself out of an easy job. But my diligence had led to being stuck in the Glue Circle of Hell, the soundtrack of my misery that disco music blaring in the background.

Once college came, disco became one of those things I developed a distaste for. How can you be angst-ridden while shaking your booty? Moreover, disco music came to be personalized by that suave and smooth-dancing John Travolta, who other than a similar center-parted hairstyle, seemed the exact opposite, romantically, academically, and acrobatically, from me. Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, minus the motorcycle and the girl, were more appropriate musical accompaniment to my teenage malaise.

However, this affectation was way in the future, so sometime around July 10, 1976, I discovered a secret known to sailors and diamond-mining dwarfs everywhere. In a stroke of performance genius, I started moving in synch to the disco music around me as I pulled the scraps over the glue cylinder, the rhythm helping me to control my movements and maintain that aspired fluidity. Before long, I found the right pace to cover smoothly each scrap, and with just the right amount of hip action and vigorous swing of my arms, make each scrap billow and descend onto the drying rack. Travolta would have been proud of me. It was now Mrs. Cutter-of-Scraps who found herself falling down on the job, piles of perfectly prepared remnants accumulating around her.

I learned two lessons that summer. The first one, to Mom’s distress, is to think carefully of what job you might be promoted to; it might not be the job you want. But the second lesson is one that I know Mom would approve. There are many charges in life that are unpleasant or even distressingly horrible, but also unavoidable. Try to find a little thread of creativity or comfort hidden within this bitter pill what we can latch on to, and then pull on this thread as much as possible, for who knows what lies on the other end?  We might find a better approach, some comfort to make the day go faster, or maybe just a kindred soul whose support was always there but is now the blessing needed this very moment, in work or in life.

A hit that summer, peaking at #1 in the charts on July 10, 1976, was the now-forgotten song “Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band. However, it must have played often during the weeks when I learned those important life lessons, for whenever I hear it on the car radio at some random 70’s golden oldies, it brings back a sense of that youthful success intermixed with the acrid smell of hot glue.  The lesson that we might find a path forward or a new solution around the bend when life is hard has often made me look for such a little miracle. Life is tragic, but even more tragic if we let these slivers of opportunity for relief silently slip by.

But, more than any philosophical reflection, more than the smell and sounds of the factory floor, more than the dread of disappointing my hard-working mother who obviously called in some favors to get her son his first real job, listening to Afternoon Delight brings back visions of that nasty Mrs. Cutter-of-Scraps. I see her with her arms crossed over her factory-issued work apron, shaking her head, watching Mr. Travolta dance across the factory floor as the work piles up around her.