Mike Wilson: The SS Memory Lane

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 2, 2022

By Mike Wilson

For those who may be prone to rush to conclusions, I must warn that this is not about a nostalgic cruise; it is rather devoted to the recollection of nightmarish summer jobs occasioned by my recent survey of my “Lifetime Earnings Record” on the ssa.gov website while contemplating the potential joys of retirement.

I will confess that, before I reached the exalted status of taxpayer, I was a child denizen of the underground cash economy. I am assured that the statute of limitations has now expired, so I will confess that I mowed lawns (usually for $2), moved a dump truck load of pea gravel for my next-door neighbor by wheelbarrow to his backyard beagle pens since the gate was too narrow, and – the worst – steam-cleaned a tanker truck used to haul grease and fat away from restaurants. The owner of this business rounded up all the 13-year-old boys in the neighborhood on Saturday mornings to clean out truck cabs for $5 a day, and the fat truck tank was reserved for those thin enough to slip through the top hatch into the tank. (Hard to believe now, right?) It was truly disgusting, but potentially more disgusting was the revelation that all that old grease was destined to be turned into the “emollients” you ladies will see on the labels of your lipsticks.

Anyway, back to the official Federal earnings list:

• 1969, $125 — My shop teacher and junior high swimming coach directed a YMCA day camp in the summer, so I was to serve as a counselor and lifeguard for five weeks. I rode my bike several miles coming and going and started at 7 each morning. Most days we took all the campers out to the country to a site near Herb Parsons Lake, and there we played games, took hikes, fished, and had lunch. Another counselor and I were in charge each day of hauling the big cooler full of half pints of milk about a quarter mile back to camp from a country store on the lakeshore. It was there that I first discovered Gatorade, and such was the hype that I would dopily spend a dollar a day — a fifth of my gross salary — to get an ice-cold quart.

There was one annoying camper named Echelberger who plagued all the staff. It was easy to see why his parents didn’t want him at home those five weeks. I got him back on the last day: I saw a bream nest hollowed out in the mud bottom of the lake and bet him a quarter he wouldn’t wade over and stand on “that stump.” When he triumphantly took the last step, he went all the way under.

On rainy days, we took alternate trips such as a dairy tour. One day on the one-way tour, I got trapped in a room where an employee in hip waders was raking cottage cheese curds in a giant concrete tank. Those who know my aversion to most white foods (ranch dressing, mayonnaise, sour cream, etc.) can most appreciate the disaster that was narrowly averted…Perhaps you can empathize with my shock upon discovering that Uncle Sam was going to keep $1.75 of my hard-earned $25 that first week.

• 1971, $340 — Our good church friend Mr. Cannon owned a sheet metal company that made ductwork and installed central air systems, sometimes in new construction projects, but he specialized in retrofits, especially of huge antebellum mansions in northern Mississippi.

The first scare was my first day, when he arrived hungover and asked me if I had a driver’s license. I gulped and responded in the affirmative, and soon he was snoozing while I guided the one-ton flatbed with 4-speed stick down two-lane Highway 78 for almost an hour. When we got to the house, I was treated to the first exploration of the crawl space, where I found refuse (old whisky bottles, etc.) and very old animal skeletons. Perhaps I was the first to ever enter the crawl space who wasn’t hiding from Yankees. I grew accustomed to working under old houses, but I never did get used to having fiberglass — which itched like the devil — under my clothing every night from wrapping ducts all day.

After a few of those houses, I thought a new apartment complex would be a gift, until I realized the black-shingled attics of new apartment buildings were by definition un-air conditioned when we arrived. Summer in Memphis is hot enough already without working in a 135 degree oven!

• 1972, $765 — Another church friend, Mr. Clark, had a floor covering company, and I was engaged this summer to serve as assistant and factotum to his elderly brother, whose job description apparently read “only ever just put down flooring.” I thus took up old flooring (which required hours of gouging with a special curved chisel with a shovel handle for ancient linoleum in expansive mid-town mansions), rotary-sanded the bare floor, hauled in rolls of new vinyl-asbestos (yes, the A-word) flooring or carpet, and cleaned up while the brother sat on a pail of mastic, chewed his plug, and watched impassively. He never uttered a syllable in transit. The crusty old receptionist/bookkeeper called the restroom “the Crapper.”

• 1976, $1,050 — Van-Go (apologies) Accessories, Inc. After June graduation and our wedding, we went to Ft. Lauderdale to spend the summer before I started grad school. I had interviews with the John Deere international headquarters, but ultimately I could not in good conscience accept a job representing them in Latin America for only two months and then bug out. The state employment commission sent me to a cinder-block building with a tin roof where custom seat covers and reclining, swiveling seat mounts for van conversions were made. The windowless back room was full of undocumented immigrant seamstresses who could not complain about not being paid overtime for obvious reasons. As the efficient new shipping clerk, I was able to erase a backlog of several months, so the manager started to like me. He even offered me four new tires for my ‘66 Impala if I would stay into the fall. Good thing I didn’t: I saw in October that the unoccupied building was destroyed by a bomb. The van accessory market enjoyed some fierce competition…

• 1978, $2,019 — Browning Ferris Industries. It may sound like I was moving up in the world, but actually this company had the contract to collect garbage for the then affluent suburb of Germantown, Tennessee. My wife was great with child, and when we returned from a year in Mexico, I discovered that my grad student health insurance at UMass had lapsed. I thus undertook the challenge of raising $1,800 in cash, the cost those days of a baby delivery. Garbage man for $3.50/hr or back to the aluminum factory for $3? It was a no-brainer. Being a trash collector is today a comparative breeze. Back then, there were no rolling containers or trucks with mechanical arms to empty them. We were equipped with 60 gallon plastic barrels on rolling carts, and we had to go into each backyard to dump the cans. I also equipped myself with a 3-foot length of hoe handle for warding off black labs. The 5th of July was one of the worst days of my life, since a two-day supply of festering bags of rib bones and watermelon rinds baking in the sun awaited us. I got a reprieve the last two weeks when the foreman graciously assigned me to drive the dust-suppressing, water-spraying tank truck up and down the dirt roads at the dumpsite.

Perhaps now folks will understand better when I — despite my abiding love of the outdoors — proclaim that I am glad my career has been inside.

Mike Wilson is chairman of Modern Foreign Languages at Catawba College.

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