A Summer Job was, in essence, a way for teenagers to earn party money, gas money, date money, pizza money, record money ... and it would keep us Out of Trouble, or so the parental conventional wisdom went.
They were as plentiful as lightning bugs on a steamy July night and paid less per hour than the cost of a 45, but most everyone I knew got one.
Factories back home were the best-paying Summer Jobs but there was a definite downside to earning all that serious coin, an LP an hour: you were stuck inside a hot, stifling environment, doing essentially the same thing repetitiously for every minute of every hour of every week.
That appealed to me ... not.
Instead, I headed for the great outdoors and pushed a mower or wielded a paintbrush or collected litter using a stick with a nail in the end of it.
I loved being outside in the summer and making five quarters an hour was plenty for me. I got a nice tan, I stayed in shape and I found some really interesting stuff that people had either discarded or forgotten, some of it illegal.
I remember spearing a baggie and asking my co-picker, “Is this what I think it is,” hoisting it up for his inspection there in the city park one Sunday morning.
He was a by-the-book honest Summer Jobber and said, “We have to turn that in.”
“You think whoever left this is going to hit up our lost and found department? No way.”
“The cops will know what to do,” he said.
“Whatever,” I said.
But that was the thing about trash pickup. You just never knew.
Push-mowing 39 straight days -- a record that probably still stands as a Summer Job record -- was fine with me, too. Others on the crew got a lot of mileage of the line that the boss always used.
“Dewey,” he’d holler, “grab a push mower!,” and utter under his breath, “#!&%#!”# college boy.”
Sure, he tried to break me, kill my spirit: that was the game.
I just channeled my inner Paul Newman -- in his “Cool Hand Luke” guise -- and yes-bossed my way through those three summers.
THE BEST PART about that Summer Job back home wasn’t earning a regular paycheck -- I cared nothing for that then -- but my mornings spent as a playground counselor.
That was so cool.
Malleable young minds waiting for me to mold them.
What a gas.
And I took it very seriously, always making sure they knew how to play poker aggressively and assuring them that when it came to inter-city softball games, I’d always have a ringer or two up my sleeve.
“But,” one of my charges would invariably ask me, “isn’t that cheating? Those guys don’t even come to the playground unless there’s a game.”
I’d sigh deeply and say something like, “They live in the neighborhood, don’t they? They’re eligible, aren’t they?”
“Well, yes, but --”
“No buts,” I’d say, pulling the requisite signup forms from my back pocket, secure in the knowledge that they’d -- my ringers -- had all affixed their signatures, nice and proper.
The truth is that all three of us playground counselors played the game the same way; that is, we’d do anything for any edge.
Go rent “The Bad News Bears.”
That’s my advice.
Come game day, my ringers would ride in on their Sting Rays, gloves hooked to the handlebars, attitudes intact.
“Their place,” I say. “My car’s out front.”
It took two trips to get the team across town.
Allow me a quick tangent.
Once -- and only once -- I approached the boss and asked to be compensated for the gas it took to make those trips.
“That’s impossible,” the bean-counter said. “If we did that, why, then ...”
He looked like he was about to stroke out, apt to start clutching his chest, his head turning purple in a paroxysm of panic.
“Just thought I’d ask,” I said. “No worries.”
After we’d won another game, I’d gather my team -- ringers and regulars -- and say something like, “I’ll get my father’s station wagon next time. Remember, that’s Thursday.”
One trip made more sense.
Wasn’t my gas.
I REMEMBER THE summer of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation with particular glee. I was working maintenance at the town’s college, where both Mom and Dad taught. Having finished my freshman year at Notre Dame, I mainlined those hearings vicariously, catching them, sweating, live in the late afternoons.
“He has to quit,” Mom would say, setting the table for supper. “He’s scum.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” I’d say, helping myself to one of Dad’s PBRs. “He’s like a cockroach.”
Ah, yes, those conversations at the family table during the summer of 1974.
My father, a political science professor, was always the voice of reason. moderation being his middle name.
“Dad,” I’d say, passing the BB shots, “what about the rule of law? No one’s above it, right?”
“These hearings,” he’d say, “are part of a process. Nothing’s proven yet.”
“Those tapes,” I’d say. “That gap.”
Never was there an 18-minute silence at our dinner table.
Later, I’d meet up with my friends and we’d talk about our Summer Jobs, sharing stories and staring up at the stars.
Most started with phrases like, “You wouldn’t believe what happened today ...”
When you’re not quite 20, you don’t imagine being not quite 60.
So much to discover, so much to regret.
Back then, a Summer Job meant, well, just another part of the transition between kid and adult and I was always more comfortable being a member of the former classification.
We didn’t, most of us, have girlfriends, as such, but we had friends who were girls, if you catch the distinction. That hot August night, hours before Nixon finally gave up the ghost -- my family on a vacation while I worked my Summer Job -- there was this party and it was filled with free people having earned the right to celebrate.
A girl and I walked there -- she was kind and pretty and smart and shy -- out there in the country and the air was filled with songs like “Sweet Home Alabama,” blasted through speakers the size of iceboxes, dozens and dozens of us, sharing the summer as it breezed into fall,
“This is nice,” she said, taking my hand as we walked toward the barn, painted a dandelion shade. “But there are so many people.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, smiling. “Nixon’s quittin’ tomorrow. Let’s have fun.”
Faithful readers might recall that the moment I felt most patriotic was that July night in 1969 when Neil Armstrong -- an Ohio boy -- walked on the surface of the moon. I was 14 and weeping, remembering JFK.
Second on that list that Friday when Nixon bailed and fled.
He had no Summer Job.
And I reported on time, as scheduled, having spent a night for the ages.
Published: July 16, 2012