Back in the day, the 60s to be precise, one could work a summer job and pay for much of one’s college education. I was one of the ones. But those jobs, sheesh. I’ll describe two.
Luck matters more than skill. I was fortunate enough to land an athletic scholarship to Berkeley, where I played four years of baseball. In addition to having my fees paid and a grant-in-aid campus job, I and fellow athletes received summer employment opportunities from various alumni scattered throughout the state
My first job was at an Emeryville Del Monte cannery. I was placed at the very terminus of a long assembly process, which began with fresh fruit dumped into top-floor bins and finished with glass jars of fruit cocktail stuffed into cardboard boxes. Standing at the end of a metal conveyor ramp, I retrieved box after box then stacked them on a wooden palette. Once full, the palette was picked up then deposited elsewhere in the bottom-floor warehouse for future delivery to grocery distribution centers. Repeat.
You may recall the I Love Lucy episode wherein Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate candy plant. They, too, are stationed at the end of the process. Their task was to grab the candy, wrap it, then place it in boxes, if memory serves. Well, they fall behind, and all hell breaks loose, replete with their gobbling down the candy so as to keep pace with the endless moving stream of chocolates.
I felt that way with those damned boxes. They kept coming and coming. And I kept stooping, grabbing, and pivoting. Did wonders for my chronically weak back.
This was only the start. My next summer job was in the southern California valley near Bakersfield. A Berkeley alum was the project manager on a leg of the California aqueduct. Two of us from the baseball team were the lucky ones. We stayed in a cheap motel in Wasco and ate our breakfast at a local diner, were we consumed “short stacks” of pancakes.
Remember Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath? This was the land of Oklahoma immigrants, and the accents were as thick as they were nearly unintelligible. Agriculture was the business, and the water conveyed through the once-completed aqueduct would irrigate the fields and eventually keep Los Angeles lawns green.
My job was to stand on a moving ramp attached to the largest concrete paver in the world. I knelt for eight hours a day on the 45-degree incline, pressing rubber expansion strips into the just-poured cement. We were building the walls of the huge canal.
Though we were told to drink plenty of water and swallow salt tablets, the heat would still take its toll. And why not? Temperatures, I kid you not, exceeded 140 degrees F. at the bottom of the trench. After all, we were toiling in the middle of a desert. Fun stuff.
I don’t wish to leave the reader with the impression that I was a “hard worker.” Though the work was indeed hard, I was not. I found it unbearable and my product showed, as an inspector noticed defects in my “craftsmanship.” I was dismissed, you might say, which sent me to the project manager. Now what? I asked. As I said above, luck trumps skills. My new responsibility would be driving around in an air-conditioned car checking the inventory of the company’s equipment up and down miles of aqueduct. Not bad for a student hire whose hourly rate of pay was greater than his father’s at the time.
Nevertheless, my lack of hardworking attributes was equal to my inability to save money. As it happened, I spent most of my earnings on keeping my old station wagon running, rent, food, and gas. By summer’s end I probably had only enough cash in my bank account to buy a few assigned books for a history class. I don’t think I ever got around to reading them.