Work

My first job came to me when I was about six years old. An old wind-up wristwatch had stopped working so I took it apart to see what made it stop. Interesting, what I found inside, but had no idea how to fix it. I thought there must be other watches in the neighborhood in the same condition, so I asked around. In those days, the mid-1950s, a small boy could move around quite safely on his own in a small town. I managed to get my hands on several watches and take them apart, but that’s as far as I got, just taking them apart. No way in high heaven could I ever get them to work, but at least I had a job. It seems like that early experience set a precedence for the rest of my working years, of which I am about to suspend, and go into another mode of living.

I delivered a free weekly advertising newspaper, the “Shopping News”, when about thirteen. I knew everyone in the neighborhood pretty much hated it. Something to pick up off the driveway and toss in the trash, before the rubber band melted in the sun and the wind whipped the pages into the bushes like a flock of large, black and white migratory birds. I felt elated when another boy wanted my delivery route and I gave it to him.

I picked apples, apricots, plums and prunes in the fruit orchards in San Jose before developers cut down all the trees and replaced them with many thousands of houses. I remember going up to the old farm houses in the late afternoon and getting paid after showing my punch ticket that indicated how many buckets I had picked. It was hard to believe how strenuous the work was for such a small amount of pay. I would be dirty and dusty and my head full of a few Spanish words I picked up from the migrant farm workers that I worked beside. They were pros at this kind of work and could pick a hundred buckets to my twenty-five, so I could see at an early age that this would not be my career path.

I vacuumed the high school swimming pool each morning before school for a couple of years. That was kind of fun because I could also go swimming with nobody in the pool, but coming to school so early when nobody else was around made me feel subservient to the system, and I often wondered if that was a good thing. I recall spending so many mornings beside the big pool where I also swam in competition in the afternoons. Much of my waking life was on or around water. Later on the people with whom I swam on the swim team would introduce me to the beach and surfing, which caused my interest in being close to water to greatly expand. My love affair with water sports began at that high school pool. I should return to it one day and take another long look at it, as I understand that it is still there, though my school has been eliminated in the competition for shopping center space.

Between high school graduation and marriage I went to college. My shifting schedule from one semester to the next, plus my interest in riding waves at the beach, caused me to do at least twenty different jobs, most of them at minimum pay. Working in restaurants cleaning tables and washing dishes, working at a golf range selling buckets of balls to golfers, stuffing advertising inserts all night long one night a week into the San Francisco Chronicle in a little barn in an orchard. Pumping gas at an all-night filling station. The jobs helped me get through school, but sure dulled my interest in the working life. I’d be reading in the surfing magazines of other young guys my age going on surfing adventures to exotic places in the world and I could not understand how they got the time and money to do such things, when, for me, life seemed like one constant and fierce dog paddle for mere existence.

I had a few jobs that were so horrible that they actually have become quite memorable to me. Working in the canneries in downtown San Jose in the late 1960s, when such things still existed. It was usually only the graveyard shift that was available. Nobody else in their right mind would want to spend a whole night in a noisy, steamy, hot, warehouse full of extremely dangerous and unnerving machinery that would kill you in an instant if you took your eyes off of it. Working in the fruit on a conveyor belt line was not nearly as bad as when the truck loads of tomatoes would come in. Now I actually love eating tomatoes, but it took many years to regain that love after working on the cannery lines. Something about the acid in the air stinging my eyes and making me want to vomit right into the cans as they got sealed up beside me. My parents had been the offspring of poor farmers and my grandparents had been those poor farmers who could not make enough money to live on from growing produce, and so would see cannery work as the small luxury in life that would afford them the niceties like butter and coffee.

Come to think of it, the whole concept of factory work seems to have died out in California, if not the whole country. I suppose most factory work is now done in China. Bless those busy hands! Besides canneries, I also worked in a plant that made fiberglass building insulation. The working conditions in that plant are now legendary. Nobody would do it, and now I believe it is done peoplelessly through the modern marvel of robots. But in the late 1960s I was the robot; well, me and a few other misfortunates. We worked a rotating shift, each week would change, so my body never became accustomed to a rhythmed pattern of living. One week I’d sleep all day, the next week all night. I’d eat anything at any time because I had no sense of breakfast, lunch and dinner like the rest of the world enjoyed. The fiberglass was thick throughout the air, the particles of spun glass so fine that they settled in my hair and underwear and could not be removed. No matter how I might scrub the itch never left me the six months I worked there, so I just learned to live with this extreme, ever-present misery. Nowadays when people install insulation they wear gloves and face masks, but in the plant where we were making the stuff that only made it worse by trapping fine particles and then having those particles rub against me.

When my government thought I was old enough to go to the Vietnam war I told the government I would not go because I believed killing people was a sin against God. They didn’t agree with me, and apparently still do not. I didn’t know back then that many of my early American ancestors were Quakers, but in the 1960s the Quakers helped me declare myself a conscientious objector. My new job became a nursing assistant in the county hospital, in lieu of going to war. I felt much better contributing to helping people heal, although I soon had my fill of very much sickness and death. In the first few months I lost track of the number of bodies I had to wash, load on to a gurney, and transfer to the morgue for further processing. Dumping bed pans, making beds, getting people up and moving after surgery, I was a very busy young man. After two years my wife and I took a long break, a road trip that lasted on and off for maybe two years, in which we sold her art work while traveling the western states and Hawaii with a baby. (And now both of my babies, 29 and 41, live in Hawaii).

If I had better sense I would have joined the high-tech revolution going on in Silicon Valley in the 1970s. The fruit orchards were gone, but the digital revolution was coming. I was not prepared for the changes, so continued working in other hospitals as a nursing assistant for five more years. I went to the university day and night until I got a degree in English literature (of all the impractical things to study). Then came a day when I could not dump one more bed pan and left the hospital work behind. I managed to get my first corporation job with General Electric. I told the staffing people that I had a degree in English and liked to write. They told me that they had nothing like that for me, but gave me a job driving a fork truck in a steel yard, where I would manage control of materials in support of a large machine shop. I didn’t like the job, but took it because the only alternative I could think of would be going back into nursing.

I worked at GE four years in different positions, mainly inspecting and counting things, until the day arrived when the organization, nuclear energy, needed me as a technical editor. From then on I have been involved in the business of writing business documentation, a span of thirty years with different corporations. Hand books, user guides, maintenance books, theory of operations, online help, advertising literature, whatever the companies might need in the way of the written word. I have not found much real joy in this kind of writing, but would do it in a heart beat before more dumping of bed pans. Many of the engineers I’ve worked with are difficult people to get information from to get it into a written form. Here I am with only another month or two left in my career before retiring and am struggling with that same issue that first confronted me thirty years ago. Not only the difficulty of obtaining the right information at the right level of detail and understanding, but then the information usually has about an eighteen month period of currency before it becomes obsolete or just plain forgotten.

I feel like the amount of effort I put into technical writing could have been used to write about ten novels the length and breadth of Moby Dick, but alas, it is a bunch of rather obscure electronic files I have produced without even the name of the author attached to a single one of them. I sensed this when my writing career first began. I was interested in the art and craft of writing for writing’s sake, not for communicating technical expertise. It has not been all drudgery, and I certainly could have settled on a more demeaning career than this. The intellectual stimulation in grasping detailed technical knowledge has helped me keep my brain in some sort of regular working order.

I recall listening to an interview with Fred Astaire, the famous dancer, when he retired. The interviewer said how wonderful it was to watch him dance and it must have given him a great sense of satisfaction, to which Fred replied that it was just really hard work being a dancer and not much more than that. I think he was speaking for many of us. Work by the inherent definition of the term seems to not be equated with joy and happiness, but with sweating and becoming tired. Then one day a person has done it long enough that they may get to coast a little and enjoy the reward of their efforts. I started to use the term “old age” here, but I think for many retirement is a time of renewal and rediscovery. I hope that will soon be my experience. Funny, I know a guy (not me) who wants to repair old wristwatches when he retires.

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