Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When I was thirty-three, I took a summer job with my new boyfriend on his family’s ranch in Montana. I was recently divorced and emerging from a stormy period in my life.
There was something about the purity of the prairie and the nearness of the sky that brought me closer to my own feelings. We spent every day outside on an endless expanse of grass dotted by black cows. I’d come from a concrete-covered Southern California landscape of strip malls and freeways, where I’d been working as a college instructor. Now, instead of dresses and tights, I wore men’s jeans, cowboy shirts, and work boots. I felt free and rooted to the earth.
Our job was to haul away debris from a recent flood and mend the fences the water had torn apart. It was exhausting, and every night my sleep was deliciously deep. I’d never been happier at work.
That relationship didn’t last, but I’m grateful for the memories of that summer: the smells, sights, and sounds of the prairie, and the feeling of falling asleep in someone’s arms on a tall stack of hay.
Los Angeles, California
In 1966, after graduating from high school, I took a job on the night shift at a textile-printing mill in Rhode Island. The mill, which had opened in 1840, straddled the river that ran through the town downstream. Wastewater from the mill — with high concentrations of chromium, arsenic, copper, and zinc — was dumped directly into the river each day. The water was discolored and smelly, and no fish could live in it.
I was paid $1.70 an hour, slightly above minimum wage. The conditions were not inviting. There were six print machines that reached to the ceiling, and when they were all running, the floor shook and the noise made conversation difficult. The mill had no air-conditioning, and exhaust fans were almost useless. On hot, humid nights the heat was unbearable.
“Color boy” was my job title. I worked behind one of the print machines, filling open trays with colored dye. A row of steam-filled metal cans just above my head dried the cloth after it was printed. To my right, men in rubber boots wielding hand-held mixers prepared five-gallon buckets of dye, their feet sliding on the slick floor. Several times a night the men would hose dye off the floor into a grate that drained directly into the river below.
There was a camaraderie among the workers, like a crew on a pirate ship. Early in the shift, after the day foreman had left, one of the men would emerge from behind his machine with a white towel draped over his arm like a bartender. This was the signal that someone was going to make a beer run before the liquor store closed at 10 PM — something to dull the misery of the heat, noise, and toxic chemicals.
At the end of that summer I left the mill hoping I would never have to work there again. But I was also sad for the men who had to stay. More than one told me to go back to school so I wouldn’t end up like them.
Nevada City, California
Twelve years ago I was a first-year law student in San Francisco. That summer I participated in an internship that placed students at public defenders’ offices across the South to assist in death-penalty defense. I was sent with three other interns to Jackson, Mississippi.
Arriving in Jackson in June was like stepping into a different world. The air was thick with humidity and insects. The dilapidated house we had rented for our stay was full of musty furniture and an army of cockroaches. I never removed my shoes inside, squeamish at the thought of crushing the bugs with my bare feet. I lay awake at night listening to them move around me.
At work we met the defense team for our assigned case. Our client was a Black man charged with the first-degree murder of a young white woman. His trial was set for July. Another intern and I were dispatched with a social worker to the scene of the crime, in a quiet, mostly white community in the northern part of the state. We were to get to know our client and his family and to gather information about his past. His guilt was a foregone conclusion: several eyewitnesses had seen him shoot the victim to death. The trial would take place in an all-white community.
I spent hours with our client each week in a small visiting room at the local jail. His life had been full of trauma, violence, and discrimination. We also met his family and visited his childhood home, trying to compile a story that would convince the jury to spare his life. The lawyer we worked for would need to prove that our client was redeemable, that his life was more than a single act of violence.
As the trial approached, the prosecutor offered a deal: if our client pleaded guilty to murder, the sentence would be life in prison without parole. But the victim’s family had to consent to the plea agreement, so the trial lawyer sent me and another intern to the victim’s mother’s house to get her views on the case and capital punishment. We knocked on her door on a sunny afternoon and sat down in her tidy living room, surrounded by photographs of her daughter. She shared her sorrow and rage for hours.
In the end the victim’s family agreed that another death would not repair their loss, and they and our client accepted the plea deal. That summer cemented my commitment to be a public defender and a staunch opponent of capital punishment.
Santa Cruz, California
The summer before I entered college as a premed student, I worked in the lab of a scientist who did research about aging. She used piglets as experimental subjects, and when one arrived in the lab, I was smitten, playing with the animal all morning. Then it was time to conduct the experiment. My boss was going to kill the piglet. Because euthanasia drugs would affect the data, she planned to strike the animal on the head with a mallet. I was not prepared for something so gruesome, and she shooed me out of the room. On the other side of the lab door, I heard the piglet squeal and the sound of the mallet striking bone.
By the end of my first semester in college, I was no longer premed. By the end of my sophomore year, I was a vegetarian. In my mid-twenties I taught thousands of students about animal and environmental issues, and a decade later I created the first graduate program in humane education, linking human rights, animal protection, and environmental sustainability. That ghastly summer job led me toward my life’s work.
In the 1960s I worked as a temporary secretary in many offices. One summer I was assigned to Playboy magazine. Though a budding feminist, I was still pleased to have landed a plum gig at a major magazine. My role was unglamorous: I transcribed letters from a Dictaphone — replies to men who had written to the magazine’s advice column. Those men might have been shocked to know that a staff made up entirely of women was answering their intimate questions.
The majority of the queries were about sex and insecurities. Each letter was given individual attention, and turnaround time ranged from three to six weeks. Letters were answered in the order they were received, with one exception: those from men who wanted to know how and where to get an abortion. Those letters went to the front of the queue because time was of the essence. Abortion at that time was illegal in every state, but Playboy was one of the first national magazines to make a case for access to legal abortion. We typed personal, multipage answers to each and every plea for help. We didn’t moralize or pass judgment, just provided as much legal information as possible.
My assignment at the magazine lasted only for that summer. I was proud of the tiny part I played in the abortion-rights struggle. I only wish I could have been more helpful.
Dorian Kingman Chong
I don’t think I’ve ever been more exhausted than the summer I worked on an organic farm. I was nineteen years old and had just returned home from a college that I had left for good. I wanted work that engaged my body, something more fulfilling than the pizzeria job I’d worked throughout high school.
My family got almost all of our summer produce from an organic farm in our small Vermont town, and my parents were well acquainted with the owners. My brother had worked there for twelve years, so it wasn’t hard for me to get hired.
My first couple of days were mostly spent in greenhouses, planting thousands of seeds. I couldn’t wait to get out in the fields and do some “real” farmwork.
By the end of the week I came home crying, drained, and sunburned, but I stuck with it. We rotated from task to task among different crops: we might spend two days weeding kale, three days transplanting squash, and a day harvesting green beans. I once spent three eight-hour days weeding beets in the sun. My wrists ached from propping myself up, and my hands and knees were sore.
My social life was almost nonexistent that summer. I was too tired. When I did have the energy to go to parties with friends, I was always the first to fall asleep on the couch, and if I could make it to a movie, I’d usually wake up at the end of the film with my head on a friend’s shoulder.
Despite the brutal days on the farm, that job taught me never to question the higher price of organic food. I know how much sweat goes into it.
Mallory Corley Moon
I wanted to work as a camp counselor the summer after high school, but my mom said I needed to earn more to help with college tuition. She insisted I apply to be a certified nurse’s aide at the hospital where she worked.
While all my friends went off to camp, I went to two weeks of certification classes. I learned to take vital signs, make a bed with a patient lying in it, give a sponge bath, and deliver food, water, and bedpans. I worked on a nursing unit for another two weeks to test my ability and skills with actual patients. Once I had passed my certification test, I was assigned to labor and delivery.
In 1966 care during labor was much different than it is today. After a pregnant woman’s family dropped her off, she was put into a preparation area, where I would shave her perineum with a stainless-steel razor. Then I’d give her an enema and roll her into the cold, clinical delivery room.
We’d give laboring mothers an IV with morphine and scopolamine. The morphine was for the pain, and the scopolamine was to induce what was known as “twilight sleep,” so that women would not remember the labor. It also decreases inhibitions, and women often screamed obscenities during contractions and tried to get off the gurney. To prevent this, they were tied down with leather restraints. Labor was endured alone except for visits from the nurses to check the mother’s rectum so as not to contaminate the vagina.
I told my mother that I would never become a nurse and that I was never having a baby. It seemed like a brutal, miserable affair.
One night near the end of summer, a woman came in to have her fifth baby. She refused the shave and enema. I had no idea one could refuse any procedure offered by the hospital. She also declined the “twilight sleep” and was not tied to her gurney. The nurses told me to stay with her.
When we were alone, she asked me if I understood what was happening. I had to admit that I had no knowledge about labor. Between contractions, she explained how it worked. She was calm — she even told me to remain calm — and seemed happy even though she was in pain. When it was time, she pushed out a pink and crying baby girl. They let her hold the baby before taking the infant to the nursery. As I helped the mother get settled in a postpartum room, she was so happy that she gave me a hug and said, “Thank you.”
I should have thanked her. That was the only normal birth I saw all summer.
The spring I was thirty-five, I landed a job teaching high-school English, but it wouldn’t start until the fall. I needed a way to make money in the meantime, so I interviewed at the Pizza Hut in the tiny town where I lived. I was by far the oldest person there, but it was my best option, and I accepted the shifts I was offered.
The town sat near a major highway, so we were busy with lots of travelers, but I also had to wait on people I knew. I could sense their pity, and it made me feel small. Still, I got pretty good tips and helped my family through a lean time.
Toward the end of summer a young waitress joined our crew. She made no attempt to hide her disdain for the job and all that went with it. One day a bunch of us were in the kitchen, waiting for orders, doing dishes, and chopping vegetables, when she announced loudly: “I just want you guys to know that I’m not planning to do this job forever. I’m just here for the money.”
I couldn’t help myself. I looked at her and said, “Why do you think any of us are doing this? We’re all just here for the money!”
She blinked a couple of times and said, “Oh, right,” then walked out of the kitchen. Everyone started laughing. It became a running joke — we’d start to place an order or help someone wash windows and say, “Just so you know, I’m only doing this for the money.”
In college I worked over the summer for a company that did maintenance and repair on shopping centers. It was hot, dirty work, and my boss, Paul, was always barking orders, but I got along with him fairly well.
Every Wednesday night my friends and I went to a bar that had fifty-cent draft beers and well drinks, so I came to work every Thursday pretty hungover. The other crew members were never happy at my useless state, and after a few weeks Paul said, “If you come in hungover next Thursday, I am going to make you regret it.” I did what most teenagers do when confronted by a scowling authority figure: I totally ignored him.
The following Thursday I came in hungover. Paul backed a huge dump truck up to a pile of sand, handed me a shovel, and said, “Your job today is to shovel sand into this dump truck for eight hours. New York State labor law says I have to give you two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour for lunch. Otherwise, if I come by and you are not shoveling, you’re fired.” Paul sat in his air-conditioned car watching me. I wanted to quit, but there was no way I was going to go home and tell my dad I’d gotten fired. At the end of the day I was soaked with sweat, exhausted, and nauseous. Paul walked over, started up the truck, and dumped the sand right back onto the pile. “If you are ever stupid enough to come to work hungover again,” he said, “that dump truck, shovel, and sand pile will be waiting for you.”
I learned a lot about hard work from Paul. My behavior was putting an unfair burden on my coworkers. In hindsight, having a real jerk for a boss was a good lesson.
Ulster Park, New York
I was home from college during the recession of the 1970s and couldn’t find a job anywhere. My sister’s friend said they were hiring at the plastics factory where she worked, making parts for lawn mowers and snowmobiles. I was skeptical of plastics but applied anyway because I really needed the money.
I was assigned to work on a floor full of women, measuring the parts that spewed from about thirty different machines. It was mindless work, and I wondered how I would do it eight hours a day, five days a week, for two and a half months.
The supervisor came around after half an hour to watch me measure each small plastic piece against a template. He seemed to think I was a good fit for the job.
Curious, I asked if the parts were for lawn mowers or snowmobiles. “Neither,” he said. “Air-to-surface fragmentation bombs.”
The machine continued to spew parts at me as I sat there, stunned. I was active in antiwar efforts. I wondered if I should wreck the machines. Instead I began screaming, “You lied! These are bomb parts!” I was still yelling when I was ejected from the building. I’d lasted forty-five minutes.
I found an infinitely better job: cleaning toilets in an office building from 6 PM to 2 AM.
The terms of my probation demanded I work a steady job to stay out of jail, but I lived ten miles from the nearest town and did not own a car. My only option was working on a pig farm for two brothers who seemed constantly on the verge of violent outbursts. I felt sorry for the pigs, but I had to take the job if I was to avoid a cage of my own.
On my first day of work I was standing in a yellow rain suit, power-washing dried pig shit off the iron bars of the pens. As I washed the walls of the building, stirring up a cloud of moist excrement, parades of mice exploded from numerous holes pigs had kicked in the plastic panels. I squinted and clenched my teeth.
After a week I had to shave my head. No soap or shampoo would remove the stench of ammonia. One morning I found a dead pig in one of the pens. I had to use a cable to winch her four-hundred-pound corpse to the door while the other pigs looked on.
In mid-July I was summoned to the farrowing house, where a sow had birthed a litter. The younger of the two brothers I worked for scooped up a piglet and, using a rusty pair of pliers, showed me how to cut down eight teeth on one end and cut off the curly bit of tail on the other. The squeals were deafening. With a spray bottle, he blasted both ends of the piglet with iodine and set it down. Its cries of pain stirred the litter into a frenzy.
The brother left me to my work. I stood there deliberating. For a few minutes I cradled and comforted the piglet.
Then I walked off the farm. About an hour later I saw the two brothers driving down a dirt road next to the field I was traversing. Not a wave or word passed between us.
I spent the next four months in jail, where I met people convicted of heinous crimes. But I’ve never experienced anything as awful as that pig farmer’s cold indifference to suffering. It was more than I could bear.
In the summer of 1964, at the age of fourteen, I landed a job as a waitress at a Dairy Queen. I wore a white polyester dress, and at night I’d shower in it, then hang it up to dry.
The restaurant had a few booths and a counter with four stools. I’d take orders to the dank back room, where my boss stood over a greasy grill with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a drink always close by.
He had a friend, a grizzled old guy, who would visit from time to time. The two of them would hang out at the counter. One day, when my boss wasn’t around, I asked the friend if I could take his order.
“Sure,” he said. “Gimme a waitress to go with nothing on.”
I didn’t know if he meant to be funny. I just stood there in my white polyester dress, pen and pad in hand. At the time I had no idea I’d remember that moment for the rest of my life.
Pacific Grove, California
For three summers during college I was a counselor at a summer camp for “handicapped” kids in Kentucky. (Now we use the term “differently abled.”) It was a humbling experience and also hard work. I weighed barely 110 pounds, and I had to transfer girls or women — one session was for adults — who weighed much more than I did from a wheelchair to the toilet, shower, or bed. I bathed, dressed, and sometimes fed them. I learned to understand the speech of those with cerebral palsy and to guide the blind through the woods. At the pool we taught kids to float and glide through the water. For many it was the only time they could move without assistance. I remember their joy.
That camp is also where I met a cute young man who cared for boys who couldn’t feed or shower themselves or even roll over in bed. At night he set an alarm to wake him every two hours so he could turn them to prevent bedsores. I thought, This guy will be a great father. We started hanging out together on our nights off, drinking malt liquor with our fellow counselors.
We both returned to the camp the next two summers. We got married after graduation. This year we will celebrate our fiftieth anniversary.
One summer I received a small grant and a scholarship to support my undergraduate research in Boulder, Colorado. The money wasn’t enough to also cover rent, so I took a part-time job at a bagel shop. Because my research window was dictated by the weather, I was a highly unreliable employee. I might have been the only nonstoner to get fired from a store whose motto was “Only the best get baked.”
I couch-surfed for a bit at friends’ houses, but I preferred sleeping in my tent in the backcountry: foraging for wild strawberries; waking up to the sound of birds; washing myself in a cold stream. I ate every meal from the same stainless-steel bowl and walked countless miles through rugged terrain. I wasn’t paid much, but I loved observing the landscape and trying to understand complex eco-systems.
When I cored my last tree that summer, to count her rings of growth, I hit a vein. The hole left behind by my drill became a torrent of water. Of all the trees I had cored that summer, no other tree had even dribbled water. I was overcome with emotion as I sat next to the tree and cried. I asked her to forgive me for taking a piece of her in the name of science.
Port Townsend, Washington
In New Zealand one summer I took a job on a community farm where I had three tasks: milking goats, making cheese, and separating goats in heat from a billy in the vicinity. In particular I had to keep the billy from getting into the paddock of the young nanny, Houdina.
One day, after his “rounds,” the billy and I began walking back to his quarters when he started sniffing the air and looking around. We were close to Houdina’s paddock, and before I knew what was happening, he began dragging me straight toward her.
As we got closer, I was relieved to see the paddock gate was closed, so there was no way he could get in. Then he jumped right over it.
I managed to run in and put myself in front of Houdina, like a mother protecting her child, but Houdina wasn’t helping: she turned her buttocks toward the billy and started flicking her tail back and forth in what looked like an invitation.
A billy goat conducting his “mating dance” is one of the most fascinating and stomach-turning sights I’ve seen. As it progressed, her tail twitching increased, and it became clear I was not going to stop this act of nature. By the end I was lying in the dirt, sweaty, panting, and covered in goat semen.
Five months later Houdina gave birth to two baby goats.
© Alex Kustanovich
The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I got a maintenance job at a YMCA camp. I wanted work that was outdoors and wouldn’t demand too much of me, so I could go out at night and have my hangover burned away in the morning by bright sun and the drone of a mower’s engine. I didn’t much care what else I had to do from day to day as long as no one graded me for it.
I worked with Dave, who lived in a trailer park nearby. He had a lightning wit and a soulful heart, but no one at the camp seemed to expect much of him. I couldn’t help but wonder how much that was due to his lumbering, obese frame, for which he always seemed to be apologizing.
They’d been expecting a man to apply for my job, so my only staff shirt was a men’s XL. I’d roll and tuck the sleeves under my bra strap the way I’d learned from softball players in college. If I managed to string together a couple of days of well-behaved eating, I’d gather the T-shirt’s excess and tie it in a knot on the side to show off my waist. Mostly, though — especially if I’d binged the night before — I let it hang down.
One Saturday morning I was cleaning up the room next to the pool house when I spotted an entire untouched pizza in the trash, and I was gripped by the urge to consume it. The sequence played out in my head as it had a thousand times before: I want that pizza. I shouldn’t eat that pizza. I’m going to eat that pizza. Though I knew it would produce self-hatred, I tore off my first bite as euphoric waves of satisfaction swept through me. I downed the whole pizza save for some crusts, which I left to make the garbage look authentic.
When I confessed this to Dave, he said, “I’ve done the same thing. I do it at home, even if I’ve decided I shouldn’t eat any more of something.”
Dave’s honesty was exactly what I needed that summer. I thought I wanted to be invisible. Turns out I just wanted to be understood.
In the 1950s the rural school year began after Labor Day and ended by Memorial Day, because families needed their kids to work on the farm as long as possible during summer. During the annual grain harvest my mother, my sister, and I put in fourteen-hour days in the kitchen, preparing meals for the men, who worked twelve-hour shifts in the fields. This meant four full meals a day for a crew of six: breakfast at 7 AM, dinner at noon, a sandwich lunch in the field at 3:30, and supper at 7 PM. We did this with precision Monday through Saturday for two to three weeks, depending on rain delays and mechanical breakdowns.
Our mother managed breakfast on her own. I would wake to the smells of bacon and coffee. My first task was tackling a sink full of dishes, scraping away syrup residue, bacon drippings, and particles of fried eggs and hash browns. By the time everything was rinsed and dried, the noon meal was in production.
The rhythm was hypnotic. Peas were shelled, beans were snapped, corn was shucked. Apples or peaches were peeled and sliced while our mother mixed flour, lard, and salt, sprinkled it with water to make dough, patted the dough into a ball, and rolled out piecrusts. She’d measure sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg, stir the fruit together, fill two pie pans, decorate the top, seal the edges, brush the crusts with milk and sugar, and set them in the oven.
We set meat on to roast or fry, boiled potatoes, washed lettuce, and put rolls in the oven. At the first sound of a truck on the gravel, the frantic serving dance began. We carried basins of hot water out to the yard and set them on the picnic bench with bars of gray Lava soap. While the men washed up, we steeped eight tea bags in boiling water and poured it into a gallon jar filled with ice. After the crew took their places at the table, serving dishes were passed, their glasses were filled with tea, and the sweet rolls disappeared. Only after the men had seconds and thirds could we eat. Then we washed dishes and started over again.
Bonnie J. Cotton
Fresh out of college in 1971, I signed on as a group leader with a youth organization that arranged bike tours in the U.S. and abroad. My assignment was a nine-and-a-half-week camping-and-cycling trip through remote areas of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The tour would finish with a hop over to the French Riviera.
I would be in charge of nine fifteen-year-olds for almost two months. We would collectively decide what we ate, what route we took, and, except for the occasional stay at a youth hostel, where we camped. Communication by phone at the time was very limited. Only larger towns had the capacity for international calls. We would be on our own, with little resembling a backup plan.
The tour began in Bergen, Norway, where we piled our belongings on our bikes and headed east. The southern part of Norway is hilly and dotted with fjords. We spent most days pedaling slowly up past tree lines into snowy patches, then flying down the other side of a mountain. At night we’d camp on the edge of a fjord, and in the morning we’d take a ferry to the other side and do it all over again.
It turns out June in the land of the midnight sun is also the rainy season. Our cheap air mattresses collapsed into the puddles that collected in our tents at night. I ate scrambled eggs from a Frisbee as the rain ran off my nose. By the time we arrived in Oslo, one of the girls had decided she was not interested in this adventure and flew home.
Americans on bicycles were a rare sight, so we were like celebrities in the countryside. People invited us into their homes, and we smiled for pictures and signed autographs. We learned to say, “A thousand thanks,” in Norwegian.
After time spent in Sweden and Denmark, we flew to southern France. Much of the country takes a holiday in August, and the French Riviera was hot, crowded, and dangerous. The winding highway along the Mediterranean was heavy with traffic, and there were no shoulders or rest areas for cyclists. There was no shade, either, and the midday heat was unbearable.
Then we ran into a serious financial hurdle: To fight rising inflation, President Nixon chose to suspend the exchange of dollars into foreign currency. For days we were unable to cash our traveler’s checks. Without food and unable to reach the home office, we lived on whatever was available in cans at our campground, which let us run up a tab. As soon as the currency exchange reopened, I bought us tickets to Paris, and at the end of August I put everyone on a flight home to New York. I had learned how to thank strangers in many languages; how to trust the universe; and that one pair of shorts and one pair of pants are enough for survival.
No Readers Write has gripped me more than the one on “Summer Jobs” [August 2021]. The devastating pieces ignited my already-well-established passion for justice: A premed student who became a humane educator. A convict who was so adamantly against a pig farmer’s “cold indifference to suffering” that he comforted a piglet that had been tortured. An undergrad researcher who asked forgiveness from a tree she had injured “in the name of science.” A certified nurse’s aide who described the horrifying birthing practices of the 1960s. A factory worker who quit after discovering she was contributing to the creation of bombs.
The list goes on. I’m grateful to everyone who wrote in; they not only shared their stories, but showed us it doesn’t have to be this way.