Honour in All Work and the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides changing oil, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place, and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars, I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all that cold winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots, I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss, we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while, but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny.

We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

Honour in All Work

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe it is in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, that lies the most honour of all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others. You might even check out my books such as my latest, Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front.

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Time travel is fun. It’s what first attracted me to the study of history. I scour old newspapers when researching my books but time and mission are constant pressures so, usually with eye-straining microfilm, I jump to what I need then leap out. Yesterday, however, an old friend gave me an unexpected gift: a pristine copy of the Tuesday June 11, 1957 Peterborough Examiner. Its stories and ads are fun and revelatory.

The big bold headline reads: PC’S 110, LIBERALS 103. The black and white picture is of John Diefenbaker; the Progressive Conservative leader whose party had just captured what would become a minority government. The trick with the old paper was to enjoy it while knowing not the warp and woof of the day but the context and future.

Diefenbaker’s election presaged an era of contradictions. The cancelling of the Avro Arrow would hurt thousands but Canada’s new Bill of Rights would protect millions. The nationalist Diefenbaker would seek to make Canada more sovereign but a new American president, John F. Kennedy, would try to make her more obedient. Aboriginal people would be granted the right to vote but their children would still be kidnapped for residential schools.

Like now, most Canadians shrugged and accepted the changing political landscape while focussing upon more immediate concerns, distractions, and dreams. Not just cottages but suburban home ownership was an important element of those dreams. Bank and life insurance company ads offer 5.5% mortgages. Another ad presents the chance to move into Peterborough’s “Finest New Home Development” – Westmount Gardens – with a Delux Split Level home that boasted 3 bedrooms, cathedral ceilings, a fireplace, 2 bathrooms, and a 2-car garage, all for $20,900.

Another ad offers a sixteen-foot cedar strip boat, Evinrude motor, and trailer. And for men, Westminster dress shirts are only $4.95. The interesting part of all these consumer dreams, and others the paper offers is that the products were all made in Canada and sold not in national or international chains but by locally owned businesses and companies. Canadians were having Canadian dreams.

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(Love the chrome, tailfins, and pushbutton transmission)

In sports, Terry Sawchuck is happy with his trade from Boston back to the Detroit Red Wings. The team welcomes the all-star goalie back after having won the Stanley Cup eight out of the last nine seasons. The reporter notes that Sawchuk had suffered from mononucleosis and nervous tension while in Boston. No one could guess that his health and demons would see him dead in only 13 years. In the article’s last paragraph, Red Wing general manager Jack Adams offers up for trade the team’s all-star veteran, and league’s highest scoring left-winger, Ted Lindsay. Few knew the trade was punishment for Lindsay’s trying to start a player’s union.

Local sports are generously reported with league play in golf, softball, bowling, lawn bowling, and lacrosse. The number and popularity of the leagues reveal the extent to which people were getting out of their homes to join with others. Nobody bowls alone.

The weekend and weekday leagues also showed that, in 1957, work was not just something you did but somewhere you went. Work had a beginning and end time. Clocks were punched. Overtimes were calculated and rewarded. Technology did not allow work to follow you home. As a result, there was time for sports and fun with neighbours and friends.

Hollywood offers the world to Peterborough’s working class, hockey culture. The Drive-In has Janet Leigh and Jack Lemon in My Sister Eileen and Gregory Peck in The Purple Rain. Two movies! Plus everyone knew a cartoon or two would begin as you were settling in your car with popcorn and pop and adjusting the steel speaker to your window. Downtown theatres presented three more movies, the latest from Robert Taylor, William Holden, and Bob Hope. If that were not enough, the Memorial Centre, the town’s big arena, was presenting, in person, The Lone Ranger and his horse Silver and “the world’s most beloved dog “Lassie.” The boats, houses, and shirts may have been all-Canadian but culture came with an American accent.

The Examiner’s editor was Robertson Davies. Yes, that Robertson Davies who would later write exceptional novels that would help spur a new and overdue interest in Canadian literature. It was perhaps his writer’s eye that led to the paper’s excellence. In every story of substance the vocabulary is challenging, the tone serious, the arguments cogent, and the sentences complex. The paper clearly invites readers to rise to a higher standard rather than pandering to a lower one.

Like the city and society the paper served and reflected, it is very much for and about men. Nearly all the ads are for men including two job postings for “salesmen.” The letters to the editor are all written by men. Nearly all the sports are about men except for a report on a businesswomen’s golf league that is entitled “Business Girls.” Similarly, there are photographs of three local women who graduated from the Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing. The photo’s caption begins, without irony, “Three Peterborough Girls…”

The paper is surprisingly big. The gift’s gift was bigger. It allowed a time travel adventure. It was also a reminder to ignore the muck of life and observe the horizon, to seek context amid distracting details, and, most of all, to enjoy the wonders and blessings of the moment for no one knows what tomorrow will bring. My hour with the paper reminded me that to worry about the past invites depression and to fret about the future brings anxiety so I should more gratefully and completely accept the gift of now – the present of the present.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com or maybe even my books, like Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available at Chapters and Amazon and bookstores everywhere.