A first job. Remember when you were a kid and couldn’t wait to start working? It was a first step from adolescence to adulthood. It meant money for gas, freedom and working for someone other than your grandma.
Like many other naïve 16-year-olds, I was chomping at the bit to get my first job. Growing up, I fancied myself a fair swimmer—(why, I’m not sure.) I had a below average backstroke, but I still longed to spend my summers working as a lifeguard. It had it all: the sun, the water—okay, yes, the girls. I’d work on my tan while raking in the big bucks. I can still see it now…
Alas, I would find employment near the water, but it was a far cry from the girl-chasing, life-saving job I lusted over. A family friend vouched for me at one of the boatyards in town. I’d been waxing and washing this friend’s Carver for a few years, and I suspect he wanted someone on the inside to keep an eye on his boat. There was no formal paperwork process when I was hired; there was no long interview. I shook hands with Ray, the owner, a no-nonsense, get-your-hands-dirty kind of guy with an intimidating frame, and was told to come back tomorrow.
If I close my eyes, I can still feel the gravel rumbling beneath my old Honda’s tires as I tore into the yard after school. On my first day I penciled myself in on a time card, beneath the one other full-time employee—and strutted into the front office. I grew up in a boatyard; surely I had a lot to offer. Or so I thought.
“You see those cinder blocks over there?” said Ray, pointing to a pyramid of concrete. “I want you to bring them to the other side of the yard and break ‘em up with the sledge.”
My heart sank. Now, for the record, the yard was no Rybovich or Hinckley, but I didn’t expect my first job to be literally pounding rocks. I felt like part of a chain gang thousands of miles from the beach.
I wonder now if my days moving blocks were really just a test. I passed, I think, because I stuck it out and things improved a bit. When I was lucky, I’d be tasked with washing or waxing a boat, but more often than not my job du jour was bottom painting. Man, I grew to hate that job. I’d roll it and roll it and inadvertently let my mind wander to my friends frolicking in the land of SPF. That daydreaming always resulted in losing focus and bumping my head into the sticky blue or black paint. I should have put my meager earnings into nail polish remover stock; I went through a ton of the stuff trying to get the paint out of my hair.
Weekends at the yard were a special, shall we say, treat. Two other part-timers would join me and we’d commiserate about work and high-school drama. Or rather, I would talk about work and school. My compatriots didn’t speak a word of English.
Each spring when I dig a screwdriver into the lip of a lid and break the seal on a fresh gallon of bottom paint, I think back to that first job. I didn’t learn to rebuild a diesel, I can’t diagnose an electrical issue and I sure as hell wasn’t trained on the inner workings of a boatyard business.
But I did learn something much more important all those years ago. I learned the value of working hard for a paycheck, the satisfaction that comes from working with your hands and going to bed exhausted. I learned to dream about the day I would own a boat of my own. I told myself that I’d always take the time to paint and wax it myself.
This time of year, I’m reminded of that kid with big dreams off breaking rocks, and the lessons that a 16-year old could never appreciate. And just like that, suddenly the work ahead doesn’t feel like work at all.
I’ll see you in the boatyard.