Monday, March 26, 2012

Surviving the first summer of work

Childhood and young adulthood traumas are pivotal times, when our life view is altered permanently or our values and purpose are challenged. That is when we take our pain to the writers’ table and do our most creative bleeding. And so it was for a good friend.

After reading his account of a fire that killed his co-workers following a carefree teen summer working together, I realized the camaraderie established in close quarters at that age has a tremendous affect on us. I advised him to begin his book with that story and later realized I had left my own early work experience out of my memoir tome.

My first summer job, was not traumatic but an introduction to the world of work, office politics—although there was no office, just open fields.

It was 1954, my first 40-hour a week job, completely removed from parental supervision. I applied for and received my Social Security card. Unlike my driver’s license that the examiner warned me not to use for driving because I was so uncoordinated, my Social Security card came with no strings except not to lose it. I didn’t.

The job included pollinating and emasculating tomatoes at the Burpee Seed trial gardens at Fordhook Farms in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The property was not far from what was known locally as Farm School, but officially as the National Agricultural College, where Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine to eradicate polio. Yes, that Fordhook family farm, as in the Lima beans. Among my fellow “farm workers,” college students, one botanist and several European students studying America’s version of crop rotation and modern agriculture, were old church friends and a few new faces.

My day began before seven, not a big strain as my dad and I were early risers year-round. Each morning, he went to the kitchen ahead of me and had breakfast ready. We shared burnt toast and eggs and a pot of coffee. He even packed my lunch, then dropped me off to work in the sun until five. No one knew about ozone layers, but determined not to burn, I had spent two weeks in early June at the local pool accumulating a tan of protection. I dressed for work in my uncle’s old long-sleeved dress shirt, shorts and penny loafers. Twenty of us carried our box crates to the tiered field, turned them upside down and sat. As we moved from row to row, we pulled the boxes after us.

Naturally, for such a well-educated group boredom was a given. After all, how much mental energy does it take to pull off three green leaves from a tomato blossom and dab the pistol with a paintbrush of pollen, meant to create the newest variety: Big Boy tomatoes.

Long before the advent of Trivial Pursuit, we played word games such as Guess This, and What would you do if? As the heat rose, each person made up a set of 20 questions. Mine centered around ballet and period furniture. But of all the games the most fun was “My Aunt Bessie likes…?” Eventually, even the new people figured out what Aunt Bessie liked. She liked Mississippi but hated Ohio. She liked cuddling, but hated sex, and so on. As each person figured it out, they’d shout, “I got it.” Later, they’d whisper the code to our supervisor. Despite the fact we played every day, shouting our answers from field to field, when we added a new employee, we acted out the game until they understood the trick of uncovering Aunt Bessie’s preferences.

The days went swiftly. Hot as we were, dark skinned as we became, wet as the irrigation system turned on us when the temperature reached 95-degrees made us, we had fun. Arriving home, our cleanup ringed our parent’s bathtubs green, oily with chlorophyll, and hard to scour. It was a magical summer. I was dating three wonderful guys that summer—not from work. I eventually married one.

When I remember it with such pleasure and hear how my friend’s summer ended with his being the only survivor of a horrible hotel fire in the Catskills—he lost 14 of his comrades—it amazes me that I never mentioned this period of my life in my writings. Those bonds are forever. His were turned to ashes. He’s a brilliant writer because of it, but he’s still grieving and asking in everything he writes “Why me? Why did I survive?”

Julie Eberhart Painter is the Champagne Books author of Mortal Coil, Tangled Web, and Kill Fee. See Julie’s Web site at


Big Mike said...

Not sure most kids today realize how the last generation had to work for school expenses. Each summer I toiled at a different place to make enough for clothes, books, and gas. My employers included a hamburger joint, pizza palace, race course, construction site, lawn cutting service, drug store, Sears, Hecht warehouse, and a dozen more. I think all those jobs stiffened my back bone and put a little vinegar in my veins.

Michael Davis (

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Thanks, Mike. I agree with your back bone and vinegar. It was fun and fulfilling to earn money, a rite of passage.

January Bain said...

Working young, so true. My first job was as a dental assistant at 14! All because I fell asleep in the dentist chair which somehow impressed him. Went on to University and had many jobs paying for it but when something is earned, it's better!

Allison Knight said...

I started working at the age of 11. Back then, my daughter says the dark ages, I could work. I sold pop corn for a vendor at the rodeo. Of course I got to see the whole show - for free. Next at 14 I went to work for my uncle selling tickets and making/selling popcorn at his movie theaters. Never work for a relative. The dime store in town was next. In all of these adventures, believe me, I learned to work, after school and every summer. It was a way of life.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Good advice not working or a relative. I was "the girl" for my parent's Interior Design shop. Vacuuming done before 9:00 a.m.!

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

Fascinating item, especially comparing it to our mutual friend's tragic summer. It's all in how we look at it, isn't it? I did "the girl" thing for a family for a few weeks one summer, and then Woolworth's et al.

Linda Rettstatt said...

I should be ashamed to admit this. But I'm not :) My first job was making cold calls for a well-known photography studio to sell people photo packages of their kids. I lasted four hours--through the morning. I kept getting names on my list of family friends and just couldn't try to sell to them. I quit after lunch.