The Nation's Pulse

Working

Odd jobs, except at Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory, have never seemed more memorable.

By 2.26.09

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As the economy continues to nosedive I'm strangely sanguine. I guess that's because I've been working for forty years in sixty or seventy jobs in a score of occupations. I started in 1968 at the age of fourteen as a summertime dishwasher in a restaurant, and did that again as recently as two years ago, going from a deep steel sink to a modern mechanical dishwasher. I've been both a dishwasher and a dishwasher running a dishwasher. All this experience tells me that I'm either an abject failure in life, or have become adaptable in an employment-evolutionary way, where only the strong survive and, well, get a job.

I've done construction work, roofing, landscaping, farm labor, janitorial work in a regular hospital, and ward duties in two state hospitals. I've worked in the woods for the U.S. Forest Service and in a lumber mill. I've been a waiter (four times), have cleaned hotel rooms (three times), and done the dishwashing routine a half dozen times (I've actually lost count). I've been a security guard (twice) and a newspaper stringer (thrice). I've worked in a smelly paper factory, two department stores, three warehouses, and a grocery store. I was a California gold prospector, which wasn't bad: I made no money, but also lacked a boss. When I was eighteen I blew a chance to join the Brooklyn Seaman's Union. God knows where that opportunity would have taken me. I might have been the next Joseph Conrad. Anyway, as readers of The American Spectator and other publications know, I'm a freelance writer, which permits readers of this piece to draw their own conclusions about anything noted above.

Some jobs were so bad to start with that I knew I'd be a "short timer." I worked at Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury Center, Vermont, for four days in 1986. With two other guys I helped dismantle and clean daily the entire pipe system through which the ice cream traveled. Pipes to and from vats, and along the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of feet of pipes that had to be sanitized in an iodine and water solution in a giant trough-like sink, and then reassembled for the next different flavor batch. The ceiling pipes hung from looped chains and when disassembled from a ladder spilled copious amounts of New York Super Fudge Chunk or Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough onto the disassembler. We also spent a lot of time hosing down the concrete floors and my sneakers were always wet.

The place was crawling with celebrities. I met Ben Cohen, who actually supervised factory procedures (I never met Jerry Greenfield, who supposedly worked at home). On my fourth and last day, I even met Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who toured the factory while campaigning for reelection that year. All employees and factory visitors were required to wear green shower caps to keep hair out of the ice cream. If you think Pat Leahy looks normally a bit frog-like, you should have seen him in a green shower cap. Actually, for him, the shower cap was more of a statement of solidarity with us Heathbar Crunch-plastered proletarians, because in 1986 Senator Leahy was about as hair-challenged as he is today. Needless to say, I voted for Richard Snelling , whom Leahy trounced the following November. As for Ben and Jerry, I called a secretary and quit over the phone the next morning, and in retaliation those two socially conscious venture communists cut my pay fifty cents per hour and down to minimum wage on my only paycheck. Ben and Jerry: champions of the working, uh, person. In the end, I traded four days at Ben and Jerry's for four years working at Vermont State Hospital. I'll take the mentally deranged over the social justice crowd any time, though they did share certain traits.

Though some jobs where I made little money I loved. One was "getting in the hay" on a farm in upstate New York during the summer of 1970, when I was sixteen. The farm was owned by a grand old man named Charlie Wallace, a gray and slightly stooped wiry guy, who in his middle sixties had retired from dairy farming and sold his cows. He had removed the cattle stanchions and built a half dozen stalls in his barn to board horses for a fee for local people who had no place to keep them. Charlie loved horses and had grown up with them in a time in American life when they were used to do much of the work on a farm. He also loved horses because "you don't have to milk 'em." They came and went, but he always had a couple hanging around in a paddock next to the barn. And I remember a black racing trotter that some rich guy left with Charlie when the horse wasn't on a racing circuit somewhere. I remember this particular horse because I once helped Charlie load him into trailer for a trip, and the trotter was very "highstrung," as they call temperamental horses. He reared up once, but Charlie -- despite his age -- handled him firmly, both by his grip on the rope and calming voice. Charlie had a good laugh when we were finished because I was a bit rattled.

Charlie had seventy acres of pastures and woods (long since subdivided with homes built on it) that he cut hay on three times from June through September every year. Most sunny days he mowed, raked and baled in the mornings and after lunch, then he called me in the mid-afternoon to come help him pick up the bales before dark or impending thunderstorms. Sometimes neighbors helped, but I was on the payroll at two dollars in cash per hour (remember, this was in 1970). Many times Charlie's white-haired wife Evelyn drove the orange Allis Chalmers tractor, while Charlie stood in the middle of the flatbed hay wagon with the flimsy wooden frame back. The wagon pitched and rocked over the uneven ground as if to make him seasick, while I with gloved hands grabbed at strings of baling twine and hoisted up from the ground the rectangular seventy pound bales that Charlie methodically stacked in alternating tiers six high. Then Charlie climbed down to walk, and Evelyn turned the lurching load toward the barn. We sometimes lost the odd bale, but never a whole load.

At the barn Charlie had an electric hay elevator, a long conveyor-type contraption. One end was placed on the wagon and the other up in the hay "mow" (pronounced like "cow"). Charlie stayed on the wagon and sent a bale up every few seconds and I stacked them in those opposite tiers.

In the hay mow I was way up amongst the old barn's rafters and on hot summer afternoons the humid air was thick with hay dust that coated sweaty skin. If we weren't pressed for time due to twilight or threatening weather, Charlie's rule of heading to the kitchen for iced tea or lemonade after putting away every second load was strictly observed. But first I turned on the spigot next to the barn and dowsed arms, neck and face with icy water to cool off and wash off the hay dust.

In the kitchen of their white clapboard farmhouse Charlie and Evelyn reminisced, telling me stories of haying with horses and milking cows by hand: A life lived by the rising and setting of the sun rather than by the ticking of a clock. The Wallaces worked hard, but never seemed to be in a hurry about anything. I saw them regularly over the years, both long-lived. Charlie (born 1901) made it to his mid-90s.

So it goes. It must have been all that work.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.