Between the sophomore and junior year of my college experience, summer jobs were hard to find. The economy was sputtering in the late 1970s due to the centrifugal force of world politics and America’s sagging malaise coming off the exhaustion of the Vietnam War.
We were also a country in transition from a manufacturing base to a service and technology-oriented economy. In the throes of that transition, jobs were being shed across the Rust Belt and down South in the textiles industry. Corporate downsizing would soon be invented with the advent of Reaganomics and its trickle-down approach. That included invitations to so-called “wetbacks” to handle farm labor, and the cycle of downward mobility for the Middle Class was begun.
In this morass of all this current and pending change, it was tough for a college kid to find a summer job. That summer of 1977, my mother finally put me in touch with a guy that had found work at Olympic Stain, a paint company in the town where I now live. I needed the money to help pay for college, which cost about $3800 per year at the time. That doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but working in the dish room at Luther College paid only $1.10 per hour at the time. So I had to make money before I ever got to school. Then I still worked mornings at 5:30 a.m., and trained 80-90 miles a week running on top of that.
That summer working at Olympic Stain did not prepare me well for running that fall. I wrote this poem about the experience of working at the paint factory.
Those of us who worked at Olympic Stain
were there for different reasons.
For some, it was a full-time job.
and for others, a summer of suffering.
The cruelty of words was our main entertainment
in the face of work so dull it numbed the mind.
Above us a blue haze of turpentine gathered
near the ceiling, and we worked in fear that someone
might light a match and send the place up in smoke.
Yet the actual smokers still all congregated
in the lunch room behind their puckering flames
in a congregation that did not make anyone
feel much better.
Indeed, it seemed that to each of them,
cigarettes were more important than life itself
and the rest of us never breathed easy.
It was a job we did moving cans of paint
on and off conveyors while some slapped wire bails
into slots so that others could lift those gallons
and send them out to cover the world in stain.
And that is why we worked there.
And to make matters worse…
It was all made worse by the fact that people who worked full time felt it was their responsibility to haze all new workers and summer employees with industrial pranks. On the second day of the job the crew convinced me it was necessary for me to personally hold a long hose into the open vat of turpentine so that they could “shoot the pig,” a sponge designed to clean the pipes carrying paint above our heads. The pig was propelled by compression from the other end and came shooting out at a hundred miles an hour into the 50-gallon drum of turpentine. Chemicals splashed up and covered me head to toe in stinging agony. I had to be rushed off to the industrial shower, stripped naked and forced to soap down while the supervisor watched.
Where was OSHA? Who the hell knows. Perhaps that agency had not been invented by then, because intentional and unintentional industrial accidents happened almost every day at that plant.
While working in the loading dock, I watched a forklift driver buzz around a corner with the forks still lifted high. He knocked drums of black paint off the third storage level and they came crashing down, emptying their contents all over the floor. Indeed, they washed over the feet of the President of the company who was taking a plant tour. He pointed at the driver and said, “Fire that man.”
But it did not stop the safety violations. Later that summer I got covered in liquid Latex when some pipes were opened in the wrong order during cleaning of the giant storage tanks. No one had instructed me how to do that task, and I got it wrong and wound up in the industrial shower again as a result.
That day a bit of cosmic justice took place. One of the full time workers made fun of me all day long for the accident I had caused. He was driving a big floor cleaner past my work station, laughing and pointing as he went. “Rubber man! The Human Condom!” he teased. So distracted was he in the attempt to harass that he drove the floor cleaner right off the dock onto the railroad tracks.
Mercifully the summer workers all got laid off at the end of July. For me it was a relief. I had hardly had the energy to train much all summer for cross country. Plus I’d developed a stingy little cough from breathing in all that turpentine. My runs were a struggle every day.
It was also a mentally depressing place to work. As mentioned in the poem, the workers all engaged in vicious teasing and harassment of each other. I’d come home sick and sad from the whole environment.
Not quite transcendant
But I loved running, and that fall I managed to perform well the first six or eight meets, running in the low 26:00 range for five miles. But when daylight savings came along and the afternoons turned dark, something switched off in my head.
The conference meet was held the week after the time change and I failed miserably in the race, running well below the 9th place I’d gotten as a freshman and a relatively high place I’d accomplished again as a sophomore. That conference race my junior year was one of the most difficult moments of my life, a living nightmare of exhaustion and depression combined. But I did not quit.
There were no words and my teammates said little after the event. Yet I went on to run at Nationals and performed reasonably well with a team that place 8th or 10th so or 12th. I can’t remember and it’s moot.
Because by the next summer and senior year circumstances had drastically changed. My summer job as a janitor that summer was not easy, but it was relatively harmless compared to the awful world and poisonous environment of Olympic stain. I was able to train that summer without coughing up chemical phlegm. Then I shaved my hair shorter and cut off my Lasse Viren beard, got contact lenses and felt like a different human being entirely going into that senior year. I even fell in love.
With all that positive change, I moved from 7th man to 2nd man for most of the season. Our team placed 2nd in the National NCAA Division III cross country meet. We’d achieved a long-held goal of a trophy at nationals and the ugly recent past of all our struggles was forgotten.
Why it matters
If all this seems like it doesn’t matter, or that it’s just the recollections of yet another runner and age-old circumstance, I can share that the difficulty of getting through that ultimately ugly season and realizing the power of depression over my mind would prove vital in the coming years. At such a young age of 19 or 20, it is hard to imagine all the things that life can throw at you later on. I could not imagine that later in life the person to whom I was married would go through cancer treatment that stole pieces of her again and again. Each of those chemo treatments was for her an Olympic Stain summer. I could relate to the feel of poison in her veins.
When facing other dark moments in life, and circumstances beyond my control, I’d alos learned that holding on to faith in yourself and believing something greater than yourself really can matter in life. It’s a lesson that running, and riding and swimming teach us all pretty well.
And I urge you, if you run into circumstances beyond your control, to reach out if you are facing challenges that negatively define who you are. Way back when I was a college kid, there was little known or accepted strategy for dealing with depression or other emotional strain. That’s not the case anymore. Not these days. Ask for help.
There’s a hidden meaning in the title of that poem, you see. The Olympics are the height of achievement in the sporting world. We hold such things as high ideals.
Yet the word “stain” is both a noun and a verb, and working at that plant was a stain on my life at the time. But it was not permanent. It also helped me forge a strong sense of social justice, and a determination to help others in the workplace who are harassed, made to tolerate ugly environments or to feel intimidated by hazing, manipulation and abuse. I literally hate the stain of all those things in this world and have spoken out against them in the workplace. At times it has cost me personally to do so. Some people might say that is a lack of emotional intelligence. I say screw that. I’d rather be honest and ethical than “emotionally intelligent” in that respect. That kind of emotional intelligence has a different set of names. Sociopathy. Psychopathy. It comes in different grades, and even nice, successful people engage in it. But let’s not mince words. We all know the workplace can be a snakepit in the end. Social and economic pressures demand it. We’re happy to survive when the shit hits the fan. Some even come to believe they deserve their good fortune, and that God is on their side. But be careful what you believe.
Habits of mind
The liberal approach to fairness and supporting others fuels my ideology and politics as well. My liberalism is hard tested, and hard-won. It is not, as some conservatives I have encountered like to suggest, some lazy habit of mind.
I abide by this quote:
“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason.” –Jon Meacham
I would add that critical certitude is even worse when pointed at those with the sensitivity and compassion to discern reality in the world, and who attempt to do something about it.
How enlightening it truly is that the term “libtards” has been invented (and frequently used these days) to describe people who advocate for social justice, racial equality, economic parity, environmental sustainability, and more.
We simply believe that everyone should have an equal shot at the starting line. Yet some seem to think it’s only fair that those who can afford buy a spot at the front of the race should be allowed to do so. That’s America in a nutshell right now, with a lot of people complaining that the poor and the slow are actually causing the race of downward mobility.
But it’s the same harsh crap that went on at Olympic Stain. The hazing and the abuse in America (and the candidates who personify it) are products of segments of society successfully pitted against one another by political forces that only care about getting America’s resources and wealth at the cheapest rate possible. That is the real stain on society, and Donald Trump is just one of the figureheads. Mitt Romney was another. The list goes on. The rest are just zealous sociopaths whose emotional intelligence goes toward manipulating the public psyche through anger, fear and force.
Resisting the stain of ugliness and struggles forced upon others in this world through religion, politics and economics is worth the fight. Even if it costs you something in the short term, the ultimate triumph is doing good. So go forth, and do good.
Or do well as the case may be. Do good and do well through all your running, riding and swimming. It teaches you the value of perseverance in the face of difficulty and liberality in the joy of the human spirit.