Between years of college there was always pressure to find good summer work and save up money for expenses come fall. As a sometimes oblivious member of the human race at that stage of life, I was not always thinking ahead. Which meant searching for a summer job any way you could get it.
I doubt the process has changed much. Young people still put off the inevitable when it comes to needs and obligations. It may well be worse these days for college and high school kids. The continually changing nature of the economy is hard enough on young people graduating from college in terms of finding decent-paying work, much less trying to find employment for three months to save up between school years.
All I remember is the weird sensations and temporary feel of summer work. In some ways I played it smart, and in others, not so much. On top of working all day or at least some of the day, which was new to me, there was pressure to get in those precious training miles to prepare for cross country in the fall.
Perhaps scholarship athletes have some of that pressure taken away, but not really. Training can be a form of work when you have to perform at a level justifying the support offered by a college or university.
I was a Division III college athlete, so there were no scholarships. The campus jobs I was required to work as part of the financial package I was offered paid $1.10 an hour. That rate was earned at a college that charged $3400 the first year I attended and finished at $4300 that last year. So the student work program was not a source of income. It was working off the debt one had already accrued through enrollment.
Yet on top of getting up to work at 5:30 a.m in the dishroom, there were 80-100 miles per week to cover. So one essentially had two jobs to work.
Young and stupid
Fortunately we were young. And generally stupid. And full of manic energy. So we got by. But then summer would roll around again. That meant finding and working a “real” job that often wasn’t real work in the sense that it contributed anything to society. Whether serving as part-time park district stuff or doing manual labor at a factory, those summer jobs were character-builders to say the least.
Still, it started off simple enough. The summer before my freshman year, I worked as a coach for the St. Charles Track Club, a competitive organization that attracted more than 100 kids ages 5-16. The job paid $500 for the summer, which seemed like a lot of money to me then. This was supplemented by some sales of my artwork that year, but I think I went to college that fall with $250 in the bank to last the whole year.
That said, our track club produced state and national age-group AAU champions from sprints to jumps to distance races. So that wasn’t a bad summer actually. Despite being in the proximity of all those runners, and racing a few times over the summer months, I did not do all that much mileage before heading off to college.
Still, I made the Varsity cross country team that freshman year and finished 9th in the Conference meet. We went to nationals in Boston where the weather sucked and the course turned to muck. But those were lessons learned for the future.
The summer after my freshman year, I somehow I stumbled into a job working at a U-Haul distribution. I worked for a trio of guys who both sold and delivered trailer hitches, boxes and the assorted needs of U-Haul rental locations across the Chicago area. I mostly drove vans around the area stuffed with orders that I picked and placed in the truck.
I certainly learned how to navigate the suburbs using maps and learned the names of all the towns and places I visited. That knowledge would come in handy later in life when I became an admissions counselor covering the same territory. You can’t get me lost in Chicago to this day.
That doesn’t mean some things did not go badly on a few fronts. While driving a U-Haul van, I crunched the rear end of a brand new Buick in front of a dealer on Ogden Avenue in Downers Grove one morning. The car pulled out quickly and I was glancing at the map when the van nailed the rear tail light. The guys back at the shop shook their heads but they’d all had fender benders too. So I got off easy.
Which made the incident I never told them about a bit more dramatic. Because one day while driving a box truck filled with a heavy load of refrigerator cartons I hit the brakes while approaching a busy intersection. The roads were slick with summer rain and the oil of traffic turned them into a skating rink for trucks like mine. The back end spun around and I went through that intersection backwards. I held the wheel lightly, then slowly turned the truck as it went through its gravitational gyration. When the front end came back around, I kept right on driving. Down the road I had a ‘death shiver’ when I realized how bad that could have turned out.
There were other adventures along the way, and the crew definitely got a kick out of my raggy jeans attire that was worn, I’ll admit, not to look too much like I’d given in to “The Man.”
Not exactly “work-ready,” was I? So the last day the crew determined to teach me a little lesson about control and humility. So they snuck out to my Buick Wildcat when I rolled into work and put a prank whistle on some part of my engine that made it sound like it would blow up when I started it again. They slapped the hood and told me, “No go back to school.”
And that was funny. But during that summer, after many long weeks of glancing admiration for the hot young girl working in the front office, I worked up the courage to ask her to go on a date to a Jackson Browne concert. Turned out she was the daughter of the Big Boss, but he approved. That made the whole summer seem worth it. Saved a little money too, and wound up flirting with the Top 5 that fall in cross country.
There is no small irony in my mind that the job I worked the summer after my sophomore year was a company called Olympic Stain. It turned out to be a stain on my soul. Working conditions at that plant were awful. The fumes of turpentine hung near the ceiling of the plant all day long. There were industrial accidents taking place all the time, with forklift drivers striking 50 gallon drums of paint three stories up and mean-spirited pranks taking place between workers. Nasty, stupid stuff going on all the time.
And having had no training in pipes management, I turned the wrong release valve one afternoon and liquid latex shot out of the pipes and coated me from head to toe. That meant a trip to the industrial shower where I was stripped naked and shoved under freezing cold water. That day I also had to endure the teasing of employees embittered by their own sad reasons for working there. It was a nightmare, and some deeper part of me was traumatized by the experience.
That fall in cross country I struggled with feelings of depression and lack of self-worth. Everyone who knew me categorized that as “Cud’s Weird Year” and it didn’t help that I was immersed in studies of existentialism and the irreversibility of time. To this day I blame that summer job for pushing too many emotional buttons. I finished out of the Top 15 in the Conference meet but recovered enough to help our team compete at nationals where we placed 8th, our best effort to that point.
That winter a roommate turned to me after I’d spent an entire run complaining about the pace and said, “Cud, you just need to shut up and run.” So that’s what I did. And things started to turn around from that point on.
Coming off a successful track season my junior year in college, in which I set all my PRs from mile to 5000 meters, I was feeling better about myself and shaved off the shoulder-length long hair and beard I’d grown. That led to the idea of getting contact lenses and an entirely new self-image going into senior year. While running, it helped not to have those Napoleon Dynamite glasses perched on my nose.
That summer I found work through my best friend’s father who hired me to work as a janitor at the tall office building he managed off Cumberland and I-90 on the outskirts of Chicago. That commute was long, more than an hour, but the money was needed. So I took what I could get, to quote Bachman Turner Overdrive.
The job was illuminating on many fronts, as I got to witness the background activity of an office environment that included a group of lusty middle-aged women who drank wine in the restroom during lunch breaks. I also got to witness labor disputes and union controls. And during lunch one day, my best friend’s father took me to a bar where the waitresses wore revealing negligees if they wore anything at all.
Making it happen
It was tough putting in running miles after such long days, but I sensed there were good things ahead for me. The job paid $5.00 an hour and I saved up quite a bit of money. That was a rather new experience against the other summer jobs I’d worked.
That fall, with an entirely new attitude brought on by not looking like a geek, I also fell in real love for the first time with a gal that I met at RA retreat. That helped. And that fall on campus I also had a job doing promotional work for the campus recreation office. No more dish room labor at 5:30 in the morning. Thus I trained twice a day and my times over the 5-mile distance dropped down to near 25:00. For most of the season I ran second man to my roommate and was fifth man on a team that placed second at the National meet.
What I learned is that there is a 1:1 relationship between work stress and overall performance in life. There is no doubt those summer jobs shaped me, some for better and some for worse. All tested character and taught lessons about self-discipline.
Ultimately those are tests we all have to pass. I could have been smarter searching for summer jobs, but I also had the courage to try something else. Coming off my senior year in college, I spent two glorious weeks doing exceptional watercolors from life. I’d scored some expensive watercolor paper for a very cheap price at a local office supply store that was selling it out, and I was on fire with creative energy.
But when I told my mom that I wanted to paint that summer and try to sell my work rather than work a traditional summer job, she freaked. My dad had been in and out of jobs during my college years, and she had a fear going on about money. So she wasn’t exactly encouraging.
Still, I persisted in my hopes of selling artwork and signed up to sell my paintings at a huge local art festival in Geneva, Illinois called Swedish Days. It was a good prospect actually. I had all my work matted and framed. And then it rained. And rained. And rained. The show was literally a washout. I sold only one piece of artwork that weekend. My plan was foiled.
But all was not lost. Later that fall I held an art show at the college and every last piece of that artwork sold. Sure, it was too late to prevent the need to work that summer job. So I did work that janitor job in July and August. I was grateful for the work. But I wonder to this day what summer might have looked like (and life beyond) had I earned $2000 in one weekend as happened that December. That could have been one sweet summer.
During my work in the field prior to my painting sessions, I’d found a dead red-tailed hawk that summer on the roadside. Now granted, it is highly illegal to pick up raptors or any other species of bird and keep them. But I did so because I wanted the bird for reference purposes, and felt a higher calling, legal or not. So I cut up the bird and saved a talon from the middle toe of the hawk to make a necklace.
That fall my new girlfriend (whom I would date for two full years) asked about the necklace, and I told her, “I’m going to be completely focused on my running this fall, so my love of nature and artwork will have to wait a little. But this talon reminds me that I’ll get back to it.”
That may sound hokey, but it worked in many respects. I’ve never stopped running and I’ve never stopped painting.
Now I believe that summer is meant to be lived with such purpose that every day feels like a vacation. Even if you’re working a full time job, there are noon walks to take, and early morning bike rides to enjoy.
It takes commitment to keep that level of relaxation in mind. But that’s another thing I’ve learned from running all these years. Sometimes the hardest efforts in life can feel the best, and that which does not kill us really does make us stronger.