Like many people, I’ve had plenty of odd jobs in the course of navigating life.
My journey as a paid worker started with detasseling corn. For the city slickers: You walk through a cornfield and tear off the tassel topping each stalk of corn, which thwarts Mother Nature by preventing any wayward cross-pollination those devious cornstalks might be contemplating. This goes on for row after row, acre after acre after acre. Soon you are caked in gunk and resemble a moving corndog dipped in yellow mustard. It was bone-achingly hard work for $1.25 per hour.
The summer after high school graduation I was saved by a unique job offer. The state legislature wanted to create a living history, as told by its elderly residents. They didn’t care which ones as long as they were old and had a story to tell.
My father, a practical man with a wry sense of humor, asked: “Now what exactly is it they pay you to do?” His conclusion: “It was a waste of taxpayers’ good money.” I concluded it was a good idea. So I spent my summer days roaming country roads in my forest-green, 1953 Chevy tank, festooned with a huge Saint Christopher medal in lieu of an insurance policy, searching out old farmers with a story to tell.
Once past the “that’s a waste of good taxpayers’ money” part of the conversation, most happily told their personal histories. I heard stories of courage and hardship endured just to reach this little patch of farmland. They spoke of traditions, the joy of having children, the loss of parents and siblings, and the lingering fear of the Great Depression. From them, I learned the power of plainspoken language, the depth of character and spirit in ordinary people, and the buoying effect of a good sense of humor.
After my stint as traveling local documentarian, I became a part-time dishwasher at a college town country club, pulling the night shift. Here, I learned about class warfare, but I liked the job. I got paid in cash each night, and by closing time, it was too late to run out and blow all the money.
I worked next to Betty, an older woman who had been “washing dishes all my life.” After work, she walked more than a mile to waitress at a truck stop. I now had a piece-of-junk Ford Falcon and I offered her a ride, which she accepted on the coldest nights. As a thank-you, she invited me for coffee and toast and jam. On a doily on top of the TV was the story of her life: A picture of a young man, her son in an Army uniform, with a holy card propped against it. History exacted a high price.
Eventually, I got a decent car and fell into publishing, where some 30 years ago, I met all of you. It’s been my pleasure to listen to your stories and learn from you. I know you are at a historic point in health care. And I know that you can do this and do it well. It’s your legacy.
But this will be the last issue I work on. I am retiring and leaving you in the hands of my talented staff. I’ll be thinking of you. Take care, my friends.
— You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.