“Hey! I hear they’re hiring at Sperry Flour Mill!”
“Wow! Really? That’d be a great summer job! Once they hire you, you’ve got a job for life!”
“God! I’d love to work there! It’s the best job you can get!”
“Yeah, plus you can get on with the union!”
“Yeah, but they only hire a couple of guys a year”
“True, but they pay a lot more than anybody else! It’s the best job you can get … period!”
“Hey! Let’s all go there and apply!”
“Yeah! Let’s go … right now!”
Next thing I knew, near the conclusion of my junior year, I found myself crammed in a crowded hot rod with a bunch of fellow Vallejo Senior High School “Apaches” heading to the Sperry Flour Mill Administrative Center.
Summer was right around the corner.
The flour mill wasn’t much to look at, but its location was nothing short of spectacular. It sat next to the confluence of the Napa, San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers at the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay.
Of course, back then nobody thought much about the setting. After all, the view directly across the narrow river (properly called the Mare Island Strait at that stretch) wasn’t exactly scenic. It was the site of a huge navel base … many square miles of dull gray buildings, scaffoldings, ships, submarines and dry docks.
Probably the only residents who truly appreciated the place lived just downriver on a stretch called Sandy Beach, a congregation of old, remodeled fishing shacks built on pilings and strung-out along the river at its confluence with the Carquinez Strait.
Bohemians, misanthropes and artists of all stripes lived there, inspired by the scenery and calmed by the music of the rippling water under their beds at night.
Not far to the north lay the bars, tattoo parlors and whores of “lower Georgia Street.” Over the years this infamous district welcomed in its unconventional but patriotic way tens of thousands of sailors on shore leave from Mare Island, and by doing so effectively kept them from away from the good townfolk of the city.
In many ways it was an extremely beneficial arrangement. After all, lower Georgia Street offered the sailors pretty much everything they were looking for … and if trouble surfaced (not an uncommon occurrence) the burly boys from the Shore Patrol could be counted on to handle it efficiently and expeditiously.
In many ways this strategy was pure genius … incarceration through attraction!
But all that changed a half century ago when the city’s leaders obtained federal urban renewal money to rip-out the blight in exchange for a bright new, planned future.
Unfortunately the renewal effort completely demo’d all of Vallejo’s historic downtown, thereby gutting its built heritage and, along with it, the heart of the city … which never seemed to fully recover. In addition, the city lost the lucrative tax revenue the area’s nefarious activities had poured into its coffers.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that decades later, when it found it couldn’t cover generous pay and pension promises it’d made to its public safety unions, Vallejo went bankrupt! Oh well, it was “free” money, wasn’t it?
In any event, at Sperry Flour Mill everything was hunky-dory in 1959 … and, it was true! They were hiring for summer jobs!
I can’t say my enthusiasm for spending my entire summer vacation woking in a flour mill rose to the heights it did among my friends, but since I was there with them I figured, “What the hell! I might as well fill out an application since I have to wait!”
By the time of my interview, I’d scribbled in virtually every space on the form … the front and the back as well as the margins … in response to questions about sports, interests and hobbies.
I wrote detailed summaries of my personal readings in cultural anthropology; Western philosophy; Mahayana Buddhism; Romantic, Roman and Beat poetry; classical Greek comedy and tragedy; teleological mythology; linguistic theory; history and current events. I discussed my involvement with classical music, photography, piano and kettle drums (with the Vallejo Junior Symphony). I also mentioned my standing on the Apache varsity golf and tennis teams.
While that may sound like a lot, it was simply a recapitulation of books I’d been reading in addition to my school work during the year. The truth was, I simply loved both learning and sports, and had an insatiable curiosity about, well … just about everything. Consequently I read as many books as I could find on the subject of anything … which nicely filled the time between golf, tennis, pounding on the piano and a relentless hormone-driven pursuit of skirts!
In addition I lived in an era lacking today’s miracle technologies, such as the internet, tweeting, texting, gaming, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, iPods, music videos and a confusing, infinite multi-verse of cable TV channels that fill similar niche time for modern teens.
When called to my interview I entered an office occupied by an executive in shirtsleeves and tie. He’d slumped back in his leather desk chair while waiting for his next interviewee, obviously wearied from his long day with young men seeking a summer job and giving rote answers to boring questions.
He politely greeted me and motioned me to sit opposite him. I gave him my application which he leaned back and started to read. But after no time at all he straightened up, tilted his head to one side, and continued reading with an expression that could only be described as intrigued.
I don’t think he actually believed any of it at first, but upon questioning he discovered that I’d not only not dissembled or exaggerated but, if anything, I’d left a few things out. After that we proceeded to have a rambling conversation and I found him both sophisticated and learned (manifestly out of place in a flour mill) which I’m sure brightened his otherwise tiring day.
But, while my application gave him something of a surprise, he gave me a much bigger surprise! To my horror, he hired me!
A couple of weeks later I found myself standing alone in the basement of a huge, multi-story flour mill with a broom, ankle deep in grain. My job was to sweep the grain into giant vacuum tubes affixed to the structural pillars of the building to transport it back up for milling.
The basement, the size of a football field, was filled with a fine powdery dust that diffused the bright sunlight slipping through tiny, grim basement windows. It all made me wonder what the devil I was doing there while my buddies were enduring long days of golf and other such hardships.
I soldiered on, and after about an hour of sweeping I finished one complete aisle. I looked back and could see no difference between that aisle and all the others I had yet to sweep! My God! I thought I was going to drown in grain! It was Mickey Mouse’s nightmare as the sorcerer’s apprentice come to life!
It’s hard to accurately describe my emotions as I looked around me at that ocean of grain … but it could be safely said “This wasn’t fun!”
At noon I stumbled into the lunch room. The men sat at the long tables with their lunch buckets talking about the same things they apparently talked about all the time. They seemed like affable, hard-working guys, but, to put it bluntly, I found the entire scene incredibly disconcerting. I glanced at the clock … Holy Moses! another 4 hours of sweeping to go!
I swept for the remainder of that day and another full day before I’d had enough. I pleaded with my boss for a new assignment, explaining that my hay fever just couldn’t take it anymore … which was partially true.
Next day I was assigned to box cars. This entailed nailing great sheets of cardboard over the door openings of the cars so that grain could be carried in them.
“Wow,” I thought, “That’s great! I love hammering!”
Ever since my earliest days I loved carpentry, especially hammering! But when the first nail I struck crumpled like an accordion against the tight-grained oak of the box car, I quickly reassessed all those romantic notions I had about the craft.
That night, after eight hours of trying to find weak points in the cars’ oak interiors into which a steel nail could penetrate, I literally could not move my right arm. And with that I had to question my entire relationship with this “great job” I’d landed.
I called in sick the next day, figuring I deserved at least one day off after undergoing such agony … after which I tendered my resignation.
I felt bad about it, especially because I’d let the fellow who hired me down. But then I realized that my act was essentially charitable in nature in that my departure allowed someone truly deserving to have that sweet job. In fact, whoever was the recipient of my generous abdication probably retired just before Sperry closed the mill permanently in 2004.
And, as a peripheral benefit, my unselfish act of charity afforded me a leisurely summer of golf, reading and drive-in dates … which, considering everything, seemed to me to be more than fair!
Coming next! How To Get A Great Job You Really Don’t Want, Part 2 … BIG BUSINESS AND BIGGER BUSINESS. Don’t miss it!
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