The spring and summer of 1980 are particularly memorable to me. I was just fourteen years old, but had a brand new motorcycle my father had purchased for me over Christmas. It was a beauty! It represented everything that a young man could want: style, speed, class, prestige, respect, and above all, freedom. Well, I had to check in with the parents before I went anywhere, but once I got the okay, they didn’t have to know I took the back roads, and that I took them a little faster than I should have. All these things—style and freedom and such—came with responsibilities. And if I wanted to keep all that, then I’d better live up to them. That, and I needed gas money.
My dad caught wind of an available job. I was to report to Ku-Tips Nursery Saturday morning, 7:30 sharp. It was, in fact, the first job I ever had. Ku-Tips was a greenhouse owned by a man named Willie Kutack. He was Czechoslovakian, which was ironic because my maternal great-grandparents were also Czechoslovakian. They had accents and they all knew each other. Also, the job became available because my uncle had quit the same job only a week earlier. So my new boss had employed my uncle and also personally knew my great-grandparents. Aren’t small towns wonderful?
Willie was a nervous overachiever. He would go nuts when things weren’t happening fast enough. I swear the man could not sit still long enough to go to the bathroom. Driving? Unreal! I am so glad there was no such thing as a cell phone back then! (Remember those days?) He’s the kind that would have tried to drive a stick shift, drink coffee, fiddle with the radio, and have a conversation with you at the same time. A cell phone in the man’s hand would have meant certain death for someone—someone other than Willie, anyhow! He was so fast, however, that if he had been involved in a vehicular accident, he would have simply phased himself into hyperspace and watched it happen in slow motion from the safety of fourth-dimensional space-time. Ironically, he didn’t drink coffee; the caffeine would just slow him down.
Anyway, he showed me the greenhouse, which was clear plastic laminate lying over a rickety two-by-four frame, and wanted me to make a door. Basically, all I had to do was cut out some plastic. Then I was to move the “peh-toonies” (petunias) out to the display. No problem! He handed me the tools and “whooshed” out to another part of the store. I had hardly gotten started when I heard “JOHN! COME HERE!” Being that I was only fifteen minutes on the job, I hustled on over. “Yes sir!” I spouted.
He presented a customer and said, “This man needs you to load seventy-five bags of steer manure on his truck.” That’s right. The first task of the first job I ever had was to load seventy-five bags of steer manure onto a man’s truck.
“Okay, boss!” So I got after it. One! Two! Three … Four … Fi … Holy shit! This stuff smells like shit! Now I don’t mean to sound so naive. I knew what steer manure was, and I knew it stank. But I had never held it in my bare arms before. (I was wearing a T-shirt.) These were forty-pound plastic bags loaded with manure. Yeah! Bags of bullshit. By bag number seven, I was saying to myself, “Okay. There has got to be something better than this. There is no way I am going to have a job like this for very long.”
When I finished loading the manure, I smelled like a walking cattle yard, and it was only just a little after 8:00 a.m. I finished the day at 5:00 p.m., and drove the bike home. I couldn’t drive home in the middle of the day to change clothes. Home was thirty minutes one-way, so it just would have been a wasted trip. My parents couldn’t figure out what that lingering smell was until I got home ten minutes later. Mom stopped me at the door and made me take my clothes off before I walked into the house. I was all too happy to do so. She shoveled the clothes into the washer and I hauled my butt into the shower as I proceeded to scrub the skin off the insides of my forearms. Now this is not an exaggeration: The smell was embedded in my skin for three days. It took three consecutive days of cleaning and scrubbing to get the smell out of my skin. I went so far as to douse my arms with Old Spice aftershave to get rid of the smell. But it didn’t work. It just smelled like manure doused with Old Spice.
I kept that job all through the summer. It was magical! I watered and moved plants and trees of all types and varieties for all kinds of reasons. Among other things, I loaded fertilizer, stone, grass seed, and sod for customers. As I started receiving paychecks, I rode that bike everywhere! I did manage to load a few more bags of manure as well, but it was nothing compared to my first task. Indeed, that was a pivotal day in my life. It was just about the end of my freshman year in high school, but that was the day I knew I was going to get a college education.