Archived Story

The lessons learned in a summer job

Published 10:57am Monday, February 18, 2013

Of all the important understandings I gained through many temporary and part-time jobs through my school years, one of the most important I learned at Milwaukee Gas Specialty. I was a common laborer in this brass foundry and what I did was of little consequence to the industry or society.

I was the only “college boy” in a crew with a lot of turnover. None talked much, and grunting seemed to be their usual conversation. They cussed and swore more than they talked. Our only task was to move molds around so molten brass could be poured into them.

No skill was needed and none was used or present. It was hard, hot and dirty work. Hard, because the molds were heavy. Hot, because molten brass is extremely hot and heats everything around it. Dirty, because smoke and fumes coming from the brass being poured emitted soot into the air, and sand from the molds stuck to sweating bodies. It was hard to breathe because fumes and dirt polluted the air. Above all, the work was mindless.

The tasks were totally routine, unremittingly repetitious and unbearably boring. We lifted the heavy molds and held them in place while the brass was being poured. The kettle moved down the line by a crane above, and we had to position each mold so the brass would flow into their openings.

It often didn’t make it. Sometimes this was due to the crane operator having bad aim but more often one of us failing to move the mold under the stream. We needed to be alert to spills so as to jump out of the way. Having the molten brass spill on a person would be seriously harmful and it could be fatal. I saw others come very close to disaster several times. I was more lucky than adroit.

The only interest others had was sex of the most profane sort and scatological references that kept getting mixed with what passed as sex for them. I hated the work, the place, and the people. I counted every minute to breaks, lunch and quitting. At the end of each day I swore the only thing I would return for the next was my terminal check. I went to bed not just physically exhausted but so achy I had to fight to get to sleep despite how tired I was. I dreamt of the work. (One would think sleep would reward with some relief.) When I awoke in the morning, I hated the day because of what it would bring.

I counted the days until classes resumed and I could get out of this horrible place. Labor day was never celebrated with greater joy than that September. Not because I was a noble laborer, but precisely because I was no longer laborer but student again.

In short, this was the most terrible job I ever had, and it was one of the most miserable times I have ever endured. Now, nonetheless, I am glad I went through this, and I am grateful for what I learned — not about foundry operations and certainly not metallurgy, but about me. And about life.

I knew I was not cut out for this sort of job or, more seriously, this kind of life. It made me actually value academic study and endure the stress of examinations. I returned to the study of philosophy with new perspectives on a lot of things. I had learned things I never read in Aristotle or Kant.

I am not quite prepared to recommend college students seek out foundry work or other hard and unpleasant summer work. But if such is what is available, there is something important to learn from it. Especially for those heading for the professions or management, it would do for most much of good. (There must be some way to work this into a resume.)

I am almost prepared to say every young person should at some time in his or her life try a job like this. But only one and not for long.

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