Mike Rowe, you’ve got nothing on me. Beaver relocator? I’ve done worse. Caviar harvester? I can top that. Deer urine collector? Okay, you got me there, pal.
I’ve had dirty jobs ever since I can remember. I could have had my own show! I walked beans for a farmer in south central Minnesota when I was eight years old. I picked eggs on a chicken farm when I was nine. In college, I bussed tables and washed dishes at a grungy little diner and cleaned the meat department at a grocery store.
I started working for a farmer in Wisconsin named Glenn when I was 11 years old. Glenn milked 60 cows and also raised pigs. For those of you that don’t have experience with farm livin’, cows and pigs create a lot of manure. Said manure has to be cleaned up on a regular basis, and by regular basis, I mean every single day. This farmer had two barns for his cows. Fortunately, one had an automated barn cleaner; unfortunately, the other one did not. That’s where I came in.
When I was in 6th, 7th and 8th grade, Glenn would pick me up after school. On the drive back to his farm, he would tell me the jobs that needed to be done that day. Invariably on the list was cleaning one of the barns. This is how it would usually go: Glenn would back the manure spreader into the cow barn or pig barn. We would both grab pitchforks and/or shovels and start loading the spreader. Usually within 10 minutes or so, Glenn would tell me that he had to go do something else and would leave me to the task at hand. I got pretty good at pitching manure and took some measure of pride in the cleaning jobs I did. I realized, of course, that the animals in question would get busy messing it up as soon as I left. When I’d get home after a good shit-shoveling session, my mom wouldn’t let me in the house. She made me take my barn clothes off outside and, once, after a particularly nasty session, hosed me off as I stood in my skivvies.
And speaking of pigs... Did you know that big pigs give birth to little pigs? Did you know that little male pigs have to be castrated at two weeks so when they’re brought to market their meat will taste better? Boars become barrows! I’ll never forget the first time Glenn told me we had to castrate all the male piglets. I had no idea what he was talking about. We drove over to his second farm where he kept the pigs and separated the piglets from the sows. He took a bale of straw and told me to straddle it. He reached into the pen and grabbed a piglet, who immediately started squealing. I’m pretty sure the piglet knew something bad was about to happen. He put the piglet upside down on the straw bale and told me to hold its back legs apart. He took a razor blade and made two quick incisions, grabbed each little testicle with his fingers, sliced them free and tossed them over the fence. He sprayed the little fella with some anti-bacterial medicine and let him go. Believe it or not, each piglet shook his rear end a couple of times and headed back to the group, seemingly no worse for wear. There’s a lot of dirty work on a farm, and I experienced all of it!
The summer after I graduated from high school, I had no summer employment lined up. My farmer friend had suffered a grievous accident and was not able to offer me much work at the time. A man from our church had started a concrete business, so I asked him one Sunday if he needed any help. He told me he already had a full crew but hired me anyway...for a whopping $2.65 an hour. I was playing Legion baseball that summer, so to mitigate the pitiful wage, he told me that whenever I had a game, I could take off. He specialized in pouring basements for new home construction. On my first day of work that summer, he sent me to the small town of Cambridge and told me to meet up with the rest of the crew at the jobsite.
They crew had already poured the walls of the foundation and our job for the day was to level out the basement floor and prep it for concrete. The three guys greeted me. Their names were Harley, Skeeter and Steve. Steve was a member of our church so I knew him fairly well. The other two guys were a couple of characters. I’m not sure of their educational backgrounds or previous work experience, but they knew how to handle construction equipment, operate a transit and do everything else necessary to pour and finish concrete. Harley told me that we had to even out all the gravel in the basement before we installed the re-bar. He told me that he was going to go out to his truck and get me a motorized shovel. “Great!” I thought. “They even have motorized shovels! Who knew?”
He came back carrying a regular shovel and handed it to me. “You’re the motor, Rookie,” he said, laughing. I went to work with a vengeance, trying to impress the crew on my first day. I didn’t take a break for two hours until I had the entire basement floor perfectly leveled. I'm not sure what the other guys were doing, but they weren’t helping me. After that initial burst of manic energy, the guys in the crew accepted me as one of their own. We spent the summer together digging footings, pouring basement walls, finishing floors and building sidewalks. It was hard work balancing and carrying 80 lb. forms while walking across eight-inch walls. Concrete work is a lot like battle: long periods of time waiting for concrete trucks followed by short, manic stretches wrangling wheelbarrows full of cement and doing finish work before it hardened. I learned a lot that summer, and despite my low wages, counted it as a successful foray into the world of construction.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I moved in with my wife’s (girlfriend at the time) brother on one of their farms. I worked part time for her dad milking cows and baling hay. I also managed to secure a 40-hour-per-week job at an onion ring factory called Moore’s Seafood. They made a variety of products but were best known for their breaded onion rings. I worked second shift that summer from 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. My job was simple but boring. I stood at a conveyor belt as the breaded onion rings rolled past. I packed 18-20 onion rings in two layers in each box. Hour after hour, day after day. There were a couple other college-age dunderheads that worked alongside me, and we tried to make the drudgery as fun as possible. We got two 15-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch each day. During our breaks the four of us would play euchre, a card game that most Wisconsinites know. We got so fast we could play five or six full games during each break.
All this dirty work was exacerbated by one other slight problem. Earlier that summer while playing baseball for the city of Fort Atkinson, I had hit a line drive to deep right field. Not thinking it would go over the fence for a dinger, I hustled down the line as fast as I could but tripped over first base as I rounded for second. I put my right hand down to catch myself and felt something snap in my right wrist. I was pitching that night and somehow managed to finish the game, but I knew something was wrong. I ended up going to the ER the next day. The doc showed me my X-rays and told me I had fractured the navicular bone in my right hand. He put a heavy plaster cast on my arm from my thumb all the way up to my elbow. My baseball season was over, but I still had two jobs that required my attention.
The foreman at the onion ring factory told me I had to cover the cast while I worked. Thanks, OSHA. Before each shift I would take a large plastic bread bag and poke my fingers through the bottom, run the bag up to my elbow and hold it in place with a large rubber band. On the mornings when I helped milk cows, I did the same. As you can imagine, it was impossible to keep the cast clean and dry. Not only was I working around the pungent aroma of sliced onions, I was also wrangling dirty milk cows, washing udders and lugging milking equipment around the barn. Fire up your olfactory imagination for one second and I think you can understand that after a couple of weeks of this, to say my cast smelled rancid was the understatement of the century.
The doctor told me I would need to keep the cast on for up to six weeks. After three weeks, the plaster had gotten pretty soggy and the color had turned from hospital white to cadaver grey. After four weeks, I couldn’t take the smell anymore. Nor could other members of the household. One afternoon, I made an executive medical decision. Starting at the thumb area, I started unpeeling the degraded plaster and took the cast off myself. My hand seemed to be okay, so I didn’t even go back to see the doctor. I suspect he would have been mortified. The hand had healed...I think. Actually, I can still feel it ache when it’s going to rain.
It was a summer filled with tears (caused by onions) and strange smells. For weeks after I went back to college, the aroma of onions and cow manure gradually seeped out of my pores until I started smelling like a normal human being again. As difficult and dirty as some of my jobs were, I wouldn’t have traded those experiences for anything. And, boy, those onion rings were delicious!