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Rich Experiences of My Youth Around Today?

May 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

My first job in towing was working for my dad at the tow yard at age 15, answering phones, rearranging debris, shooting hoops inside the shop and being bored out of my mind for long stretches — 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., weekdays, $200 monthly salary — during summer break.

One task they gave me was to siphon gas out of the tanks of wrecked cars in the yard. This was a highly questionable assignment on multiple levels. First, let’s consider safety. I had a shopping cart with a car battery wired up to an old electric pump, with open wires, with plastic tubing drawing fuel out of tanks and into a gas can. Here’s the training I was given: “Put the tube in the gas tank. Hook up this wire. When the tank is empty or the can is full, unhook the wire.” At least I was outside, where the breeze dissipated fumes. Second, I didn’t have a working knowledge of gas versus diesel, other than exhaust recognition, so the quality of my finished product was dubious at best.

Honestly, it was one of the best summers of my life. I ate Mexican food for the first time (Crisp Meat Burritos from Taco Time with mustard instead of hot sauce). I cleaned the shop (I held stuff up and yelled, “How ‘bout this?” and someone would say, “Toss it!”). I wore shades indoors. I bought a 1949 Willys Jeep with a fold-down windshield and we painted it camo. I learned how to drive (this is an abandoned technique, I think — buy a car, then learn to drive.)

I guess I learned the value of labor — just over a dollar an hour. So I did the American thing — I gave 95 cents an hour’s worth of effort. I lived with my older brother and his girlfriend and didn’t even care that they both smoked about eight packs a day.

My older son is 15 now — great kid — four-point student, athlete, popular, responsible. I was ready to be on my own at 15 (not financially, practically or emotionally but attitudinally, yes). I can’t imagine sending my kid to live with his older brother (if he had an older brother) or even with my older brother, for the summer. Are we too protective and sheltering as parents nowadays? Seems like we’re a society of extremes: kids are confined to a predetermined path established at age four according to a books-on-tape series we listened to while commuting, or kids raise their siblings while parents attend to their meth addiction.

Wow, am I digressing, or what? I guess my point is that I don’t want my kids doing what I was doing at their age, after about age 13. But I’m sorry that they’re missing out on a more carefree time when you could go outside after school, report back for dinner, leave again and report back for bedtime, without direct parental involvement of any kind. Some people complain that their parents weren’t involved enough, which is why they personally attend every act of their own child’s first 17 years. Me, I couldn’t have been happier seeing my parents at dinner and on family vacations only. I played school baseball 7th through 11th grades, and I only remember my mom being at one of my games. My dad was at a handful. They both worked and the games were right after school so it was tough for them to get there. I understood. I had a blast playing ball with my friends, with one coach and a few cute girls from school in the bleachers.

Could you even employ a 15-year-old in your shop today, leave him alone to run the place, answer phones, release vehicles and pay him sub-zero-minimum wage? Oh, the humanity! The news copters would be hovering over your storage lot within hours. Could you give him open sparks and send him out to handle flammables? I don’t think so. How are kids supposed to learn practical skills? I’m considering hiring my 18-year-old daughter part time to run a TPN YouTube/Podcast program. Why? Because that’s the prevailing business wisdom these days — you have to saturate with social media — and I’d have to squeeze it in Sunday morning at 3 a.m. if I did it all myself. Good experience for her, something she will likely use in her post-graduate career, but is it a richer experience than the work I was doing at 18? I worked that summer in a plant nursery, learning horticulture and Spanish at $3.05 per hour. I got 2.5 minutes of training to drive a Kubota tractor with four trailers of potted plants. I climbed on top of hothouses and pulled off coverings with no safety harnesses, sunburned my entire upper body so bad I peeled the next day, then re-burned a day after that. Of course, I’m leaving out the most interesting summer job I ever had — six weeks, two consecutive summers, working at the granary during harvest, 7 days/96 hours per week. The second summer was the year Mt. St. Helens erupted, and I inhaled enough volcanic ash to mummify a small village.

“Rich” is one of my favorite words. Not in a money sense, but in the other sense, the one that counts. If you can lead a rich, full life, it kind of makes up for the pain and struggles and trivialities. In fact, I’d argue you can’t have the first one without the other ones.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper