With a child in school who could benefit from hearing the president of the United States encourage him to work hard, I’d considered writing a response to the apoplectic folk who are calling for parents to keep their children out of school tomorrow lest President Obama indoctrinate their impressionable minds with his evil socialist agenda. Since others, including my wife, have done that quite effectively, I decided to pass.

Instead, I decided to honor this Labor Day by recalling how I learned the importance of work.

We never lacked food on the table when I was young, but there wasn’t a lot of money to throw around. If I and my two brothers wanted extra money, we generally had to earn it, and that taught us important lessons.

The first such effort I can recall was collecting empty soft drink bottles from the side of the road and any trash cans that I could reach. Since I wasn’t allowed to leave sight of the house, my prospects were limited, but I could take what I found to Uncle Jake’s short-lived country store (Uncle Jake because he married my grandmother’s sister, Coonie) and redeem them for two cents apiece. I’d then spend the few pennies on candy or a Coke.

When I was 10 or 11, my grandmother (whom we called Bubba) hired me to spend the night at her house, keeping my aging great-grandmother company while Bubba worked the second or third shift at the spinning mill across the river in McCormick, S.C. She paid me a dollar per night, plus a half-gallon of ice cream and my choice of cookies for the week. I could make an additional fifty cents if I cut her grass (we weren’t fancy enough to have lawns).

At about 12, I started working odd jobs for our neighbor Herman Martin, an irascible character who had me doing everything from building wire cages for a chicken house to riding a creaking combine and sacking oats. On one particularly hot day, he persuaded me to crawl inside the combine to clean out a jammed roller, and I decided the five dollars a day he was paying me wasn’t enough.

All through high school, I worked as a soda jerk and general clerk at one of Lincolnton, Georgia’s two drug stores. My favorite concoction was a “Malt o’ plenty.” My most embarrassing moment involved a shy gentleman whispering that he wanted some prophylactics, which were kept in a drawer behind the counter in the pharmacy. At the time, I didn’t know what prophylactics were.
For that, I was paid $1.25 per hour.

After my junior year in high school, I caught rides with older workers and spent the summer swinging shifts at the aforementioned spinning mill, where I ran pin-draft and roving machines in the pilot plant. Though my pay got up to $1.81 per hour, that summer was all the motivation I needed to study hard and go to college.

I helped work my way through the University of Georgia at an assortment of jobs, included a year as an experimental male waiter at Shoney’s, where I had to wear an open-collared shirt and a little scarf around my neck (it was the early 70s, after all). I also moved the lawn and trimmed the shrubbery at the Baptist Student Union.

I spent one summer working as a combination early-morning garbage collector and afternoon lifeguard at Elijah Clark State Park. You haven’t lived until you’ve emptied a string of heavy cans filled with watermelon rinds and fish guts that have been sitting in the sun for three days.

My most memorable summer sent me to Indonesia as a summer missionary, and after that I persuaded the local Baptist association to sponsor me as a resort missionary for three summers, working mainly at Elijah Clark. I got lots of practice in preaching to small crowds.

As my senior year in college began, I was called as pastor of Loco Baptist Church (seriously), where I stayed two years, preaching twice each Sunday and leading Wednesday night services for $50 per week. On Saturdays, I installed big TV antennas, often on very scary chimneys.

My first full-time job, upon graduation, was as the solo science teacher for a small high school. I taught two levels of biology, two levels of chemistry, and physics — for the amazing salary of $6,700. In 1973-74, that was entry-level pay.

I’ve had many jobs since then, and most of them have paid more, but I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned in those early efforts: if you want to get ahead, you have to be willing to work, and to work well, and to be willing to do whatever needs to be done.

I also learned a deep appreciation for all those who labor and are heavy laden, for they make the world as we know it go ’round.

Happy Labor Day to all.

[Image from labordayclipart.com]

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