Vail Daily column: A flame still burns
I began each of my careers at the bottom.
While a teenager, even McDonald’s wouldn’t have me. I bore this wound mowing lawns, helping people move, clearing weed-choked land, digging ditches and similar labors. Me, unworthy of a job everyone else I knew landed with ease. How embarrassing. Scarring, even.
I made do stringing together enough odd jobs to keep myself in movie, gas and 8-track money. It turned out better than working fast-food shifts, for sure. Looking back, I can count all the useful lessons far beyond what I would have picked up at McDonald’s.
But what I carried with me was this: I wasn’t good enough for them. They must have seen deficiencies, which must be obvious to everyone. I’d probably never be able to land a “real” job. What was wrong with me that everyone but I could see?
Ah, ain’t adolescence great? Some schlep made a mistake, had enough punks on staff, filled the openings. And so he lighted a fire in at least one of the kids he didn’t take.
I had enough going to build a business I didn’t realize I had developed. I could even put away a little for college. Ah, but I had something else in mind.
I saved enough to fly to Hawaii within a week of graduating from high school. My dad lived there. My mother had scooped up her little kids during a big rainstorm in Honolulu and flown out of a marriage gone wrong back home to Southern California.
I was just retracing the route a decade later. Figured it would be good to get to know this stranger, my father. Besides, dude lived in Hawaii. Not sure I would have quite mustered the will for, say, New Jersey or Illinois.
The first “real” job came along following another string of odd jobs and a short stint selling sandwiches downtown that came to crashing end when worms began showing up in them.
The Hale Koa Hotel, built on the military’s Fort DeRussy on Waikiki Beach, hired me as a bartender’s assistant at the ripe age of 19; the drinking age in Hawaii was 18 then. My big break. I even punched in and punched out. So cool.
I step-’n’-fetched with such enthusiasm and tirelessness I made full bartender within the year, with my own bar on slow weeknights and Sundays. And learned enough about girls to have one to chase to the mainland soon after that.
The relationship once I arrived in Santa Barbara lasted about as long as a wave breaking all at once. Guess I didn’t know what I thought I knew about women, something I’ve learned persists to this day. And I was too young at 20 to practice my proud craft behind a bar in California.
If anything, I started my next career even below the bottom. I caught on with the Forest Service as a seasonal wildland firefighter on an engine crew stationed next to Ronald Reagan’s ranch. Thing was, all the other rookies were hired as GS-3s. I was the only GS-1 in the district, and probably the forest, too.
I also seemed to be the only one who practiced in his off-hours. I shouldered hose packs and ran hills with them after work, and tried to perfect deploying and packing them. I read everything on firefighting, especially the reports following fatalities on the line. I did that tireless and enthusiastic thing again, though I muted the enthusiasm outwardly because this was a cooler, tougher, more growly crowd.
So it happened that I finished out this career as acting foreman on a vaunted hotshot crew, getting easier shifts on the line as superintendent while the real one took higher responsibilities. I found the woman I would marry by then, too.
And I had a blown-out knee. Here we go again.
Seems straightforward and predictable looking back. Where else would I start in the next career but the bottom, even below the bottom?
I lucked into a job as cub reporter at a California mountain town weekly before I could type. I made $10 a week less than I got in unemployment doing nothing. I worked my weekends, all of ’em, trying to learn this thing before getting canned for not being able to keep up.
I did what I did as McDonald’s reject, bartender’s assistant and GS-1 firefighter. The reporter became the editor and eventually dragged his growing family to daily papers across the country, finally landing and sticking here. Whew.
I don’t know that I’m mature yet enough to toss off helpful lessons for a successful working life. I’m still outraged at McDonald’s, I guess. Bent on proving the poor schlep who passed me up all wrong.
Oh yeah, the spark he touched off still burns as hot as ever.
I’d love to get my hands on that guy.
Just so I can thank him.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2920.
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