“What did you do on your summer vacation?” I bet the answers in 2020 are going to be a lot different from those in 1966.
A newsletter for ex-newspaper folks (specifically those bred in the incubator known as The San Diego Union-Tribune) recently spooled out a thread on summer jobs. The question was neutral but the recollections quickly veered toward the worst, hardest, most humiliating.
Well, those are usually the most memorable, aren’t they?
Mine was among the hardest, and the worst, but also one of the best a kid with football hero dreams could hope for in a small country town like Brookville, Pennsylvania. I cherish every brutal, exhausting moment. Here’s what I wrote:
Fresh from being tossed out of the Catholic seminary in 1966, I landed a job stacking wood with Matson Lumber Company in my north-western Pennsylvania town of Brookville.
The job was no fluke in this high-unemployment region. I had a few things in my favor.
Jim Matson was my neighbor and one of my best friends. His dad owned the company.
Jim and I both played football for Brookville Area High School. Jim was destined to be a fullback in the upcoming junior year. I was to be a transfer student and destined to be fast-tackle on both defense and offense. Our pal and classmate Charlie Northy also worked at the yard that summer. Charlie could play any position he wanted. He was that good. There was a fourth kid, whose name escapes me.
It was no coincidence that so many footballers ended up at the yard.
Matson’s was an off-season training ground for high school athletes — a place where you built muscle, developed stamina, and acquired the strength to excel on the gridiron. You also learned teamwork, responsibility, problem-solving, and the limits of human endurance.
The yard is the place where fresh-cut lumber arrived in truckloads to be measured, cataloged, and stacked for drying.
Starting at sunrise, the foreman would stand atop a stack of wet wood with a calibrated stick in one hand and a pencil and notebook in the other. With the flexible stick, he’d measure the width of a board, eyeball the length, then mark down the square footage in his book.
We stood between the stack and open bins into which the wood would be restacked according to width. Over each layer of boards, we would drop down narrow slats that would create an airspace between decks. When the bins filled up, a forklift would pick up the stack and move it into the city of 30-foot high towers of drying lumber.
And we would start all over again.
The bins acted as molds. God help you if a stack was uneven or had boards sticking out. It wasn’t just sloppy work — it could fall over and kill somebody.
This lumber was wet and it was heavy and the sun overhead burned down on us without mercy.
You learned quickly how to handle a 20-foot-long board without tearing your back out.
We worked through the day until every load of lumber had been sorted and stacked, even if it meant working until sundown. On days when lumber wasn’t coming in, flatbed trucks and empty freight cars were waiting to haul the dried stuff away.
The freight cars were the worst because you could not leave air space. Every available inch had to be filled with boards and when you reached the top, it was really really hot in there.
We wore leather gloves and aprons until they wore out. That took no time at all. By mid-summer, calloused hands made the gloves unnecessary. Even with the apron, I went through several pairs of jeans that summer.
We found out toward the end of summer that the company had a hard time holding on to laborers. The work was just too hard. That made us feel pretty good. We were doing a job no man in town could handle. And this was a town filled with rugged coal miners, farmers, and lumberjacks.
Most days, we’d get off work just in time to jump into the icy cold water at The Dam, the town’s public swimming hole. It was deep water just below the municipal reservoir and you could swim out to the lip of the dam and sit under the cascading overflow and feel like a god.
We’d arrive in tattered cut-off jeans and sneakers — our unform in pre-OSHA days — covered in sweat, sawdust, and dirt. But before hitting the water, we’d hit “The Beach” — a well-trimmed lawn filled with our tanning classmates. The Leisure Class. Somehow we thought this was, I dunno, sexy?
The Dam still exists and high school kids still lay out their blankets on the green grass and flirt and prance and preen and indulge in all the goofy things that kids are supposed to.
By the end of that summer, the lumber had done its job. We were four of the biggest and strongest and best-tanned guys on the team. The coach called us the Four Black Horsemen.
We dominated the Tuesday and Thursday summer night “informal” meet-ups and the more-formal pre-season sessions. When the football season finally began we were pumped. Juniors all, and on the varsity squad. We were going to take this team to the top.
Three games into the season the regional athletic commission ruled that I was ineligible to play because I’d transferred from a private school to a public one. They threatened to overturn our three straight victories and all future wins if I suited up for varsity.
I stuck with the team, practiced after school every day, and played in meaningless JV games for the rest of the season. At varsity games, I sat in the stands and cheered. I didn’t know what else to do. The team still awarded me a varsity jacket although it felt fraudulent and I didn’t wear it until after my senior season.
We all went back to the lumber yard in the summer between junior and senior years. And we had the best football season in the school’s history in our senior year. I even broke the school’s shot put record during track-and-field practice.
To this day, the smell of fresh-cut wood and sawdust takes me back to those days of backbreaking labor and I remember them fondly. The work was hard, exhausting, brutal at times, but the lessons learned in the yard stay with me to this day.
Except for chewing tobacco. That was the foreman’s idea of turning boys into men but for me, it just led to a lot of retching behind a fresh stack of lumber.