Hardest Work You Ever Did?

See Tyler Cowen, over at Marginal Revolution, talks about working in a grocery store, but mentions he never actually dug ditches or anything like that. My story is similar, except I actually dug ditches for a summer, was a plumber’s helper, so had to handle sewage piping and help with sewer work. I’ve been in ditches that filled up with water in under a minute because we broke off the feed at the main, and been told “You think this is bad? Imagine having to do this in January.”

After that, in junior and senior years of high school, I worked for a well known Philadelphia meat packer stamping expiration dates on sausages. Once they came out of the freezer, the clock started ticking, so I got the dates on the next day’s trucks for delivery. I had a stamp gun and was pretty good about using it. But I can relate to a lot of Tyler’s stories about being the awkward kid in the shop.

I worked with teamsters. One day I was busting one of our route salesman’s balls, as the warehouse guys often did (we weren’t union, but the drivers were). He was a stout polish guy who was built like the truck he drove, who then proceeded to pick up my (at the time) skinny teenage ass and hold me over the dumpster, to remind me of my place. I lied about my age so I could get certification to operate a forklift.

Those were good times, but it’s what convinced me to start taking getting into college more seriously, and be serious about what I wanted to do. These days a lot of kids coming out of college haven’t ever had to hold down a job before, and even fewer ever did anything physically demanding. Not sure we’re better off for it.

17 thoughts on “Hardest Work You Ever Did?”

  1. Hardest work I ever did was working for a farmer.

    Hardest part of that job was pulling hay bales off the fields.
    Hot, long hours, stickly, sweaty, gritty. One had to keep up and todd the bales to the next guy stacking, or had to keep up with the guy tossing them to you.

    Detassling corn comes close though.
    Long hot days…first damp from dew, the just hot and humid. Neverending rows of corn that just kept coming. wire out your hands too. Had to wear a long sleeved shirt so the corn leaves didn’t cut your skin.

    I cut wood for a guy for a month. Never again.

    I did lots of other hard, dirty and nasty jobs, but haying and detassling were the hardest.

    1. I endorse the hay bale theory. I can’t believe how much those things weigh.

      I have cut a lot of wood but not for a living. It wasn’t as bad as the hay bales.

    2. You beat me to the punch. I helped a friend bale hay on a diary farm in WI. Putting the bales on the wagon turned out to be the easier part. Putting it up in the loft of the barn was worse – we were tired, it was hot as hell up there, you got crazy sticky and itchy from the hay, and there were a bunch of bees up there!

      Oh, and the cows had to be milked twice a day, every day. There is never a day off.

  2. I worked construction one summer, and totally hated it. Not the hard work so much (I had done some farm work, too) but I just hated construction. Still do — I can’t stand watching HGTV or other “home improvement” shows. Next I worked in a machine shop (my first real job) and loved it as much as I’d hated construction. I was casually discussing a partnership with my boss when I got drafted, and that ended that.

    I started college after I had been out of high school five years. The Army had really wrecked my “attitude” (long stories) and after I got out and had partied for a year, I’ll confess I started college for all the wrong reasons; mainly it sounded like a better gig than working, with the promise of more parties. But then I discovered it was my thing, and I was good at it. And, Army experiences had toughened me up so I had an attitude that if I could pull all-nighters doing utter nonsense in involuntary servitude, then pulling all-nighters to lift myself out of the mud was no big deal. My summer jobs during college went, machine shop, then scab in a striking chemical plant, then research assistant, convincing me laboratories and ’60s-vintage computers were much more to be desired than working at a deburring bench or loading chemical drums into boxcars after throwing punches crossing a picket line.

    Forgot to mention that while in the Army I dreamed of going to gunsmith school; but then all the legislation of ’67 and ’68 convinced me there would be no future in it. That was one time I regret my chronic pessimism.

    1. Speaking of the Army, the worst job in the Army (if you weren’t getting shot at) was “pots and pans man” on KP. Followed closely by “outside man”, which sounds good, but involved cleaning garbage cans and the grease pit. Both were last-choice jobs you’d get if the CQ woke you up late to report to the mess hall. Many times I remember sitting on the mess hall steps before dawn, watching the rats play, so I’d get first pick (NCO mess orderly) and not those jobs.

      Those are treats they tell me young troops miss out on, these days. ;-)

  3. Years in the grounds keeping business- digging, sod laying, snow removal, etc. The worst task associated with one grounds keeping job at a medical facility: cleaning up when the garbage dumpster was taken away for emptying.the facility’s nonmedical waste was collected and sent to a compactor which pushed it into a large container for removal. When the truck picked up the container, some garbage fell out the opening (about the size of a full mattress). I had to pick up the garbage and bag it for when the truck returned with the empty container. Twice a week, any weather. Yeeckk. I did find an empty cigarette pack with a dollar stuck between the cellophane and the pack; I put it in a video poker machine and left with $300.00.

  4. I worked in a machine shop with my father at 15. I essentially stood in front of a machine that cut huge pieces of pipe into tiny pieces of pipe. I had to load the machines, watch it cut, measure pieces and pack them. All while getting splashed with coolant non stop. A dirty job it was more than a hard job physically. It was more the situation made it hard. My father was a man of work. You did it hard or you didn’t do it at all. Most of the other employees thought I was getting it easy because I was one of the owner’s kids. In reality my father didn’t want anyone to think I was getting it easy so I always got the crappy jobs and machines. On a plus note, a few years later I asked him once why I always got the crappy jobs and he told me it was because he knew I would get the job done and he could trust me. So at least there was that. But it did strengthen my resolve to get into college. Also weeded bean fields for a local farmer for 2 years before I went to slave with my father. My back hurt even at 15 from that.

  5. I still have horses so loading hay is an every year job. Maybe I’m just numb to it any more. Slow and steady, marathon not a sprint.

    Worked in a landfill unloading rail cars of lime when I was going to college. One out of ten bags had a rip in them so you were dusted pretty well by the end of the day. I think I made $2.25 an hour in 1976 and I still remember the smell of the place.

  6. I just want to say, I love these threads that invite people to tell their personal histories. Maybe I display it too much, but I always see a sort of “poetry” in even the most mundane personal story. What and how people remember often tells a story in itself.

    1. I grew up in a restaurant family. Working the dishroom or the grill line during the Saturday night rush focuses the mind on doing something less strenuous.

  7. My mother taught at a large church school; in my last year of junior high she got me a summer job on the grounds crew, first job was “regrade the soccer field.” Dump trucks delivered the topsoil, I and my 5 fellow school inmates spread it with wheelbarrows, shovels and rakes. Next was a hand dug buried sprinkler system on the 2 baseball fields.

    The following summer I was “assigned” to replace the fencing on the grandparents’ crop and cattle farm – multiple fields, 100 to 300 acres. Pulling the old posts and re-augering the holes was easy because “diesel tractor” but stringing, tensioning and stapling the miles of barbed wire was brutal and bloody.

    I made damn sure good grades in HS and engineering school went to the top of my “to do” list and stayed there.

  8. I did the high school jobs of hauling hay, working in a packing plant, etc. I pumped gas at a very busy gas station for 2 years of high school, as well.
    I got out of high school, then in September, I hired into a steel melting facility. The first night on, I saw two guys pouring steel and thought, ” they must have been here a long time, to have such a responsible job.” The next night, they handed me a shield, some gloves, and told me, “You are the new pourer.”
    I learned quickly what was what. I spent over 35 years there, doing every job in the plant, and most of them in the lab. I ran open air furnaces, and vacuum furnaces, casting machines, 20 ton ladles, just about anything you could imagine.
    We sold metal for gun parts, artificial hip and knee joints, boat propellers, jet airplane engines, turbochargers for cars. Anything that needs a special alloy.
    To this day, I have spots on my arms that won’t tan, due to the burns that I got on them. Little white spots with tan all around.

    1. I applied at Fairless Steel right out of high school, but was rejected because I’m nearly blind in one eye. A little over two years later I was drafted. The Army used the simple expedient of falsifying my physical records to give me perfect corrected vision, and they repeated that procedure several more times while I was in. The wonders of modern medicine, as rendered by “official” records, and words and numbers on paper!

      Anyway: I always wonder what would have happened had I landed the job in the mill. Would I have gotten stuck there because it was a job too good to give up on a gamble? I remember they were paying $2.61 an hour for entry-level, unskilled laborers, when everyone else was paying $1.25 – $1.50 for unskilled labor. I’m sure I would have been drafted anyway, because all my buddies who went to work there were, so I probably would have come home with the same “wrecked” attitude I mentioned above, and chosen college as a better gig than hard labor.

      1. Andy B, I worked two summers at Fairless. The landfill was right next door, GROWS.

  9. I consider myself fortunate that I didn’t have to work my way through college, but I was expected to find and hold a job during school breaks. It always amazed me when someone would complain that their allowance from mom and dad wasn’t big enough. A college student with an allowance!?

    The jobs I did weren’t all that physically demanding, but they definitely drove home the point that as someone with Cerebral palsy I didn’t want to work jobs where I had to hauling stuff and on my feet all day long, much less something that was actual hard, backbreaking labor.

  10. I think I was 19 or 20. Worked for a roofer for one day. Carrying 90 weight paper up a three story ladder and hot tar burns. I woke up the next morning and felt so sore I never went back or picked up my check.

    1. I worked at a packing plant, where we processed asparagus, and cooked and packed it. I worked there about 4 weeks, got a job pumping gas, and never went back to pick up my last check. this was in high school.
      So I understand where you are coming from. The strong smell, plus the back breaking work of an assembly line, even for a 16 year old kid, was enough to get me to quit, for pumping gas.

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