Back...Back...Back...that rock's outta here!
I got a real education in leadership, politics and team dynamics the summers between my sophomore and senior years in high school. None of it had anything to do with me actually leading, but that’s another story.
Back then it was the norm for high school kids to have summer jobs, in fact if you expected to have any pocket change or movie money, it was the only way you were going to get it. At least in my neighborhood. There were kids that I knew whose families sent them to sports camps, or fun summer camps in the Poconos, but in an Irish-Italian family of 8 kids, in a neighborhood of large families, we could have our own summer camps and most always did. We had enough kids to put together a touch football team almost any weekend, and Whiffle ball tournaments of epic proportion and kick-the-can games that were marathons stretching over days and weeks of summer play.
And the summer before my senior year I began to see the value in my apprenticeship during the ‘Summers of Cement’, and our small family enterprise run by my brother Stephen, a calm solid natural leader who was the best rugby team captain I ever had….but that’s another story.
Before my senior year, I worked at Camp Indian Springs, which was primarily made up of affluent kids from the ‘Main Line’, a Philadelphia train line which runs from the old inner city neighborhoods, out to Wayne, one of Montgomery county’s charming cities. My role at the camp was as the doer of all things not otherwise done by counselors, the one janitor Bill Jones (who was like Paw Rugg, the muttering father bear character from the Hannah Barbera cartoon series Hillbilly Bears. Nobody EVER understood him.), and anyone else who had something they didn’t want to do themselves. Fortunately for me, my two ‘Summers of Cement’ had humbled me to the point where I was just grateful to be clean and included, and somewhat in charge of my own destiny. It was also the summer I was learning to drive, and there were lots of hours where I was left on the 45 acre camp by myself and the camp pickup truck was way too attractive to be left alone. Unfortunately for me there was a corral, a narrow gate, the right front corner panel of the truck….you get the picture. Being in charge of my own destiny was going to have to happen without access to moving vehicles that summer. But I already had another experience with trucks, just not the right kind.
In the summers before my sophomore and junior years, my brother Stephen’s business was removing and replacing old pieces of cement sidewalk and curb that the township had marked for replacement. Back in those days, homeowners had to maintain their own piece of the sidewalk, and we provided that service. It was Stephen, myself, and my other two older brothers Jimbo and Johnny. The job consisted of breaking up the old concrete with a sledgehammer, loading the pieces onto a truck, hauling them to rock quarry for disposal, and pouring new cement.
There were plenty of days those summers that I went swimming after work and thank God I took the cement covered shoes off. Because packed down like that, and as tired as I was from how hard we all worked, I could have been swimming with the fishes stuck at the bottom of a pool or Springton Lake.
We would load up a 24 foot moving van (yes… moving van) and then drive it to the quarry. I’m not sure if the rental company ever knew the extent of the stress we were putting on those vans. Needless to say, they were not designed to haul 300 pound cement pieces. And back then, things were made better….
I remember one of the first times at the quarry backing the truck up to the edge of the cliff and throwing the broken concrete into the hole. Grueling. After unloading by hand a few times, Jimbo suggested that we put the van in reverse, jam on the brakes, and as we got close to the edge of the cliff the rock would simply slide and fly right out of the truck.
We quickly discovered that the fastest way to unload a truck WAS just that simple. How were we to know that simple technique would give us legendary status at Gallantino’s Quarry? Because as you can imagine they were used to dump truck after dump truck backing their load to the edge of the quarry and using the proper hydraulics, tilting the bed to such a degree that the waste would simply fall out the back of the truck. Our rapid reverse/brake action/ejection technique had not been seen at any quarry since the time of Fred Flintstone. (I imagine it was hard to teach a dinosaur to run in reverse).
It was quite the spectacle, in fact all the drivers, staff and quarry workers would stop what they were doing, come out to the road leading to the cliff overlooking the quarry, and watch the rented Ford moving van slam on its brakes and eject 5 tons of concrete out the back. There had to be a perfect combination of high speed, timing and braking associated with this process. If you knew my brother Jimmy, you would know that he was the perfect person for the task. Headstrong, willful, fearless. The next year in physics for me, when we learned about force, velocity, mass….it put a real-world spin on F=ma and E=mc2 for me. And my brother Jim went on to invent a brilliant piece of equipment for the railroad industry all over the world. The fact that it removes and ejects railroad ties from the tracks has an oddly familiar ring to it.
After off-loading the rubble, we then would have to run back to the job site in time for the delivery of cement and the set up the forms and get ready for the pour. Once the pour happened we had a short period of time to sculpt the cement into concrete. We did this several hundred times over the summer .. good for the quarry, not so good for the moving vans. I learned the other day that the quarry is now full and thankfully without a Ford moving van at the bottom.
Working with my three older brothers I learned a lot those summers. Show up for work on time , work the whole time. there was always work to be done and having a tool in your hand did not constitute working, AND fifteen-year-olds did not have opinions no matter how well they were formed, AND 6 dollars an hour was like a fortune to me. I know for a fact I had more disposable income then than I do now. I was thankful to have the work. I had dreams of us all working together in a family business. I still do.
I learned the other day, in reminiscing with my brother Stephen that I spent a great deal of time those summers complaining that I wasn’t making as much money as the rest of my brothers. Now that I’m wiser, and have a fifteen-year-old of my own, I’m sorry for my youthful pride. I found out that I DID make as much as the others and for the whole summer made a spectacle of myself. Back then, my brothers were tolerant and forgiving and had my best interests at heart. I try to convey that to my son with stories of ‘Uncle Stephen Says’, which has elevated him to legendary status in my house.
What I know now was that the idea of having a concrete business was not my idea, and it I who should have been thankful to have a job. No one else was offering to put up with my rebelliousness. AND paying me. There were other lessons I learned that year and one was to be part of a team and work for the good of it. I was a laborer plain and simple – I didn’t get the jobs, didn’t organize the jobs, didn’t negotiate any of the costs or bid on the jobs. I was a laborer. I did not know how to set up the forms, I did not know how to order the cement. I was too immature to know I was being treated fairly. As a member of that team, looking back on the events of the summer, what I really wanted was to feel valued for my participation. The money as I remember it was not nearly as important.
‘Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Character is what you really are. Reputation is what people say you are. Reputation is often based on character – but not always. Character is how you react to things – sensibly, without getting carried away by yourself or your circumstances. A person of character is trustworthy, and for a dollar he or she will give you a dollar. The other kind of person looks for the easy way out. I like to think the players I coached, however they came to UCLA, left as men of character. But in truth, if they didn’t have it when they came, I couldn’t give it to them. By then it was too late. That’s a job for a mother and father.’ – UCLA Basketball Coaching Legend John Wooden.
Some Hillbilly Bears fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9HV4EhSW08