Editor's note: "The Jobless Summer," an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that "The Department of Labor reported (this summer) that a smaller share of 16- to 19-year-olds are working than at any time since records began to be kept in 1948." As Labor Day draws the curtain on another summer and another season of summer jobs for teens, it's worth noting that wages weren't the only things those kids lost.
Kids who never got that summer job this year have missed out on more than the pocket money. They have missed as well what might have lasted them a lifetime. I mean the memories and life lessons.
I remember a different summer. It was 1967. A teenager looking for work, I noted in the classifieds that the Fuller Brush Co. wanted a door-to-door salesman for the countryside around my hometown of Hanover, Pa. Soon I was roving for sales and delivering merchandise in my 1956 Buick, a tank of a vehicle in my high school's colors of orange and black.
People on farms and in scattered rural homes discovered me at their doorsteps in tie and coat, my product sample case filled with scrub brushes and toothbrushes, with mop heads, air deodorants and household cleaners. I took my pitch lines from the product catalog. One of the cleaners would "tint your toilet bowl a mountain-brook blue." Lucky for me, Fuller Brush was a popular brand where I lived, and most people there took pride in keeping up their homes, however grand or modest. Spring cleaning was a four-season event.
I loved my job. I was my own boss, meandering as I wished amid green hills and heavy, redolent air. A whiff of manure seemed a scent, not an odor.
It was a summer of venture. It is a summer still mine.
My only instruction came the morning I tagged along with a veteran salesman. His counsel: "Always keep your sample case between you and the dog, and you'll be okay."
Immediately I set off for my first solo call, a farmhouse at the end of a dirt path rutted hard as a washboard. The Buick's suspension groaned until I came to a stop in the vacant farmyard — or vacant so it seemed. Presently five German shepherds emerged that had been taking shade under a pickup truck.
Wielding a sample case was usually no big deal. The case was small, with hard sides. You simply held it in front of your crotch, which is about the level of a German shepherd's dentition. As I learned on this call, however, there was a vital adaptation to be made when you found yourself surrounded. You still sidled in mincing steps, but now you also had to spin round to confront the nearest snarling member of the pack at any moment, spin a full turn, then a half, then a quarter in the opposite direction.
Thus my procession to the kitchen door, where my knock produced the woman of the house, a thin figure with hard eyes.
"Hello, I'm the Fuller Brush man, and …"
I got no further before she cut in: "I'll use one of your brushes. I'll use one of your brushes over your head if you don't get out of here."
I made fast for the Buick in my just-learned vertiginous gait (full turn, half turn …), and achieved my exit unscathed.
In business as in the rest of life, it is sometimes best to change course and move on. That was a first-day lesson.
Another lesson concerned cash. It felt good to have it, but it could also feel okay to turn it away. This I learned from a woman who lived in a trailer by a stand of trees. When I pulled up, I found her seated on a stool outside. She was the most immense woman I had ever seen, her summer dress the size of a tent for two.
I introduced myself and handed her the catalog. She went about ordering items on every page, oblivious to cost. It was going to be my biggest sale ever. And yet one glance into the trailer suggested a squalor beyond neglect or poverty. Long-rotted tomatoes lay splattered over the kitchen floor. Unwashed pots piled from sink to ceiling.
Her derangement I was in no position to comprehend. But I took back the catalog, despite her reluctance to surrender it, and canceled nearly every item. The small sale that I kept served to appease her. I suppose that, even though I was trying to be decent, it appeased me, too.
There came another summer, another summer job. I was wearing the white uniform of a hospital orderly and coming to appreciate that when you empty bedpans no one doubts the profound value of your employment. One night I was called to the emergency room. It was a psychiatric case, and the patient had been isolated in a locked room for fear of violence. A nurse wanted my body ahead of hers as she entered the room with a pill and a cup of water.
We ventured in. There was she was, the woman from the trailer, a struggling but far from menacing soul, her heft again straining a little stool. She rose, smiled blissfully — and came straight at me. Then she applied an enveloping hug. My face, the whole of my head, disappeared within the soft, dark, asphyxiating folds of her enormous bosom.
I remained in this posture for some time.
Once she released her hold, and I drew breath, she took the pill without incident and washed it down, keeping the cup for herself. Our reunion ended as she returned to the stool and balanced the cup, a delicate construction of fluted paper, on her head as a miniature hat. Had she recognized me? I doubt it, but I like to think so.
There was still another, deeper lesson that summer: Great gifts come unbidden. The preceding winter someone died who had been dear to me. I could hardly have guessed that peddling brushes would help me to realize how much he had meant to others.
Most notably there was a farm couple I happened upon late one afternoon. "Come in, come now," the wife yelled to her husband, who was still laboring in a field out back. "The great-grandson of Pastor Hollinger is here."
The late Rev. Albert Hollinger had been a man of the Lord and the servant of generations. In the country I now roamed, he had been the single minister at three Evangelical Lutheran churches, tending to whatever needs arose among his multiple flocks. He baptized them, married them and prayed for their souls at their passing.
I grew up after my great-grandfather had retired. A town boy, not a farm boy, I was never a member of the churches where he had presided. Nor, as a self-absorbed youth, did I think to ask the man himself about his life's work, though something of his ministerial stature was told me by my family.
For me, then, the Rev. Hollinger was "Pa," the aged and quietly dignified man who took a kind interest in all his great-grandchildren. I say aged, yet well into his 80s he would still the mow the lawn at his house, this in mid August, and climb a ladder to make repairs.
Before the farm couple, I had met others on my route who once knew Albert Hollinger and his wife, Anna, who died ahead of him. I was still enough the descendant of Albert and Anna, for whom self-promotion bordered on sin, that I would not have been dropping their names to seek advantage. It was just that they would come up in conversation if a customer happened to know my lineage. Hanover is not a big place.
What was different at the farm couple's was that the remembrance went on into the evening. "We will never forget your great-grandfather. He meant so much to so many people." If those were not the wife's very words, they are close enough. I only wish I had written it all down. The stories they told at their kitchen table that day were of a community that rested on pillars nobody much questioned: church, family, work. Albert figured in all of them. He delivered a sermon to each of his congregations every week. He and Anna would then be invited to a parishioner's home for Sunday dinner. He thought work a calling, and not his work only. He mixed easily with people who knew how to put in crops and frame a barn and fix a tractor and cure a ham and read in the sky the next day's weather. (Why today do we suffer the delusion that those who stare at computer screens make up the first "knowledge economy"?)
Albert and Anna were a package. It was Anna who, when Albert left a post as a school principal to enter seminary, kept the family whole by teaching piano lessons and taking in work as a seamstress. The daughter of a Brethren minister, she presented herself as a woman of her time and place, wearing her hair in a modest bun to the end of her life. This is not to say she was anything but an independent spirit who contributed to church life in countless and novel ways. One was to order scripts from New York and coax farmwomen to take parts in church productions. Anna directed.
At the farm couple's house I passed along some stories of my own. Mild-mannered as he was, Pa could thunder in the pulpit and go on at length. It was a family joke that from her place in the front pews Ma would try to keep him to time by clearing her throat, persistently.
I also told them that my middle name had been chosen in memory of my great-grandfather's son. Jacob Mark Hollinger had died of infection one December, age 2, in the age before antibiotics. Yet it was only years after the couple and I reminisced that I could begin to fathom the indelible pain of his loss that Pa must have carried along with his delight in the world, the inscrutable woe that coexisted with his unshakable faith. The perception came with the birth of a son of my own.
It was dusk when I pulled away from the farm. What I heard that day did more than add to what I already knew about my great-grandparents. That I was so well received by those earnest strangers spoke volumes of the selfless, giving lives of the Rev. and Mrs. Hollinger, Albert and Anna, my Pa and my Ma. A farm couple I didn't know had helped me to grasp my heritage.
I've long since forgotten whether they bought any brushes.
Richard Koenig, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, is president of Biosyntax LLC, a communications consultancy to life-sciences companies.