Whether it was babysitting, summer harvest work, or other kinds of typical youth employment, I have been working steadily since I was 13 years old, growing up in the wheat and pea fields of northeastern Oregon.
Babysitting for the neighbors was a minor part of my work history; I didn't particularly like taking care of kids, with one exception. Jennifer N.'s parents had some fascinating books on their living room shelves: the Boccaccio, Canterbury Tales, and other such semi-titillating non-sacred tomes. My family's shelves were particularly laden with Bibles and religious literature. The N's had no such restrictions on their choices.
But all us pre-teen girls were champing at the bit to turn 13 so that we could work for the big pea-harvest outfit in Athena: Weber and Kirk. There we would work 12 hour days for 85 cents an hour, driving huge, heavy-laden cabless trucks full of peavines from field to field, depositing these loads in front of viners manned by migrant workers who pitched the vines onto conveyor belts which carried them up inside an immense rotating drum (think cement truck type drum) where the motion would pop the pea pods open so that the peas could rattle down into boxes below.
It was filthy work and we loved it. We zoomed our trucks across the open fields raising clouds of dust, on our way out to the area we were harvesting. We didn't drive on the roads, only in the field, which is why we could do it at age 13! We'd come home at night sunburnt, dirty, blowing black boogers into equally black hankies, collapse into bed, and get up the next morning and do it all again, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week for about four or five weeks. The camaraderie of pea harvest leveled all social barriers; we were all in it together, the popular kids and the not-so popular.
Wheat harvest was a little more easy-going, with long periods of sitting in our trucks (my first one was a 42 Dodge) waiting for the combine to be ready to dump a load, and then we'd head for the grain elevator. You had to be 16 and have a license to drive in wheat harvest, because the elevators were on county roads. A much classier job, indeed.
Eventually I went off to college and struggled through the normal summer and school year jobs of the typical college student, mostly retail sales. But after college, when I had few prospects and very little actual training for anything, I landed a job as a welfare worker in Skamania County WA, in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, and started on a trajectory of a different kind: the so-called "helping" professions.
From welfare caseworker in Washington, I went to a stint as an American Baptist Home Missionary in Denver. After marriage, I took the time to acquire teaching credentials and began a 25 year-long career as a public school educator (6 years as a Spanish teacher and then 19 as a guidance counselor). Ministry is my fifth career and everything else was preparation for it.
I am thinking about this today, Labor Day, because I realize that at age 67, I need to think about when I might retire. I'm certainly not ready yet; I'd like to put in several more years in ministry before I hang up my stole. But the congregation is starting to do some long range planning and I know this is a question that will come up eventually.
Anyhow, if I were to work till age 73 (not a bad time to hang it up), I will have worked pretty much non-stop for 60 years. That seems like a work ethic to be pleased with. And I'm happy to say that I have liked, even loved, my work for all of those years. There have been moments of great pain and stress and fear but none of it has been so daunting that I couldn't learn something important from it.
I can't imagine being idle for any extended period of time; that's the drawback to such a strong work ethic, I think. Idleness doesn't come easily. Even now, working half-time, I fill up the other times of my day with other kinds of ministry and work. I like having responsibility; I like filling needs; I like being useful.
"She was useful" is not a very poetic epitaph and easily misconstrued. But that's what I hope my life is and has been: useful in valuable ways.