Have today’s teens found a cure for summertime blues?

When I was a teenager, the radio was filled with songs about working in the summer, like “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes, or “Summertime Blues,” by Eddie Cochran.

But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a third of American teenagers these days have a summer job, which means (among other things) that none of them will ever be able to write a column like this one 50 years from now.

Besides normal chores like lawn-mowing and dish-washing around the house, I didn’t have a paying job during some of my high school summers because my sister was eleven years younger than I was, which meant Mom pressed me into babysitting service on a regular basis.

But with college looming on the horizon, and with no way to fund it out of their own paychecks, Mom and Dad decided it was time for their little bird to see what work was like outside the nest.

My first real paycheck job was at Belke Manufacturing, a squat little factory in the nearby industrial park that made — I swear I’m not making this up — robots. But instead of whirring across the floor like Jetsons slaves, these robots ran on rails hanging from the ceiling, with two fixed metal arms hanging down like hooks, ready to lift huge baskets from chemical baths in metal-plating factories. The robots were controlled by a refrigerator-sized panel with a giant revolving disk that looked like a mammoth CD disk with holes punched in it. As the disk slowly revolved and the holes lined up with sensors, a message traveled through a tangle of wires, telling the robots where to go and what to do when they got there. My job was to read the schematic and tell other workers which colored wire to attach, or which stop-bar to bolt into place on the rails.

That was pretty cool for a first job, because I felt like a pioneer from the future.

But summer jobs went downhill pretty quickly after that.

My next summer job was at the Gulbransen Piano company, where I was shown how to build a piano crate for shipping. But after four hours of hammering together crates that would only stand if you put a piano in them, enduring the laughter of older workers who flocked to the “you-gotta-see-this” spectacle, management wisely moved me to the stock room for the sake of productivity. My manager, Mitch, usually just handed me a sheet of paper with all the information I needed — what part to find, how many to pull, which station to deliver it to — but if he had to explain something to me, he held a little voice box up to his neck, thanks to throat cancer that had taken his vocal chords after decades of smoking.

The next summer between college terms I worked at Pipeline Corporation, a factory that plastic-coated gas pipelines. My job was to do whatever nobody else wanted to do. I spent the first two weeks emptying a stock room of stock, shelving, and rat nests, before giving the room a good cleaning and painting, and then re-installing the shelving and stock. After that I drove a freight yard pickup truck, before ending the summer manning a jackhammer, chipping burned plastic from a huge cooker that sat idle right next to the other cooker that blazed with melted plastic and spewed toxic smoke. When I went home and showered, the top layer of my skin ended up on the shower floor.

“How was work today?” Dad asked when he came home from his steel mill job at Thomson Wire and saw me glowing lobster-red.

“I’ve been skinned alive!” I said to him. “How do you think work was?”

“I was just asking,” he said, “because I thought I might get you a job at the steel mill if you get sick of school.”

I declined his generous offer and stayed in school, which meant even more summer jobs. A neighbor, Carmine Spagnola, got me a job with him building in-ground swimming pools, which gave me a yellow hard hat that I kept in the back window of my ’56 Plymouth beater when I wasn’t on the job, announcing to the world: “Yeah, that’s right, I’m a hard-ass, hard-hat kind of guy.” I thought the chicks would dig it. (Turns out the chicks dug guys with cleaner fingernails and cars that didn’t require patches of cement to hold the headlights on.)

Another summer I drove a park district bus to parks, pools, gyms, and forest preserves for a variety of programs that guaranteed summer fun for kids too young to have a summer job yet. After I dropped the kids off I watched over them, making sure they didn’t get into too much mischief. One little boy was a handful, not only because he was a scamp, but because he was also completely deaf. So I had to learn enough sign language to tell him to knock it off or I’d tell his Mom, and to suggest alternative activities that might keep everyone happy and healthy a bit longer.

After college graduation I moved on to a full-time career — as a teacher, which meant still more summer jobs like house-painting, air-conditioning sales, and much, much more.

And on every summer job, I learned lessons and met people I never would have encountered otherwise — like that co-worker at the post office who walked with a limp ever since his wife caught him with another woman and shot him in the buttock.

But today, it seems, the vast majority of American teenagers are finding some other way to spend their summers.

I’m sure if you ask them 50 years from now, they’ll be able to tell you how important their summers were to their lives — not just for the dollars earned, but also for the people met – and the life lessons learned.

Or … maybe not.

Author, musician and storyteller TR Kerth is a retired teacher who has lived in Sun City Huntley since 2003. Contact him at trkerth@yahoo.com. Can’t wait for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Then get TR’s book, “Revenge of the Sardines,” available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book distributors.

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