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Anyone who has ever worked a manual labor job to help pay for college has heard the taunt, “College Boy.”
Let’s face it, college may help you understand certain things, but most of those things are fairly useless in summer jobs. And the people who get to manage “College Boys” do enjoy rolling their eyes and uttering that phrase with a particular level of disgust. Until, suddenly, that knowledge is valuable and you exact your revenge.
One of those many jobs for me was as a Ranger’s Assistant.
Let’s repeat that job title. Ranger’s Assistant. Not Assistant Ranger. Don’t confuse the titles. An Assistant Ranger is a glorious job with rank, status, and admiration – at least in comparison with a Ranger’s Assistant.
A Ranger’s Assistant is the lowest form of life. Animals rank far higher.
Seriously. Many of the daily details had to do with wild animals making a nuisance of themselves. Snakes were common for me, captured with a glorified snake pole and transported to safety. No matter how many times I handled the task, an Assistant Ranger would always admonish, “Don’t hurt the snake.” Not once was a similar concern expressed for the lowly Ranger’s Assistant. We were easily replaceable. And, clearly a lower life form than the snake.
A perfect example was the vehicle I was assigned – a 1971 Toyota Land Cruiser. For those of you who suddenly visualized the fancy, comfortable SUV’s that today have the Land Cruiser brand name, let me assure you that is not what I drove. Think more like the old WWII Army Jeep and your image would be much more accurate.
Others of you immediately thought of this Land Cruiser as a collector’s classic. Back in the mid 1980’s, it was not. Even if that particular vehicle still survives, it lacked many of the amenities of the classics sold today. Little details like seat belts. Windows. Doors. Roof. These items weren’t just removed. They didn’t exist. At all.
So, when I was given the keys, I was told not to let the radio get wet. No concern that I might get wet. The radio was much more valuable.
Not a radio that played music. That would have been one of those missing luxury items.
This was a two-way radio that communicated between rangers. And a way for a Ranger or Assistant Ranger to communicate to a Ranger’s Assistant to go do some thankless task. That “two-way” part of the radio was just a technical term for a Ranger’s Assistant, not a practical one.
The only other pieces of equipment in it was a revolving blue light mounted on the dashboard, which I was expressly forbidden from ever turning on, and a winch that I saved me or someone else many times.
We were paid in room, board, and a small salary.
The room was a tent with a cot and a shower house a short walk away.
Board consisted primarily of bread, cold cuts, and canned beans. And some liquid euphemistically called “Bug Juice” that was strangely addicting.
And the salary was small. Very small.
But there were no expenses. None. It was impossible to spend money outside of the occasional game of penny poker. There was no store close where you could buy anything. So, in a way, it was a great summer job to save money for the fall semester.
Besides, the job was fun. Oh, sure, many of the tasks were mundane – picking up trash, building 100 picnic tables one after the other, clearing brush – but I was also outside all day every day (even in the rain, huddled over a radio keeping it dry and safe).
And stories. Lots and lots of stories.
Building 100 picnic tables doesn’t make much of a story unless you enjoy the descriptions of pain in Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” (Note – That is an affiliate link with Amazon. If you purchase the story, I do earn a few cents. Sort of like being back at the pay scale of a Ranger’s Assistant.) I do highly recommend the story. A good one on a cold, snowy day. I don’t, however, recommend building a hundred picnic tables one after the other. Trust me on this one.
But there was the amorous high school couple (a story which might also involve that blue light I was never allowed to activate). Or the time I was bitten by a snake (a funnier story than it sounds at first blush). Or the owl who hated me and a hawk who was my buddy. Or winching the Head Ranger’s truck out of the mud with my trusty Land Cruiser without daring to crack a smile.
But I will save all of those stories for other days and focus on the time my college education actually helped me in my job as a Ranger’s Assistant.
The Head Ranger was a terrific man. Tony was quiet, unassuming and had the natural talent to fix anything. He never yelled or showed anger – though he could mutter the phrase “College Boy” to reward a particularly bone-headed moment. But mostly, he taught by example. Getting assigned to work with him could be utterly exhausting, but always rewarding and educational.
So when he asked me to be in the shop one morning, I raced over.
In fairness, he didn’t ask. No engraved invitation arrived at my doorstep. I think the proper description would be that I was told to be in his shop.
But, it was a rainy day, so I welcomed the opportunity to be indoors. I raced over, parked the Jeep (just inside a barn to keep the radio dry), and entered the shop.
Tony informed me that we were building a pair of turnstiles, a project that I felt woefully unprepared to accomplish.
Part of the property under his care housed a Boy Scout Camp (I also worked there as a counselor for six summers which is how I weaseled my way into the Ranger’s Assistant’s job). The turnstiles were used to control the waterfront area so that the staff could maintain a headcount of the number of boys in the lake. Since the budget for all such projects was minimal to nonexistent, we were to weld turnstiles out of scrap metal.
Spread on the workbench were six metal pipes, each with an angle cut at one end and a cap at the other. Beside the pipes were two square, flat pieces of metal with a hole drilled in the center.
At this point, I thought it wise to mention to him that I had no clue how to weld. The look he gave me in reply would not be described as shock. Maybe amusement might be the better description. He quietly informed me that my job was to hold the pipes in place while he welded. Humbling to realize that your most valuable contribution at a given moment would be not to move.
I vowed to be the best statue possible. I almost vowed not to say anything else for fear of ridicule. That second vow lasted several minutes.
Tony placed the first metal square on the work bench. Three circular marks had been drawn on the plate. He instructed me to hold the angled end of each pipe on the appropriate mark and not move.
“What do you mean, College Boy?”
Gulp. “Uh, well, the way you have the three pipes. It won’t be even. The turnstile will be lopsided.”
“How many turnstiles have you built?”
At that moment, I chickened out and decided to stop.
Strangely, I would later learn that this was also a wise strategy in the corporate world. Pointing out a future mistake rarely is rewarded, particularly if the person making the mistake outranks you. Better to wait for the mistake to be made and then swoop in with the right answer. Sad, but true.
He went to work welding. I dutifully held the pipes. Several minutes later, it was complete. He hung it on a bolt so that it was properly positioned and proudly spun it.
As I suspected, it wobbled and was clearly lopsided. I wanted to scream, “I told you so,” but maturity and wisdom beyond my years held me. That and the desire to live until another delicious lunch of bread, cold cuts, beans and bug juice.
Tony stared at the turnstile sadly hanging on the bolt. Stared at me. Back to it. Back to me.
I held my breath and kept a straight face.
Finally, he muttered, “So, College Boy, how should it be?”
I went to work, drawing and measuring.
Tony studied my pencil marks. “That won’t work.”
“Yes, sir, it will.”
“No, it won’t.”
“Yes, sir, it will.”
“College boy,” he muttered, but picked up his equipment and went to work. I held the pipes to the marks. Tony welded. And I sweated. I would never hear the end of this if I was wrong.
The welding complete, Tony picked up the turnstile and hung it on the bolt. He reached and spun. It revolved perfectly, no wobble at all.
He stared at it. Stared at me. Back to it. Back to me. “Well, we have got to do one more now to replace the first one.”
Some of you might have thought he would thank me. Or say I was right. No, I didn’t expect those words. But he did say I was right just by saying we needed to do one more.
I scrambled to gather the parts from scrap piles, returning with a square metal plate and three pipes. Wordlessly, he handed me a pencil and I marked where the pipes needed to be welded. We cut the pipes and he picked up the welding gear.
He looked at me. Looked at the plate. Looked at me. “So, College Boy, do you want to learn how to weld?”
“Yes, sir.” For those of you who missed it, that was Tony saying thank you. And he spent the rest of the morning teaching me to weld. We experimented first on scrap pieces of metal. After mangling many scraps, he finally had me turn my attention to the waiting turnstile. Under his very close supervision, I welded the three pipes to the metal plate.
We loaded the two completed turnstiles into his pickup truck and drove over to the Boy Scout Camp (leaving my trusty Land Cruiser dry in the barn). We mounted the two turnstiles at the lakefront, ready for the onslaught of Boy Scouts a few weeks later.
One turnstile had nice, clean welds. The other had messy, amateurish welds.
But both spun perfectly.
Not bad for a college boy.