Summer jobs are the sampler plates of the workaday world, opportunities to get your feet wet as a lifeguard at the community pool, get your foot in the door selling shoes or leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, flipping a burger or two in the process. While it's a bit tricky to land any job these days -- even temporary gigs for teens and young adults between semesters -- many of us know the joys, quirks, pains and sometimes adventures of warm-season work. We asked readers to share some of their all-time most-memorable summer jobs, and we heard about everything from cleaning chicken coops to working as a topless dancer. Read on:
In the summer of 1958 I was 18 and wangled a job on the island of San Salvador on one of America's guided missile range tracking bases. I drove a 2½-ton supply truck and lived in a Quonset with 23 men who worked on the island year-round and might have become very wealthy if we hadn't insisted on (spending) most of our incomes on Matusalem rum.
As the youngest person on this all-male base, I was instantly named "Junior," and, when I wasn't waiting at the airfield for U.S. Air Force supply deliveries or trucking ominous wooden crates to restricted areas, I was working side-by-side with an old geezer named Dissaway, baptized "Disosway." Our job was to make sure that the files accurately reflected the things we actually had in the warehouse, because the Inspector General's Team was expected in the fall. Woe unto us if our records said we had five ceiling fans and there were actually six in stock.
By August, my stateside girlfriend had dumped me, I had learned to drink way too much and had seen a man with twin propellers tattooed on his buttocks. By Sept. 15th, I was a freshman at Yale.
-- Victor Miller, Alameda
I had a variety of summer jobs back in the 1960s: spent one year at the S&W cannery in Redwood City making relish and maraschino cherries, one year at the post office in Millbrae sorting letters and selling stamps, one year dancing topless in San Francisco on Geary Street.
Back when Redwood City still had factories and canneries and hadn't yet gone all yuppie, S&W employed mostly poor Italian nationals to work on the line, so I learned a lot about the lives of migrant workers that summer and how they had to leave their children at home in order to provide food for families.
Working in the post office was great. The job actually paid a living wage of $3.17 an hour. Back in those days, that was a big chunk of change, especially for a college student.
As for working at a topless bar, one didn't need any special skills to do that! My job interview basically consisted of some slimy toad guy telling me to lift up my shirt. But the pay was good at $25 a night plus tips -- a fortune back then. However, there were occupational hazards. Men were always trying to steal my, er, costume. And I finally ended up getting fired because I wouldn't be "friendly" with the customers. Hey, I was a sorority girl! I had my standards. Topless dancers really could have used a union back then.
-- Jane Stillwater, Berkeley
My worst and probably funniest summer was when I decided to stay in San Jose between my sophomore and junior years at San Jose State in the summer of 1971. I started off as a Hostess at The Rare Steer on The Alameda. I got fired from that one because I would not wear lipstick and short skirts. (Something that wouldn't happen in 2012.) Next, I applied to work at the Burbank Theater on Bascom Avenue. (You old-timers might recall what type of movies were shown there). My boss was an alcoholic and would yell at me for making the wrong change in front of the customers. The change was correct, but she was too intoxicated to see that. We parted ways, and I headed over to Ontra Cafeteria at the old Valley Fair shopping center. I was hired to work the dessert line, and I handed out a Jell-O to a woman who took it to her seat and proceeded to lick all the whipped cream off the top, then went to the manager and said I refused to give her any whipped cream on her Jell-O.
I think you can figure out what happened next. My sister labeled me unemployable. I packed up my '71 VW Bug and made a beeline south to my mom's backyard.
-- Joan Goldstein, Campbell
"Stop talking," the floor lady shouted, as she threw an apricot in our direction on the moving belt where we were sorting out the bruised and rotten apricots. Working in the Sutter Packing Cannery in Palo Alto during the summer of 1945 was my summer job to earn extra money for clothes and to help out in the war effort. I was 16 years old. Suddenly, the belt stopped, all the noises of the cannery machines stopped and women were crying as we all wandered outside into the bright sunshine. The weeping and clapping continued as everyone realized the Japanese had just surrendered that day of Aug. 14, 1945, and World War II was over.
-- Virginia Strain Larson, San Ramon
One summer (in the 1970s) I worked full time on a chicken ranch. Chicken ranches are three to five football-field-long buildings that have nests along the interior walls and a raised roosting area in the middle that is covered in mesh wire where the chicken poo collects. I spent the summer when I was 16 cleaning 12 of these buildings. First, you had to catch the chickens -- this is a nighttime operation so they don't run around. You have to tape the bottom of your pants with duct tape to keep the rats out. A small bulldozer comes in and starts pushing the poo into piles and I would shovel the sides into the middle. The end was the hardest part, because the bulldozer couldn't get the last 20 wheelbarrows full, so we would have to do that ourselves. Three of us would use a power spray with a cleaning solution and start at one end and walk to the other. We would have to push out any standing water at the far end. Believe it or not, I was always proud of the job we did and still am today.
-- Sherri Voydat, San Jose
I grew up in Switzerland as a city girl. In summer 1949, when I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to work on a small farm located about a half-hour train ride from Zurich. The farm woman, Mrs. Jahn, picked me up at the train station. From there we walked through a forest and then came to the open fields with fruit trees. Mrs. Jahn and her husband worked the farm alone. They now had running cold water in the kitchen, but not long before, the water used to have to be carried in from a nearby well. And the first electric light bulb was being installed.
The couple worked daily from 4 a.m. to nightfall. They never, ever complained. They had milk cows, raised pigs, grew wheat and sugar beets, and every year had an abundance of apples to sell. I did many chores that were an incredible new experience for a city girl. I helped with the hay harvest, worked in the fields and got to take the milk in a big metal container strapped to my back to the dairy in the next village. I also gathered the fresh eggs daily from the chickens.
Firsthand, I learned the joys of physical work, a lifetime lesson, even though my own career would be in a totally different field.
-- Olga Kertész, Burlingame
As an elementary teacher in Nashville, Tenn., I was to spend several weeks as a pioneering counselor at Camp Ellis, an exclusive camp in the hills of Newtown Square, Pa., not far from Philadelphia. My job along with my assistant was to take 10 campers on three-day jaunts along the Horseshoe Trail. It was the summer of 1952.
At Spook's Lane, we pioneers set out on foot through wooded hills. With the rainbow-colored toadstools and mushrooms along the path, it almost looked like fairy land. On one lonely road, passing a small country home, we were actually chased by huge, life-threatening geese. Such running and squealing you've never heard.
Our hostel that night was an old home with three sets of sleeping quarters: a basement cavelike room and second and third-floor rooms. Life at the hostel was so appealing, we found it hard to leave. Besides three cats and four dogs around, an old sow had 12 baby pigs that night! Back in camp, I took lifesaving lessons at the lake -- and ended up with a terrible ear infection, as did half the campers. The counselors could take turns going to the food kitchen at night after the young campers were in bed. The cook left us delicious liverwurst for sandwiches -- which became an obsession -- and we all gained weight.
It was a little deflating returning to Nashville after such an exciting summer, but in a few weeks I would be back in my classroom, falling in love with a new bunch of fourth-graders.
-- Ginny Johnson, San Jose