Thursday, August 23, 2007

Keeping Grounds

Rather than actually work to find a good job between my junior and senior years of college, I got a student job as a groundskeeper in the University's Plant Department. The pay was $4.50 an hour but as no one actually worked a full day, it probably worked out to be more. We had two breaks, one at 10:00am and one at 2:30pm. All of the regular groundskeepers I worked with took about 15 minutes before each break and before lunch to sweep up whatever we'd been clipping, pack up the tools, and drive back to the groundskeepers' break room (note that I attended a college on a small campus; we could have walked back in about the same amount of time as it took to drive there). Afterwards, it would take about 15 minutes to get started again... once we got back to the work site, that is.

The best part of the job, for me, was driving a Hoopy. I was told that they were originally used to tug airplanes during WWII up at Boeing Field. They were very small two-ton trucks, and each one had its special characteristic: One was a dump truck, "the fast one" had four gears and could get a top speed of 25 mph, and the third required a special twist of the wrist to start. They all ran on propane, and all of the truck beds had been built out of plywood.

My first job working for Plant was cleaning up vine clippings. Vines are bad for trees and even worse for brick, so my partner and I put a hard hat and a ladder in the Hoopy and went to clean up Jones Hall. He got the ladder and the shears and I got the hard hat and the rake. I remember this project because almost in the middle of my wondering why I needed a hard hat for this job he dropped the shears and they landed about a foot away from me.

I spent most of that summer mowing lawns. Sometimes while another groundskeeper mowed with a lawn tractor, I would follow in a machine called a grass sweeper, basically a big empty bucket on wheels with the opening at the bottom (like a street sweeper). It had one pedal, which I pressed down with my toes to move forward. I feel asleep on this machine one hot afternoon and it came to a stop as soon as I relaxed my foot. The cessation of the engine, which usually squealed in my right ear, awoke me immediately.

Most often, I was pushing a gas-powered mower across the lawns in front of all the University-owned houses, which were empty in the summer. Every now and then I'd jump in the Hoopy and drive it down the block so I could empty the grasscatcher into the truck bed. I did a lot of long division in my head to pass the time. I also helped take down a backyard tree and I deadheaded the rhododendrons near the Security A-frame. I weedwhacked a fence near the Fieldhouse, and I helped paint lines on the field for football camp. Mostly, I mowed.

I worked on some project with one of the regular grounds keepers which involved me sitting in the Hoopy reading while he was inside the president's residence "visiting a friend." I have no memory of what we were supposed to be doing while we were away from the Plant Department. This particular groundskeeper was quite natty, his uniform always clean and pressed, not to mention that it fit him well. In fact he was the only groundskeeper who didn't look like a slob (and I count myself among them, though I didn't have a uniform). He was the first person I knew who owned music CDs.

During the summer that I worked there full time, I always made sure to scan the first paragraph in each story on the front page of the sports section in the newspaper. I was the only woman in our section of Plant, and I was a student. Small talk was the only talk we could have, and knowing who won the Mariners game the night before was the only tool I had.

Except for the heat (and I always wore long pants, work boots, and a sweatshirt) I didn't mind the job. It wasn't very interesting, but I didn't do it for very long (when school started I went to ten hours a week, and gave notice after Thanksgiving), and I liked working outside. I think I felt like while I was in the midst of getting my education I was doing the kind of job I would have if I didn't have an education.

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