Memorable Summer Jobs

Some summer jobs are just dirty work, but that doesn't mean they're devoid of joy. As part of our series on summer jobs, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords talks about mucking stables; and listener Matthew Debord takes us back to his youth in Huntington, W.Va., when he was a garbage man.

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W: Summer jobs can be dirty, but that doesn't mean they're devoid of joy.

Take Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' first summer job. She mucked horse stables when she was 12 years old.

R: I loved cleaning out the stalls, and I did that in exchange for riding lessons. And I continue to ride most of my life. And I learned a lot of horses and the stable people. There was a unique culture out there, and I think it provided good training, all of that manure-shoveling, for my days in politics ahead.

: And listener Matthew Debord, who grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, also spent time in the stink. Here he is with his summer job story.

: Back in my high school days, starting in 1982, I had either the best or the worst summer job imaginable, depending on your perspective: I was a garbage man.

I worked with two seasoned employees, Shorty(ph) and Zig(ph). Shorty enjoyed a Zen-like unity with the garbage truck, carefully and deliberating navigating his route, solving numerous trash-related problems. Zig was equally effective but much, much faster.

The work was spectacularly filthy. We were not heaving neatly tied bags of garbage into the back of a huge truck as it rolled down a residential street. We were not city sanitation workers. We were instead gathering loose trash, mostly from picnic areas.

The tools of our trade were a galvanized washtub, a pitchfork and a shovel. Gloves were recommended. The trash was often wet and decaying, having in some cases stewed for days in 55-gallon drums that had been turned into trash cans.

We did not empty the truck every day. Rather, after about a week, Shorty would typically mash it back, operate the compactor, sniff the air and declare the load to be a bit ripe, at which point we would head for a place called Deet's Hallow(ph) in the city dump.

This was a vast, open landfill presided over by a huge, shirtless man whose name I now forget. Amid the stench and rot and overpowering fumes, he would stride his domain with a chaw of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco in his mouth and nothing over his face. Even the guy in a giant bulldozer who pushed the trash around got to have a sealed, climate-controlled operator's booth. I covered my nose with a bandana.

We made quick work of it. Even Shorty would often declare that although he loved the job, he hated the dump.

At the end of a shift, my clothes were unwearable and had to be immediately washed. I had to shower in order to be acceptable dinner company for my family. But for my few hundred bucks a week, I became a far more resilient person.

I still consider it to be the most fun and exciting job I ever had. It was close to pure freedom. There was nothing to compare with riding the running board on the outside of the truck as we roared through summertime in my small town.

But the job also taught me that when, as a people, we generate waste, make a mess, fill up the world with trash, someone always has to pick it up. It's sometimes said that everyone in America should spend time in the military or be compelled to wait tables or clean offices after hours. I'm not saying that everybody should be a garbage man for a while, but it wouldn't hurt.

: That's Matthew Debord, now living in Los Angeles and working for Slate magazine's blog The Big Money. We'll hear more of your stories throughout the summer, and if you've got a good one, please send it to us. Go to npr.org. Click on contact us at the bottom of the page, and just write summer job in your subject line.

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