Summer Jobs: Odd Ducks

Examining cockroaches with rectal tumors, training would-be-spies, driving a hearse in Santa Barbara, and running the ball-picker at a golf course: just some of the odd-duck summer jobs Robert Siegel and Michele Norris hear about this week as our series continues.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Throughout the summer, we've been sharing the summer jobs that influenced you.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And we've heard from the usual suspects: lifeguards, waitresses, theme park workers.

NORRIS: But today, it's about the odd ducks - the quirky jobs, the ones that make you go, hmm.

SIEGEL: Like the job that Kathleen Burke(ph) of Los Angeles had. She was a microbiology major in college, and Kathleen writes this: The only job in a research lab I could find was in the entomology department in a lab doing cancer research, using cockroaches. I had to overcome my repulsion and learn to handle these insects, and consider them creatures to be studied for the advancement of science. They actually get rectal tumors.

NORRIS: Ew. Did we really need to know that?

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Well, this next summer job sounds like fodder for an episode of the '60s TV show "Get Smart."

Mr. RYAN EUBANK(ph): If you're going to train spies, you have to give your students someone to spy on. I was that guy - the rabbit to chase for three summers in the late '90s, as a role player for a surveillance and counterterrorism training academy in Virginia.

NORRIS: That's Ryan Eubank of Richmond, Virginia.

Mr. EUBANK: One of my roles was that of a tourist taking in the sights of Colonial Williamsburg. At any given moment, whether I was watching a wool-spinning demonstration, eating lunch, or riding a shuttle bus, I was being followed by a dozen or more James Bonds-in-the-making. I had to act oblivious at all times but keep a mental record of what stood out as peculiar. I followed a script that dictated where to be, what to do, who to meet, and what to talk about. Be it a lunch meeting with a complete stranger who discussed Doberman Pinscher breeding for an hour, or a stroll through a cemetery with another role player who talked about his precious inkwell collection ad nauseam, I just rolled with it.

At the end of each week, I was debriefed, and I would then meet the students and explain what, if anything, they had done to draw my attention.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EUBANK: I remember telling a couple of Green Beret-looking guys one time that they had totally blown their cover when I caught them peering at me over some flowery greeting cards in a gift shop. And it just didn't look right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TAYLOR HACKFORD (Movie Director): I drove a hearse in a mortuary for a summer.

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): Did you, Taylor? I didn't know that.

SIEGEL: Actress Helen Mirren there, learning something new about her husband, director Taylor Hackford.

Mr. HACKFORD: And that was a very unusual, strange job, especially since the cemetery in Santa Barbara, where I'm from, was near the ocean, so that as I was driving, all my friends who are now at the beach would come running along...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HACKFORD: ...was driving alongside these funeral processions, honking their horns and pointing their fingers at me, which was not very nice. I could lose my job.

Ms. MIRREN: Were you a wearing a black suit?

Mr. HACKFORD: I was a wearing a dark suit.

Ms. MIRREN: Yeah. Oh, I bet you looked gorgeous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MIRREN: I bet a lot of those widows were looking at you going, ooh...

Mr. HACKFORD: I don't think so.

Ms. MIRREN: ...I like the guy who's driving the hearse.

Mr. HACKFORD: I don't think so at that point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOWARD BERKES: I worked for a landscaping company that also owned a golf course.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Alright")

Mr. KENNY LOGGINS (Singer): (Singing) I'm all right.

NORRIS: The summer job that NPR's Howard Berkes had when he was a high school student in Philadelphia sounds pretty run-of-the-mill, except for one thing: He was a moving target.

BERKES: When I ran the ball picker on the driving range, people would aim at us in the ball picker, and we had cages, of course, on the windows - just this constant thunk of golf balls.

NORRIS: What does that sound like, with all those golf balls coming in?

BERKES: Oh, it was like ka-pow, ka-pow, ka-pow. It was like, you know, you just - you're under fire. You know, it's incoming constantly.

NORRIS: You're inside a videogame.

BERKES: Well, I hate to say it, but I don't believe there were videogames in those days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: But yeah, you're...

NORRIS: Maybe someone was inspired by that experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERKES: I have not seen the videogame Ball Picker, but I'm sure somebody will invent it.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Alright")

Mr. LOGGINS: (Singing) I'm all right.

NORRIS: Now, there's a challenge. Perhaps there will be an iPhone app for that.

SIEGEL: We'll have more summer job stories next week and throughout the rest of the summer. Thanks for sending us your stories.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Alright")

Mr. LOGGINS: (Singing) I'm all right. Don't nobody worry about me. You got to give me a fight. Why don't you just let me be? Just let me be. I'm all right.

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