Summer Jobs: Odd Ducks

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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.


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


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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