Summer Jobs: Enterprise

Today's summer job stories are about the moment young people turned into young capitalists. NPR's Robert Siegel reads a story from listener William Caldwell of Brentwood, Tenn., about how he earned $500 catching fireflies one summer. And listener Stacy Jackson of Denver recounts seizing opportunity at a gas line during the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We've been hearing about your summer jobs this year - the hot, the miserable, the fun. And today, we have two stories about jobs that turned young people into young capitalists. The fun was just the fringe benefit.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

William Caldwell of Brentwood, Tennessee, takes us back to 1966. He writes this: My father looked up from the morning paper and announced that Johns Hopkins University was buying lightning bugs for one-half a cent each, and we started our summer endeavor.

William says his mother made nets by stretching old nylons over a coat hanger frame while he and his father found the perfect hunting ground. He writes: We found grassy river bottoms where the fireflies rose up like smoke around our ankles. I could catch up to a thousand on some nights. The hunt started in the gloaming when they began to rise, but ended at full dark when you couldn't see the bug after the flash.

We eventually shipped over 100,000, and received a check for $500. I think I learned to be entrepreneurial from that experience. With little or no capital, you could use a little effort and resourcefulness to make money.

NORRIS: Not just that - there's the notion of seizing an opportunity and making the most of it. That's just one of the lessons Stacey Jackson(ph) of Denver, Colorado, learned from her father back in 1973, during the oil embargo. As Stacey tells us, drivers lined up at gas stations, including the one near her New Jersey neighborhood, worried that the gas would run out before they got their turn at the pump.

Ms. STACEY JACKSON: So they were often waiting for hours and hours. And they were tired, and they were cranky, and they were hungry. And they were very reluctant, as I learned, to leave their cars because they didn't want to lose their place in line.

Now, in 1973, I was 7 years old. My father brought my brother and me to one of these gas lines, and told us that we would have an opportunity to earn a bit of money by offering the drivers, who had been waiting a very, very long time, a snack. I approached the first car, and I knocked on the window and the window rolled down. And I said, excuse me, sir, would you like a snack from across the parking lot at that Dunkin' Donuts over there? And the driver looked at me and said, oh, would I ever, thank you. That's a great idea.

And he handed me some money, and he told me what he wanted. And as I was coming back I was thinking, huh, I wonder how I'm making money out of this? So I get to his car, I hand him his coffee, I hand him his doughnut. And I go to hand him his change and he said, oh no, no, no, keep the change. I was looking at more than a dollar in my hand. I looked up at my dad, and my dad gave me one of those winks.

So I pocketed that money and I went to the next car, and I offered that driver a snack. And some drivers were very generous; some drivers didn't want anything. And my brother and I worked that gas line for hours, and we made a lot of money. We made so much money that my father brought us back two or three other times. And it was such a fabulous experience because at such a young age, you learn that the amount of money that you make is in direct proportion to how well you serve a customer, and that how well you serve a customer is different for every customer. That education carried me through my entire professional life.

NORRIS: Stacey Jackson. She grew up to work for a telecommunications company in Denver, Colorado - a place, she adds, where Dunkin' Donuts are few and far between.

SIEGEL: Thanks for sending us your summer job stories. We'll hear more of them next week.

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