Freshly graduated from college, I needed a change of pace. Books, exams, laboratory work, paper writing, note taking, studying—it was good to have that done for a while. At the end of summer, I would be back in the classroom to begin graduate school.
The vice president of Security Mills Feeds in Knoxville interviewed me for a summer job the week following my graduation. A faculty member in the University of Tennessee College of Agriculture knew him personally, and had put in a good word for me several days earlier. His office was a bit cluttered, but in an orderly way. He was tall, slender, about fifty years old, friendly, businesslike, and he was dressed in a white shirt with a narrow necktie, typical of the 1960s.
As he briefly reviewed my résumé and transcript, he commented that he was glad to see that I grew up on a farm, and that I had a double major in animal science and agricultural education. He noted that I was to begin my master’s degree in agricultural education at the University of Illinois in September.
As we talked, he mentioned that he was going to hire several “college boys” to work there over the summer. He thought the best fit for me was to go on the road in a company car to take orders from feed stores and large farmers over a wide area of East Tennessee. He said I would be expected to wear a shirt and tie every day as a company representative, and concluded that he thought I would be good in sales.
This offer caught me by surprise. I had expected to work on the dock, loading trucks with livestock feeds, and do other odd jobs around the plant as needed.
So I responded by saying, “That sounds like a really interesting job, but I’m going back to school in the fall and would like a break from books and paperwork. I’d like to have the dirtiest job you’ve got, get my hands dirty, exert myself physically, and clear my head for a few weeks. Do you have any dirty jobs I could do instead?”
He leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “I understand. Yes, we can surely give you a job where you’ll get your hands dirty.” He asked me to start the next day by reporting to the loading dock.
Over the course of the next few days, I began to know many of the full-time employees and maybe five other “college boys” who were hired about when I was. One of the most memorable of the regular employees was a man named Raymond, a mentally challenged man of about forty years of age. He was kind and gentle, and he was paranoid. Whenever he saw a group of 3-4 people talking around the loading dock, he would walk up, interrupt, and slowly say, “Are you’uns talking about me?” Whenever we assured him we were talking about something else, Raymond would smile and quietly walk away, pushing his two-wheeled dolly back toward the stacks of bagged animal feed. I came to like Raymond a great deal, finding his presence calming.
After a few days working on the loading dock, filling orders for feed and loading it onto a truck, we college boys were assigned to work for a foreman who led us throughout the feed mill over the next ten weeks or so. The foreman was a young, muscular, short man who was a good supervisor. He did not mind leading us into the work and exerting himself as we took on many jobs.
One recurring job over the summer was to unload feed ingredients from train cars that rolled up to the eastern edge of the mill. The ingredients included separate carloads of fish meal, wheat, oats, corn, and crushed corn cobs. Fish meal and crushed corn cobs tended to cake up on the train cars, requiring us to enter the sides of the cars and dislodge it using steel pry bars about six feet long.
Ingredients from the train cars fell into cone-shaped hoppers built into the bottom of the cars, which dumped the ingredients onto a conveyor belt system that went from underneath the train tracks into the feed mill. This conveyor system was elaborate, taking the ingredients up elevated ramps to the top of 5-story high wooden bins. These bins were square, made of 2 x 12 inch heavy timbers stacked on top of each other and overlapped at the corners. The building structure reinforced these bins from the outside so that tons of feed ingredients dumped into them would not distort the sides.
Unclogging dense, brown fishmeal on the train cars was much harder than unclogging the less dense crushed corncobs. Some of those cars required 3-4 hours of prying loose small chunks of fishmeal. By the time we finished unloading those cars, fishmeal dust covered us from head to toe. We did not wear dust masks, so this stuff no doubt made it into our lungs. The dust mixed with sweat to form a thin tan layer all over our heads, face, neck, arms, and clothing. We carried the strong aroma of fish the rest of the day.
When I got home in the evening, I still smelled like fish. After showering and putting on clean clothes, I still smelled like fish. Whenever I put food in my mouth at dinner, I could smell fish on my hands. After a while we got used to this, not unlike getting used to the smell of ammonia from decaying chicken manure and fresh hog manure on our farm.
A few times over the summer we were sent into the bottom of the high bins where ingredients such as fishmeal and crushed corncobs also tended to cake up. We used the same steel pry bars to dig and chip at the compacted ingredients so they would fall into the conveyors to take specified amounts of ingredients for mixing with other ingredients to make animal feed. We made feed for dairy cows, hogs, horses, chickens, and dogs and cats. Still, we wore no dust masks in doing this dirty work.
In July I developed chest congestion and a high fever. My doctor hospitalized me for a week. I was never diagnosed with pneumonia, but I was diagnosed with a lung infection caused by breathing dust from the feed mill.
One of my college friends also fell ill about the same time, but he was not hospitalized. Being shorthanded all of a sudden, our foreman took up a pry bar and worked inside these bins in our absence. Upon my return to work the following week, I learned our foreman was hospitalized from breathing the same dust. Soon afterward, we were asked to wear dust masks while doing those dirty jobs.
Once I was asked to clean out the pit underneath a truck scale where big trucks loaded bulk livestock feed. The pit was about three feet deep, with a layer of wet sludge consisting of water and rotting feed ingredients that fell from the trucks through the boards over the pit. I scooped, dipped, and shoveled this stinky mess onto a cart beside the pit where it was wheeled away by another college friend. We took turns in the pit and wheeling the stuff away for disposal, somewhere on farmland I hoped. The smell of this sludge was far more pungent than fresh hog manure inside a hog house. It burned the inside of my nose.
Another dirty job was to install a new tar roof over an older part of the feed mill about three stories high. The area was about forty feet by sixty feet. A ground crew heated the tar in a large vat, poured it into 5-gallon buckets, and attached them to a rope that went to a pulley at the edge of the roof on our level.
Our foreman always leaned over the edge of the roof, holding onto the metal structure supporting the pulley, and placed the buckets of hot tar on the roof. Using long-handled squeegees and cotton mops for spreading the tar, we started in the more distant parts of the roof and spread tar toward the area where the buckets came up the rope.
About two-thirds of the way through this hours-long project, our foreman was carrying a hot bucket of molten tar while plunging a cotton mop into the bucket with his other hand as he walked. An air bubble created by the mop splashed hot tar up onto his hand and forearm. He reflexively dropped the bucket, causing hot tar to shoot up into the air and splash on his head, face, neck, shoulders, and over much of his clothing. He let out a grimaced scream as the rest of us looked on in horror. He immediately left for medical treatment. The next day he returned, reddened with first- and second-degree burns. He was a tough, hard working guy who made a stupid mistake while in a hurry to finish the hot—actually very hot—summer chore.
The moral of this story is: Be careful what you wish for. I had asked the vice president if I could have the dirtiest job available for the summer to get my mind off books and study. I got the job!
In September I bought my books for 4-5 courses at the University of Illinois. The books smelled good. They felt clean. I no longer smelled of fishmeal. The air was fresh over the Central Illinois prairie and in Champaign-Urbana.
I was more than ready to study, take exams, write papers, work half time on a research project, and burn the midnight oil. Life was good and I never enjoyed school so much.
And I learned to be careful about what I wished for. Still, even now, I’m glad I got the dirtiest job they had at Security Feed Mills. I learned a lot. I learned that job was much more difficult, more intense than farming. I learned to really love the life of academe from that time forward.