http://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/a/b/1/ab110a9430fb41a6/20140715-schafer.mp3?c_id=7388729&expiration=1405960069&hwt=c671a6151875883dbc45283362dbfd2d (Podcast with my commentary)
As it turned out, I was unable to attend college my first fall after high school. My status as an unemancipated minor made me ineligible for the financial aid I’d been expecting, which necessitated a quick - by which I mean long, arduous, and painful - change of plans. I did eventually land a minimum-wage job at a bakery, and being now a veritable miser with money, by the following spring I had three hundred dollars saved. I decided to invest this massive sum in a trip to Alaska, where I had been assured by all manner of people who had never been there that you could earn colossal columns of cash working in the canneries. “Big money!” and “Signing bonus!” and “Free room and board!” the newspaper ads all promised. What they didn’t tell you, of course, was that the people who earned the “signing bonuses” and “free room and board” were those who went to work on the boats themselves – and that the reason they made “big money” was because the living conditions were horrible, the job was tough and scary as hell, and they worked twenty hours a day whenever there was a catch. I opted for the more palatable version, which was not actually a cannery, but a fish packing plant –several notches further down on the dirty jobs scale.
It wasn’t a bad job, all things considered. Yes, you worked fourteen hour days whenever there was a delivery, but since that was when you made your overtime pay, nobody complained too much about that. And yes, your feet and hands were constantly cold and cramped – it was months before I could comfortably hold a hairbrush again, and it took more than a year for all of the feeling to finally come back into my fingertips. On the plus side, you got to camp for free on site, and my particular facility even had an indoor bathroom and hot showers – a true rarity in those parts. To help pass the time, they cranked up the radio on the plant’s loudspeakers and let us listen to it all day – the unfortunate part being that the only station that came in clearly only played Top 40. Can you even begin to guess how many times a day a Top 40 radio station plays the same songs? So many that eventually you adapt and learn to enjoy it. You have to. Otherwise you go crazy!
I never got my big money – in fact, shortly before I was due to come home, my station wagon died, and I ended up having to spend what seemed like an eternity of days riding a bus all the way back to California. I wound up with forty bucks in my pocket and the satisfaction of knowing that even if I never travelled again, at least I’d been to Alaska, which is so unbelievably worth seeing that I’m not even going to begin to talk about it now. And a good thing, too, because here we are, twenty years later, and I’ve yet to have the chance to go again. It’s the one place I want to make sure I revisit while I can still travel, which is why I’m making it the primary destination for my road trip this summer, during which I’ll be drafting my second memoir, The Long Road Home.
I don’t think I’m going to go searching for employment, though. Somehow I think I may be past the age for factory work, particularly when it involves fourteen-hour days, Top 40 radio, and thousands of pounds of bloody, frozen fish. But who knows – perhaps when I get up there I’ll be inspired to try it, for old time’s sake.
Just don’t put me on the header.
"Heads of the Line" is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $0.99 Kindle, $5.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book's webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.