Starting Out in the Trenches

When people say they started out in the trenches, for most folks, it’s a metaphor. For people like me, who actually *did* start out in the trenches, we simply look around and ask, what’s a meta for?

Yes, while it might be a cute little phrase for some folks who feel like they started at the bottom, I was literally digging ditches as my first full-time gig out of high school. I previously wrote about my lack of post-graduation options, and candidly, I just wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. Look, I had just finished 13 years of going to school a couple of days a week (sometimes as many as five!), I figured I deserved some time off. It was only after a few months, when I had run out of money for gas and beer, that I finally decided I needed to look for a job.

Determined to find the perfect high-paying, low-stress, no-work career opportunity, I booted up the computer and opened a browser on the internet, expecting to be awash in professional opportunities. Then I realized it was 1982, and there was no internet. Oh my gosh, how was I going to find a job? No internet… the inhumanity of it all!

As was often the case, it was my mom who came to the rescue. Thinking back on it, she was obviously so desperate to get my ass up off the couch and into a functioning role in society, that she was calling in all kinds of favors. Come to find out, she knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew another guy who was hiring. Since I had recently come to the realization there was only so much ‘Perry Mason’, ‘One Life to Live’, and ‘General Hospital’ (Luke! Laura!!) I could watch, I reluctantly went to the interview.

Lucky for me, I had a pulse and could fog a mirror, so I was hired on the spot. Suffice to say, mom was relieved (more like ecstatic…).

I failed to ask much about the job details in the interview… something about placing these new-fangled cable TV wires in the ground. Cable TV? Never heard of it. Sounded interesting… I was thinking they might be onto something there. More on that another day.

Well, come to find out the job details included digging ditches 10-12 hours a day. As in digging… with a shovel… manually. Who knew? (maybe me, had I asked in the interview…). And all this fun to be had for the world-changing rate of $5.25 an hour. With the level of excitement normally reserved for a kid getting new underwear at Christmas, I showed up on day one. A Friday. In the heat of July. At 7:00 AM. Whose idea was this anyway?

I seriously almost quit after the first day when they told us we would have to work the next day, which was, ahem, a Saturday. I was like, look, I’m 18, and I’ve got things to do on Saturdays. I can’t have this work thing get in the way of my social life. Fortunately, they backed off the Saturday work, so I decided to come back on Monday.

The next several months were spent toiling in the sweltering summer sun, digging in the non-stop rock of the Cascade Park area. Then, as if that wasn’t enough fun, we almost immediately descended into the depths of the PNW winter. I mean who doesn’t love working in endless mud, when it’s 38 degrees and pouring down rain. Good times.

I will admit, whether I was burnt to a crisp or covered with mud, my lovely girlfriend (eventually turned wife) Melanie tolerated my new look and appreciated my efforts. So there was an upside.

Looking back on it, while those nine months may have seemed like nine years, they were a solid mix of hard work and great memories. It was absolutely a ‘work hard, play harder’ environment. Digging ditches may not be for everyone, but I met some real down-to-Earth people in that job. Digging ditches. Down to Earth… get it? Sigh.

More importantly, I came to respect the concept of a day’s work for a day’s pay. And I learned a ton about myself – specifically what I could accomplish if I actually put in the effort. I knew at the time that I had simply skated by over the previous several years, and I had to acknowledge that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Like it or not, I was now in the real world. While I was out of school, I was in this new life class – Adulting 101.

Ultimately, I believe this job formed the foundation of my understanding that I could do whatever I put my mind to. Sure, it was hard work, but at the end of the day you could see your results, and at the end of the week you could see the gas and beer money it provided.

The positive mindset which was born in those trenches, developed out in the extremes of those elements, would come to serve me well years into the future. As now, instead of being scorched by the sun or pounded by the rain, it’s this cruel, ruthless disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which seems intent on destroying my body.

But, like in those early days in the dirt, I realize I’m going nowhere fast if I’m just leaning on my shovel. So I’m determined to try and maintain that same ‘work hard, play harder’ attitude for as long as possible as I battle this devastating disease. I know that I may not beat ALS, but I’m not going to let it beat me either.

Honestly, in retrospect, it’s somewhat mind-boggling to consider that a job digging ditches was one of the best things that ever happened to me, career-wise. Why? Because it provided me with some incredible insights and helped me develop some solid career aspirations… specifically that I didn’t want to dig ditches anymore.

And as fortune would have it, Opportunity was soon going to come knocking on my door.

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