Wednesday, March 31, 2010

College Days and Beyond

Besides working every summer and during holiday breaks to secure money for my college education, I worked a number of jobs while on campus.

I ran track and cross country for two years hoping to secure an athletic scholarship but I gradually found out that such a thing was not going to happen. Scholarship were given only for football, basketball and wrestling at Iowa State with rare exceptions that my talent couldn’t meet.

But my track coach would occasionally find work for me cleaning up the grandstands after a home football game. So myself and several other jocks showed up on a few Sunday mornings, gathered up large sweeping brooms and climbed to the top of the grandstands and started to push all the peanut shells, popcorn boxes and various contra-banded empty liquor bottles and beer cans downward. Then the garbage was centralized and scooped up into trucks and hauled away. The problem was that there were so many of us, the job didn’t last very long, minimizing our actual take away pay.

I waited tables, first at Theta Delta Chi, my fraternity, then later at a sorority. I learned to always serve from the left, serve the women first when they were guests, and how to carry three plates at a time. Actually, I could carry five plates but the limit was 3 for the sake of proper waiter etiquette. But certain on rare days when the house mother was away, 5 plates it was. Of course most of the work was done after the meal was over. The job of dishwasher was rotated and while he was washing, the other two would help the cook put food away, dry the dishes, pots, and pans, and ret up the dining room.

I considered it an upgrade to secure a job with the wait staff at the Sigma Kappa sorority, even though my job was washing the pots and pans and the sorority was 3 blocks away from my fraternity. Usually there were only about 25 sisters and pledges to feed compared to about 40 at my fraternity. The difference made the job quicker and easier.

Considering that females at Iowa State were only 40 % of the student body, working at a sorority had some fringe benefits. At this particular time, the Sig Kaps were known to have many members that were less than beautiful and/or overweight. In fact the house mother was always trying to have her menu reflect small servings and healthy food. The result was that four guys in the kitchen ate about 30% of the food and 30 gals ate the other 70%. I was a good job all in all. Two of us were from the same fraternity and the other two were Phi Psis and we all got along very well.

A class mate and I worked in our department one summer on various projects. I remember one job was to eliminate the central belt driven motor for all the various machines used in the Ceramic Engineering department and add a motor for each machine. The machines had to have its individual concrete base poured for each motor and hook up the motor to the machine.

Later I did library research from one of my professor’s research project. I spent hours trying to find information about phase equilibriums of various materials.

One Fall I took part in the annual United Fund drive called the “The Ugliest Man on Campus” or UMOC. This was not a paying job, but it was associated with raising money. I put a silk stocking on my head and made a face and my photo was taken. Then 2000 flyers with my ugly face were printed up and distributed on bulletin boards across the campus. Voting is done by contributing to the United Fund, designating the person who is the ugliest as you gave. I had no hope of winning because large fraternities make sure one of their members wins by working hard to secure donations. But I finished a respectable 5th.
One of the worst jobs I ever had at college was setting bowling pins at the student union. I got paid $.35 a line, so if 4 persons bowled a set, I made $1.40. This was before automatic pin setters. Myself and my fellow pin setters would work two alleys at a time. We positioned ourselves between the alleys and when a ball and pins would come into a pit, we would move there, pick up the ball first and set it on the return rail and give it a little top spin so it would reach the collection stop. We would drop the hydraulic operated reset tray, pick up four pins at a time, two in each hand, and drop them into position. After a strike or second ball on a spare came through, the tray was dropped and a new 10-pin pattern was presented.

It was dangerous and dirty work. One pin-setter next to me lost a tooth, when a pin went flying and hit him in the face. The pit was extremely dusty due to the constant abrasion of pins against pins, and pins against bowling ball combined with neglectful janitorial service.

I developed calluses on both hand between my third and fourth fingers where I grabbed the second pin. And my back was sore from the constant bending down and raising up. So the job was physically demanding, environmentally unpleasant, and dangerous.

I do remember a few incidents that while embarrassing at the time, cause me to smile every time I recall them. One time I hurried too quickly to return the ball to the return track by applying top spin before the ball was securely on the track, causing the ball to jump off the track, bounce unto the lane, and cause a collusion with a ball just delivered by a bowler hoping for a strike. “Bonk” resounded very loudly and could be heard several alleys away.

Another time I got out of sync, thinking the bowler already had thrown two balls, and I lowered the re-set tray prematurely just in time for the ball to smack the tray. The two make an interesting clanging sound when they meet. And the bowler let out a roar, probably because he thought the ball would have been a strike. And perhaps he was right.

Believe me when it came time to graduate, I looked forward to a life as a professional engineer and a nice income. That worked out pretty well, until 30 years later when I was out of a job and started to work at Jewel supermarket, stocking grocery shelves while I sought employment in engineering.

After 18 months not being employed in the engineering field, I was able to reinvent myself as an Environmental Engineer, a field I worked in for my remaining professional life. As it turned out, it was a thoroughly interesting second career.

I have had many different jobs in my life and to use one of my favorite mantras to close this saga, “everything counts in life”. Without all these experiences, I would be a different person than I am now.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Going Downhill Fast

“Dave, we need someone to go over and race with the class “D” group.”

I had started skiing about 3 years before, taking my first ski lesson at Greek Peak, a small ski area near Cortland, New York, half way between Binghamton and Schenectady. My girl friend’s home town was Cortland and she was a part owner of a condo just across from the ski area on the town’s outskirts. At that time, Patricia and I were involved in a new and exciting romance. We met because I was friends with her ex-husband and when I moved the family to Lancaster, PA, she was there, she was strikingly beautiful, and we were both single. We had much in common and loved active sports. What was not to like?

During Thanksgiving weekend 1979, we drove up to Greek Peak with my daughter and her two sons, to spend a couple of days on the slopes. Talk was that my daughter, Kristi and I would rent ski equipment and take beginner lessons together, while Patricia went skiing with her sons. And so it happened.

I was both anxious and exhilarated to begin skiing. I had never been remotely close to skiing and never even knew anyone that was a skier until I met Patricia, other than her ex-husband. Burnt in my memory forever, is how awkward I felt when boards were put on my feet and I was asked to then walk sideways up a very slight knoll to begin my first descent.

Kristi and I were athletic and determined to become comfortable with the label of “skier” and after many failed attempts to remain upright we were soon making turns with our skies formed in the shape of a wedge. As I progressed in honing my incipient skills I realized that skiing is all about overcoming fear by gaining both skill and confidence motivated by desire to succeed. Soon I was able to advance to the chair lift and the bunny hill.

A year later I was able almost keep up with Patti. She was an elegant and graceful skier while I relied on brute strength and courage trying to master both speed and control. Many times losing control resulted in spectacular wipe outs resulting ski, poles, hats, gloves, and goggles flying off in various directions with me bravely struggling off still another bruise. One morning while on a week long ski trip, I was so sore and beat up that I had difficulty getting out of bed. I decided than and there that I would devote my efforts to mastering more control and sacrifice some speed.

Eventually my days living in the East came to an end and a couple of years later, our romance finally ended also, but the skiing stayed with me and remains to this day.

“Dave, we need someone to go over and race with the class “D” group.” It is March 1983 and I am on a Midwest bus weekend ski trip with Fort Wayne Ski Club. The person talking to me is the race captain for the club. We are at Boyne, Michigan and all ski clubs that belong to the Indiana Ski Council have descended there for a weekend of ski racing, drinking, and making out as much as possible.

I explain to the race captain that I have never raced before but that does not dissuade her from enlisting me. I am given instructions where to go and soon I am standing in line with a numbered paper racing bib on my chest waiting to go as fast as possible around poles with flags on the top and to do so without falling down.

By this time, I have had time to size up some my competition and it is pretty plain to me that I can ski as well or better than most of them as determined how they looked skiing over to the starting area. Thankfully, I was not one of the first to plunge down the slope so I have a chance to observe what some of the better skiers did.

It seems that there was this wand across the starting place and as soon as your legs push through it, the timer clock starts running and there is an electric eye at the finish line, which stops the clock when you break the beam. So from my observation point, the goal was to get going as fast as possible at the start.

When my turn comes, I place my poles over the starting wand and as I wait briefly to hear that the course is clear, I try to think, “breathe out fear, breathe in energy” to try to eliminate my considerable anxiety. Suddenly I hear, “go when ready racer” from the starter. I push out with all my strength and skate hard towards the first pole. Around the first 3 flagged poles (I learn later to talk them “gates”) I go, trying to look ahead and see the next challenge. I am picking up speed as the slope gets steeper. At the fourth gate, my instinct takes over and my weight goes to the tails of my skies causing to spin 180 degrees and almost fall down. I turned about as fast as possible and continued until the 8th gate where a reoccurrence took place. I recovered again and continued on through the finish line, disappointed that I didn’t do better, but I heart was pounding and I felt the adrenalin kick in. “Wow, I want to do that again, I know I can do better”, were my thoughts.

And so it began. Later that night at the awards banquet, medals were handled out for the first 10 places in each racing category. I came in 9th even with all the mistakes I made and I was amazed. Obtaining a 9th place medal in the lowest race class helped me realize I had potential.

Two years later I won the ski club’s “Most Improved Skier” award and also the Veteran Men’s Challenge Cup for my overall season performance. My name was engraved on the club’s huge Challenge Cup and I was presented a miniature cup to keep. I got to keep the big cup for a year and fortunately I had a fireplace mantel to give it prominence.

When I came to Chicago and joined Lake Shore Ski Club, I was soon well known because I started winning the club’s ski races dethroning the long time champions. This in turn led to becoming the club’s president as well as several other positions within the club. I became a certified ski instructor when I retired and I also met my wife on a weekend bus trip.

I have a trophy case filled with medals and trophies and sitting in the center is my 9th place medal in honor of how it all started.

Skiing is a life sport and if there is a desire to improve it is possible. So as I complete my 30th year skiing, I am positive that I continue to improve, not only as an all around skier but on the race course also. It probably it unrealistic to think this will continue, but I really don’t want to think about it. Not now anyway, I am having way too much fun.