Father and son say goodbye to childhood.
As the summer ticked away, the father started stealing glances at his college student son in quiet, early morning moments, preparing for another goodbye.
By the end of August, the kid would again be gone, away at college for the fall semester of his sophomore year in upstate, New York. The home where he was raised would again be empty as a playground in the rain.
The father was happy for his kid, of course, to be heading back up to the meandering campus on the glittering Hudson. This year his son would be giving up dorm life for an apartment off-campus with guy pals he knew since grade school. By day they’d join a parade of college girls to various classes and functions, all of them experiencing the good old days they’d miss for the rest of their lives.
These were the best of years when they were no longer children and not yet adults and still single and getting smarter by the class, book, debate, discussion, term paper, day, week, month, semester.
And, yes, by crazy weekends of carefree fun.
When the father picked him up in May, the kid announced that he wanted to work all summer. The father nodded, knowing that his son would learn as much about life toiling in a real summer job as he would taking notes in a classroom. The father had started working as a butcher boy when he was 12, learning life lessons about work ethic, team effort, self-discipline, punctuality, and the value of a buck that have guided him a lifetime. He worked as a Local 3 electrician’s union college helper on construction sites through college, meeting men who were the salt of the earth.
His son landed a job on his own working alongside two childhood friends for their no-nonsense father in the construction trade. The college kid’s new boss warned him, “Just because you’re my sons’ friend and I know your father, I’m warning this won’t be fun. I’m not a nice guy to work for. Be prepared for that. It’s $20 an hour on the books and believe me you will earn every penny.”
The college kid nodded, shaking his new boss’s hand.
The kid assembled his proof of citizenship, Social Security card, and took a 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration training session over two days. He bought himself a hard hat, $200 work boots, a tool belt, and some work gloves.
The father watched the preparation knowing that this was a giant step in his kid’s life, a time when summer vacation was no longer Little League, or sleeping till noon, watching reruns of “Two and a Half Men,” or days at the beach before going out to party for 93 nights. This was a summer of work. And work changes everything.
The college kid would learn that at 6:45 AM on a Monday in early June, when he reported for work as a laborer for his tough, loud, demanding, time-is-money boss and a crew of skilled tradesmen erecting a new home and a small office building. The kid unloaded trucks, carried galvanized pipe, dumped bags of cement mix, dug ditches, hoisting power tools, hauled lumber — sweeping, painting, stacking, and sweating his young butt off as temperatures bubbled into the humid 90s.
Pride In His Stride
By the time the kid came home at 4 PM, he was maraschino cherry red, sweaty hair plastered to his skull, and filthy with the magic dust and grime of honest toil.
“How was it?” the father asked.
“I now know what I don’t want to do for a living,” the son said.
They laughed, the kid ate a plate of chicken and veggies, showered, and by 10 PM he was ready for bed for another 6 AM wakeup.
Welcome to real life.
The kid started rising on his own, learning to cook eggs and bacon, taking vitamins and slathering sunblock on his face, arms, and neck.
At the end of the first week, he waved a take-home paycheck for more than $600, $400 of which he banked toward his college apartment. “I wanna pull some of my own weight through college,” he said.
That Friday night, the kid showered, shaved, dressed in khaki shorts, polo shirt, and a pair of new boat shoes. The father noticed veins popping in his kid’s muscular arms from a week of manual labor.
The college kid went out with his guy and gal pals with a pride in his stride that only comes with money in your pocket that you’ve earned the old-fashioned way with sweat, elbow grease, and blisters that harden to calluses on soft hands.
The second week became a routine of physical labor, a demanding boss, perspiration, hearty dinners, early nights, pre-dawn breakfasts, and another paycheck and a well-deserved weekend of partying.
“I respect people who do this every day of their lives,” the college kid said to his father over breakfast. “Most of them do it so their kids won’t have to. It gives me a new perspective on the sacrifices parents make for their kids.”
His father loved hearing this from his son, who, in November, would be voting in his first election.
Pining For The Vanished Kid
The downside of his kid working all summer was that the father got to spend so little time with his son. So, the father awoke in the pre-dawn to have coffee with his son, discussing school, the morning news, and work. Then they’d fist bump before the kid left to join his boss’s sons at work.
His grumpy boss shut the job down for a week in July and invited the college kid to join his co-worker sons at their condo in Turks and Caicos.
On a truly hot day in August, his boss told the kids to break for lunch and take the rest of the day off to go swimming.
The father’s first boss at the butcher shop had been a hard-ass with a similar kind streak he couldn’t always hide. Like his son’s boss, no one worked harder than his first boss in the butcher shop. That was a life lesson taught by example.
And now the kid’s first summer home from college, his son’s first summer of work, was almost over. The days were getting shorter. The baseball season was winding down. Parents were already buying back to school clothes. College kids were getting ready to flap off again from the nest.
The father was already missing his kid and he had not yet left.
Then, one morning as he stared at his son from the kitchen, the father realized what he was missing was his last-born son’s childhood which had vanished with his first full week’s pay.
Now in addition to lessons in American history, the fiery politics currently dividing the nation, and the lopsidedness of the tax code learned in college classrooms, his son had learned the discipline to awaken and cook before first light, he had learned to absorb the slings, arrows, and sudden kindness of a tough, no-BS boss, and he’d learned the value of a dollar and the nobility of skilled workers who toiled with their hands and their backs and their hearts so that maybe their children would have the choice to try something different in life.
The college kid learned a master class in life.
In his first summer home from college, his son was fit, strong, and wiser, and had made a giant step into manhood.
He had learned that work is the only answer.
Before the fires of August sputtered out, the father’s son would be back in college.
The father already pined for the vanished kid who had become a man.