Dump trucks and friendly faces

One summer while I was in college I had a job working on the grounds crew for the public school district. No, I didn’t have a green thumb. Nor did I know how to use a weed eater. But thanks to my mom’s connections in that department, I was hired. It was my idea of the perfect summer job: endless days of summer in which I might finally get that perfect tan.

My college semester ended fairly early, so I was one of the first crew members to arrive at the end of May. My early arrival meant that I was one of two people “trained” to drive the vehicles we would use that summer. There was a van to transport all of the temporary workers (one other young woman, six young men and me). Although I didn’t like the lack of windows (it was a utility van), I was fairly confident driving the van. It was only twice the size of my parents’ cars.

And there was a dump truck. A very large dump truck. It was ten times the size of my parents’ cars. (Okay, I may be exaggerating here but I believe in weight it was at least ten times larger.)

During the first week, Mike, a long-time crew member in his early forties, took Brian (another early arrival) and me with him on rides to the dump. We unloaded every few days after we’d cleared a field of unruly grasses and clipped bushes back so that kids could play more easily on the playground.

“Pretty soon, you’ll both be ready to do these runs on your own,” Mike said, his left hand resting casually on the wheel.

Seated between Mike and Brian, I nodded. Sure. I’d be doing this run on my own. If I repeated that to myself several times, maybe I’d believe it. Over the next few weeks when the option came up to take the load to the dump, I let Brian take it. In some ways it was a treat…you could listen to the radio, you were on your own and with the time it took to go to and from the dump meant you “missed” at least one hour of wacking weeds in the heat. But I still felt nervous about driving the truck alone. It was huge.

Then one day, Brian was out sick. (Insert panic here.)

“We need a load dropped at the dump,” Mike said, and handed me the keys.

I got into the cab, and with my hands gripping the wheel at 9 and 3, I was off. About half-way to the dump, I started to feel pretty good. I turned on the radio, rolled down the window, took a look at my surroundings. Maybe this wasn’t so bad.

When I arrived, I pulled up to the shed where I had to check-in on the district’s account.

“Liz?” asked the man behind the register.

Startled to hear someone say my name, I recognized that the young man talking to me was Chris, someone with whom I’d gone to elementary school. We chatted for a few minutes about what where we’d gone to high school, about who we still knew “from the old days”. It was good to see a friendly face in a place in which I felt like a foreigner — I was the only woman inside the gates of the dump.

After a few moments, I returned to my rig (yes, by then I was feeling a little more confident). When I sat down I realized that in order to dump the truck’s load I was required to back up. Backing up didn’t frighten me, I’d done that plenty of times on the empty fields and other areas of the school grounds on which we’d been working.

What frightened me was the one spot that was open…in between two other trucks. Every other space around the area where I needed to unload was taken. Not only would I be backing up a huge dump truck, I was going to be required to pull in, backwards, between two other huge vehicles.

Placed squarely on the wheel at 9 and 3, my palms started to sweat. My heart pounded. I wanted to cry. The line of trucks behind me would not be patient. After many trips to the dump with Mike, I knew these folks were on a schedule.

Without much thought, I hopped out of the truck. I knocked on the door of the shed.

“Hey, what’s up?” Chris asked me.

“Would you mind backing up the truck up so I can unload it?”

“Sure, no problem,” he said.

Chris backed it up with ease and I was able to unload within minutes. I waved to him as I drove past the shed. I haven’t seen Chris since that day.

Thankfully, Brian had perfect attendance the rest of the summer. And the following year I found a job working as a counselor at a day camp.

But today, thanks to Facebook, I saw that it was Chris’ birthday. I posted a birthday wish on his page:

Just recalled a moment 20+ years ago when you were a huge help during one of my summer jobs. I needed help backing up a dump truck — do you remember that? Boy was I thankful to see your friendly face. Hope you’re celebrating well today!

There is a lot for me to celebrate in that moment from my youth, especially the ability and the sense to ask for help. More than twenty years later, it’s a good reminder — being able to ask for and receive help is, in the end, worth a lot more than the perfect tan I never did obtain that summer.

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2 Responses to Dump trucks and friendly faces

  1. juliesteed says:

    So, so true, Liz – a great reminder that’s ok to ask for help when needed!

  2. Patrick says:

    This had me laughing! During college summers I worked on the grounds crew of my school district too. No dump trucks though.

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