It never occurred to me, during the summer before my final year of college, to pursue an internship in my field of study. Of course, I was a pre-med student with a psychology major and a drama minor so I’m not even sure what type of internship that would have been. Maybe a job where I acted like a psychiatrist would have made sense. Today, most college students get a summer internship because it helps them with their career goals. I, however, went down a different road.
Instead of pursuing work that might actually help me find employment after school, I nabbed a minimum-wage job with a paving company. Now don’t get me wrong. I was lucky to have a job. You see, two weeks before summer break, I was informed by the hotel where I had planned to work that they had an overabundance of male employees and needed to hire more females. So, I lost the front desk job they had all but promised me. Luckily, my brother knew a guy who owned a paving company about sixty miles away and he was kind enough to make an introduction and offer me a free place to stay for the summer.
When I got the job, I was not aware that we would meet in the company parking lot at 3:00 a.m. every Monday morning, drive several hours to the out-of-town work site, stay in cheap, insect-ridden motels for the week, and do what’s called “surface treatment” on secondary roads in rural Virginia. I didn’t know anyone else on the crew and didn’t know anything about surface treatment. Turns out, it’s a process that gives roads a few more years of life by topping the asphalt with a layer of tar and gravel.
On the first day of work, I met guys with nicknames like Bubba, Junior, and Reefer (yes, that kind of reefer). And my boss, whom I’ll call Sam, had just gotten out of prison where he served a ten-year sentence for shooting a police officer. So, not only did I have a rough job, I apparently had a rough boss.
Since I was the only college student on the crew, Sam immediately gave me the nickname, “College Boy.” But shortly after I started, that changed. Since I didn’t have a great deal of surface treatment experience, whenever I made a mistake, Sam would throw a heavy tool at me, scream obscenities, and call me “Dipstick.” But that was just the beginning.
Back in 1982, I didn’t have the chiseled, bronzed, physique that I display today. I was six feet tall and weighed 145 pounds. I was clearly the slightest guy on the crew. In fact, if I turned sideways, I could eavesdrop on conversations because they wouldn’t know I was there. I guess it was inevitable that after a week on the job, Sam modified my nickname to “Skinny Dipstick” which was eventually shortened to “Skinny Dip.”
So for three months that summer, almost all of my crew mates knew me only as Skinny Dip. They probably thought I was named for swimming naked, which by the way, I had never done. So, technically, the label was a gross misrepresentation.
Early in my short but intense paving career, I was assigned to the job of being a flag man. Flag men and women are the people on road construction crews who wave an orange flag and hold a big sign that says “Stop” or “Slow.” Well, I had the flag but no sign. So I stood on these rarely traveled, rural roads a half of a mile from the surface treatment site and flagged down cars to warn them about the upcoming work site. Some days, I might only see two cars during a twelve-hour shift. And since I was so bored, I would often engage the drivers in way too much conversation. They would tap the steering wheel, look at their watches, and then speed off pretending to be late for a meeting. That was my sad, lonely flag man existence.
After a couple of weeks, I think my boss recognized I was being underutilized. So, he promoted me to driving a rubber-tire roller. This is a machine that works just like a heavy steam roller but has nine rubber tires that press the gravel into the tar. I was thrilled with the promotion but it took me a little while to get used to the machinery. In fact, on my first day, I ran into a tar truck and broke off two spouts. My boss almost hit me with a wrench that day and “Skinny Dip” was the least offensive thing he called me.
Eventually, though, I settled into the job and was pretty good at it. The roller was quite old though and was constantly needing repairs. Once, I lost my brakes while riding down the highway. I swerved into a grocery store parking lot and into an embankment just to stop the thing. Thankfully, there were no damages or injuries, although my trousers needed to be rinsed out later that evening.
Even though I was lucky to have that paving job, I remember counting the days until I could return to school for my final year of college. I had established myself as a valuable member of the crew but I felt out of place. I had a nice apartment, an almost-complete education, and the promise of any number of jobs after graduation. Yet, I worked with people who might never do more than drive a truck, spread gravel, or lay down tar. Some of these guys truly did aspire to greater things. Others were happy right where they were. And a few just didn’t care. For most, a job was just a job.
My dad use to tell me that work like this built character—because you have to show up every day to do something you don’t love. But I got something else from my summer on the road crew. I gained a greater appreciation for the privileges I had. The other guys on the crew were people, just like me, but for whatever reason, they had not gotten the same opportunities. And it broke my heart to know that some of these wonderful human beings would be trapped in their job for many years and quite possibly, for the rest of their lives.
If I can take one thing from the experience, besides the hefty $3.50 per-hour pay, I would say that it made me appreciate how lucky I am for having the experiences I have had, and to always be aware that others may not be so lucky. By understanding this, I can use my opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others. And for that, being known as Skinny Dip was a small price to pay.