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Learning summer job dignity for $1 an hour

They called me “The Trail Blazer,” Good Buddy. 

That was my citizens band radio handle in the summer of 1977, when the hit movie “Smokey and the Bandit” created a CB craze and millions of kids like me dreamed of getting one. 

Much to my surprise, my father permitted me to do so — even though I needed to attach a large CB radio antenna to the roof of our house.  

He saw the CB radio as an opportunity for me to learn how to manage my own finances — how to open a bank account, plan ahead, get a job and save money to achieve my goal. 

Too young to work a retail job, I applied for and got the only work available to me: golf-ball picker at a local driving range.  

Until summer arrived, when I could start later in the day and work more hours, I woke at 5:30 a.m. every morning before school and rode my bike two miles to the range.

I was handed an aluminum tool that was as long as a golf club and the shape of a tennis-ball cannister. It had three springs on the bottom. By pressing the tool down onto a golf ball, the springs would retract and the ball would be captured.

I was assigned a section of dewy grass the size of a football field and had one hour to complete the job — for which I was paid one dollar (about $4 in today’s money).  

Needless to say, I was going to have to work many unpleasant mornings to save enough for a CB radio, which, if I remember correctly, was about $130 at the time.

This memory came back to me when I read in a Yahoo News report that, after last summer’s horrible scarcity of summer jobs, there are 1.2 million part-time jobs available — more than 2019’s pre-pandemic numbers.  

But fewer teens are willing to take such jobs.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 1978 about 7 in 10 teenagers like me took part-time jobs, but in recent years prior to the pandemic it was down to 4 in 10.


The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School said it’s because more teens are taking internships or volunteer work to strengthen their college applications. In a sense, that means colleges are punishing kids who choose to work. 

That’s regrettable because summer jobs offer a treasure trove of real-world learning opportunities: how to plan and execute projects, collaborate with different personalities and experience the satisfaction of exchanging your skills and labor for cold hard cash.

When I got my first paycheck in 1977, I quickly learned that saving up for my CB radio would be even harder than I expected.

I was introduced to my three silent partners — federal, state and local taxing authorities — who didn’t have to get their sneakers covered with dew to earn a chunk of my $1 hourly wage. 

By the end of the summer, however, I’d finally saved enough to buy my CB radio. It was one of the most rewarding purchases I ever made — because I built up my dignity one lousy golf-ball plunk at a time. 

In the long run, dignity is the biggest reward of a summer job. I highly recommend taking one, Young Buddies. 

Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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