Wednesday, June 20, 2012

summer jobs, part II: the church camp.

After my two hellacious summers at Twisters, there was no way that I was going back for a third. I was finally sixteen, so I had a few more employment options. What I really wanted to do was find an awesome summer job in Brookings, the nearest large-ish city. They had little clothing boutiques and flower shops; I was sure I could find a job to love. When my parents asked what my employment-seeking plans were, I informed them of my intent to work in Brookings. In response, they said: that’s great, but then you’ll need to pay for your own gas to get there and back. Brookings was a sixty-mile round trip: a drive that my mom already made every day. A part-time job was not likely to have the same schedule as my mom’s 8 – 5 Monday – Friday job, so I couldn’t plan on riding with her. When there were a handful of summer jobs available no more than fifteen miles away from our house, my parents were not willing to foot the bill for the drive to Brookings. Being a cheapskate, I opted to find a job closer to home and spend my money on other things besides gas.

The area surrounding my house was pretty low on desirable summer jobs. In Arlington, someone of my age could either work in the nursing home cafeteria or the grocery store. Lake Poinsett’s few options included Twisters and a restaurant or two. Things were looking grim… until Mom found the “help wanted” ad in the paper. The Methodist church camp on Lake Poinsett was looking for part-time summer help. I agreed to pick up an application, which I filled out on the spot. I turned it in to the woman who had given it to me (who turned out to be the camp director’s wife) and left with instructions to wait for said director’s call. Sure enough, the phone rang a few days later. It was the director, requesting an interview with me. Since my first job was simply handed to me, I had no idea what to expect in an interview. Dad coached me a bit, advising me to watch out for questions such as “what is your biggest weakness?” I showed up to the interview in my finest interview-wear (which likely consisted of my black skirt with giant blue flowers and a matching blue cardigan) and totally aced it. I was offered the job and happily accepted.

My first day at the camp was summer 2003, and it was the Monday after school ended: no turnaround time for me. There was another girl starting that day, so I was spared being the only newbie on the job. We met the on-duty staff and got a tour of the camp. The camp was divided into two sections: the actual camp and the retreat center. The retreat center was more like a hotel and could be rented out for family reunions and whatnot, so this was a bit fancier. We were given our Lake Poinsett camp t-shirts and filled out paperwork. The other new girl got the rest of the day to move into the staff cabin (employees could stay on site if they wanted), and I was sent home. I was instructed to come back tomorrow, ready to work.

Work I did! I had never worked an eight-hour day before, and this would be my first of many. My job was titled “support staff,” which meant I would work wherever I was needed. That included everything from driving the camp tractor to slicing up cucumbers for the veggie trays to making sure the retreat center rooms had little mints on their pillows. I spent a solid amount of time pulling weeds out of the little gardens, so I spent most of the summer with a bizarre glove/t-shirt tan line. This was also the summer I almost became a lifeguard but ended up flunking out on the first day.

That first summer was positively exhausting. I’ve never been much for manual labor, so much of the work I did was just not up my alley. When the director asked me if I’d come back next summer, I informed him that I’d be happy to on one condition: my time would be limited to the kitchen only. He agreed, and just like that, I had secured my job for next summer.

This director, however, would not last until the next summer. He relinquished his job to a new director. This new guy was the Richard Simmons of camp directors: relentlessly energetic and a firm believer in being able to do anything if you put your mind to it. At the same time, he was a little like a robot who hasn’t quite mastered human interaction, so I will refer to him as the Robo-boss. On my first day, I let the Robo-boss know about my agreement with the last director: that is, working in the kitchen and ONLY the kitchen. Robo-boss was fine with it; he’d hired plenty of other people to do the lawn-mowing and what have you. My friend and neighbor Nick was one of those who worked in maintenance that year, and he and I deemed the Methodist camp kitchen “the Meth lab,” which is a name that’s stuck ever since.

Working in the kitchen/Meth lab was, believe it or not, a blast, and it was all because of the kitchen staff. Deb was the head cook at the camp, and she was so much fun. No matter if we had a ten-person camp or a 120-person camp to feed, Deb was never worried. Deb quickly picked up on each staff person’s favorite things to do, and she would assign them accordingly. She always let me make the signs for the dessert table, which I loved, and I got to write on the light-up blackboard with neon markers. On grill-out days, I was always the one to hand out the frozen desserts, which made me extremely popular amongst the young campers. Deb had a great sense of humor, and she always asked for input for everyone else. Even though I was pretty low on the totem pole, Deb would always ask me for help planning the next week’s menu. Deb always made you feel like an invaluable member of the team, which is a great way to feel. Jan was another cook, and she was wonderful. She always had something funny to say, even if we were doing something as unsavory as scrubbing scrambled egg pans. A day working with Jan and Deb was more fun than work should ever be. Deb’s daughter Ashley began working at the camp, too, and that was even MORE fun.
Ashley and me: just another day of being awesome.
One of the major benefits to working in the kitchen was the leftovers. Every now and again, we’d severely overestimate the kids’ appetites, and we’d have scads of leftover food. Deb, ever generous, would say, “Would your siblings eat leftover hotdogs? Here, take some!” On one particularly bumper day, I took home Belgian waffles, potato stars (tator tots shaped like stars), sausage links, and chocolate chip cookies. The very best days, though, were the days when I got milk. I know what you’re thinking: who cares? My family, that’s who. When all five of us were living at home, my family would drink at least nine gallons of milk per week. Our teeth and bones are rock solid. Anyway, the camp got their milk in cartons, which came in those plastic crates. If the milk was within one day of its expiration date, we could no longer serve it to the kids. One of two things would happen to said milk: it would either be poured into pitches for staff to drink, or it would be sent home with dairy-loving employees. Pouring it into pitchers was actually hilarious. When we did this, someone had to be the designated milk-sniffer: each carton was opened, sniffed to make sure it wasn’t sour (our milk coolers could be iffy when filled with large volumes of milk), and poured in the pitchers. More often than not, I was the milk sniffer (as I can handle the smell of sour milk). Otherwise, I got to drag home the cartons of milk for my family to enjoy (though I would sometimes hear “try and get chocolate next time” when bringing in my third carton of two percent).

My second Methodist camp summer was a breeze, and I truly enjoyed it (expect for when my parents would drive by on the boat, honking at me as I sweated over the grill). My third summer at the camp, though, was going to be something else. The Robo-boss had asked me if I’d care to join them for summer 2005 – the summer after my senior year of high school. I readily accepted, thinking that I’d have another great summer working in the kitchen. On my first day back, Robo-boss informed me that there would be no more of this “only working in the kitchen” business. I would be back to support staff with my days scheduled by the color-coded hour: one color for housekeeping, one color for maintenance, etcetera. I was also told that there would be a strictly-enforced uniform policy: we were to wear our bright blue camp polos at all times. Sure, I’d been given a couple of grey camp t-shirts when I first started, but those were more “wear these if you don’t want your regular shirts to get dirty” shirts, as opposed to the “wear these if you want to keep your job” new blue polos. Robo-boss was no longer the benevolent C3P0 of the previous summer… he was morphing into the Terminator.

I only made it through that summer thanks to my wonderful coworkers. My friends Tiffany and Camber joined the staff that year, and they were a godsend. 
Even the cold water couldn't bring us down.
Working with them was fun, and their lively banter distracted me from all the unpleasant tasks we were assigned, from stripping floors to picking dead fish up off the beach. That summer also saw the arrival of Robo-boss’s son who, believe it or not, was one of my counselors at band camp several years before. Small world.

I still got to work in the kitchen with Jan and Deb, which I always looked forward to. One day, Jan and I had a particularly brutal breakfast: we were quite understaffed on this particular day. Unless it was a teeny tiny camp (20 people or so), we usually had three people working in the kitchen: one to keep the back-up food ready, one to watch the steam table food supply, and one to get started on the dishes. If memory serves me correctly, this particular group was pushing the triple-digits. Since Jan and I were the only two on duty, we had to do our best to stay on top of the food supply. The dishes didn’t get started until after everyone was gone, and by the time we were finally done cleaning, it was time to start preparing for lunch. We were having tacos for lunch that day: one of the more time-consuming meals. Taco day meant that you had to put all the toppings in bowls, at least three of each topping: one for each side of the steam table, and one for back-up. Some of the bowls weren’t bad, like the shredded cheese and the salsa. But you had to chop up the tomatoes and the onions, which could certainly slow things down. Anyway, I was scheduled to go do maintenance right after breakfast, but I couldn’t very well leave Jan all alone with the breakfast mess. So I stayed, browning taco meat and baking cookies like a champ. Lo and behold, Robo-boss came looking for me. He pointed at his watch, asking me if I knew where I was supposed to be. I answered that I believed helping Jan with the lunch deadline was more important, and Jan concurred. Robo-boss was not so convinced. He dragged me off to mow or sweep up dead ladybugs or whatever it was I was supposed to do that day. Jan and I were less than thrilled with how that day turned out.

Working in the kitchen during that summer of 2005 was still fun, despite all the new rules. We all had to wear hats in the kitchen now, but I was lucky enough to have two great hats to switch between: one with the Batman logo and one that said Wayne’s World (from the 2004 Arlington High School production of Saturday Night Live, of course). Deb even found some goofy old chef hats that we would all wear on occasion. 
The chef hats looked even better when
you added a tiara. This was the day
Deb crowned me "Queen of the Cooler."
Depending on who you worked with, life was good. One day, I was scheduled to work the supper shift, and I was so disappointed to find out that the lunch that day was grilled cheese sandwiches: my favorite meal. My coworkers managed to save me a couple, and they stuck them in the fridge with a big sign indicating that they were mine and mine alone. Who knew that grilled cheese sandwiches were microwaveable?

When I wasn’t goofing off in the kitchen, I still had to participate in manual labor and various housekeeping tasks. One day, I learned of the best way to get out of said tasks. A handful of my coworkers and I were doing some kind of cabin maintenance… I don’t remember if this was the day we were disassembling bunk beds or fixing tiling, but we were doing something unpleasant. Anyway, Robo-boss decided we needed some lumber from the building materials store about twenty miles away. The actual maintenance crew was off for the day (hence the gaggle of ladies doing bizarre manual labor), so they couldn’t go. Robo-boss didn’t dare abandon his crew, so he asked who was willing to drive the camp pick-up to get it. Everybody raised a hand: it would be a welcome break from the current activities. “Great!” said Robo-boss. “Who can drive a stick?” All hands went down… except for mine. As the only female staffer who could drive a five-speed, I was sent on all the errands from that point forward.

By the time my third Methodist camp summer drew to an end, I was ready to throw in the towel. I told myself that I would find another job for next year, even if I DID have to pay for my own gas to Brookings. Believe it or not, my plans didn’t exactly work out. I was just busy being a college freshman – homework, dorm life, what have you – that when Robo-boss called, offering me my old summer position, I shrugged and accepted. After all, it was way easier than trying to look for a job from more than one hundred miles away. I did have one stipulation: I wanted to be in the kitchen and only the kitchen, just like my second summer. Robo-boss agreed, and just like that, I was promoted from support staff to cook.

I returned to the camp that summer, feeling triumphant at having my first year of higher education under my belt. Robo-boss pressed me to move into the staff cabin: after all, I’d been living away from my parents for the entire school year; why would I want to move back in with them for the summer? I politely declined for a number of reasons: 1.) My parents’ house had a great deal of comforts that the cabin did not, such as internet and a reliable source of hot water. 2.) If I lived in the cabin, my paycheck would be less room and board. No thanks. 3.) It would be like I never left work. Those who lived in the staff cabin were more or less on call at all times, and that was certainly not for me.

My fourth summer at the camp began quite nicely. Since I was now a cook, I could be totally in charge of a meal. I’d have to figure out quantities and timing, but I’d have a helper or two to whom I could assign tasks. I have to tell you: that was pretty great. I was working with all of my favorites: Deb, Jan, Camber, Ashley, and Tiffany. My grandma Sheila and my former babysitter Doris even joined the kitchen team. Summer was off to a great start.
Tall Tiff had a good time working
with short Sheila. :)
However, my happiness was short-lived. About halfway through the summer, Deb resigned. She had a new job, and we were all sad to see her go. The kitchen was left without a head chef, so one of my coworkers (who was on her seventh summer at the Methodist camp) took over. This particular coworker (whom will henceforth be referred to as the Kitchen Nazi) had recently been named the assistant director of the camp, and with the promotion came a severe power trip. Within days of her promotion, the Kitchen Nazi had pasted step-by-step instructional signs all over the kitchen: there was even a sign as to how to properly close the cooler door. My dessert signs had been amassing ever since my first summer – I had a neat little sign for every dessert we served. One day, I opened up the cupboard where the signs were kept… to find them replaced with laminated signs that stated the dessert and nothing else. Confused, I asked the Kitchen Nazi where they had gone. She coldly stated, “I don’t think they’re professional, so I threw them away.” I was stunned. Not professional?! It was a summer camp, for crying out loud! What was so bad about little pen-drawn pictures of cookies?

My dessert signs were not the only casualty of the Kitchen Nazi. Remember the light-up blackboard with the neon markers? Besides creating dessert signs, writing out the upcoming meal was my favorite kitchen task. If it was pizza day, I would draw little pizza slices. If it was chicken day, I’d draw little drumsticks. On particularly slow days, I had been known to make the menu into a crossword puzzle. Anyway, you get the idea: fun, colorful menus. Shortly after the dessert signs bit the dust, I opened up the neon marker drawer to find a brand new sign stuck to them. You guessed it: it was a blackboard menu procedure. No more pictures, no more squiggly borders, no nothing: just a list of what was being served, and that’s it. The Kitchen Nazi was well on her way to outlawing everything fun in the Meth lab.

Robo-boss and the Kitchen Nazi made quite the evil team. Whenever they’d enter a room, you could almost see the energy being sucked out of it. I spent the rest of my summer walking on eggshells. I stopped going to “staff fun nights,” as Robo-boss and the Kitchen Nazi were guaranteed to be there and in fun mode, which was pretty terrifying as well. Were it not for that handful of truly great coworkers, I never would’ve lasted the summer.

Summer 2006 was my last summer at the Methodist camp as well as my last really care-free summer. Determined never to go back to the camp, I got a summer job at the Brookings County courthouse and worked there in the summers of 2007 and 2008. The job was full-time and business casual: totally different from the “you might only work ten hours this week, wear jeans and sneakers and goof off with your coworkers” summer jobs that I’d held before. Summer 2009 found me as a new college graduate: my days of having simple summer jobs had come to an end.

Though my tenure at the Methodist camp ended on a less-than-pleasant note, I really do look fondly upon my time there. It reminds me of a simpler time, before rent and student loans and wondering what exactly I should be doing with my life. I met the greatest people, and – as you might guess from this lengthy article – got some interesting stories out of it. I’m even lucky enough to get together with my old coworkers from time to time. I see Jan whenever I go to my hometown church, and we always laugh about our time in the kitchen. Camber has been all over the world in the last few years, but whenever she passes through the Midwest, we do our best cross paths and reminisce about the good and the bad. Tiffany is busy teaching, but whenever I see her, it’s like no time has passed at all. The last time I saw Deb and Ashley was at camp, but here’s hoping to a reunion soon.

So now you have it: my first two jobs. Twisters and the Methodist camp were only the beginning of my working life, but as my first jobs, I’ll certainly remember them for the rest of my life – for better or for worse. They serve as great comparisons whenever I’m displeased with a job: all I have to do is think, “Hey, I could still be breading chicken at Twisters or making eggs-in-a-bag in the Meth lab!” and suddenly, my current job seems like the best thing ever. 
Ugh, eggs in a bag.
Thanks for the motivation, teenage jobs! You’ve been more helpful than you’ll ever know.

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