My oldest child Alex, soon to be a senior in high school, has a job. An honest-to-goodness, punch-a-timeclock, pay-your-taxes job. Yesterday he was a kindergartener, and today he’s a 6’3” tall, seventeen-year-old member of the work force. How did THAT happen?

Travis Naughton

When I was Alex’s age, I was flipping burgers at a Wendy’s restaurant for $3.35 an hour. A few of my friends had been working there for a while, and I thought it would be fun to join them.

It was not fun.

When I arrived for my first shift, I was handed a four-inch-thick binder that contained the procedures for preparing every single item on the menu. Twenty minutes later I was manning the grill during the dinner rush, having absolutely no idea what I was doing. As the cashier took customers’ orders, she would repeat them into a microphone—even though she was standing just two feet to my left. I had to remember each order and assemble every burger with the correct toppings as fast as possible while simultaneously throwing more patties on the grill, seasoning them, flipping them, and preparing them for the next order. I knew immediately that I was in over my head.

“Double cheeseburger, ketchup, mustard, pickle, onion, lettuce, tomato.”

Ok, what did she say? Double cheese? Is that two burgers AND two slices of cheese or… Wait, did she say mayo or no mayo? Where does the tomato go?

“Single with ketchup and mustard only…hey you! What are you doing?! Only one slice of cheese on a double cheese!”

Oh, sorry. I didn’t know…

“You need to hurry up! Gimme that double. Don’t forget to throw more patties down. That single done yet? Gimme that. I said no cheese on that single! What’s the matter with you? Make her another one! The right way this time. Hurry up!”

All of this transpired in plain view of the customers, and it went on like that for what seemed like years. I vaguely recall being told at some point, by an exasperated manager, to go take out the trash. I gave serious consideration to walking right past the dumpster and straight home. But I decided to stick with it.

Things were bound to get better.

Things did not get better. For the next three weeks, I tried to please my managers and fit in with my coworkers, but I failed at both. When I checked the schedule for what would have been my fourth week of employment, I saw that I was only assigned to work a single, three-hour shift.

I arrived for that shift carrying my polyester uniform—which permanently reeked of the 100% pure beef lard used to cook those delicious Wendy’s French fries—and handed it to the night manager, telling him, “I can take a hint.” My first job was actually in the newspaper business. My brother and I delivered the Quincy Herald-Whig to customers along West Ely Road in Hannibal, Missouri when we were kids. It was Blake’s idea to be a paper boy, but because he was so young, our parents decided that he needed his big brother to help him. I had absolutely no desire to deliver newspapers, and I told Mom and Dad I wouldn’t do it.

I did it.

I was able to buy myself a new bicycle with my earnings, a ten-speed mountain bike that made riding my hilly route much easier. Blake bought himself one, too. We were so proud of those bikes. (Sadly, both were stolen while I was using them to get around campus when I was a student at Mizzou.)

When I turned sixteen and got my driver’s license, Blake and I delivered the papers from the comfort of our mother’s 1977 Datsun 210. Eventually, I grew tired of working seven days a week, waking up early every weekend to deliver the morning editions, and riding around with my little brother. So, I quit and made the stellar decision to join my knucklehead friends for fun and hijinks at Wendy’s.

It was not a stellar decision.

Yet here I am, thirty years after delivering my last newspaper, writing for a newspaper.

I’m hopeful that Alex’s first work experience will be a positive one. At the very least, I hope it gives him some good material to write about someday.