40 Years and a Retirement Hike
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on November 2, 2009
After spending nearly 40 years of my life working, post high school, I retired from my last job after 25 years there.
In high school I flipped burgers, but after leaving high school, my first real job was running equipment in a physics lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a good job, working with a machine that used x-rays to measure molecular spacing in crystals, like silicon and germanium, which would prove vital to computers later on. It was, however, boring and repetitious, but I took night classes for free there. I stopped working full time to attend the University of Maryland Baltimore County for two years, but continued working part time as an independent contractor. I simply typed up a bill for my time every week. As good as that was, I was also involved in anti-war and anti-government protests, as well as volunteer work with a free clinic, classes with a chapter of the Black Panthers, and experiments with sex and drugs, so college work seemed irrelevant. The University finally told me my grade-point average was too low to continue, so I’d have to drop out for a couple semesters. Instead, I left town with my bicycle, riding through parts of Michigan, Canada, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Short of money, I took my second real job, as an electrician’s assistant for a large mid-western carnival: Murphy Brothers Mile Long Pleasure Exposition. I spent a full season with them, running cables to rides, troubleshooting, and maintaining the generators. Then, when my final pay was stolen by Toothless Lester, so he could go on a binge, I stayed on and worked small fairs in Oklahoma and Florida. Florida in winter is nice, and I got to swim in the ocean in December, but the ride I was with didn’t get enough business, for the four of us it took to set up and run, for us to eat all that well. I split to Virginia to visit people I’d met in Canada. The only work I could find there was helping out on a small goat farm, so I passed on that, and hopped a train back to Baltimore.
I got another job at Johns Hopkins after a short search, and this time I was preparing genetics and developmental biology laboratory materials for the pre-med students there. That job got short circuited when a graduate student opened a drawer in a chicken egg incubator, and left it open. The large rotating drum full of dozens of drawers full of eggs then tilted forward, and the drawer slid out. It didn’t have far to go, and could have slipped back in, but ventilation was maintained by aid of a wooden blade revolving around the drum. The graduate student was long gone by the time the wooden blade slammed into the open drawer, jamming the whole device, and causing the premature hatching of 50 to 60 chicks. I was blamed. As it was, there had been complaints from the students of contaminated agar plates, which was also blamed on me, even though the students did not follow instructions very well, and violated every protocol they were given to prevent contamination. Another job down the tubes. I knew exactly what to do: get on the bicycle again. This time I left Baltimore directly, and rode west to Arizona. After hiking across the Grand Canyon and back, I ended up in Scottsdale, Arizona, working for a crafts foundry run by Paolo Solari, a visionary architect building an “Arcology” in the desert. I made bronze wind-bells, melting bronze, ramming clay/sand mixtures around molds and then pouring the bronze, cleaning up the raw products, assembling and even selling them. Sometimes I helped out by giving tours to tourists and other visitors. It was a fine job, but I met some bicyclists traveling through who were doing advance work for a cross-country bicycling/networking trip. I agreed to join them when the group arrived from California.
That was my longest break from working ever, although it involved riding a bicycle nearly every day for six months. Sometimes we did odd jobs to supplement our communal income, and we all gave workshops in our specialties. Mine was bicycle maintenance and repair. The tour ended, and I tried working for a solar contractor in Philadelphia, but that didn’t work out. I hadn’t enough experience in carpentry (none with solar panels) to satisfy my boss, who had wanted to have me work unsupervised. So, I traveled to New York City. I knew a few people there and had a place to stay. Then began my fourth major job: bicycle messenger. I pedaled letters, packages, advertising films and even artwork all over Manhattan on my trusty metal steed. However, I had met a fascinating and very sexy woman in Albuquerque when the bicycle group had stopped there for ten days. Although I had met several woman in my travels, she seemed like the one. She wanted me to move there, and I wanted her, so I found my way back to New Mexico. Unfortunately, there weren’t many jobs available in the Land of Enchantment. After six months of looking, working odd jobs, and hanging around the unemployment office, I finally got a job at the University of New Mexico as a mason’s helper. For a couple of years I replaced broken sidewalks, mixed hod for block walls, and even laid a brick floor in the University President’s house. There was also some remodeling and jack hammer work. I transferred to a job at the Cancer Center for about a year and half, injecting and implanting, respectively, tumor cells or tumor chunks into rats and mice. Then I would treat them with radiation and drugs, monitoring them, weighing them, and dissecting them. It was OK work, but the Director, and my boss, the Associate Director, took their grant money and moved to Philadelphia. I had no desire to go there, much less to the east coast, so I was out of work for another six months, doing odd jobs, and even collecting unemployment while I searched for work. I finally found a good part-time job, analyzing electroplating baths for a printed-circuit board manufacturer, which gave me a chance to take University classes again. I did that for four years, but my quality control position was dropped, and I was looking for work again. This time I ended up back at the University, working initially with mice, removing their glands for analysis and isolation of immunoglobulins, the wonderful molecules that protect our bodies from disease.
This time the job lasted 25 years. It changed continuously though. I stopped working with mice, and ran machines again exclusively. There were machines for determining the amino acid sequence of a protein, for purifying such proteins, for making short versions of such proteins, for analyzing the total amino acid content of biological samples, and determining the purity of all of the above. That changed too, as we obtained new machines: first, a machine for creating synthetic DNA. Cool. Then a machine for determining the sequence of various DNA samples. That became my job then: making and sequencing DNA. Interesting at first, but ultimately boring and repetitive, fraught with problems. The problems could be fun to isolate and resolve, but dealing with an ever-changing clientele of Ph.D.s, graduate students, post-graduate students, undergraduates, and dealing with all the budget balancing was sometimes frustrating. As this last and final job wound down, I went through the motions, doing the best job I knew how, but increasingly disinterested. I could barely force myself to go to work, much less work all day, every day. In the end, I suddenly decided I’d had enough, and retired.
So, what do I do the day after retirement? I went hiking in the Sandia Mountains here. Hiking the entire 18-mile length of the Faulty trail from Placitas, New Mexico to Tijeras, New Mexico. It was fun, with beautiful views, a clear blue sky and leftover snowfall from a snowstorm four days earlier. Faulty Trail has a mysterious origin. Diamond blazes appeared on trees marking its route before any official Forest Service recognition, and it was unofficially called the Diamond Trail. Probably an old herding route, it was apparently cleared by a horse club. The Forest Service took it over and renamed it Faulty Trail in honor of the dikes—fissures filled with igneous rock that moved up from a lower fracture and created the limestone blocks—that appear alongside the trail. Working in a laboratory for twenty-five years, however, does not really prepare one for hiking rolling hills 18 miles at almost 8000 feet above sea level, even with some hiking experience over the last year. I saw wild turkey, rabbit, raccoon, deer, and even fox tracks in the snow and mud. Many of the trees date to the 1700 and 1800s, and some have been cored and marked with their age, so that is a wonderful experience. I even saw a large black coyote near the crest of the mountain. It was one hell of a long day however, from the meet-up at 7 a.m., to the timely lunch break halfway, to wandering off the trail for a bit, to the final late, forced steps on the darkened trail in the light of a full moon at 7:30 p.m. (2 1/2 hours beyond schedule). Tired, sore, and as hungry as a bear, I ate, went home, and crawled into bed early that night, and slept the longest I have in fifteen years: 8 and 1/2 hours non-stop!
Now that is worth retiring for.