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Sue Bruns: First jobs provide challenges and experience

“Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ‘em ‘Certainly I can.’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt

My father Ted used to tell a story about moving from his family’s farm near New Ulm, Minn., to Yakima, Wash., during the Great Depression.

Two of his siblings had already moved there and worked for a wealthy couple in the Yakima Valley. They sent money back to the family every pay day.

By the time young Ted arrived, jobs were scarce.

When he applied to work in a fruit orchard, the foreman asked him if he knew how to prune trees.

Ted, apparently working from the Theodore Roosevelt school of job confidence, said, “Sure.”

But when the foreman watched his first attempt, it was obvious that Ted knew nothing about pruning trees.

“You’ve never pruned a tree before, have you?” he confronted Ted.

“Well, no,” Ted admitted, “but I really need a job, and I’m a hard worker and a quick learner.”

His admission and earnestness apparently impressed the foreman.

With a little instruction and practice, young Ted soon learned the skills and kept the job.

My own first job also involved the need to learn as I went.

I was just 13 when I got a call from a neighborhood couple looking for a babysitter for their six children, ranging in age from 2 to 10.

I had no real experience, having rarely even been responsible for my younger sister, but I was eager to earn some money of my own.

They were pretty good kids, but six of anything can be a lot.

The parents didn’t go out often, and usually the kids were getting ready for bed when I arrived to babysit.

I was paid a whopping 35 cents per hour – not per kid, mind you, just a flat 35 cents.

Once the kids were tucked in, I could curl up in an overstuffed chair in the living room, read a book and listen to the creaks and moans of an unfamiliar old house until the parents came home.

One night, though, a flu bug made its appearance just after the children had fallen asleep.

One child tiptoed downstairs to tell me that his brother, with whom he slept, had gotten sick in the bed.

The dread I experienced while climbing the stairs to inspect the scene was not nearly as bad as the real thing.

The poor kid was still asleep in the mess, his hair and face smeared with vomit, his pajamas and sheets reeking.

His brother, who had followed me back into the bedroom, grew immediately queasy when viewing the scene with the lights on, and before I could assess the full extent of the first boy’s situation, the second was adding to it.

I turned away and somehow managed to keep my own gag reflex from adding to the disaster.

I hustled the two boys into the bathroom where they competed for the toilet while I stripped the sheets and wadded them up into a nasty ball before hurrying downstairs to call their parents, who ended their night out immediately and arrived home a short time later.

By the time they arrived, the two sick boys had cleaned themselves up somewhat but were not straying far from the bathroom.

The father pulled two dollars out of his wallet to pay me for the evening (a hefty sum, considering I’d only been there about two hours), but before he could hand it to me, the boys’ little sister bolted down the stairs to tell her parents she wasn’t feeling well.

She flew directly to her father and promptly threw up in his outstretched hand – right on top of my wages.

“That’s OK,” I told the father. “You can pay me next time.” Of course at that point I was rather hoping there wouldn’t be a next time.

From babysitting I went on to pulling weeds in a farmer’s bean field, detasseling corn, working at the local Dairy Queen, tending the counter at a bakery, leading summer recreation for 2- to 10-year-olds, waitressing in a small cafe, working in a delicatessen and wrapping meat in a grocery store before finishing college and becoming a teacher.

I count every job I ever had as valuable.

One job’s experiences apply to another’s, and when you throw in motherhood, many bases are covered.

Ask me today, can I do a particular job, and I’m likely to say, with confidence, “Sure, I can.”