Columns » Bob Lancaster

The best jobs

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I’ve just been looking over a stupid list of what are said to be the 25 best jobs in America. Techies and numbers shufflers. Moviemakers and their cattle, which is what Alfred Hitchcock called actors. They have the Best Jobs now. People who sweat and groan, who actually produce goods, who fill bellies and clothe nakedness and put roofs over our heads — they don’t rate anymore. Welcome to the 21st Century. My job — professional crank — isn’t on the Best Jobs list, either. And I’d feel worse about that if lawyers and chiropractors weren’t numbered among the Top 25. They are. Really. Ambulance chasers and neck snappers. Jeez, who said our values, our priorities were screwed? How could they have left out state legislators? Televangelists? Pet psychologists? Here are some other notable omissions. • Farmers. Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin both thought farmers had the best job, and that was before you could get paid, and handsomely, to not plant stuff. • Grandmothers. My favorite one once provided this job description: “You have to go to stuff, and be proud.” • Skeptics. If it weren’t for them, we’d be living in the fool’s paradise, like in “The Matrix,” where we all believed the Fox News version. • Garbage workers. There’s the pay, the odors, the vermin, but these people have to know they couldn’t be done without. It piles up, quickly reaching critical mass. Apparently that’s what we mistook for a WMD in Iraq. One time during a garbage handlers’ strike, I put some garbage cans with rusted-out bottoms in the back seat of my car preparing to take them to the dump. It was the worst thing I’ve ever done. Decades passed and I’m still bummed. • Fiery radicals. As this is often only an avocation, it might not count. For instance, Tom Paine’s real job, his day job, was inserting whalebone stays in women’s corsets. A true fact. I knew a man once who listed his occupation as squirrel turner. It was his way of saving the self-esteem that otherwise would have been lost to the admission that he’d never been able to hold a job. My clan in Grant County had a number of Lancasters who, if they had thought to enter “squirrel turner” in the appropriate resume blank, would’ve found themselves immersed in what the horserace people call an exhilarating class hike. I was a squirrel turner myself at one time, and it wasn’t a paying occupation but rather one aspect of a kind of familial indentured servitude. A squirrel turner’s job is this: He shakes bushes or otherwise makes woodland racket in order to cause a treed squirrel to move to the other side of a treetrunk so that the hunter with the gun can get a clear shot at him. (That is, a clear shot at the squirrel, not at the squirrel turner.) Pap’s sons served as his squirrel turners. His daughters might have done so too, on occasion, though I don’t remember that happening. One of Pap’s signature sayings, when confronting someone who had been rendered temporarily speechless, perhaps by astonishment or shock, was, “Well, say something or shake a bush.” This alluded to the squirrel-turner family tradition. When my wife Martha was a youngster, her highest occupational ambition was to become one of the uniformed elevator operators at the Donaghey Building in Little Rock. This was when the mere passenger couldn’t be expected — perhaps couldn’t be trusted — to operate the cumbersome contraption unassisted. Each lift had its operator and each operator was as dapper and Johnny-on-the-spot as the Call for Philip Morris boy. To join this elite crew was aiming mighty high, I had to concede, but I told the pard that with my manic-depressive inclination, there’d just be too many ups and downs. Har har. At about that same time, No. 1 on the ol’ moi list of Best Jobs was that of Tarzan. He was undisputed monarch of a domain so vast that a body could’ve grapevined nonstop for a month and not got across it, with as many crocodile-infested rivers as anybody ever dreamed of, and he had a saucy wife and likeable boy and trusty monkey that would warn him when trouble was coming. It was an embarrassment of occupational riches. Almost too opulent. Tarzaning wasn’t a practical aspiration, however. Openings were scarce in Grant County for a loblolly apeman. Formal occasions tolerated the gallus but not the breechclout. The jungle holler would only fotch swine. And I was agreeable to hitching to a lesser occupational star. But not lesser than road-grader operator. This wasn’t the mean ambition it might sound. Our little bailiwick had no paved roads, and we actually depended on the road-grader man to keep us connected with the wide world. Without him, just a couple of hard rains and the mail carrier couldn’t get through, or the schoolbus, or the buggied doctor house-calling, or the DDT spray team. We would’ve soon been as isolated as Daniel Boone, and probably have been reduced to trying to suckle wolves.

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