Once Upon a Time

     The worst job I ever had was selling encyclopedias. That job was so bad I didn’t even make it out of the training session. It was run by a big grinning bully named Ken who looked you right in the eye and called you by your first name.
     Just the thought of schlepping around the streets hawking encyclopedias made me so depressed I walked out and got the second-worst job I ever had, which was trimming Christmas trees.
     You don’t think pine trees grow in that shape, do you? No, you have to send crews out into the Christmas tree farm with machetes, to whack the baby trees into cones. You pull the tree over with one hand and whack it into shape with the other. The pine sap gets all over you and it’s 95 degrees and it pays minimum wage and there’s snakes.
     My grandpa had the best job I ever heard of. World War I came and he was a young geologist. He got a call from the Lady Ester company, the first giant cosmetics company. Lady Ester had based its entire national ad campaign on its talcum powder. The slogan was that it was the only talcum you could put between your teeth and it wasn’t gritty.
     Problem was, the war had cut off the company’s only source, in France. Lady Ester had had a source in the United States, but the salesman refused to tell where it was. Then that source dried up, or the salesman died or disappeared, or something. So Lady Ester was stuck.
     The president of the company handed my grandpa a bag of talc and told him to go find that talc mine and buy it.
     Now, talc occurs all over the United States, from Maine through New England, down the East Coast to Georgia, across Texas and the Midwest, through the Great Plains to Nevada and California.
     So my grandpa got into his Studebaker and spent two years driving around the United States looking for that talc mine.
Studebaker had a deal in those days that if you bought a car you could trade it in for another new one each year for $50. So my grandpa always bought Studebakers.
     After two years, he finally found that mine. It was in Death Valley, and it was owned by two brothers who were both pushing 90, or already had pushed it.
     “I’ll never forget it,” my grandpa said. “They lived in a corrugated tin shed and they both wore red long johns. It must have been 120 degrees, and it was even hotter in the shed.”
     One of the brothers had had a heart attack and he was too sick for his other brother to leave him to go to town for help. So my grandpa fetched a doctor for them, and paid for it too.
     The brothers lived on salt beef and beans and a pot of cowboy coffee they made by dumping a pound of coffee in a big pot and boiling it every morning for a month, until one of them ran into town for another pound of coffee.
     My grandpa bought that talc mine, but it didn’t do any good. The talc was so soft there was no way to mine it. The equipment kept sinking into the ground.
     That’s a story that has no real point, but I love the story.
     Mankind is born to work, and born to tell stories. When I was young I loved stories but I didn’t care much for work. As I got old, though, I realized that work can be – it almost has to be – one of life’s chief pleasures. If you’re lucky. Millions of people are not that lucky, and it’s a damn shame.
     The main tangible benefit I received from my 18 years of formal education was to be able to get work from which I can, if only occasionally, receive pleasure. That pleasure appears on this page every day in the form of stories. Weird stories, complicated or simple ones about people who get into some kind of jam and end up in court.
     People get into the strangest predicaments, and I love to hear the stories.
     Six billion years from now, if the sun explodes and one human being is lucky enough to escape on a space ship and he finds another civilization in another galaxy, I know just what he’ll tell the people on that planet.
     “Hi,” he’ll say. “Listen to this story.”

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