Once upon a time I worked in an underground limestone mine as a harvester picking mushrooms. Actually, my first job there was over a summer working in the Packhouse. That was the place where mushrooms came out of the dark into the light. They were poured into little packages, wrapped securely in plastic and boxed to be shipped out to grocery stores. Others went out to companies to be cooked into your mushroom soup or went to some other place that might add them as an accompaniment to your steak or to a carnival stand to be deep-fried. I worked there that summer never planning to return.
That summer in the Packhouse, I was on break from Penn State. That was a school I chose for its immense size, 3-hour drive from home, and as a follower of family tradition. It was a mistake that wasted time and money, but I left there with a life-long friend. I had other friends there, but they are lost now. I changed majors several times from Spanish to Russian to General Studies. My Russian-descent neighbor in Worthington predicted my failure at their language that required me to not only learn to speak but to write in a different alphabet. I hate to say they were right, but I will always have those few words and phrases I can speak when I visit Russia someday. I admired all those college students who had a vision for their lives. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” I said then and now. I fear that my dying words will be, “I never found out what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Possibly the most important word of that sentence though is ‘grow’. We worry so much about physical growth, but the most important part of growth is mental and spiritual and emotional. Maybe what I am destined to be is a wanderer trying new things without one vision.
After giving in to failure at college, I returned home to live with my parents as grown kids are still doing who find that their degree is not opening doors or is impractical or the job market only has positions that will not pay enough to be independent and still repay school loans. I worked a part-time job in retail for a while, but if I ever wanted to move from my parent’s home; I needed to make more money. So I applied at the mushroom mines whose smell often permeated the surrounding countryside. That college experience of failure was also a hindrance on my application. They did not want to hire me because the hiring managers thought I would take my unfinished education and leave. Well, I showed them! I stayed over nine years, and then came back for more. I used the good word of my brother who was working as a sales manager there to get hired. That was nepotism, or networking as I would call it now. They did not make a mistake in hiring me. I was an adept harvester. Sure I missed some work, but I was young; and I gave it my all when I was there. The work was physical manual labor requiring dexterity and the skill to recognize the mushrooms that were ready to be pulled from their dirt and ultimately end life in someone’s stomach. People may believe anyone can do this job, but it required developing certain skills. There were many people good at the job, and many incompetent people. I liked the camaraderie of the people I worked with but hated pettiness sometimes. We got along, and sometimes we didn’t. It was the story of any workplace.
I often thought about leaving the mushroom mines. I wanted to return to college, I think more for my parents than for myself. I was the only one in my family who did not have a college degree, and sadly, my father and mother never lived to see me finally get it. They loved me though, despite my failures and disappointing them and even embarrassing them. That’s what children do to their parents until we finally realize that they do not owe us the life we see for them, and they are not required to make us proud. One time after a friend got a job at USAir as a mechanic, he told me to apply for a baggage handler job. My interviewers suggested I might want to apply for a position as an airline stewardess. Was I dressed too well? Should I have worn what I wore to work at the mushroom mines to prove I just wanted to be a baggage handler? I didn’t get the job and kept picking away at those mushrooms. I finally left when I met my husband which is not really an accurate statement. We did not meet there having known each other from living in the same town and only a block away from each other’s houses all our lives. We attended the same church, and my mother was his second grade teacher. We knew each other as people who had a 5-year age difference know each other in school. I had never looked at him before those years at the mines. Now I saw him differently and can still picture him standing outside a union meeting in a short-sleeve plaid shirt. By that time five years age difference did not matter. He said something to me one time about having always noticed me. I can’t remember if he meant in school (hopefully not with that 5-year age difference) or at the mushroom mines. After we married, we moved on a whim and escape plan to Arizona. So finally I was done with the mushroom mines, or so I thought.
By the late 90’s we had returned from Arizona with our son and then added our daughter to the family. I had worked in an office between my two children but didn’t return to work after my daughter was born. Eventually my husband prodded me to go back to work, and I turned again to the mushroom mines working as a part-time harvester for a few months. I took the summer off and began to think I would not return there. Then I was offered a job in the office and spent another ten plus years at the mines ending my life there as the Human Resource Manager. If only those ten years were joined with the other nine years, I might have a pension from this job. But the first company where I had worked those nine years shut down to reopen as a new company. So my working life there did not bring me that sought after pension to supplement social security in my retirement years. It brought other things to life though.
A few months ago I was talking to someone about jobs we had worked. She was a college graduate who worked as a Spanish interpreter in a meat-packing plant in the Midwest. She said one day she was with a group of teachers who were touring the plant. When some of the workers greeted this translator by name, those teachers looked surprised. They asked, “Do you know them?” Were they surprised that she knew these laborers or that she had worked in that place?
There were thousands of people who walked through the doors of the mushroom mines to try their hand at the job. They often were on their way to some other place, dissatisfied with the work or the environment or the schedule or the people. But there were thousands of others who spent their working lives there. A friend of mine said she raised her family on this job. But often I hear people speak negatively of their experiences working there. People in the community sometimes looked down on people who worked there, especially women. In those first years, women working there had the reputation for cursing like sailors and talking bluntly about sex. So what? I got some of my sex education there, because we certainly never got it in school. Some women did talk like sailors, and many didn’t. I can curse like a sailor when needed. I have heard much worse on the street now. My husband is an expert at cursing and swearing; sometimes it was even painful to listen to him. A friend in describing the word ‘fuck’ said, “You know, Mr. Roy’s favorite word.” Sometimes, there are just no other words to describe a situation. I have one particular word I never used and always hated to hear in describing women, but I found myself using it to describe someone. It just fit her—that word I hated. You’ll just have to guess what it is or send me a message, and I’ll tell you.
People say they want to forget their years working at the mushroom mines. They ruefully admit they worked there if someone seems to recognize them and asks, “Did you work at the mushroom mines?” I do not have comprehension of this attitude of regret, and even shame. I never felt that way about this place that held such a significant place in my life. Did I sometimes hate it? Absolutely. (What was the worse job I ever had? My three days at McDonald’s. It was the thought of cleaning grease traps that finished that job for me.) Did I talk about leaving the mushroom mines? Lots. Did it bring irreplaceable things to my life? Yes. I have lifelong friends from this place. I moved into independence from the money I made there. I took pride in a job well done as a harvester and as the Human Resources Manager. It made me realize my capabilities. It made me see my faults. I made major errors in judgment and morality there. The most important person in my life for almost 35 years entered my life there. I started as a single woman and left as a married one with children at the end. It brought me to where I am now. It gave me something to write about. My years there can never be forgotten or replaced, and I don’t want to forget them.