Job perks include driving a tractor and extra mac and cheese

February 9, 2014 

In last Sunday's BND magazine, a few Cathedral Grade School students were asked what they want to be when they grow up?

Contractor. Policeman. Car Salesman. Zookeeper. Forensic anthropologist. Cosmetologist.

I was impressed by their responses.

Forensic anthropologist?

At their age, I wanted to be a school custodian like Abby at my old grade school, St. Philip's in East St. Louis.

I thought Abby's job was pretty cool. He carried a lot of keys on his belt. Any guy who had that many keys on his belt had to be important.

While we were indoors diagramming sentences or figuring fractions, Abby was outdoors, sitting on a tractor, cutting grass, or dragging the infield dirt of our ballfields.

Abby had it made. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt to work. Rarely shaved. Wore a ballcap.

Whenever a kid got sick in school, Abby was able to get the teachers to ask for student volunteers to do the dirty work.

"Now we need a couple of real strong boys," said the teacher. Every boy raised his hand, of course. Anything to get out of class. But about fifth grade, I had a moment of reckoning. I was fine, staring out the window, listening to lawnmowers.

Abby was our schoolyard Robin Hood. One day, at recess, a couple of kids stumbled into a snake near a patch of weeds.Of course, the teachers ran to get Abby. Within seconds, Abby grabbed that snake and yelled, "Moccasin, moccasin!" Next thing I knew that snake was in three pieces. Abby, hoe still in hand, explained that snake could have bitten and killed one of us.

I'm pretty sure that little snake wasn't a water moccasin. But I figured Abby knew snakes because, from my seat, he had it all figured out on the school grounds.

Abby was our grade school's track coach. One Friday a year, he'd call us all outdoors to compete in the qualifying events for the diocesan track meet held at Jones Park in East St. Louis. The top two finishers represented our school in each race.

No warm-ups.

No special running shoes, although you could run barefoot if you wanted.

I remember Abby's simple, encouraging words. "When I blow the whistle, run fast as you can."

Track coach.


Dream job.

Plus, Abby got free hot lunches in the school cafeteria. He lived next door to our school, so he went home most days for lunch. But he ate at school when we had the specials like cheeseburgers, cod fish, mac and cheese or brownies.

I resented the way the cafeteria ladies favored Abby. He was royalty. He immediately went to the front of line. Always got an extra scoop of mac and cheese and two brownies.

Just another reason to be him someday.

I'm not certain when I stoppedwanting to be Abby.

Probably when I figured out that I couldn't fix much or after I saw him mopping the gym floor again after a jokester flushed someone's school shirt down the toilet.

Soon thereafter, I changed my long-term career plans.

I wanted to pitch for the Cardinals, like Bob Gibson or Steve Carlton. Or play second base, like Julian Javier or Ted Sizemore.

Maybe become an astronaut and walk on the moon.

Or become a rock star like Paul McCartney. Heck, today I'd still like to be Paul McCartney when I grow up.

Or be a pro quarterback like Joe Willie Namath, Roger Staubach or Bart Starr. Every guy -- young and old alike -- wanted to be Joe Namath. Broadway Joe. The coolest guy I had ever seen, next to Steve McQueen.

I'm not sure when writing entered the scene as a career path. Well beyond my youth. I was in college. Writing came a lot easier than chemistry or anything that required a calculator.

In hindsight, Abby may have had it all figured out. Free brownies. A tractor. Two scoops of mac and cheese. Never having to shave. It's appealing,

But I made a wise choice.I would not have made a good school custodian for many reasons, including I would have misplaced all those important keys too often.

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