Hard manual labor can remarkably clarify the mind and help to settle one’s sense of vocation. I think the physically hardest job I’ve ever had was in the summer of 1969. I was home from school at UCLA. My parents had moved from southern New Jersey to Richmond, Virginia the previous year, and I was to experience my first summer in Richmond. It can get real hot in Richmond, and real humid.

My dad, an executive with Reynolds Aluminum, had lined up a job for me at a Reynolds aluminum foil plant. I was assigned to the slitting department, and my job was to keep slitting machine operators supplied with uncut aluminum foil. This foil was produced and printed on large, heavy rolls which were then attached to slitting machines. These machines are basically a series of round, rapidly rotating razor blades designed to cut the foil into smaller sections. The aluminum foil you buy in your local grocery store comes directly from aluminum foil slitting plants. 

The job sounded interesting to me and would be a good way to make some sorely needed bucks over the summer. As the weeks passed, though, I was increasingly tired. Exhausted might be a better word. The hours were grueling; midnight to noon, six days a week. I’d never worked so hard in my life. 

I learned some valuable lessons that summer at the slitting plant. One was the importance of focus. Sustained attention, particularly when I was tired and tempted to distraction and day-dreaming, was essential. I found out the hard way. 

I was mid-way through a twelve-hour shift and repetitively loading large rolls of aluminum foil on to a series of slitting machines. My mind was wandering. Suddenly the roll on my hand trolley shifted as I was transferring it to a slitting machine. The heavy roll swiftly pushed my right arm into a rotating razor blade. The blade was so thin and spinning so quickly that I felt no pain as it sliced into my arm. In fact, I didn’t realize I’d been cut until an adjacent slitting machine operator, a kind, gentle soul with a mild, homespun sense of humor said, You might want to take a look at that.” A three-inch cut creased my right forearm. Best to pay attention.” He was right. Best not to allow one’s mind to wander in an aluminum slitting plant. 

A sense of vocation began to form in me during those long summer months, though not yet in a deeply Christian sense. I missed books. I missed time for thinking, reflecting, pondering. I missed ideas. I missed words. I’m not sure I want to do this for the rest of my life,” I concluded as my summer finally ended and I gratefully headed back to school in California. Maybe I should start studying harder.” I think my dad had just this in mind when he lined up the job. 

Tom had a similar experience, in a farm field rather than aluminum slitting plant. Tom’s dad had bought some fields that needed farming, and Tom and Tal were tasked with helping a skilled sharecropper named Clarence Bowman. We spent long days plowing, planting, cultivating, irrigating and finally harvesting. We had to learn how to set a straight furrow, monitor what was happening in the plant root systems under the topsoil, check for insects and diseases, and apply manure to stimulate growth.” 

Root systems can be a real problem for the Oklahoma farmer. There is a particularly nasty weed called Johnson grass whose life’s purpose is to strangle cotton shoots. Tom’s task as a sixteen-year old farmer’s assistant was to root out the Johnson grass. If he simply mowed it, it remained alive beneath the surface of the land, wrapping its tendrils around the cotton shoots. So, armed only with a hoe,” Tom hacked away at the Johnson grass for hours on end. 

Tom, like me at the Reynolds Aluminum slitting plant that hot, humid summer in Richmond, was learning about himself. I decided I did not want to work that hard for a living. I liked a lot about farming, but it was in the Johnson grass patches that I decided my future had to be with books and ideas, not muscle and sweat. It was on a 99 degree day with a hoe in calloused hand, with sweat obscuring my vision, with my face caked with dirt, that I quietly promised myself to become a more attentive and deliberate student. It was a cotton field epiphany. God was hedging my way with a wall of Johnson grass. Happily, I had already acquired a taste for reading.”