Now you’re climbin’ to the top of the company ladder
Hope it doesn’t take too long
Can’tcha you see there’ll come a day when it won’t matter?
Come a day when you’ll be gone, whoa – Boston, Peace of Mind
When I was thirteen years old, my first job was as an attendant at the Chevron filling station which was located across the street from the house where I grew up. In those days, the customer would roll up to the pump and generally ask for five dollars worth of either high test or regular. I would wash the windshield and check the oil, then pull a wad of bills from my pocket and give change and sometimes, S&H green stamps.
At the age of 15 I was tinkering on the body of my 1954 Chevy panel truck, and suddenly found myself doing something which I thoroughly enjoyed. At 16 I was working at Precision Auto Body, and worked there from 1976 – 1978. In 1978 when the two owners of the body shop parted ways, I began working at Griswold Textile where both my mom and dad were employed. The owner of the mill had a 1958 English Austin Taxi Cab which he asked me to restore. He hired me to work under the guise of Maintenance, and the boiler room was converted into a body shop. I worked there for 2 years, restoring several cars for the owner and his family, as well as a 1924 Studebaker for my dad.
It seemed as though I had finally run out of cars to restore, so I went up to the color shop to do some actual mill type work.
In 1980, I started doing some contract work as an industrial painter for a company in Pawcatuck, Ct. Part of the year I was working 40 hours a week at both jobs, and finally left the textile mill, and started a career job with the Connecticut company.
Ah yes, I worked there for nearly 20 years. Eventually I was in charge of Shipping and Receiving, as well as the Lead Man over the paint, metal fabrication, motor assembly, and box shop; all at the same time. Needless to say, it was a stressful job. We shipped all over the world, and most of the time we were competing with deadlines.
My doctor informed me that I would probably die of a stress related heart attack or stroke by the time I was forty…and I remember saying, but I am 39 NOW! His reply, “I know.” Well, I concluded that it was time to move on. I wish I could say that it was easy to quit that job, but it wasn’t. It was easy to tell the guys in management that I was leaving, but the people I worked with…I did not want to leave them. They were my family. Those guys and gals knew me better than anyone. When the deadlines were close, I was never one to sit in my office, fretting over a way to build a better mouse trap; I was rolling up my sleeves and diving into the work with my men. I knew their jobs and was good at the work. My guys appreciated me. I liked the work. I just hated the, as I saw it, terrible management above me, that did such a poor job scheduling and making such horrible promises to our customers, at the workers (and their families) expense.
Well, in August of 2000, I took the leap, and off to another similar company I started as inventory control, shipping, receiving, and paint, lead man. The company was a new start up, and had a hard time getting its feet moving in a smooth direction. A friend of mine offered me a job working for him as an HVAC technician, so I took the chance. Little did I know that he had declared bankruptcy on two previous occasions, and he was less than faithful in paying me at the end of the week for the week’s work that was finished. Oh, he was eventually good for it. Sadly, the bank does not accept payment for the mortgage, nor do the utility companies want their money, in that similar manor. On the brink of bankruptcy myself, I took a job with an electrician that was on many of the sites where I worked doing HVAC. He was generous with the pay, and I went back to school to be trained as an electrician. I did enjoy the work. I piddled with auto body work as a hobby for myself and for some friends of mine.
2004 turned into an all out adventure. My son was now in Knoxville, TN in college. My daughter was 14, home schooled and in love with horses. My son met a sweetheart from Georgia, and they were going to get married. The writing on the wall was that if we wanted to be close to their imminent family, we were going to have to make a move – and we did; nearly 1000 miles away from the place we were born and raised in Rhode Island, to the little town of Nancy, Kentucky.
When we moved to Kentucky, we did not know a soul. It was a total leap of faith. I had never been without a job, and I figured that finding one would be no big deal. It turned out that it wasn’t a big deal, because just three days after the truck, mini van, and 53 foot moving van made its way down here, my wife’s cell phone rang as we were registering our vehicles at the court house. It was one of our realtor’s in Kentucky, husband who happened to be an electrical contractor, offering me a job. It turned out that they had lost my number when I bought our farm through a different realtor. He had called information in Rhode Island, and took a chance with one of the three VanHorn’s listed. He started his conversation with me like this, “ I called Rhode Island information and I got your mom’s number. I’ve been talking with her for the last 45 minutes. She asked me to ask you to call her…” and I started working for him the following week… All the while I was working, our family was also working the 28+ acre farm, in an effort to make it sustainable for us to eventually be able to leave any out side work, and have income generating from the farm. We tried many things, and many things failed. I planted 3000 blueberry bushes over five acres, and watched them dry up and die over several years. We borrowed money to try new ventures, and lately, borrowing to just keep afloat. My daughter has a boarding and horse riding lesson business here on the farm. Economically, we are in a pretty poor area, and it seems that it is, most usually, hard times.
In March of 2015 I was rear ended as I drove my little Honda Civic. A full size Dodge truck hit me doing 55 MPH while I was stopped to make a left hand turn. The injury to my neck now prevents me from doing most of the things an electrician has to do; especially involving ladders, reaching up, crawling in attics and crawl spaces, over extended periods of time.
It was time for another career change. I applied to be put on a sub list for the Pulaski County School system, during the 2016-2017 school year. I subbed for a couple of middle schools, and was asked by the principal of one, towards the end of last year, if I would be interested in going full time for the 2016-17 school year. It turned out that he knew my daughter through the 4H and horses, and had actually been to our farm. My daughter claims that it was because of her that I scored the job…maybe it was!
So, here I am, 57 years old, working in a middle school, as a cook. The pay is terrible and the work is hard- surprisingly hard. I have worked construction for 17 years and never went home as physically tired as I do now. The ladies that I work with are incredible. I have never worked a job where I have experienced so much compassion and appreciation, not to mention, dedication and such a hard work ethic.
Yes, I traded in my tool belt for a hair net and apron. I’m proud of it. I like the administration and the students. It is a difficult world for them. I try to engage as many students as I can. I guess I’m trying my best to close the generation gap, and let them all know that they have a friend cooking and serving them lunch, or cashing them out at the end of the line. It has been funny to see their reactions. Some of them laugh right in my face. That’s okay, I have broad shoulders. Others, now try to beat me to the punch when I say, “Have a great day!”
We all work hard to serve a good meal, both in taste and nutrition. It is a tough line to walk. A lot of these children come from some pretty scary homes. We do our best to make them feel loved, and to know that there are rules to follow…another tough line.
I guess it is kind of ironic to think that in my high school days, I never worked at a McDonalds or a Burger King. But here, at the end of the road, I’m helping to serve 800 or so lunches a day, not to mention, 300 breakfast meals and dozens of suppers.
I’m Steve VanHorn, cook at Southern Middle School. Can’t think of a time in my life where I’ve had a better time working and a greater peace of mind; no ladders involved, because that doesn’t matter. Sing on, Boston!