I was a participant in the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Minneapolis in 1967. I qualified for this program because I came from a family of 13 children and my dad only worked one job; Lord knows he had plenty to fix and do at home.
I was 14 years old when I began to work and reported to Mr. Pete Heryla, a really good man. My first assignment was at the Fort Snelling State Park, and my twin brother worked at a local school gymnasium handing out athletic equipment. I would walk from my home north to hook up with some other guys and we would walk to a building across from Honeywell on 28th street and 4th avenue south and catch a bus. Over time we got to know one another and I realized that many of these guys had been to reform school or juvenile detention. We would then board a school bus and be driven to Fort Snelling, where we were turned over to some guys going to the University of Minnesota.
Our primary task was to cut brush and build trails adjacent to the river using very basic hand tools. Our work took us from the Fort area south under the Mendota Bridge; it was pretty physical work. Some of our collegiate supervisors could be real jerks, which probably explains a rock fight that occurred one day between some of the more hard core workers and the supervisors. All I know is that I didn’t participate; I didn’t get struck by any rocks, and the collegiate supervisors’ regained control. I don’t know what happened to the boys that started throwing rocks, but we never had a similar event that summer. This was probably as close as I could come to working on a chain gang.
Toward the end of the summer we were bussed for a week to the State Fairgrounds to help get it ready for the State Fair. That was the most enjoyable assignment. With summer over and school back in session my twin brother and I were assigned to ground maintenance work at the Veterans Hospital on the weekends. What this really involved was removing fallen leaves, shoveling snow and removing ice from walking surfaces.
My distinct memories are of standing in the dark, in the cold waiting for a bus to take us to 38th and Minnehaha, where we waited for another bus to take us to the hospital. I felt like I was frozen stiff by the time I got to the hospital and we barely had time to recover before we were sent back out into the cold to begin working. I didn’t care for cold feet and numb hands so I looked for a job inside the hospital. I was able to get a job washing dishes in the cafeteria on the weekends; definitely much warmer and the people I was working with were pleasant enough. But I wanted to do something different, so I got a job in the Bacteriology Laboratory helping to sterilize test tubes and petri dishes after they had been analyzed by the doctors. I became proficient in operating a steam autoclave to sterilize containers with analyzed samples. Once test tubes were sterilized we would clean them out and put them through the autoclave to sterilize them for re-use.
The regular adult employees were involved in making the petri dish media, preparing sample tubes with media, and the technicians who took patient samples and applied them the media. There were some memorable characters working there, but they were generally patient and helpful in showing me what to do and how to do it.
My most memorable experience was in the adjacent Oncology Laboratory where jars of guinea pig organs suspended in solution that had to be sterilized prior to disposal. I put the jars in the autoclave and started the cycle to heat up these jars. When the sterilization cycle was complete I went to open the autoclave, as I cracked open the door I sort of lost my breath, so I shut the door. I tried to speak but couldn’t, so I went to find someone to help. I eventually recovered my voice, dismissed my previous experience as a fluke and went back in to continue with emptying the autoclave. But just like the first time, when I opened the door I lost my breath again, but I left the door cracked open and turned on an exhaust fan, and then waited in the hall by the door. Someone finally came by and I had recovered enough of my voice to explain what had happened. We eventually got back into the lab and the air was fine. I found out later that the liquid in the jars was formaldehyde and some had probably vaporized and leaked past the caps which I then breathed in.
But all of these jobs allowed me to put some money in the bank and I even used some to help my family with bills. I eventually graduated from Minneapolis Central High School, and completed an Associates Arts Degree at Normandale Community College. But my biggest achievements started with my enlistment in the U.S. Navy in their Nuclear Power Program.
After I completed 6 years of service I went to work in the federal naval shipyard system as a Nuclear Shift Test Engineer, responsible for establishing and controlling reactor plant conditions and acceptance testing. I worked on numerous submarines, and few nuclear cruisers and aircraft carriers. However the shipyard I worked at in California was being closed down and through an association I made while in the Navy I went to work for the Department of Energy at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado.
With DOE I contributed to the closure and demolition of facilities used to process and refine plutonium used for the United States nuclear weapons arsenal. When this site closed I went to a uranium processing facility in Kentucky and worked in cleaning up that site as well. I recently retired from DOE and now am working as a consultant. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I know the value of being prompt, prepared for the tasks I have to perform, giving my best effort and asking questions as needed.