‘What do you want to do be when you grow up?’ is probably one of the most asked questions in our lives– and many of us, even as adults — have yet to answer the question.
I knew at 10 years old what I wanted to be: An astronomer. Before I was in grade school my father took me outdoors on chilly winter nights to gaze at the stars. It wasn’t long before I could identify nearly a dozen stars and constellations. I knew the name of our solar system’s planets as well as their moons.
But as I advanced into high school, I learned that astronomy involves math—lots of it. And while I progressed quite normally with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, when they threw algebra’s x’s and y’s at me, I felt like I was trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Throughout my schooling I was always perplexed that I could do so well in English and social studies, but so poorly in math. Somewhere I read that the ability to process abstractions such as mathematics resides primarily in a portion of the brain called the parietal lobe. “If that’s the case,” I concluded, “my parietal lobe must be the size of a grain of rice!”
I think that same lobe as something do with visualizing spatial relationships, in other words, mentally picturing the way things fit together. For me, “Some assembly may be required” are five of the most frightening words in the English language. I find some solace in the fact noted science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who described elaborate machines and scenarios in outer space, was said to have difficulty screwing in a light bulb.
As I entered college I had my sights set on becoming a lawyer, so I majored in political science. Unlike my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors who were farmers and traditionally rose early in the morning, I always disdained getting out of bed early. Political science classes began at 8 a.m., so I changed my major to English. Those classes didn’t begin until 2 p.m. in the afternoon. It was a better fit anyway, since political science and pre-law required incredible amounts of reading, and the print in the books was so small!
Between college semesters I worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a fisheries technician and began thinking that I could become a fisheries biologist. Again, math reared its ugly head.
I continued English studies, but after a while a few sage people, including my sister, inquired as to how I would make a living with an English degree.
“I could teach,” I offered.
“You have no patience for teaching,” my sister scoffed.
Without much debate, I quickly changed my major to journalism. After the switch, the first thing I learned was that as an English major we used the word “symmetrical.” In journalism it became “even.” In English our narrative might be circuitous in getting to a point. In journalism, it was “get to the point now, if not sooner!”
But before finding a niche in journalism, I held a lot of jobs that convinced me I didn’t want to do those things for the rest of my life.
These included riding on the back of a garbage truck, which back then carried the ignoble title: “swamper.” Anchorage’s winters were much colder then, and this was not a pleasant job. But I do recall receiving tips and gifts from appreciative customers along the route.
The absolute worst job I ever had was on the ramp at Anchorage International Airport.
I was the “honey bucket” guy, which involved taking a holding tank out on the tarmac and attaching a heater to the outlets of the lavatories beneath the aircraft. When the outlet finally thawed and I connected the hose, dripping all over, I pulled a cord and the disgusting toilet contents were gravity-fed into the tank, often spilling onto me. In case of blocked toilets, I had to go up into the airplane restrooms and dislodge the contents with a coat hanger. The lowest person on the ramp totem pole got this job, and they didn’t hire anyone after me for about two months.
At the time my roommate was a gate agent for the same airline. He wore a sport coat and tie to work and frequently had dates with company employees, including flight attendants. No one would go out with me because most of the time, I stank.
During those years of finding my way I held an amazing number of jobs, for example: house painter, bartender, janitor, laborer, delivery driver, snow truck driver, cannery worker and furniture mover. I think I know why I did. My father always taught me that work is noble and that none of us are above any kind of labor.
One of my cannery jobs involved going into the holes of ships shoveling shrimp mixed with ice into bins that were crane-lifted up onto the dock.
The shovels were huge and the guy working with me had arms bigger than my waist. Gasping and heaving, I struggled to lift the heavy shovels.
“What’s the matter?” The guy asked. “You act like someone who just got out of the Navy.”
“I did,” came my weak reply. “How did you know?”
So finally, in May 1974 when I received a B.A. degree in journalism from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, I completely lucked out.
I was at the right place at the right time. The Alaska pipeline project was just getting started. Bechtel Inc., was building the pipeline camps preparatory to pipeline construction by Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. And with my degree in journalism, Bechtel hired me as an Assistant Planning and Scheduling Engineer. It mostly involved keeping track of the beds available in the growing number of pipeline camps. In truth, back in those heady days you had a good chance of landing a job if you were a warm body and had a pulse.
That and a few other lucky breaks launched me into Alaska’s oil and gas industry, leading me to oil giant BP. I leveraged my journalism background to become a writer for that company for more than 30 years.
But upon reflection, after my dreams of becoming an astronomer were dashed early in life; disillusionment that I couldn’t be a fisheries biologist; the disappointment of numerous not-so-pleasant jobs; false starts and teeth gnashing; I’ve finally arrived at an answer to that timeworn question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s easy, and perhaps others might feel this way: “I just want to be the best person I can be.”
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired grade school teacher.