Chainsaws, Elm Trees and paying for College

Sweep the Drive

My daughter is looking for a summer job.  It is nasty tough out there.  She has two solid leads and we have our fingers crossed.  One of the coolest would here:


Mount Washington Hotel

All thru high school I worked and saved my money.  Going into college I had saved $2000.  A fortune, almost twice what I needed and about what my daughter’s books cost her freshman year.

My dad was dying of emphysema and his business was failing.  He had put my two older sisters thru school and would have done it for me.  But the money just wasn’t there anymore.  It would have to be on my dime.

That first year was a grand time.  I blew thru every penny.  Fun and stupid.  Stupid fun. Then Summer came and, like now, times were hard.  I searched every day, knocked on every door, stopped at every construction site.  Nothing.  If I didn’t find a job I wasn’t going back.  I loved college, but I was broke. I needed a damn job.

One day I drove past a crew taking down a huge old Elm tree.  At the time Dutch Elm disease was ravishing these trees.  No cure.  They had to be removed and burned in an effort to halt the spread.

I walked up to the workers.  They were tough old boys out of south Alabama.  I was a Chicago  kid.  No jobs, they said.  But they told me where to find the boss, what he looked like.  He hung out at a local pool hall that had a lunch counter in front.  His name was Sal.  He was sitting on a stool at the counter when I walked in.

It was easy to pick him out.  He was a crusty old southern guy nursing black coffee in a chipped white mug  and reading a racing form.  I sat on the stool next to him and asked for a job.  He looked me up and down.  I was a big guy, 6’2″ and around 210.  Lean and strong.  But I had soft hands.

“You’re a college kid,” said Sal.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“This work is too hard for a college kid,” he said.

“It’s not too hard for me,” I said.  I had a cockiness born of desperation.

“You won’t last an hour,” he said.  I didn’t say anything.  Pause.  “Go out to the job and tell Charlie to put you to work.  We’ll see if you’re still there at the end of the day.”

No talk of pay.  No indication I actually had the job. I went to the site and worked the rest of the afternoon.  When the day ended they loaded up and drove to the gas station where they parked the trucks for the night. I followed.  Sal was waiting for them there.  It was a Wednesday.

“I told you this work is too hard for a college kid,” he said.

“It’s not too hard for me,” I said.

“You won’t be here tomorrow,” he said.

“I will if you’ll put me to work,” I said.

He got in his pick ’em up truck and drove off.  The other guys had all already left.  I went home.  Next morning I was there.  I had nothing else to do.  He sent me out with the crew.  That night at the gas station….

“I told you this work is too hard for a college kid,” he said.

“It’s not too hard for me,” I said.

“You won’t be here tomorrow,” he said.

“I will if you’ll put me to work,” I said.  He got in his pick ’em up truck and drove off.  That was Thursday.

Friday morning I showed up again and again he sent me out.  I worked all day.  Still no talk about whether I had a job or what if anything I was getting paid.  That night we had the same conversation.  Word-for-word.  Next day was Saturday.  I showed up.  He sent me out.


We cut the logs and load ’em up on the truck by hand

Saturday evening when we pulled the trucks into the gas station the crew all hung around.  This was new.  Sal wasn’t there.  They put coins in the Coke machine and were drinking cans of pop, crushing the cans when they finished.  Talking about girls, fights, bars and Alabama.  Half an hour later Sal pulled in.  He got out of his pick ’em up truck and everybody gathered around.  I stood off to the side.

He reached into his pants pocket and dragged out the biggest cash roll I’d ever seen.  Hundreds, fifties, twenties, tens.  One by one guys stepped up and he pealed off notes and handed them over.  The roll got smaller.  Once paid the guys drifted away.  Then I was the only one left.  He put the remainder back in his pocket and turned towards his truck.  At the door he paused.

“I told you this work is too hard for a college kid.”

“It’s not too hard for me.”

“You won’t be here come Monday.”

“I will if you’ll put me to work.”  He looked at me long and hard.  He pulled out his cash and peeled off the roll three twenties and a ten.

“I pay my ground men $20 a day,” he said.  “If you’re here Monday morning you’ve got a job.”  He got in his pick ’em up truck and drove off.

An Elm: The tree that put me thru college and toughened my hands.

I worked three years for Sal mostly taking down diseased Elm trees.  It put me thru college.   It taught me just as much.  Maybe more.

One day about three weeks in, we had finished taking down a huge old tree.  It was late afternoon and the truck was loaded with logs and brush.  I was tired.  But I was low man and had to sweep the sawdust off the driveway.

Roping down logs was cool.  Cutting them up with the chainsaws was cool.  Dragging the brush was cool.  Loading the truck was cool.  Sweeping the driveway with the push broom, not so much.  I was doing a crappy job at it and didn’t notice Sal was noticing.  He came up behind me, grabbed the broom and pushed me aside.


“Professor,” he said, “as you go thru life always remember:  With everything you do there is a right way to do it and a wrong way.  I’m going to show you the right way to sweep this drive.”  And he did.  And I remember.

The nickname stuck.  He never knew my real name.  Never cared.  He cared that I knew how sweep the drive.

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  1. PatD says

    This post resonates with me…when you state…”I knew how to sweep the drive”….thats a positive reinforcement and goal that some of us who are over 40ish have ascribed to during our lives…
    “being Willing to sweep the drive” is the new mantra…IMHO…
    I have experienced the Joy of educating a daughter…(East and West Coast)…from Boston to San Diego…and she just left a financial analyst position w/a major tech company to “hang” in Hawaii…
    she graduated with no loans and a great resume from a private college education
    Thank Goodness her parents cared more about “how” to sweep…
    than being “willing” to sweep….
    she doesnt see it that way…(oh…the luxury of youth)
    Good Luck to your daughter…summer jobs are hard to come by…
    I worked @ a resort going thru college back east…it was some of the best times of my life…
    but that is for another blog…:)

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Pat….

      sometimes the challenge for parents who have learned to ‘sweep the drive’ is that our kids come to a drive pre-swept.

      we all want the road before our kids to be smoother than the one we’ve walked, but maybe that short changes them a bit…..

  2. Fuji says

    Would like to see a post on your thoughts regarding the value, fiscal and otherwise, of a university education. I have often wondered whether the $150,000/kid I will end up spending for their education wouldn’t be better off invested, or put towards a downpayment on a home.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Ha! I’ve been thinking about just that for a post and just today I was discussing this with a pal of mine. My daughter just completed her second year at university. she has a 12k annual merit scholarship and it still costs me 25k per year. that doesn’t include her spending $$ which she provides herself.

      I’m a huge believer in education. you can lose everything, as many people did in WW II, but your education is forever.

      Still, on a cost benefit analysis it’s a tough call. 100k @ 8% over a typical work-life of 40 years becomes almost 2.2 million. your 150k grows to over 3.2m.

      Of course, this also depends on them actually having the discipline to leave it invested for decades.

      • Fuji says

        “Of course, this also depends on them actually having the discipline to leave it invested for decades.”
        I imagine the money would have to be put in a trust so they couldn’t touch the principal. I agree about the value of an education, but feel there are so many resources it is easy enough to gain an “education” without attending university if an individual is motivated. The return on investment regarding the certificate/qualification (BA/BS/etc) you gain from an university education seems questionable depending on what you study and maybe even where. Nonetheless, I am paying for my kids to attend uni., but am just second guessing myself and like to hear the various opinions out there. James Altucher has a pretty interesting take doesn’t he?

        • jlcollinsnh says

          Might be tough to craft a trust that would lock up the investment until the recipient is 60+. 🙂

          I imagine most courts would dump it on request.

          Altucher has an interesting take on lots of things! He makes great points on education: cost benefit analysis and alternatives.

          a university degree is only the beginning of one’s, hopefully, life-long education.

          At these price points it is hard to justify on a purely ROI basis. apprenticeships and trades likely offer a better return.

          Still, for the kid who is so inclined and does well academically, I say go for it. at least if you can manage it without debt.

          Plus it is simply a lot of fun. I had a grand time in college and so is my kid now. something to be said for that, too.

  3. Michelle Navato says

    I found this quite inspiring, Jim. The value of just showing up and doing the work, no matter what. And then, doing the work right. I hope I always remember these principles especially when the going gets tough on the road to building up FY/FI money.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thank you Michelle….

      …I’m pleased to hear that’s what you will take away from it.

      This is actually one of my least popular posts, but it remains one of my personal favorites. Glad I’m not the only one!

  4. Matt H says

    I enjoyed the story! It’s interesting to hear about how different it was from then to now. I doubt I’ll ever end up working in a manual labor position again but I was grateful for the experience gained from two summers working at a lumber yard during college.

  5. financialblogger23 says

    Cool! I’m from Alabama and I learned French in Cote d’ Ivoire ( West Africa) as a Peace Corps volunteer. Cool family!

  6. Fervent Finance says

    Great post Jim! I worked manual labor jobs until I was able to get internships for my major during college. I loved the hard work, and also loved that the work was done when you got home (unlike my profession today). It’s amazing to me how inept a lot of people are at basic home maintenance, landscaping, etc. because they never had a manual labor job. I always say that I’ll start a small lawn mowing/leaf business once I reach FI!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks FF!

      Yeah, you got home well tired in a comfortable, physical way and work was left behind till morning.

      I almost started a tree crew after college. All it would have taken was a used dump truck, a few chain saws, climbing harnesses and assorted hand tools.

      I’m still inept at home maintenance and landscaping but, boy howdy, can I take down a tree!

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