A Different Kind of First Job

Most of us have first summer jobs as baristas or waiters or bag boys. Not John...

A teenager’s first summer job is a pivotal moment in his or her life. It is the moment of freedom. Their newfound feeling of importance – not to mention spending cash – gives that final push that turns awkward children into confident adults. Most of us remember those jobs better than they were. At the time, we gripe about being overworked and underpaid, but we still look back with nostalgia. There’s a reason so many coming of age films and country songs romanticize that time.

When I first asked my husband about his first job during that golden period of 15-16 years old, I got a very unexpected story. The first time I heard the tale, it was filled with exaggerated hubris. Over the years, I’ve pieces together the actual details.

The summer he was 16, John had the same goal as every teenager: to make money. He typed up a resume – which like every other teenage resume, was basically empty. He walked door-to-door to every business in his hometown, and then in the next town over, and so on. He filled out dozens of job applications and got exactly zero calls back.

The economy was in the toilet at the time. And John’s hometown is located in one of the poorest counties in Minnesota. But to be fair, all of John’s friends got jobs. This probably comes down to the fact that most of John’s references were direct family members. He lived in the middle of nowhere and was home schooled, so he didn’t know many people without the last name of Enger. I once asked him why he didn’t use female family members who went by married names. He told me he didn’t think of it. He was a teenager.

Anyway, John was discouraged and pretty cranked off. A few months before, he’d gathered the nerve to sell his horse – an angry, totally un-rideable mare that he’d kept for years out of guilt and paralysis. When he sold it, his friends mocked him for giving up the cowboy lifestyle, and for being such a terrible cowboy to start with. Surely they would have been great cowboys, given John’s opportunities. And now they had jobs, too. It had not been a good year for John.

Then one spring day, an angsty teenage John was walking the streets of Bayfield Wisconsin, where his family kept a sailboat. He stepped into a candy shop and that’s when he saw the boat. A small nutshell pram, 7.5 feet of dark mahogany with matching trim. It was a romantic rowboat, a la classic Disney scenes. The kind of boat that gives a man a forearm workout as he sits in the wide end, while the girl he’s trying to woo admires him from her perch in the narrow point.

John, a hobby woodworker throughout his childhood, was immediately drawn to its elegant beauty. But then he saw the For Sale price listed next to the boat and admired it for a whole different reason.

A wiser person would have noticed some pretty obvious warning signs about the boat building economy. This nutshell pram wasn’t sitting for sale at the marina; it was in a candy store. And instead of being displayed prominently in a shop window, it sat in a corner, filled with garish stuffed animals. It was literally covered in dust, no longer worth the effort to keep presentable. John recognized the name of the craftsman listed on the sign – a well-known master boatbuilder who was also pretty far from rolling in monetary success. It didn’t occur to John to reach out to this man and mine his 40 years of expertise. In typical teenage form, he examined the thin gunwales and flimsy hardware and came to the only obvious conclusion. “I could do this way better,” he thought.

John had sold his horse, her young colt and his saddle for a grand total of $700. Note: yes, he got ripped off. Big time. It’s clear to him now. But it was still $700, and he sunk all that money into boat building.

He ordered plans for a nutshell pram from the popular Wooden Boat website, but finding marine plywood wasn’t so easy. He scoured the internet – before it was so commonly used for business sales – until he stumbled onto a chat room where a man from Minneapolis claimed to have the goods.

Unsurprisingly, John’s dad insisted on accompanying his recently-licensed teenager on the three hour drive to a stranger’s house in the major metropolitan city. John handed over all of his money and got to work.

He cleaned out the old horse barn and converted it into a workshop. Well, he converted part of it into a woodshop. A small part. For some reason he didn’t rip out the horse stalls, though he was adamant his days of owning animals was over. Basically he cleared just enough floor space to set up the boat frame and walk around it.

And he did work hard – that is undeniable. Did he work smart? Not really.

He put in long days. Sun-up to sun-down days. Such long days, you had to wonder why the boat wasn’t done sooner. Well, he was teaching himself new techniques as he went. How to loft the strakes, laminate cross timbers and steam-bend the white oak gunwales – all before Youtube, no less. Of course it took a long time. Of course there were mistakes. Kind of a lot of mistakes.

At the beginning, John shaped the mahogany strakes quickly with a new block plane that he’d been given for his birthday. It was the best plane he’d ever worked with – or so he first thought. Over time, it got harder and harder to use. Instead of shaving delicate curls like it once had, large chunks ripped from the wood. John muscled through. Power over skill. It was the same story with the chisels. They got worse over time. John figured he had dumpy tools.

While gathering the details for this essay, John admitted to me that he never sharpened any of his tools during the entire project. Not once. It never occurred to him. Just for reference, when building his most recent timber frame, he touched up his cutting edges every 20 minutes. That’s what actual woodworkers do. It’s kind of the main thing.

The nutshell pram was also his first experience with epoxy. Epoxy is a very toxic, albeit necessary, substance which serves as the glue that holds a boat together. Mixing it is a delicate thing. Especially, as John quickly learned, when you accidentally add too much hardener. Within a minute of mixing one of his batches, John heard something that sounded like pop rocks, followed by boiling steam wafting from the container in his hand. Strong fumes filled the barn – and his lungs.

For a minute, he felt really good. Then a bit unsteady on his feet. Then violently ill. He rushed to open the double barn doors, then walked over to a spot in the grass to lay down. He admitted that for years after he worried the epoxy fumes might have ruined his ability to have children. It didn’t turn out to be an issue, but I still wonder why he kept working on the boat if it meant giving up progeny.

At the end of the summer, the boat was done. It turned out drop-dead pretty. I’ve seen it. You can’t tell it was built by a teenager.

John tried it out in the Bayfield marina. It was nimble and quick and a joy to row. He figured he’d just put up some fliers around town and sell the thing in a couple days. A few beautiful pictures would do the trick. Instead, his dad bought it.

After spending the summer admiring the boat’s creation and evolution, John’s dad fell in love with the pram and was loathe to see it go. At least, that’s the story he tells. But there’s another theory floating around, at least in my mind. Maybe John’s dad didn’t want his son to fall on his face after working so hard. Parents are kind like that. Maybe John’s dad had a better idea about the realities of selling an expensive boat with only fliers, in a town where a professional local craftsman had already failed to sell the same boat. Maybe he had serious doubts about how many sailors would shell out a couple grand for an important watercraft item built by a teenager who didn’t even know to properly sharpen his tools. Maybe his dad knew how hard it was to sell a wooden boat to a culture that preferred the convenience of cheaper inflatable boats that are far lighter and easier to store. But those are just theories. I had John run them past his dad, tried to get an honest parental confession all these years later. Impressively, he stuck to his original story and insisted the boat was just too lovely to part with.

Anyway, John made some cash and for a few days he felt like a very big man. Then he made the mistake of calculating his time and materials and realized he had only made $2.50/hr.

Now, I have made much of this parade of mistakes – partially because they are funny, and partly because John and I believe we learn much more from our mistakes than our successes. Especially if we can laugh about them. Laughter is important.

But I’ll say this for that nutshell pram: It’s still a lovely little rower, more than a decade later. It has never leaked. It has been through storms and beached on rocky shores. It holds up.

There are other reasons I admire this boat, however. Ones less about function and aesthetic, and far more personal.

A few years after he built it, John took a dubious girlfriend on a long row. She perched in the front while John got that nice, Disney prince forearm workout. It was on that day, during a breathtaking sunset, that I finally worked up the courage to say “I love you,” despite the fact that he’d been saying the L-word to me for months already. (It’s nearly impossible to avoid falling in love on Lake Superior. I dare you to try.)  And because John is a real miser, the money from that boat sat untouched in his savings for years. Until he finally worked up the courage to spend it…on the engagement ring I now wear.

So maybe that little pram was worth the trouble after all.


  1. That is a delightful story. There are many very valuable lessons in it that should be widely read. And also an inciteful look into the person that John is and that you are. I know it’s a very personal story and I thank you for giving it to the world. My wife and I love your products and wish you great success.

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