Do you remember your first job? Mine was working behind the counter at Roy Rogers, a fast food chain that was popular in the early 80s. I was 16 years old, although I looked 12, and I had just gotten my working papers. I was a cashier and occasionally worked on food prep. I had to wear a short red bandana print skirt, a white blouse, and a cowboy hat. When a customer approached my register, I was supposed to say, “Howdy, partner.” And when I handed them the brown plastic tray or white paper bag containing their order, my parting words were to be, “Happy trails!”

I can’t remember how long I worked there, but I some of the lessons I learned will stay with me forever. Here are a few of the more indelible ones:

Roy Rogers Restaurant in Shirley, NY

Time to lean is time to clean

This was my manager’s favorite slogan. He would trot it out whenever he saw one of the many teenagers he managed leaning across the counter during a slow spell. This taught me a couple of important lessons. First and foremost, never EVER let your manager catch you leaning across the counter. And second, you can always find something productive to do when you’re on the clock. Boiled down: it’s important to LOOK busy, but even better to BE busy.

Show initiative

At 16, I had achieved my full height. Which is to say, I was all of five feet standing up straight with my shoes on. I was and still am diminutive. But that never stopped me. I remember needing to refill the cup dispenser behind the counter one day (during a slow spell) and finding the carton of cups on the very top shelf of the storeroom, near the ceiling. I dragged a step ladder over, climbed up and fetched the box of cups. My manager saw me and said, “I like your spunk,” or something to that effect. Lesson learned: don’t wait for someone else to help you do something; you’ll earn points if you take the initiative and do it yourself.

It really is about the team

I was not an athletic kid nor was I a joiner. I’d never lasted long on a team sport or as part of a club or troop. Working on a fast food line was the first time that I experienced the camaraderie and effectiveness that result when a disparate group of individuals truly work together as a team. When we were busy, which was often, our crew could move food and customers through the store in a flash. We weren’t friends; most of us had never met before. In truth, we were about as goofy a bunch of teenagers as you could find. But we were well trained and motivated. When we had to, we could behave like a highly efficient operation.

Memories fade

I wish I could remember the names of the people I worked with at Roy Rogers in Shirley in 1980. I can see some of their faces, but the names all escape me. I may have spent six months or maybe even a year with those folks. I started before I even had my driver’s license. My mom or boyfriend had to shuttle me back and forth to work. However long I was there, I remember being grateful for the opportunity to earn my own money, to be less of a drain on my single mom who struggled to keep the house going on just her secretarial salary, and to take one of many tiny steps toward adulthood with a real job.

Today, I’m still grateful for that opportunity and for the lessons it taught me – lessons that have withstood the test of time and helped me progress through 30 years of professional growth. Happy trails indeed, Roy!

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