Robert - Ocean Park, Washington
Entered on April 9, 2008
Age Group: 65+

I believe that elbow grease is important. If you really want something, go for it.

When I was nine and the fourth of five children—in a one-income family residing in rural North Dakota—I knew the meaning of “hand-me-down.”

Like many not-‘eatin-broke kids, I craved a new bicycle. So one day, I blurted, “Dad, could a I get a new bike?” “Sure,” he answered. “Get a job.” (Dad was usually blunt.)

Lacking discernible job skills, I replied, “Like what, Dad?” “Well,” he mused, “you might ask S.A. Kleven down at the barber shop if you could shine shoes.”

So, one morning I put on my best hand-me-down outfit and went to S.A.’s shop. S.A., a tall, balding, blue-eyed barber with a mischievous smile asked, “What can I do for you, young man?” “Can I shine shoes for you?” I meekly inquired.

“Sure,” he said, glancing at the decrepit old stand. Reaching for his wallet, he added, “But first, you’ll need to run over to True Value and give them this dollar to buy one quart of elbow grease to clean up the stand.” I snapped up the dollar and raced to True Value.

Meanwhile, S.A.—I never learned what the “S.A.” stood for—phoned True Value to advise them that the Brake boy was coming to buy a quart of “elbow grease” and that they should tell him that they just ran out of elbow grease and send him to another store.

This ploy continued until, three stores later, I returned—sobbing—to S.A.’s shop, announcing that no one had any elbow grease.

S.A. patted me on the shoulder and proclaimed, “Ya know, you might be able to clean ‘er with some soap and water. Give it a try.”

Leaving skid marks, I grabbed a bucket and cleaned the stand, launching my new career. Oblivious to pricing strategies, I decided that a dime-a-shine seemed reasonable.

Six months later, I’d saved enough dimes to buy my first new bike. And on the Saturday morning I got it, I hopped on and fell off repeatedly for six hours until, by suppertime, I was executing the “Look, Ma, no hands” maneuver.

I was so proud since I’d worked so long and so hard to own the bike. I took special care of it—unlike some schoolmates who let their bikes rust, knowing their parents might buy them a new one.

S.A. the barber not only enriched my vocabulary a bit. He taught me the value of hard work and responsibility.

Call it what you may—spunk, pluck, resolution, or hustle—elbow grease is important. Since age nine, I’ve valued what I’ve worked for and harbored a special fondness for others who do the same.