Federal beat columnist Mike Causey reminds us that even when you might think otherwise, it's likely the grass is pretty green already—on this side of hill.
No matter how discouraged or disgusted you, or me, or anybody gets with their job, odds are that it is better, more rewarding and more secure than most others. And that there are much, much worse things than working for the federal government, making a career out of public service, and then retiring under one of the few remaining defined benefit pension plans in the nation.
On the other hand, Uncle Sam does have some, uh, interesting jobs.
Early in my newspaper career, after covering cops, writing obits and then features, I was given a beat which covered the Treasury Department, the U.S. Postal Service and the Food & Drug Administration, for some reason. After just a few months on the job, I concluded that they were the three most interesting agencies in government. It later occurred to me that if I had been
handed three others—maybe Justice, Interior and GSA—I would have reached the same conclusion. The key, I guess, was learning—in depth—what they did. And discovering the variety of jobs and responsibilities that almost any federal operation offers.
Once, while doing a feature on smugglers, I met a Customs Service employee who was an expert in china. The kind you eat off of. Specifically, this employee (a guy, a tough agent) knew all about Royal Doulton china. Real and fake. Some of his stories, about the things people smuggle and where they try to hide or stick them, were unbelievable. When I say “stick them,” hold that thought …
A few years later, I got the entire government as a beat. It was fun, fascinating and very educational. I didn’t learn it all, but did learn a lot.
One of my assignments involved working with two Navy civilian scientists. The Navy (and lots of other people) were looking at extended space travel. Like going to Mars and coming home again. One of the big problems then—and now—is food. And water. And air. The movie The Martian was great and it dealt with that. But NASA scientists say the guy who was stranded on Mars (Matt Damon) couldn’t have grown his own potatoes, because the ones he brought from Earth were sterile. Still, a good movie.
Anyhow, at the time, Navy space travel types were thinking about ways to preserve food and water, including by putting people to sleep for extended periods—maybe months at a time—then waking them before they landed on Mars. Then back to hibernation for the trip back to Earth.
So, I met these two scientists whose job—literally—was to check out hibernating bears.
“How do you do that?” I asked? Well, they explained, you find a bear den and then very, very carefully check out the sleeping beast to see how they are doing, such as how much weight
they put on before and how much they lose while sleeping the winter away. The key to the operation was their heart rate, their breathing and their body temperature. Since they too are mammals, info on them could be applied to people.
So here’s the situation. You find a den with a 300-pound, very hungry bear sleeping away. You take your measurements, record the data, then get the heck out of Dodge before he/she wakes up for a midnight snack. As in you.
Being a reporter sometimes means asking really dumb questions. “So if the bear is asleep,” I asked, “and you don’t want to disturb him or her, where do you stick the thermometer?”
I’ll never forget the look on his face. “Where do you think?” he said. I thought for a minute and decided that—as important and rewarding as public service can be—life as a government scientist was probably not for me.
I’ve never regretted my career choice. But I’m sure glad those Navy guys were there. And when we make our first Mars landing I will think fondly of them.