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Lessons From The Third Shift

[BY ERIC JOHNSON]

Doctors do it. Police officers and firefighters do it too. Even some Wal-Mart clerks do it. And a couple of months ago, I found myself on the brink of doing it.

I had never worked the third shift before. Looking back, I can’t believe I actually took the job. What did I know about working all night long, much less as a security guard? I didn’t have a clue about the intangibles of working all night: the mixed up days, bloodshot eyes, and horrible alien conspiracy radio programs. I jumped into this blindly, as I had with many other experiences. Little did I know, I would learn much more than I expected.

On my first night on the job, I indeed found myself horribly unprepared. I understood this as soon as I met Mark, my new coworker. Mark is a real “third shifter” who must occasionally work the second shift. Long, hard years on the graveyard shift have seasoned this guy into a security guard machine. This guy has put in 70-hour weeks for months at a time. It doesn’t seem to faze him except that he never knows if it is Sunday or Wednesday.

Rumor has it that back in the day, he even worked security for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour. (I’m still somewhat skeptical about that one; I’ve got a feeling that it may contain a little bit of hyperbolic security guard folklore.) Most nights, while the rest of the world sleeps, Mark ensures one of our nation’s smallest airports remains secure. He circles around the three-story control tower once every hour, careful to vary the timing of his rounds lest some potential perpetrator discover a decipherable pattern.

“I’ll only work third shift,” Mark says. Seconds later, perhaps after realizing he had just worked the second shift, he adds, “I’ll work second shift sometimes, but never days. I’ll never work days.”

Mark confides to me that he “isn’t that good with people.” The years of working the third shift, combined with minimal contact with others, contributed to the development of a speech problem for Mark. He needed to go to a speech therapist for a few months, but luckily, everything seems to be fine now.

I began to wonder how one comes to do this to one’s self.

Not glorious work, true, but Mark nevertheless takes the job seriously. Need more proof? Every night, this guy stuffs a good size duffel bag plump with a CD stereo, a vial of No-Doz, generic aspirin, bandages, a handheld color TV, a two liter of Mountain Dew, two spotlights, a Gameboy and games, batteries, three packs of cigarettes, and, oh yeah, night vision goggles.

Now that I have been hired, Mark and I will share the “graveyard shift” at a local airport that’s not even on many local maps, much less the consciousness of potential evildoers. Nonetheless, we will spend our nights there, watching and listening for trouble. I think to myself that as far as security guarding goes, I’m not worth one quarter of Mark.

Compared to Mark, I am a security guard poseur. My “duffel bag” is a plastic bag from the gas station filled with three newspapers, a thing of Pop Tarts, dehydrated lentil soup, The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, my Bible, National Review, and a Wilco CD. I’m not paranoid of every sound I hear. I don’t hope for anything exciting to happen on my shifts. In fact, I pray it stays as boring as possible. Finally, I’ve never worked security or otherwise for Janet Jackson.

At 11 p.m. my first night, Mark left for home, leaving me alone to guard this radio control tower by myself. By 11:30 p.m., I wonder what in the world I am doing here; normal people are watching Letterman or getting ready for bed. By 1:17 a.m., all three daily newspapers have been read, crosswords solved or hopelessly unsolved, and I still cannot believe I am actually working overnight.

I’m struck by the absolute silence. Eerie, I think to myself. Living in the city, I am used to hearing sirens or helicopters, or guys with way too much bass pumping out of their Blazers at any hour of the day. Strangely, I don’t quite know what to do with myself when it is this quiet.

I comfort myself by remembering Jesus stayed up all night to pray to His Father. I open my Bible and read until it makes me sleepy. So far, all my security guarding has yielded only two frightened raccoons I caught pilfering from the trash container. I am actually glad to see the raccoons; at least I know I am not the only warm blooded creature up at this hour. Again, I realize how difficult it is to have hours and silence, uninterrupted.

I, like most people, am used to interruptions. I am used to having things to do or watch or attend. In fact, I am always busy. Over the next few days, I come to realize my biggest challenge of working the third shift won’t be staying awake, although I still find that incredibly difficult, but rather filling the empty hours. After weeks on the job, I find it possible, however, because these late hours have become precious hours to meditate and ponder God, and, of course, chase raccoons out of the trash.

But there is a creepy feeling somewhere in all of this. I quickly discover it is a fear. Am I going to be a permanent third shifter?

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Immediately, I check the color of my skin. There’s still some color in my skin and my eyes aren’t too bloodshot. I guess I still have a way to go until I am a full-fledged third shifter. I acknowledge the feeling that this is not something I want to do forever as a career. God has called me to other purposes, I believe. He has called me into a life of interruptions and sunlight, just not yet.

In the meantime, I come to understand that this season of my life is a challenge to expose “what I am made of.” I decide I must enjoy my hours of solitude on the third shift and use them to the highest possible degree. I can only distract myself with newspapers and crossword puzzles for so long before I crave something of more substance. So I need to fill the time with something more, something meaningful. I am finding that God wants to fill those silent, vacant hours. He wants to fill those hours much the same way He wishes to fill my life: thoroughly and ecstatically.

God only knows why and how I actually arrived at this job, in this capacity. I guess that matters little though, because I am happy He led me here. If I had taken a “regular” job, I never would have learned the joy of quieting my life to hear God. I am beginning to see what it means to mediate on God’s word and to be still before him.

Most people find it difficult to devote the hours and attention meditation requires, understandably so. Our worlds are instantaneous and hectic. Often our time is not our own or the few free hours we do possess are chock full with events. Luckily for me, time and attention are cheap on the third shift. I’m actually getting paid to sit quietly and patiently. Compared to Mark, or doctors, police officers and even some Wal-Mart clerks, I’m probably always going to be a novice on the third shift. I still have not quite mastered the art of eating lunch at 3 a.m. and dinner at 7 a.m. Nevertheless, at this moment, I wouldn’t trade my 11-7 for any 9-5; I’m still learning.

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