You only think you’ve got it bad until you’ve seen what a catfish noodler has to do.

Having grown up in the business, I know what it’s like to come home dirty. I was refused entrance to my own home until my working clothes from the day lay in a pile in the garage. Actually, the command from my wife was to stay out in that often freezing garage until every last dirty and smelly article of clothing from my workday other than my underwear was in a pile.

The smell and the dirt stuck with me until I could take a shower and free myself of it.  I was working in the field long before the use of vinyl gloves was so common. Even though I used waterless hand cleaner after each job and scrubbed my hands with a pumice stone when I got home until they were a bloody pulp, the results were marginal at best.

The dirt and grime worked its way into the grooves of my hands and it would stay there long after the heating season was over. I admit that I’d be embarrassed to go someplace like a nice restaurant and run into customers who would come over to the table and extend their hand to shake mine. I knew they were doctors, lawyers and accountants and it was obvious that I was not.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but all the dirt and smell doesn’t take into account the other souvenirs of the trade, such as cuts and scrapes. My head had a lot of bumps and bruises from a load of low basement ceilings and even lower steam pipes. Frankly, it hurt a lot and that’s when I actually had hair on my head to cushion the blow.

One time, I almost knocked myself out cold when I forgot about the low-hanging sewer main draped about forehead-high right in front of the steps leading from the basement.

Isn’t it true that we think we have a job that is often dirty and sometimes dangerous? That we think kids today in school would never want to do our kind of work? But I think you’re wrong.

Ever been around the back of a restaurant or bakery? I have. Trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart. Cleaning stoves and hauling carcasses of dead animals around makes fixing plumbing, heating, cooling and electric suddenly look not so bad.

Working a whole lot of other jobs can be a whole lot dirtier, a whole lot more stomach-wrenching and downright more dangerous by comparison.

Worse Options

Have you ever watched the show “Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe” on the Discovery Channel? If you have, you know what I mean. Here are just a few of the fine jobs out there he’s brought to the airwaves:

  • Road-kill collector
  • Catfish noodler
  • Bug breeder
  • Hoof cleaner
And you still don’t think you can get someone to work on a toilet or a boiler?

The fact is, the trade is getting cleaner and safer all the time. The heating equipment runs cleaner and safer than it ever did. And we have the safety attire like Tyvek® suits that we can now put on in addition to respiratory masks, goggles, ear protection headphones or plugs, and vinyl gloves.

More of us see the wisdom of replacing rather than repairing old equipment. And replacement of a clunker rather than tearing it apart keeps things a lot cleaner.

What we need to do is get the word out to the public that we’re not slobs and plumbers with the butt crack showing. A good way to break that negative image is to have and maintain clean, good-looking trucks; clean, professional-looking uniforms; neat personal appearance from the first call to the last; and a dedication to cleaning up our work area when we’re done.

This attention to always being neat and clean will go a long way to ending the bum rap we’ve gotten over the years.

It’s time to be proactive and partner with the school system in your area to get in there while the students are still young and let them know the trades today aren’t where you send someone who doesn’t have the best grades. Rather, it’s a place to develop skills that create a career in a field that will become more and more indispensable with every passing year.

We need to capture the minds and hearts of young students and let them know by the way we present ourselves today that we’re professionals. And as professionals, we can now extend our clean hand in a warm and welcoming handshake.

(Editor’s note: Catfish noodling, for all you nonfisherman, is catching catfish with your bare hands. Catfish like to lurk in holes, under rocks, in logs, etc., so the “noodler” feels around under water for these hiding places. Of course, sometimes the noodler finds something he’s not looking for - like a snapping turtle or a snake. Also known as “caveman fishing.”)