There wasn't much formal training for their new summer jobs. But a half-century of hauling freight taught John Merson, 72, all he needed to know about scooping children out of teeny cars and boats and handing them back to their parents. And a half-century of mothering seems to have prepared Jane Merson, 73, well for comforting the children who stumble, freaked out, from the Pirate's Cove fun house.
The Mersons worked hard for a good, long time. He drove a truck, and she fed truckers lunch on Route 40, until a few years back. Then, aaaaahh -- retirement.
"We didn't have too much to do but garden," Jane Merson said, as a pair of mechanical parrots above her head cackled about "landlubbers" and "mates." "And that doesn't take long."
Meanwhile, Trimper's Rides and Amusements -- the ages-old midway at the tip of the town -- was having a hard time getting help, like everyone else on the boardwalk. The economy's so good that the young folks who make up the traditional summer work force don't have to leave their hometowns and head to the beach to find jobs. The economy's so good, too, that for someone making $6.50 an hour at a summer job, affordable housing is about as easy to find as a balanced meal on the boardwalk.
"When everybody else is doing well, [they are] coming here, and we don't have enough people for them," said Linda Wright, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
But there's something else happening on the Eastern Shore: A growing number of senior citizens have been moving here to retire.
Or at least they were retired. More employers, like Trimper's, are relying on seniors to man the rides, squeeze the lemonade and do many of the other things needed to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who make their way to Ocean City each summer. The city held a job fair for senior citizens two weeks ago, and 32 businesses -- food stands, cab companies, a kite store -- sought workers.
The employers express nothing but enthusiasm for this slice of the work force, which has been a part of the scene forever here, but never more so than this year.
Older employees are more patient with the public, said Bernie Walls, a Trimper's supervisor who hired several seniors this year. "When I first started working here, I wanted everything done bam-bam-bam. It took a while to get used to the fact that things don't happen that way. They already know that." Plus, he said, "If they say, `I can't make it in today,' you can know there's a good reason. You know they're not on the phone with their friends whispering in the background saying, `We're really going to pull one on him.' "
It helps, the seniors and their bosses say, that they are working because they want to, not because they have to. Many put in 40- or 50- or 60-hour weeks for money they don't need, but that they don't mind seeing. It supplements a pension. It finances a Cayman Islands cruise. It buys presents for grandchildren.
Helen Seibert, who is "past 75," worked in a sewing factory back in the days when drinking water came from fountains, not bottles, and "large Pepsi" certainly did not mean a half-gallon cup. Now she sells drinks at Dolle's on the boardwalk and tells her friends they, too, should get jobs.
"They sit around bored and complain. Time gets slow when you just sit."
Al Moran, 79, who retired from the telephone company almost 20 years ago, now makes change and exchanges tickets for trinkets alongside his son and granddaughter at the Funcade Casino. It gets him meeting people, which he loves, and it gets him out of the house, which (he says) his wife loves.
"Retirement's the worst thing in the world," he said. "It sounds great. But it's boring. How many days of golf can you play? That gets expensive."
For him, it's the crucial part of the equation: For a week of work, he said, he can finance a weekend of golf.
Plus, the Mersons say, it's a blast.
Jane Merson rides the loop-de-loop roller coaster on her lunch break and brings homemade coleslaw and potato salad to her pal Frances Sadler, a new ticket booth employee. (Sadler, 68, retired to Ocean City after a career of making handmade book covers. Then, she says, "My husband died, and I was alone, and I got tired of talking to myself.")
John Merson pats the toddlers on the head, waves as they chug by in the mechanical boats, claps for them, pokes their noses, whoops "Whee!" a whole lot.
Sure, the couple say, her crocheting has suffered in the weeks since they took these new jobs, and he hasn't made quite as much progress on that well. But they get a fringe benefit invisible to the teenagers manning the next ride over: They can see their four children, their eight grandchildren and their two great-grandchildren in every child that tumbles, waddles or races off the rides.
CAPTION: Helen Seibert, who is "past 75," works on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md. She is one of many seniors who have left retirement for a beach job. Story, Page B2.
CAPTION: John Merson, 72, helps Erika Conley, 2 1/2, out of a ride at the amusement park in Ocean City, Md. Merson came out of retirement for a fun job at the beach.