Friday, December 23, 2011

Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: The Rest of the Story

 So, now we've come to the end of this tale and it took me so long, it's also almost the end of the year.  This green as the corn farm girl finally figured out how to survive in the working world and did a lot of growing up. 
My wonderful dog, Sparky (yes, he's a lot bigger than Teddy and Pudding!) and me.  August 1977

During our first year, Sharon and I had a good time at the insurance company, well, at least when Martha wasn't looking.  When we were hired, All Casualty Mutual was in the process of building a brand-new home office out in the country, ironically, very near my Aunt Dorothy's farm, on several hundred acres.  They were going to be moving their entire office out to the new location around the spring or early summer of 1977. This was great news, after the move I would not have to drive downtown to go to work anymore and I wouldn't have to walk down those smelly city streets.  My commute time was cut down another fifteen minutes and best of all, the entire trip was now going to be on rural roads.
Yes, I know, are my glasses big enough?  There I am, 18 and a Working Girl

We were all given new identification cards to swipe before we entered the building and I, for one, was thrilled with the new location.  Not everyone was, though.  Many of the employees missed the close proximity of the stores and restaurants at the old office building downtown.   That was when another major change was made, the company gave everyone the option of cutting their lunch break from fifty minutes to thirty, and in some cases, twenty.  Many people went for it, me included, since it meant we would get out of work earlier.   

Shortly after we moved out to the new building, the company had an open house for employees and their families.  My folks and Carl got to come along and get a tour of the place.  It was really something, all white with windows floor to ceiling and skylights with flower beds running the length of the building on the inside.  The beds had Peace Lilies planted in them and some sort of tropical trees.  The new building was only two stories, but it was a sprawling place with curved staircases between floors.  It was an architectural marvel for the time.
These files were just part of my responsibility...there were a LOT more files not pictured, more than you can imagine.  And that would be a non-Martha-approved stance for working. 
There were big developments in my private life, too.  Carl and I became engaged on Valentine's Day, 1977.

Sharon was way ahead of me on that front; she was married in May of that year.  Carl and I went to Sharon and Duke's wedding and had a great time.

Apparently, I had a really good time at the wedding, judging by the way I look in this picture above. Isn't Sharon a beautiful bride? 

Work went on rather well after the insurance firm moved out to the country.  I continued to live at home and worked in the barn, milking cows nights and weekends and doing field work.
Here I'm chopping cornstalks back on the field after Dad had gone through with the cornpicker.  Chopping them down with the greenchopper made it much easier to plow in the fall.  I wish we still had that chopper, but the 574 is still with us.
Carl snuck up on me one day while I was putting bedding down in the stalls and took this picture.  I loved this work.
Carl and I had some free time, too.  He was enrolled in technical school by then and had a year of learning ahead of him.  We did find time to run around and have some fun, though.  Carl had an older car, a 1967 Buick LeSabre that rode like a boat.  Parked next to my Nova, it looked like a yacht.
Carl's ride in 1977, a 1967 Buick Le Sabre  

I could never get him to pose by his car, though he would pose by mine as long as I agreed to also.
Kids!  We were just 18 year old KIDS!  Where did the time go?
No, I did not run over the poor dog, Sparky simply passed out laughing from my silly pose in this picture.
Carl graduated from technical school and found work as metal fabricator in late 1977, and he's been there ever since, thirty-four years.
Carl, 19 years old, visiting at my folk's house after work.  He was over every morning before we went to our respective jobs for breakfast, too.  I've been feeding this character for a very long time.

When I wasn't working on the farm, we would spend our free time on Sunday afternoons wandering the back roads and the woods.  We haven't changed much.  This is still our favorite thing to do.

Me, in some woods somewhere, 18 years old.

Another favorite thing was riding dirt bikes, too.  Here I'm trying out Carl's cousin's bike at Carl's folk's house.

In the fall of 1977, some sad news came my way.  Sharon was expecting her first child and had decided to leave the insurance company.  The news hit me hard.  Yes, I had made other friends, too, and things were going ok, but I was going to miss Sharon so much.  We had fun at work and now it was going to come to an end.  I was in the midst of planning my wedding and asked Sharon to be a bridesmaid.  She agreed.

  In October, we celebrated Sharon's last day with a little luncheon and as was traditional, a gift from the department.  That was a hard day for me.  People came and went a lot in our department, though; it was not unusual.  Judith had long since left for another position in the company.  I didn't miss her.

Finally, September 1978 rolled around and Carl and I got married.  We had so little money, since we were now 20 years old and in the process of building our house, so we hired a friend of Carl's to take our wedding photos using Carl's camera.  We had to cut corners wherever we could.  I bought the second wedding dress I tried on, one that was a 'demo' dress at the bridal shop and the store dry-cleaned for me.  It was pretty enough, and the price was right, $150.

I hadn't seen Sharon since she'd quit the year before until it was time to buy the attendant's dresses.  I had no sisters, so my best friend from childhood, Valerie, was my maid of honor and Sharon and another friend from work, Denise, were my bridesmaids.  We went to the same bridal shop and I picked out pale pink dresses for the girls even though the saleslady had a canary about pink not being the right color for a fall wedding.  I didn't care.  They were on sale and my bridesmaids didn't revolt, so after a half hour shopping session, we were done.  We all made it to the church on time, too.

There's Sharon, on her way down the aisle.  In the balcony above, is my dear, late friend, Connie, who sang at my wedding and my old chorus teacher, Mrs. P, who played the organ.

There's my dad and I, making our way down the aisle, too.  This is the only picture I have of my father and I together on my wedding day.  He had hired a neighbor to milk the cows for him that night and though the man was completely trustworthy, Dad left right after the I do's.  He had to get back home to his cows.  I wish he'd stuck around for just ONE picture afterward, but oh, well.  That's farm life for you.  I understood.

Here's another rare photo: the man on the left is my late brother, Bob, talking to my mother-in-law.  I have so few pictures of him.  With her back to us is my sister-in-law, Mary.  And would you believe one of the few photos I have on my wedding day of my dear mother, the Infamous Elusive Lucille, is the lady in the middle by my brother, looking very tense.  I WISH I had a picture of Mom that showed how beautiful she looked that day, it was the only time she ever wore a formal gown.  The age of digital photography has made taking endless photos an easy thing, but in the days of film and developing costs, pictures were kept to a minimum.  If I could only go back, I know what photos I would take now..........

 1964, my brother Bob, 19, my dad, 51, me, 6 and my mom, 44 in our living room.   This is the only family photo of us all together.  (The spring horse was my birthday present.)

Anyway, back to my wedding and the story at hand...
The new Mrs. and those impossible plaid seats in my Nova.
 We made it out of church and over to a park for photos before driving to the hall for our dance.  Most couples head for a bar to tip a few, but Carl and I were and are hopelessly square.

This is our only 'sort of good' wedding photo of the two of us.  Too bad we didn't pick up the empties from somebody's party the night before.   While we were posing for this shot, the wedding party was milling around.
L-R: Valerie, Duke, Denise, Dan and Sharon
 We were on time for the supper, too, which is always a good thing.
L-R: The pastor and his wife, my dad and mom, Sharon and cousin Dave
After our wedding and a short honeymoon to the most romantic of all honeymoon destinations, fabulous South Dakota and Mount Rushmore, Carl and I both went back to work.

My job with the insurance company went on for just a little over ten years.  Our goal was to get us out of debt and then start a family and be a stay-at-home mom.  Luckily, this was one of the few plans that actually worked out well.  June 1986 rolled around and I found myself very pregnant.  I told my boss I probably wouldn't be coming back.   

How's this for irony?  I was sent down to employment  for an 'exit interview' about a week before I was due to deliver.  When a person left the insurance company's employ, they had a few questions to ask about your work experience.  I waddled down to employment that day with some bittersweet thoughts running through my head.  No, it wasn't the same building I'd had my horrible first day in a decade earlier, and the person I was to be interviewed by wasn't Alice, either, but there was one thing that was the same.

Who do you think gave me my exit interview?


I couldn't believe it.  After all these years, I didn't think that would ever happen in a month of Sundays.  I hadn't even realized Judith had ended up working in Employment.  Surprisingly, it was an ok experience, she was bit more friendly this time.  Seems I wasn't the only one who had done some growing up. 

Joel was born the next morning, at 7:13 AM.  The same way I started work almost the day after graduating high school, I started my career in motherhood the day after work.  I was 28 years old.

Joel, 1986.  He's the one in the middle, holding the micrometer.  He did grow up to be a machinist!
Joel and me, Christmas, 1986.  He's six months old here and I'm still 28. 

After I quit working, life was really different.  I didn't know much about raising babies, and poor little Joel would be an experimental test baby for this new experience.  My childhood had been filled with tractors and cows, not babies and diapers (I'd never babysat or changed a diaper until I had Joel) and I had a lot of learning to do.  Thank goodness my mom was able to help me through the worst of the first few days and ever-patient Carl, was a huge help, too. 

In four years' time, David made his appearance and our little family was complete.
David, six months old, 1990

 As anyone who has had children knows, their growing up years simply fly by.  I was so lucky to be able to stay at home and enjoy those years, it's something I've never regretted.  Sure, we had little money after going down to one paycheck for any luxuries, but what a small price to pay for time so precious.  Time like this I'd never get back.  You can't put a price on it.

When our kids were growing up, Sharon and I got together only a few times.  She and Duke only live about thirty miles away, but for some reason or another, we didn't visit back and forth much, except to surprise her on her 50th birthday party a few years back.  We always wrote to each other at Christmas, though.  How I treasured each and every letter from her.

So, fast forward to a night this past October 2011.  Carl and I were out on a ride in the Clintonville area, doing some geocaching with Joel.  One of the roads we crossed looked so familiar and I said to Carl, "Isn't that where Sharon and Duke live?"

Joel drove down their dead end road and turned in the driveway.  I had second thoughts after we drove in, we hadn't called ahead and I didn't know if they'd mind us barging in.   There was Duke, sitting on a bench by his back door in the dark.  He didn't seem surprised in the least to see who it was come to bother them on a Sunday night. Sharon came out of the house and we hugged. We had such an enjoyable night talking and vowed we'd not let so much time elapse before getting together again.

I forgot to mention something else here:  Sharon is my most devoted blog reader bar none.  She doesn't comment because she's got computer issues, but she apparently reads EVERY word I write, dear woman that she is.  I can't tell you what that means to me, either, because I'm frankly amazed anyone is reading my extended ruminations at the keyboard.

So, now FINALLY I am going to get to the Middle-aged women don't bounce thing and what happened to my poor, sad tailbone:  Sharon invited us over to play cards on December 11th.  Joel was able to come along too, because his girlfriend was working and Ann was also able to attend.  We were having a great time playing cards until I decided I needed to use the restroom.  Since there were so many of us, we had to pull the table out from the wall a little which made it difficult to get around unless someone stood up.  I waited until Sharon was up tending to something before I used the facilities.

On my way back to my seat at the table, I remembered she'd said a person could go around through another door to get back to the kitchen, so not wanting to inconvenience anyone, I thought I'd do just that.  Unfortunately, it was a bit dark in the hallway I was in and I thought the door in front of me was the right way to go.  It wasn't.  I took a step forward and the next thing I knew I was going down the basement steps on my behinder.  (Yes, it's ample, but not ample enough, apparently.)  Oh, that hurt.   I had surgery on my backside years and years ago, and the area is always tender, so this was definitely not on my list of Fun Things To Do.

Thumpity, thump, thump, thumpity, thump, thump, look at Karen go!  Thumpity, thump, thump, thumpity, thump, thump all the way down the stairs she goes!  (Just thought I'd throw in a Christmas tune.)

Poor Sharon was horrified and ended up giving me all sorts of things to help her defrost from her freezer.  (The frozen coconut was very good, by the way, very flexible.)  I know she feels terrible about this, and so do I.  We were having so much fun until I decided to try sledding down her basement stairs sans a sled.  The bruises are now starting to fade a little, but I had some very impressive ones.  Carl said he was glad I didn't go into the doctor, because I looked pretty gruesome.  He didn't want to appear on America's Most Wanted.  I did call the clinic though, and their advice was pretty straightforward, regardless if it was broken or not, there's not much they can do about it.  Time heals all.  Even middle-aged women's derrieres.  It will be quite some time before I can plop down in a chair and not look like I'm checking for a hidden porcupine first, but it's much better than it was.  I'm a tough old gal.

Some great things have come out of this though, I've talked to Sharon more in the last few weeks than I have in years.  It's just like the old days again.  And in her Christmas card that arrived today, she said we're definitely going to have a rematch at Sheepshead, too.  (I bet they will  put up a barricade and flashing lights to deter me from the stairs.)

So, what have I learned? 
Me, 1959.  Just over a year old on (gasp) a staircase. 
 Middle-aged women don't bounce very well........... 

but there is no such thing as too many friends, old and new, near and far.

I am blessed.

Thank you all for your friendship, it means so much!

And may you all have a Very Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year!



Thursday, December 22, 2011

Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 10

After another bad night's sleep, I headed back to work.  I was still very nervous, but at least now I knew where to park.    I discovered  a slightly shorter, less windy way to walk to work from the parking lot on the hill by taking a shortcut through an alley.  There was some sort of a garage and tire business that was on my new route.    Mixed in with exhaust fumes from the traffic a block away, the smell of rubber was overpowering, even on a cool morning.  I'll never forget that stench.

My second day wasn't as eventful as my first had been, thank goodness.  My supervisor, Martha, was satisfied I had the Soundex down and I was put to work filing folders on a huge circular file.  I was a little intimidated by Martha, but not really scared of her because she was so like Miss H. from high school--all business.  She seemed to be fair, though, and had no favorites. Her rule was an honest day's work for an honest day's wage, and that did not change according to her mood.   Even though she was tough, I appreciated the fact she was consistent.

The entire department was run very rigidly.  On my second day,  I saw two co-workers exchange a few pleasantries back and forth, and Martha, who was training me at the time, broke off from her instructions to glare at them.  The two offenders stopped talking, but then, a little while later one of them went over to whisper something to the other.  That's when Martha got up from the spare chair by my desk, marched up to them and said, "Is there a problem here?  Do you need more work to do?  I'm sure I can find you some."   The properly chastened ladies in question shook their heads and blushed. 

No talking beyond short pleasantries was ever allowed.  In an office with over 60 women, the only noise was a few typewriters in the back, the ringing telephones, and the teletype machine.  It was like working in a big library.

 I liked the working part of the day; the work was intense, but relatively easy and simply required speed and accuracy.  It was hard being the new kid on the block though; so many of the other 'girls' my age had been working there for some time already and had made friends.  There wasn't any room for an outsider.  Sometimes they would smile back at me as they went about their work, but I was simply part of the scenery.  It's hard being a new employee in a big company.  I'm sure it's much the same in smaller companies, though, too.   Until people get to know you, they tend to be a bit standoffish.  Apart from a curt 'Good Morning' from Martha every day which I returned in kind, I had no call to strain my voice box, which was ok, because we weren't there to chat anyway.  We were supposed to be working.

The worst part of the rest of the first week was the lunch break. That impossibly long fifty minute lunch hour was so lonely.  I'd gaze longingly as my co-workers would gather up their purses and head out to eat together, giggling as they went.  I missed my old friends from school all the more then.   I steered completely clear of Judith.  We weren't seated near each other when we were assigned desks, either, and that was fine by me. She could keep her own uppity company for all I cared. 

I couldn't face the thought of sitting in the cafeteria alone day in and day out, so I brought a sandwich from home and ate it in solitude at my desk.  Since the office was located in the heart of the downtown area, there were all sorts of large department stores and small shops just a few steps away, so I spent a lot of my time window shopping.    When I grew tired of looking at things I didn't want and couldn't afford, I'd walk all the way back to my car and sit and listen to the radio until it was time to head back.  I realized I wouldn't make any friends this way, but since my first day of work was still fresh in my memory I thought I'd lay low until the public humiliation died down.

As my first work week finally came to end, I was extremely grateful.  I don't think I ever looked forward to a weekend so desperately.  Two whole days to spend away from it all, what a relief.  But those two days sped by much too quickly.  By Sunday afternoon my stomach was back in knots again, I could think of little else, I'd have to go back on Monday.  I was really down in the dumps.  

Monday again, same routine; drive in, park the car, walk up the alley, go to my desk.  Go to work.  But something wonderful happened that day.  The insurance company hired more new employees for our department.  And one of them was Sharon.  (I told you at the beginning of this saga I'd get around to the point eventually, and here it is.  Better late than never, right?)

 When Martha brought Sharon around to introduce her to all the employees I smiled at her.  And wonders never cease, she actually, genuinely smiled back.  When Martha suggested we go to lunch together and Sharon seemed happy about it, I was ecstatic.  She was the most easy-going person I'd ever met, the same age as I was and from a farming background.  We hit it off right away. Suddenly I had someone who didn't look down their nose at me.  We could talk about work as well as our private lives and it just felt right, like we had been old friends for years.  Sharon has a wonderful sense of humor and is one of the kindest people I've ever met.                  

 From that point on, my attitude toward going to work every day changed exponentially.  I didn't dread it as much anymore now that there was someone there to share the ups and downs with.  It is amazing how lonely a person can be in a crowd; even though it had only been a week, I don't think I realized how lonesome I'd been until Sharon came along.  The difference was day and night.

I don't know if she ever knew what her friendship truly meant to me; but it was an incredible gift.  The first year of work went by so fast.  Over time, we both made friends with most of the other 'girls', too, and had fun sneaking in snippets of conversation when Martha wasn't looking.  Just like it had been in the Office Practice Room in high school, we all learned how to have just a teensy bit of fun without getting caught.

I'll never forget the day one of the older clerks decided to share a joke her son had told her with one of her closest desk-neighbors; it was so reminiscent of Miss H. and the centerfold/ poster incident.  The joke itself really wouldn't have been all that funny under different circumstances, I suppose, but in light of the strictly enforced No Talking/ No Joy Allowed Rules we all worked under, just the memory of this day still makes me laugh out loud:

I was working at my desk when one of the Senior Clerks made a pretense of searching for a folder on my rotary file and then quickly bent over and whispered in my ear, "What stretches further, skin or rubber?"

I blinked in surprise, and looked up at her quickly.  That's when I saw the twinkle in her eyes.

I shrugged slightly and whispered back, "I don't know, which one?"

"Skin," she hissed.    "It's a proven fact.  Moses tied his ass to a tree and walked for forty miles in the desert."

And with that, she walked away quickly.   I tried so hard not to snort out loud and managed to keep it in by heading straight to the stacks of files with another pile of folders to file, doing my best to keep a solemn look on my face.  Once safely in the stacks and out of sight of Martha, I was free to bust out laughing.  (Quietly, of course.)

I could tell the joke was surreptitiously  making the rounds from one clerk to the next; from the files I could hear sudden guffaws quickly stifled and saw many of the women laughing silently at their desks as they tried to look busy.  Some of them were even wiping their eyes with the strain of not being able to laugh out loud which made it all the more funny.

Martha picked up on the gaiety right away and started patrolling around the department, peering intently into the faces of any of the would-be gigglers.  All of them could pull it together until Martha walked away and then fell hopelessly apart after her back was turned.

It's a pity no one told her the joke.

Just once I would have loved to see her smile.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 9

When I got home from work that night everything at the farm was just the same.  Somehow I thought it would all look different because I felt like I had been gone for a long, long time.  I sat down at our kitchen table and poured out the tale of woe to Mom, who listened while she was putting the finishing touches on a cake she was frosting.  She had made me a lovely meal of roast beef and all the fixings and though I wasn't very hungry, I appreciated her loving consideration.

At some point, she had to sit down during my long-drawn recitation of the day's events.  She felt badly for the way the day had gone, too, and I could tell she'd been worried about me.    It's a tough thing to watch a child stumble out into the world, and she was ready to welcome me back home with open arms.  Not that we ever hugged or said 'those' three words or anything; my folks were not touchy-feely  people, but I knew they loved me all the same. 

We ate supper alone since Dad wasn't home when I got back from work.   The fact he wasn't there was good, because he would have lost patience with me and my saga long before I had it all out.  Dad disliked tears and flap-doodle. With Dad, you had to pare a story down to its bare essentials, he didn't want to hear 'And then this happened and then she said this and I said that', he wanted to hear the condensed version.  So it was a relief to have Mom to myself to commiserate with so I could talk it out.

I had gotten home from work at 5:00, so we had to eat (and talk) quickly.  We had evening chores to do.  I got out of my work clothes and into my farm clothes and headed out to the machine shed to fetch the 574.  It was time for me to chop hay for the cows.  While I was doing that, Mom was rinsing milkers and setting up for the night's milking.

What a relief it was to be back on the tractor; for just a few minutes I forgot all about the terrors of the day and focused on the alfalfa waving in the breeze while the swallows swooped back and forth in front of my tractor catching the bugs the chopper was scaring up. 

Milking cows that night was a much-needed distraction; just being around the Holsteins was a comfort.  The difference between the job I was doing in the barn and the one in town was staggering.  I much preferred the one at home.
In the picture above, I'm driving our Farmall H and pulling a manure spreader. Ah, it was good to be home again.

Carl came over to see me later on that night on his little trail bike.  We only grew up a mile apart, so it was quick trip.  He was sorry to hear things had gone so badly, too.  He showed up just as we were finishing chores around 8PM and he and I went for a little ride around the farm.  Everyone was doing their utmost to take my mind off my troubles and lift my spirits. 
Carl, 18 years old, and his Honda 70 minibike. 

But despite everyone's best efforts, the fact remained I still had to go back the next day.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 8

Ethel stared at me to see if I was serious about my parking dilemma, and when she saw my deeply reddened face, she realized I was telling the truth.

"All right," she sighed, "You'll have to go and move your car before I take you to your department," she said.  "Please hurry, though, and meet us back here."

Hometown Guy and Judith were both still shaking their heads disdainfully as I made my escape.  As I left, I heard Ethel say she was going to take Hometown Guy to his department and Judith was going to have to cool her heels and wait for me to get back.  

"Thank you," I murmured, and rushed out of the office, back to the elevator, down to the lobby and out the revolving door.  Back out on the sidewalk, I ran to the crosswalk and waited anxiously for the Walk light.  I got to my car and noticed the time was up on the meter already, but I didn't see any tickets, so I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
There I am on my Graduation Day with the Nova, two days before starting work.  Don't I look excited?

What I was terrified of next, however, was finding a place to park.  Ethel had failed to give me a pamphlet with directions, though I doubt they would have done me any good.  I was still at sea in this town, it was all unfamiliar territory. I tried my best to calm down, it wouldn't do to drive in the state I was in.  My eyes started to tear up as I cussed myself out for being such a dimwit.  Why hadn't I realized parking on the street wasn't the right thing to do?  How could I have been so naive?  I had a wild urge to simply start the car and go straight home. I thought I had done all of the 'what-ifs' scenarios the day before, but this one wasn't even on my fantasy radar.  

But no time for tears now, I had to get my bearings.  I remembered when Dad and I had left town on Saturday we had simply gone around the block to get back to the street that we had chosen as the best and safest route back home.  But wouldn't you know, the same construction that had blocked my path earlier in the morning had also sprouted up in the next few blocks, too.  I needed to make a left-hand turn and every time I tried, the roads were closed.   I ended up following a detour, and hit every red light that was ever invented. Then I got turned around in a maze of one-way streets and before I knew it I was hopelessly lost. 

I looked at my wristwatch and knew I'd already been gone far too long, fifteen minutes had passed already, but what could I do?  I drove far enough away from the downtown area that the traffic was lightening up a little, and pulled to a stop along the sidewalk.  It's a good thing I worked in the tallest building in town, or I would have never found the place again. Using the building as a beacon, I finally wended my way back to the general area on completely unfamiliar streets and kept a close look out for a parking ramp.  I found one, but the arm/gate thing at the entrance threw me.  What was I supposed to do here?  Drive in?  Pay first?  Punt, pass or kick?  I'd never been in a parking ramp in my life and didn't think now would be a good time to go exploring.

I finally found a parking lot that didn't have someone's company name complete with dire warnings posted everywhere.  There were parking lots with signs declaring I'd better not even think about leaving my car there........."PARKING FOR HARRY'S EMPLOYEES ONLY---ALL OTHER VEHICLES WILL BE TOWED AT OWNER'S EXPENSE! I drove by so many private lots I was starting to think it would be more profitable to open one of my own and forget about going back to the insurance company.

The one I finally found seemed to be a public lot and thankfully, I still had enough change on me to plug the meter for another six hours (oh, good grief, I'd been gone THAT long?) and now it was time to run.  Literally.  I was still a long, long, way from the skyscraper and I made tracks as fast as I could.  I made sure to note the street my car was now parked close to on my mad dash back.  The last thing I needed was to lose the Nova. It had less than a hundred miles on it and I hadn't even owned it a week.

As I ran through the streets, I also ended up running through some road construction sites, too.  Unfortunately, I drew a lot of attention from the crews.  Whistles, catcalls and unpleasant propositions were flung my way as I galloped on through, "Hey, baby...what's your hurry?  Where's the fire?  C'mon back over here, we don't bite.  Not hard, anyway."  I doubted any one of them could have caught me even if they tried. I knew it was harmless heckling, but they did scare me.  I had never been around that sort of thing before, either.

I ran faster.

Finally I rounded the corner and after another two-block-long dash, I was back in the revolving door and on my way up to Employment one more time.  When I finally arrived, disheveled and sweaty in Ethel's conference room, there was good ol' Judith, sitting there eyeballing me again.  She didn't say anything, but her snooty air plainly told me what she thought of me.  She quickly rose from her chair which alerted Ethel to my return.

:"All right.  You're back.  I trust you found a place to park now?  We were starting to wonder there for a bit.  If you'll follow me, we'll get you down to your department.  I'm sure they're wondering where you are." I was trying to make some repairs to my appearance as we marched to the elevator, but it was fruitless.  If first impressions make you or break you, I was in a heap o' trouble. 

The Records Department was on the second floor.  We were led in by Ethel who turned us over to Martha, a thin middle-aged lady with a look of business written all over her.  Introductions were made and Judith and I were taken on a tour of the department.  The first thing that caught my eye were the files.  Row after row of paper files, thousands upon countless thousands of them, each containing the insurance policies and vital information of every member insured by All Casualty Mutual.  There was one wing of the huge department devoted to member files bearing the surnames A-K and another wing on the other side of the building devoted to L-Z.  The sheer volume of folders was stunning.  Picture the largest library you've ever seen and multiply it by fifty.  This was a big haystack in which to lose a needle.

Every piece of paper correspondence that came into the insurance company eventually made its way down to Records.  Each piece had to be filed in it's owner's folder.  And it was all of our jobs to keep the folders current with all their forms and retrieve them for any other department needing to access the information inside.  It was not unusual for over five feet of correspondence to be sent down to records in any given day and when times were good and certain types of insurance products were selling briskly, that number could double easily. 

Since it was such a big department, at the time, if I remember correctly, there were over sixty employees working there, all women.  In the very back of the room sat the manager of the department and on either side of her were her assistants. The powers that be were all in the back of the room and the worker bees sat in front of their superiors with their backs to them.  After the supervisors and managers,  there were rows of older ladies known as 'Markers' whose job was mysterious to me.  I still don't really know what their duties constituted, but they were seated all day long.  After the markers came the file clerks whose job it was to pull files out of those vast stacks for other departments and send them up in the in-house mail system.  Then, when the files came back, they could file them back away when they were done.  They sat in the middle rows and most of them were young.

There were more file clerks, phone clerks and other assorted workers in order of job levels all the way to the aisle in the front of the room where an archaic teletype thing sat, noisily spewing out requisitions for folders ceaselessly on little three-part carbon order forms.  The form had the name of the member, the policy number, the date and who the file was to be sent to.  

It would take me far too long to explain the workings of the job I was hired for and I don't wish to bore anyone any more than I already have, so suffice it to say, we handled paper.  Lots and LOTS of paper.

Martha was a very strict supervisor and not well-liked by many of the girls who worked for her.  She gave Judith and I the grand tour through the files and then introduced us to each and every one of the 'girls' in the department.  I found it a trifle ironic I was simply going from a 'Dolly's Girl' in high school to a 'Records Girl' in the workaday world in such a short time, but there it was.  I couldn't remember any of the 'girls' names for the life of me, either.  It was all so overwhelming.

Finally, Martha took us to a desk and sat us down to learn the complex-looking code used for filing in the company,  Soundex.

Soundex is a phonetic algorithm for indexing names by sound. The goal is for homophones to be encoded to the same representation so that they can be matched despite minor differences in spelling.  (Got that?)

 This is the same type of filing system the DMV uses for driver's licenses.  I could win bar bets if I were the drinking/betting kind and tell anyone what the first four digits of their driver's licenses are just as long as I know how they spell their last name. If your last name happens to be Smith,  you're an S530.  If your surname is Johnson, well, then you are a J525.  Kadiddlehopper would be K341.
If you would like, me, Karen, to index your name by sound, please send me your requests.  (Just kidding.)

I love words and word games, so learning Soundex was actually very easy and enjoyable.  We were given sheets of sample surnames to encode and left to our own devices until lunch.  At least this I could handle. My fears subsided a little bit.

Lunch would prove to be a yet another problem, though. Martha came up to Judith and I at noon and said, "All right, we'll go to lunch now.  Bring your money or if you have something from home, bring that, too.  On your first day I will take you up to the lunchroom to acquaint you with the procedure."

We followed Martha through our department to the elevator and waited with the other employees to board when the door opened.  Once we arrived on the sixth floor, we were in an area with smaller, restaurant type tables flanking a main kitchen and a counter where we were told to pick up a tray and slide it down the metal rails as we made our food selections.  I chanced a remark to Judith  as to how finally, something felt familiar.  I was happy to see how much this resembled the high school cafeteria back home.   Judith said something under her breath that I couldn't quite catch.  I asked her to repeat it, but she just shook her head and rolled her eyes again. She had the eye-rolling thing down to a science.  It's a wonder she didn't get dizzy.

After we had selected our food and Martha led us to the cashier, she told us to feel free to select a table among all the other dining employees. Lunch breaks company-wide were at slightly staggered intervals so there would be room to feed the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked there.

Martha didn't sit with us, but pointed out the trash receptacles and the clock on the wall.  "Lunch breaks are fifty minutes.  Make sure you are back in the office with at least ten minutes to spare.  Enjoy your lunch."  And with that, she disappeared.

I sat down to the sandwich and apple I had selected from the counter and, trying to be conversational, asked Judith if she was hungry.  She didn't say anything, so I said, "Oh, I'm so glad the day is half over.  It doesn't seem like just a week ago, I was still in high school.  Did you graduate last weekend, too?"

Still no reply.  Judith was busy looking for something in her purse when I tried for the third time.  "Gosh, I'm so nervous. But I think I'm getting the hang of the filing system, thank goodness.  After the parking mistake, I was ready to go back to the farm."

"The know what?  Shut up!  Do you ever just shut up?  God, you're pathetic.  Just do me a favor, ok?  Don't talk to me," she snapped. 

At first I thought she was kidding, but when she backed her insult up with another one of her icy glares, I suddenly lost what little appetite I had.  This on top of the morning's fiasco was almost too much.   I would have no friend in this petulant sock puppet  There was nothing else to do for the incredibly long fifty minutes but try to eat my meal.  As soon as Judith ate hers, she was up and gone.  I stayed at the table by myself.  There was no point in going anywhere.  I felt so small and stupid and completely out of place.   I wanted so badly once more to just go home and another wave of longing and self-pity swept over me when I thought of what I'd gotten myself into.  I'd have to do this all again tomorrow and the next day and the next, with no end in sight.

The big clock on the cafeteria wall finally moved closer to quarter to one, so I made my way back to the office alone.  I boarded the elevator, riding down from the sixth to the second floor with many other well-dressed professional people who also didn't have anything to say to each other.  As the door opened and closed on each floor, more got on and some got off, and it was a like a bad dream.  Everything was so foreign, every face was a stranger.

As I rounded the corner to our department, I needed to find a restroom.  I had ten minutes until it was time to go back to encoding homophones.  I came down the hallway which abruptly came into my department and noticed some of the other girls who worked in the department  were standing around talking quietly.  They were on the same lunch break I was, but they all knew each other.  Aha, so conversations did occur in this asylum, I thought.

When they saw me, they stopped talking and stared.  I smiled shyly, and glancing briefly at the restroom door I was about to enter, quickly swung it open and stepped in.  That was when I heard the laughter.  I thought how nice it was to hear that sound until I noticed something was decidedly wrong with the bathroom I just entered.  I'd never seen toilets like those before.  Oh, not again....  Would there be no end to my bad luck?  I had just walked into the men's room.  And the entire department had just seen me do it, since everyone's desks faced the bathroom doors.

I was mortified.  I stood there in the empty men's room in dumb disbelief.  What could I do to save face?  Nothing but open the door and walk three feet to the correct gender facilities and hope that someday I could live this down.  I tried to handle myself the way Dad did after the hecklers taunted him.  I didn't have much dignity left though; this job was turning out to be the biggest nightmare of my life.

When finally 4:20 rolled around, Martha said I could go home.  I picked up my purse and headed out into the sunshine again.  I was stunned to see how much of the day I had missed.  It was odd to think of being cooped up in a building all day long when I was so used to being outside.  And I was also amazed at how tired I was, too.  I hadn't done anything physical (well, except for the marathon I had run earlier in the day) but I felt bruised and sore at heart.

There was a throng of people coming out of the building and I had been told to enter and exit from now on by a back door, so we had to go through an alley of sorts.  It was windy and dank and not at all pleasant.  The crowd thinned out the farther we all walked as people headed to the closer, more senior personnel lots.  By the time I got to my remote site, I was the only one.  At least my Nova was still waiting for me.

I opened the door, climbed in, locked the door, and had a good, cleansing cry.

Then after the sobs subsided, I blew my nose and tried to find my way home.

I did not want to come back. 



Middle-aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 7

June 1, 1976 dawned pleasantly cool and sunny.  The birds were happily chirping in the trees long before the sun had risen and I had been awake far longer than the birds, dressed and ready to go.

Carl came over to my parent's house to see me off on my first day of work.  He had several months of freedom before he had to go to technical college for machining in the fall, which he spent working for his father in the family wrought iron business.  As long as he was over so bright and early, I fried us both an egg for breakfast before I left for work, though I found I couldn't eat much of anything.  My nerves were really frayed.

Armed with a kiss and a hug from Carl and a cheerful wave from my mother from the barn door, I carefully backed the Nova out of the garage and headed for All Casualty Mutual.  I drove as carefully as I could, but it sure felt odd to be going all this way alone.  I turned the radio on for company and tried to take my mind off the butterflies in my stomach.  As the miles went by, the scenery changed. At first there was the beauty of woods and farms and lush green pastures where the cows were heading out to after the morning milking.  When I noticed the cows, my throat became very tight and I had to blink back tears.  I was homesick already.  Soon I was driving through newer subdivisions and finally the city proper.  My hands were gripping the steering wheel so tight they were aching.

I got through the worst of the traffic but there were a few gut-wrenching moments when a detour for road construction that wasn't there when Dad and I had made the trip threw a monkey wrench in my carefully planned route.  Oh, great, now I'm going to get lost and I'll be late for my first day of work!  This was only the second time in my life I had driven in the downtown area but as luck would have it, somehow I ended up on Main Avenue again.  Since ACM was the tallest building, I spotted it and pulled up right across the street.

Dad and I had noticed there were parking meters when we were there on Saturday, so I had come prepared with change.  I plugged the meter for the longest time limit; two hours.  Two hours wasn't very long, but I didn't know what else to do.  The lady from Employment had told me on the phone a week earlier to park close to the building. There wasn't any other place to park that didn't have parking meters, either.  Not even on the side streets. When Dad and I had noticed the meters on Saturday, I asked him what he thought.  He figured I should do what the lady had told me, so I did. 

There were so many cars, trucks and people out and about, bustling around and once again, I noticed the foul smell of exhaust and asphalt.  I made my way to the crosswalk and finally entered the lobby of the insurance company through the big, revolving door.  There was a security guard standing in the lobby who looked at me rather suspiciously.  I was glad when the elevator door closed on his unfriendly face.  Somehow or other I found my way to the Employment Office.

Once there, I was greeted warmly by the pleasant receptionist and ushered into a room with a table and chairs and told to have a seat and Alice, the personnel manager and the lady who had hired me, would be in shortly.  There was be a short orientation meeting before being taken to my actual post.  It turned out two other people started the same day as I did and had arrived before me.

One was a guy a few years older than me and I recognized him right away, though he didn't know me from a bale of hay.  He had gone to the same school I had, but had graduated at least three or fours years before.  I assumed he was fresh out of college.  I'm not sure what department he was bound for, but he rose very high in the company, the last I heard, all the way to upper management. He was busying himself with his briefcase and didn't notice my entrance. 

The other person in the room was an attractive blonde girl who looked me over rather disinterestedly. Her name was Judith and she had also been hired as a clerk in Records. (Ok, no it wasn't her name, but I'm changing it to protect the innocent.)

Alice came into the room and bid us all good morning and a pleasant welcome to our first day.  Then she had us introduce ourselves and reveal where we were from.  When the young man heard me say the name of the town, he peered at me closely, and then promptly flicked his gaze away.

When it came his turn to speak, he, of course, named the same town, too, and Alice said, "Oh, how delightful!  Are you two acquainted?"

"No!" he hastened to say.  "We've never met."  

For some reason, I felt more uncomfortable since he was someone from my hometown.  It made me more self-conscious, especially when he was so quick to disown me.  Gee, I had taken a bath the night before.

Alice then turned to me and the blonde girl and said, "How nice that you two girls are starting on the same day and in the same department. You'll be able to lean on each other as you learn the ropes." 

I was thinking the same thing, it was a stroke of good luck and maybe we could be friends.  God knew I needed one in this lonely place. Judith and I smiled and nodded in tandem agreement with Alice.  Then I chanced a shy smile at Judith on my own.  When her steely blue eyes met mine they abruptly slid away and her forced smile melted like an ice cube on a sizzling hot sidewalk.   I got the feeling I'd had so many times before.  Apparently I wasn't going to be a Cool Kid at work, either.

I really didn't have any more time to worry about the frosty reception I'd gotten from my new comrade; Alice swung into her well-rehearsed 'Welcome to ACM' speech and presented us with paperwork for insurance and all the other necessary information we needed to fill out for our careers.  She informed us that her portion of the new employee orientation would be rather generalized; once we were taken to our actual departments we would be fully indoctrinated.

As I sat there listening, I kept watching the clock.  One hour was already almost up.  The meter was ticking.

She asked the three of us if we had any questions.  If not, we were going to watch a short video.

How I hated to ask the question, but I felt I had to. 

"Alice, I have a question about parking," I began.

"Oh, yes, parking....well, parking here at ACM is on a seniority basis.  We do have three lots with assigned parking stalls for our employees.  Unfortunately the number of employees on staff far exceed the available lots, so we simply ask that all employees who are not eligible for our private lots find alternative parking in the city ramps nearby.   You will find them located at a convenient distance from the office. If you don't wish to use the metered ramps or lots, there is an alternative employee lot located at a slightly greater distance.  The choice is yours.  You may ask my assistant, Ethel, for directions."

Oh, dear.  Mistake number one.  I had gone and parked on Main Avenue, right smack across the street and my meter was about to run out.  Now what?

But before I could tell her what I'd done, Alice congratulated us again and turned us over to Ethel, for now it was time to watch the video. 

I sat there and my stomach was doing backflips.  Time was running out and fast.  Would I get a parking ticket?  Or would they tow the Nova?  And, if they did, how would I find it in this concrete jungle?  I had no idea where the impound yard was or the police station. 

Finally, fifteen minutes later, the video was over and the lights were flipped back on.  Ethel then asked if we had any more questions before she took us to our departments.

I heaved a big sigh, and said, "I'm sorry to bring this up again, but I need to know what to do about where I've parked my car."

My fellow new employees looked over at me curiously as I stood there, blushing furiously.

"I can give you a pamphlet that shows the lots Alice described, " Ethel said.  "Then you can make your decision based on that.  But as Alice already stated, there are no openings in our private lots for new employees."

"I understand, " I said, "But the problem is, I'm afraid the meter is about to run out on my car."

By now, I could only see the tiles on the floor, because that's what I was staring at.

"Why would it run out?  Those meters are good for at least eight hours," Ethel asked."Which ramp did you park in?"

I gulped and said, "I parked on Main Avenue, right in front of the building."

I heard the snort of derision from my hometown guy and saw Judith roll her eyes at the ceiling as the two of them joined forces in disbelief.

Wow, talk about green as grass. All I needed now was for the elastic in my underwear to fail and my humiliation would be complete.

I missed the cows at home all the more now.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Middle-aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 6

Dad and I had successfully scouted out my route for the following Tuesday and after a hair-raising trip back out of the traffic, we were finally home.  I realize that the 'traffic' I am writing about would seem like a cake walk for most people who live in truly urban areas, but for a kid like me who lived where one car going by on our dirt road every other hour was heavy traffic, it was nerve-wracking.

Dad and I arrived at home safe and sound that Saturday and I felt relieved until I realized I'd have to do a repeat of this performance Monday through Friday for years on end.  I tried to put the feeling of dread out of my mind, though, because the next day was Sunday and my graduation day.

It was also someone else's graduation day, too.  That someone else was Carl  He's been feeling a bit left out because so far, I have not included him in this story, so it's high time he got in the act.  This will be old news for some of you if you've read me for long, but for the benefit of anyone who may have forgotten such vital information, Carl and I met in 1972 when we were fourteen.  He was our local blacksmith's son and I was, of course, the farmer's daughter. Carl played a huge part in all of this, but in the interest of time and my sore derriere, suffice it to say he was there and I was in love with him. (Oh, I hasten to add, I still am.)

We all showed up to the school that Sunday, graduated, bid adieu to high school and went home.  Graduation was a blur to me, I vaguely remember it, probably because I had too much on my mind. I had one day left, Memorial Day, and it was a very long one.  I am wired pessimistically and have a sub-zero sense of self-esteem.  I'm not proud of it; just stating a fact.  My folks always used to tell me not to get a 'big head' on the rare occasions praise would be forthcoming, and they had nothing to fear.  I remain humble. 

And I was worried that Monday, oh, how worried. I tried to busy myself with anything I could, and grabbed our old push lawn mower and proceeded to mow the lawn.  Nothing like physical activity to take the edge off the jitters.  In high school, whenever we had to give speeches, I would always try to go first to get it over with because I figured that way, no one would remember how much my performance stank.  And then I could sit and relax for the rest of the hour.  So, in a way, that Memorial Day went down in history with me as one of the Longest Days of my Life.  I just wanted to get the first day of work over with.  

Like most human beings, I dislike being humiliated.  Especially in public.  And my nervous nature often gets me into a lot of predicaments I'd rather not be in.  Haste makes waste and all that. 

Pride always goes before the fall, then and now.  My earliest memory of public humiliation is very fuzzy, I don't know how old I was, but it has stuck with me all my life.  When I was a very little girl, my mother used to put my hair up in pin curls.  Every night she would comb out my tresses and twirl the hair around her finger and pin the resulting curls with bobby-pins.  My task was to sleep with all these pins in my hair all night long.  I wonder how in the world she managed to get a three-year old kid to sleep with those things in all night, but I guess I must have been vain then.  This was before I learned to be humble. 

So anyway, from little on I would go to church with my mother (Dad did not attend) and people would tell me what a cute little girl I was. I was very shy, but heard the praise often (actually, I know it was my hair they found so attractive due to the resemblance to Shirley Temple, again, my hair, not me) and didn't think too much about it, one way or the other, really. 

I thought I was too young to be all puffed up about my adorableness, but on the way home from church one day, I remember my mother slowed down on our drive and said, "I know people tell you you're cute now, and that's nice, but it won't last forever.  I've been trying to downplay it because I don't want you to get a Big Head.  You're going to be getting older and then they're not going to tell you that anymore, so I don't want you to get to thinking you're special or anything, because when they stop saying it, it will hurt." 

I know my mother meant well, but that was truly a turning-point in my life.  It was a good thing I was still semi-cute when one Sunday morning in church the unthinkable happened.  I just vaguely remember it, but my mother has told me about it so often that it's become part of my folklore.  And explains a lot about me and my personality. 

The way the story goes was like this: Apparently there was a Christmas pageant and I was one of the little children who was supposed to be singing up in front of the congregation.  I must not have been more than three or four years old and Mom said I was wearing a new little red jumper she had made for me.  She had my hair all in ringlets, of course, and I had little white anklets with black and white saddle shoes. (I saw the picture of me wearing this get up, so I know this is true.)

When the time came in the service to head up to the front of the church, Mom said I was scared to leave her, and I clung to her like a drowning man to a life raft.  Finally, after a stern whispered talking-to, she pried me off of her and I found myself out of the pew and into the aisle.  There the patient volunteer music teacher motioned for me to hurry, because I was the last little 'cherub' to arrive. I was near tears, but Mom said I dutifully started to almost trot to make up for lost time on my way up that long, long church aisle.  

But, I never made it. 

Mom had sewn me the new little red jumper and blouse to wear that day, but apparently I was in need of something else much more.  New elastic in my drawers.  As fate would have it, right there in the aisle on my way up to the front of the church my underwear decided to make it's debut for Christmas, too.  As I trotted, my undies descended and dropped, eventually all the way to my ankles, tripping me.  I fell flat on my face. 

Too bad I can't completely remember that day, because I guess I brought down the house.   Mom said the laughter was prolific, even in the congregation of usually staid Lutherans, oh, I had them in stitches.  How cute!  My mother said she watched in horror as this all unfolded, bolted out of the pew herself, scooped me up and whisked me away to the Ladies' Room where she did a fast fix and a pin-up with a cheap brooch she was wearing.  At least she didn't make me appear in front of my Adoring Public again that day.  She said by the time we slunk back into church through the back door, the song was over.  Thank goodness.

No wonder people found me cute. I had a regular act going. That was officially the end of any 'big-headedness' on my part.

All these things were running through my mind while I was mowing the lawn.  What if this happens, and what if that?  I was what-iffing myself to pieces.  When I went out to greenchop that afternoon, I almost forgot to shut the cow yard gate.  Luckily I remembered before the cows discovered my mistake.

When I finally went to bed that night, I tossed and turned.  What if I made a major mistake my first day?  Would they send me home?  How would I explain my failure to my friends?  How would I pay for a new car without a job? 

I felt I'd put the cart before the horse, was crossing bridges before I got to them and had champagne taste on a beer budget all rolled into one. 

But it's too late to shut the barn door after the cows are out.

"Tomorrow," as Scarlett said, "Is another day."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 5

After school on Tuesday, I met Dad out in the parking lot and off we went to the Shivy Garage.  We were ushered into a little office with two rather seedy-looking orange plastic chairs.  The salesman cordially bid us to have a seat and then the two men commenced to haggling.  Dad asked the price of a new Nova. 

Oh, a new Nova, eh?  Well, let's see.......They didn't have one on their lot, but one could be brought in from their other dealership.  We were dealing on a car I'd yet to see sitting on a lot about twenty miles away.

I had never seen a '76 Nova, so I had to do some research on them before we showed up at the garage.  It was a nice-looking car to my way of thinking.  Not too big.  Actually, I knew a guy who owned a 1972 Chevy Nova SS.  I didn't know him personally;  that would have meant I was Cool, but we've already gone down that road, and as you may recall, I wasn't.  But, oh, that SS was really a hot car back in the day, with a staggering 375 horsepower V8 tucked under it's diminutive hood.  Complete with extremely wide back tires that stuck out past the fenders and a jacked-up rear end, this was a car to reckon with. I could have gotten to work in record time with that speed wagon.

Unfortunately, the 1976 version of the same car was not as flashy.  By this time, California emissions were a concern and fuel economy was becoming an issue, why there was talk we'd be paying over a dollar a gallon for gas in the near future!

The car salesman quoted a number.  Dad lobbed a lower one back over the desk.  The car salesman said there was 'no way' he could entertain such a sickly, puling number.  Dad brought out his trump card from his bib overalls, the one from the competitor's lot with their lowball price.  (In reality, Dad did not want to buy the car from the competing lot because it was too far from home.  He preferred to keep his business in our town if he could.)  The salesman said he'd have to go talk to the boss.

He came back with that tense, rather sad look all car salesmen have to use when they need to prove they've gone to bat for you, the lowly customer, and said ok, they could meet the other garage's price, BUT they would have to order a different car and there would be a wait.  For the price my father wanted to pay, sure, they could meet it, but they would have to be removing essential yet luxurious components.  I was sitting there mutely wondering what luxurious essentials they were going to be stripping from the poor car; would it still have upholstered seats, or for that matter, seats at all? Would they take the windshield wipers off?  Would it have windows that opened? 

Dad drew himself up in his chair with dignity and said, "Like what?"

"Well, for this price, Joe, we can't sell you a car with an automatic transmission," he coaxingly crooned.  "For this price, you're looking at a car with a standard transmission and no power brakes.  I mean, c'mon now, we're here to sell cars, but we're not gonna GIVE 'em away.  If you want to pay less, you're going to get less.  It's just that simple."

My father was not the sort of man to be excessively proud nor arrogant, but he also wasn't the kind to come hat in hand begging, either.  I saw his temper flare up and thought ok, we're leaving, but then he didn't.  Though I didn't like the guy and his condescending tone, remembering my experience with the hoity-toity Driver's Ed car and that silly automatic tranny and power brakes, I was all for agreeing to the cheapened-up version of the car in question.  "Bring on the standard tranny,"  I silently prayed, "I can drive it, Mister."

I was about to be surprised again by Dad's response. "Oh, that's the way it works, is it?  Meet the price by lopping off extras.  I see how it's done.  I didn't ask you the price of a stripped-down car, I asked you for a fair deal on the car you have to offer.  If you can't come up with one, then there's other places that sell cars." 

We both rose to leave, but then the dealer had a change of heart.  Ok, ok, he'd go back and talk to the boss about it again.  He came back after a long ten minutes and said he couldn't meet Dad's lowest offer, but he could come down to this number and whaddya think about that?  Dad leaned over the desk, took a look at the new offer, frowned, and said, "For this price, all the parts damn well better still be on it when it gets here.  She needs it by Monday, is that a problem?"

No, it was not a problem.  The car would be ready for pick up by Wednesday afternoon.  Dad ordered them to throw in mud flaps and a Ziebart undercoating too.  He got the mud flaps for 'free', but the Us or Rust treatment was extra.  With tax, title and license, he cut them a check for $3,364.62 and I walked out of the garage into the sunlight the proud owner of a car I had yet to see.  I didn't even know what color it was, whether it was coupe or a sedan, and whether the seats were upholstered.

There may be youngsters reading this who will gasp in amazement, "You could buy a new car for three grand and change back in the day??"  Yes, you could, but my starting wage at All Casualty Mutual was just a little over $3 an hour.  Which, by the way, was a staggering sum to my parents who worked for much less than $3 a week when they were my age.  Ah, inflation.

On Wednesday, we had a only two more days left of school.  But in Phy Ed we had a task to complete, too.  I had taken a cycling class in gym and the last hurrah of my senior year was a 20 mile Bike Hike.  We left the high school after classes were over by one route and came back on another, going ten miles in one direction and ten miles back.  This bike ride meant nothing to me back then, I rode my bicycle constantly and even though it wasn't a fancy ten-speed, I could keep up just as well with everyone else.  It was the one thing in Phy Ed I excelled at, well, that and jumping hurdles.

Anyway, we were on our way back to school that afternoon when I broke away from the bunch I was riding with and headed over to Main Street to see if my car was at the dealers lot yet.  It was.  I stopped my bike in the parking lot and stared at what I was soon to start paying off.  It was the only Nova on the lot, so I knew this must be it.  It was a cream color (not my favorite hue, but oh, well) and a two-door.  I was really pleased about that, at least it wasn't an old fuddy duddy four-door.  Then I decided to peek in the window and saw they hadn't stripped the seats, they were indeed upholstered with a black and white plaid.  I don't know if you remember the old TV show 'WKRP in Cincinnati' or not, but I think the same cloth they used to make Herb Tarlek's tacky plaid suits were also installed in my car.  Along with white wall tires.  She was a Looker.

I'd agreed to meet Dad at the lot and we signed all the rest of the paperwork and I was then ushered out into the parking lot to watch while the dealer opened the doors and explained essential things about my new vehicle.  Things like where the gas tank was and what sort of fuel (Unleaded Only!) to put in it and how the windshield wipers operated (they had left them on) and how the floor mats worked.  Ok, class was over.  They shook my shaky hand and said, "Congratulations, she's all yours."

Oh, that meant I was supposed to leave.  I gulped.  Ok.  I can do this thing.  I slid behind the wheel on that impossibly bright, plaid seat and was instantly surrounded by New Car Smell.  (I love that smell, I'm weird like that.)   Not wanting to keep anyone waiting, I turned the key and the car obliged me by starting.   Dad stuck his head in the window and wryly remarked I'd better not rev the engine too much, look at the gas gauge. Good thing he noticed;  it was just barely off the 'E'.  I ever so slowly inched my way out of the dealer's driveway and remembering to use only my right foot, successfully embarked on our maiden voyage.  I met him at the gas station a block away and had to borrow money for a tank of gas too, which was added to my total debt load.  I was overwhelmed and not just a little scared.  This was all happening much too fast.  I wasn't so sure I was ready to grow up yet. I'd assumed all this debt and I hadn't even been to work.

Ok, so now I had the car in my possession but I didn't know how to get to the office.  Since we still had a few days before I had to report, Dad decreed he and I would make the trip together to figure out the best way to get there.  We decided to go sometime later that week, though, because we had first-crop hay to cut and cows to milk and all this running around was cutting into the farm work.  I was so glad to go back to the farm and my tractors; being out in the field was the only thing that calmed me down.  

Somehow I got through the rest of the school week and when Saturday arrived, we decided to head to the Big City.  It had rained, so there wasn't anything to be done in the fields, anyway.  I have to admit to something here; I had never been farther away from home than the Big City ever in my short life.  My father had been as far as Milwaukee once, but that was years and years ago and he had driven a Model A to get there which had also needed three tire changes to make the 200 mile round trip.   We lived only a dozen miles from Green Bay, but that might as well have been Timbuktu for all we went there, which for me, was once a year, right before school started.  Dad drove Mom and I to Green Bay to go to Sears and Kresge's so I could buy school clothes and supplies.  And that was the most nerve-wracking yearly experience of all of our lives.  Traffic abounded, and we weren't traffic-minded people.  At the time, the one- lane road we live on was literally a rutted up dirt trail with gravel added as an afterthought.  In the Spring the road heaved up and sank down in fantastic ruts that tested anyone's ability to maneuver them and still come out with an oil pan by the time you reached the blacktopped highway. 

Time had stood still on our road, but in bustling Green Bay, it had not.  There were now some two-lane roads and even a few traffic lights.  This was quite the change of pace for a family of farmers from the boondocks to navigate and the driving fell to Dad to negotiate.  He did not feel my mother was capable (I think she was, but she believed him) so when we had to go to the Big Towns, he was the driver.  Though he wouldn't admit to being scared, looking back, I know he was.  He was out of his element and of course, our car was a concern, too, though he never had to get out to adjust the linkage.  (I still don't know how he did it.)  He would white-knuckle it all the way in to town and back out again, only breathing easier when we finally left the hustle and bustle behind. 

I felt just the same way about traffic.  I hated it.  And I still do.

But, the skyscraper building was situated on the main avenue of the other Big City in my life in the opposite direction, and well, that's where I was going to have to drive, like it or not.  Dad and I got in my Nova and headed off the twenty-two miles to scout out my route. 

Dad was always cautious about driving, which is a good thing, and though he knew I could handle a tractor well enough, he wasn't so sure about my ability to drive in traffic.  We were both very nervous, which made me jumpy and him more ornery than usual.  To say it was a fun, father-daughter bonding experience would be a lie.  It was more like a grim, headlong dash into uncharted territory.  Neither of  us really knew how to get to All Mutual Casualty without becoming one ourselves.  Somehow we made it, mostly by spotting the tallest building on the skyline and going up and down a few streets until we finally arrived across the street from the joint.  The avenue was all stop and go lights and there were a few one-way streets sprinkled in for good measure, so I was on tenterhooks driving my brand-new car in all this madness and mayhem. 

Dad told me to park a quite a distance from the insurance company and both of us got out to walk down to the main avenue and see what sort of parking existed.  The lady from Employment had told me to park close to the building, so Dad wanted to be sure I knew how to get there come Tuesday morning.  As we rounded the corner of one large building, the windy conditions nearly blew us over, there's something about wind in that town that I'll never forget, and we both were taken aback by the ferocity of it. 

And it turned out, there was another wind blowing in that town that wasn't so pleasant either.  As we carefully threaded our way down the busy sidewalk thronged with shoppers, the traffic next to us had come to a stop for a red light.  In one of the cars sat a bunch of young guys in a convertible.  They spotted us and immediately started hooting and hollering.  We were both alarmed, and I know I nearly stopped for a bit.  What was it about us that drew such attention?   I soon found out.

Back in the day, Dad wore plain blue bib overalls to farm in.  They just made perfect sense, no belt to mess with, no pants to hitch up and very durable with plenty of pockets to carry all the necessary things, like wrenches and screwdrivers, a hunk of binder twine a pocket knife and a blue handkerchief to wipe his brow with. 

When he was going away from home, though, to an auction or other event, then he always wore his 'good' bibs, the Stripes; blue and white, clean and crisp.  He was very proud of his appearance, and would never appear in public wearing dirty clothing if he could help it.  He always wore a clean and presentable seed corn cap on his head, too, which bore the name of the latest and greatest corn in yields a farmer could buy. 

If he was attending a formal event, such as a wedding or a funeral, then of course, he had a good suit and a white shirt and black dress shoes, but on an outing such as the one we were on he would no more of thought of wearing his Sunday best suit than you would think of wearing a diamond tiara and a feather boa to the grocery store.  He looked like what he was. 

"Hey, looky there, it's a FARMER, boys!!  Whoo, hoo!  Who let you off the back forty, Gramps?  Hey, Farmer, don't you think it's about time you get home to your cows?  Where'd you park your tractor?  Or did you ride into town on a horse?  Hey, do you smell something?" 

Blessedly, the light changed and our tormentors were finally on their way, though their shouts rang out down the street as they went.  Dad snorted under his breath, "Well, what the h...," but then he just kept walking down the sidewalk with me at his side, with his head held firmly aloft.  

Until that day on that glitzy sidewalk, I had never thought of the word 'farmer' as a dirty word or in any way inappropriate or something to be ashamed of.  Though we never spoke of the incident, I was heartsick for my father.  And proud, too.  He had carried himself with dignity.  Which was more than could be said for those jerks.

City life was decidedly different, and it wasn't just the traffic. 

The green as grass farm girl was in for a rude awakening.



Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 4

While I was in school that day, my father was working busily behind the scenes scouting out a car for me.  I can't tell you what a shock this was to me because my father was a tough character.  He and Miss H had a lot of the same personality traits except Dad didn't wear bright red lipstick, dye his hair black or wear pantsuits with proper foot attire. 

I had come along late in life for my folks, my dad was 45 when I was born, and by this time, he was 63 years old and still farming with no end in sight.  He was born on the farm he was still working, and though this sounds Abe Lincoln-ish, he was born in a log cabin.  The doctor who finally arrived to attend his debut to the world was a bit tipsy and forgot to fill out the paperwork, so it was some time later my grandparents remembered they'd never gotten a birth certificate for their sixth child.  Then they couldn't remember when he'd actually been born, so there was some debate back and forth until they finally settled on September 20-27, 1913.  The general consensus was it was around that time, anyway.  Dad finally picked the 24th when he had to send away for a birth certificate at age 62.  He said it sounded as good as any other day.

To put it mildly, there was no molly-coddling going on in my father's childhood, and there would be none in my late brother's or mine, either.  Dad was raised Old School, children are to be seen and not heard, and should at all times make themselves useful.  He had a love of reading and arithmetic and dreamed of going on to school past the eighth grade, but there was no money to buy better clothes and shoes, and his father had a farm to run.    Dad ended up staying on the farm he'd been born on for the rest of his life and though he was a good farmer, he was not a happy one.  I think his dreams (though he never spoke of them) were always for a different life, one away from blood, sweat and cow manure. 

My brother, Bob, was thirteen years older than me and had left home at nineteen to join the Army during the Viet Nam war.  Other kids were running to Canada or signing up for college in droves to escape the draft, but my brother went right down and enlisted.  I think it had more to do with his dislike of both higher education and farming than anything else, so off he went.

Bob had to go to the barn in the morning to milk cows before school with my parents.  When he left for basic training, I was six years old and we really didn't know (or like) each other very much.  He felt I was spoiled, and seeing our circumstances through his eyes, I'm sure it did look that way.   While he was gone, I became my father's right-hand man out of necessity.  Our farm was only 98 acres, but all Dad had left to help him run it was my mother and me. My father did not want me to milk cows in the morning before school, though.  I'm not sure why, but suspect it was because he didn't want me to be picked on for smelling like a farmer.   Back in those days, you didn't jump in the shower (we didn't have one) every day; you simply changed your clothes and washed up as fastidiously as you could in the kitchen sink.  Bath days were Saturday night.  I did, however, milk every night and helped with any and all field work I was capable of handling.

 When Bob's two year hitch was up, he came home a very different man than the farm boy who had left.  He was only home about a month and burning the late night oil and doing a little carousing. His girlfriend had taken up with someone else in his absence and he was restless.  And angry.  There was only room for one angry man under our roof, so Dad took matters into his own hands and said if Bob was going to live at home, he was going to keep decent hours and help with the farm work.  Bob hated farming and refused.  Dad said he'd then have to pay $50 a month rent.  This incensed my brother no end.  Ironically, with Dad's help, he got himself a car, a job (in the same town I was now headed for) and an apartment all in quick succession.  My mother never got over it, to this day she still feels she should have stuck up for her son, but that was that.  Being his sister, and now being a mother myself of a 21 year old man, I can see it now from two different angles; I think it was the right thing to do in some regards.  He was much happier on his own.  For awhile.  

Anyway, while I was in school that fateful day attempting to wrap my head around my future, my father was out trying to buy me a car.  A new car.  I didn't know this was the plan.  I hadn't asked for a car, either.  Ever.  I realize how spoiled this makes me sound, but trust me, Dad was not a push-over in any way.  He had dropped me off at the school door that morning and at some point after breakfast gone to another little town eight miles away to haggle with a car dealer on a brand-spanking new 1976 Chevy Nova.  (Alison, if you're reading this, quit laughing!) 

I didn't know anything about this when I stepped off the school bus that night.  Mom was baking again, the woman was a tireless worker even though her day had started at 5AM and wouldn't be over to well after 10PM, being a farm wife she had unending chores in the barn and the house.  I still don't know how she did it, but then, being a teenager, I took her for granted.  Ingrate that I was.

Turns out, Mom hadn't known about Dad's adventure, either.  My getting a job so suddenly was such an unsettling thing that we were all sort of spinning in circles.  Dad was always a 'take the bull by the horns' kinda guy and he'd gone off on a car hunt alone unbeknownst to either of us.  We didn't find his absence unusual, he frequented a few bars in our little town and would often come home when we were already in the barn doing the evening milking. 

That Monday night, though, he came home with Big News.  I was to wait for him after school on Tuesday and we were going to go to the Chevy (my folks always pronounced it 'shivy') garage and see what price the dealer in town would give us.  He already had a number on a little business card in the front pocket of his bib overalls but he wanted to see if he could get the guys in town to squeak under it.  I took all this in with amazement, having to finally sit down on a milk stool before I fell down in the alley.  I was going to get a new car?  And who was going to pay for it?

Well, he had that all worked out.  In his slightly inebriated state, he sternly told me that he would pay for this new car in cash, but I was going to pay him back in installments.  Now that I was employed, I should be able to make car payments of $200 or more a month and still set some aside for savings.  As long as I kept working on the farm at night after working in the office, I could live at home for free and he would not charge me any rent or interest on the car loan.  However, if I reneged on the deal, the car would be his.  End of story.

In the space of less than twelve hours I had gone from an 18 year old kid to a woman of the world with a car loan and payments hanging over my head.  This grown-up world was not all that great.  I got up off the milk stool on wobbly legs and took the milker off the poor cow who was by now, bone dry.  I agreed to his terms, because they were fantastically fair. 

I never felt I'd grown up 'poor' because by the time I came along, we always had plenty to eat and a roof over our heads.  Like just about everyone else, we always had to be careful with money, though.  Always.  My father had grown up poor and never forgot what it was like to go to bed hungry as a kid, and though my mother was eight years younger, she had also come through some unbelievably tough times, including the Great Depression.  They knew the value of a penny.  And a penny saved was truly a penny earned in those times.    That's why my father buying me a new car was such a stunning development.  I don't think he could have shocked me any more if he'd come home wearing Miss H's curly black hair.  I went to bed that night and tossed and turned.  How was this all going to work out?