Aug 262012

As I ponder my career future, I cannot help but review the past.

Ever sipped a root beer from a frosted mug? Nothing tastes better on a hot summer’s day, unless you add a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.

In 1971 I was hired  as a carhop at the M and R Drive In for 40 cents an hour, paid weekly in a little brown envelope. I waited on customers in their cars. I carried orders of breaded tenderloins, onion rings, and vanilla Cokes to car windows and collected money. I wore a black change apron, a silver coin changer, Adidas tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt.

But no denim cutoffs or sandals, the boss was strict about that. When the drive-in closed, I picked up trash and filled the ketchup and mustard bottles.

In the “American Graffiti” era, teens rode around our town in GTOs and ‘stangs, through the drive-in,  back through the school parking lot, and through Carol’s Corner. Carol’s, a rival drive-in half a mile away, is still in business today. Same owner – Carol – for forty years!

On busy weekend nights, our drive-in staffed with several carhops as business boomed. Families brought empty glass gallon containers to fill with root beer for a few dollars. Teenagers, even from neighboring towns, rode around and stopped for drinks and ice cream, all the while hiding cigarettes and beer from parents and other adult relatives who might be sitting in the Chevy Impala next to them.

During senior year, a friend  borrowed a Caddy convertible and we drove around and around on weekend nights. We liked to see how many people we could get in this car, like clowns in a Volkswagen. Another friend had one 6-pack of Budweiser beer, and we each had about half of a can. My introduction to alcohol was quite lame.

A young man and his wife drove in one night in their new white Monte Carlo with an cream-colored landau top and ordered two large root beer floats. While taking out the order on the aluminum tray I tipped it too far forward to hook on the window with the yellow rubber clips. I dumped both of the floats directly into the man’s lap.

Some of the root beer ran back from the tray down inside space between the car door and the window. Not a pretty site. Poor, poor Eddie Wolfe, the young man who owned the car. The boss didn’t fire me that day.  I’m not sure why.

After I graduated from high school my father decided the best way for his children to learn about work was to have the most hideous, awful job possible.

Since working at the drive-in  was fun (and financially lucrative with all those 25 cent tips!) Dad decided that factory work was what we needed. I spent two summers at a cleat-sew machine, re-binding old textbooks at a book bindery.

Minimum was wage $1.80 per hour, so even with overtime I made only $2.70.

To get promoted in the factory, you had to lose a finger in one of the giant machines. My immediate boss lacked a pointer finger, but the Big Boss had lost three. I need two opposable thumbs and eight fingers to type, so I was extra careful not to lose any those two summers. But I saw my friend get her finger caught in a presser, which made her look like ET the Extra Terrestrial.

Almost entirely women, my co-workers at the factory had eclectic personalities. Even before the ‘80s era of Big Hair, many of the “girls” sported big, bleached hair, wore lots of baby blue eye shadow, covered themselves with hoops and bangles, and stood on that factory line in 3-inch heels.

The factory also employed many single Old Order Mennonite women who wore a white, transparent bonnet over hair put up in a bun. The Old Order women also wore modest cotton print dresses with tiny capes in a series of pastels colors and sturdy black shoes.

Quite the contrast between the two groups of women. I learned a lot that summer over lunch table talk! After I went back to college in the fall, I dreamed that I my dorm room closet had only those Mennonite dresses with capes.

One of the greatest days of my career life came the summer after my junior year in college. Like today, there were no jobs for teenagers especially in a farming community. The factory wasn’t hiring college kids anymore. I was too old to carhop and I didn’t want to de-tassel corn. I was a miserable failure at selling advertisements on restaurant placemats.

So I stayed at college and worked and lived with a bunch of drunks whose idea of fun was stealing a red and white “spirit stick” from the college gym and ramming it through the drywall of our living room.

The previous semester I won a nice scholarship from the Big City Newspaper Foundation 25 miles from home.

The editor of the county daily newspapers saw an article about me and called my parent’s house to offer me a job. A real job, paying $5 an hour, to WRITE WORDS! I need to use ALL CAPS because it was an ALL CAPS moment in my life.

I immediately quit my waitress job at the Nouveau Riche County Club in East Bumflippingegypt, Indiana.

I worked for Hester Little Adams at the newspaper on and off for the next three years. Hester – the newspaper’s owner — was a former high school home economics teacher who became publisher when her husband John Quincy Adams died prematurely.

A brilliant woman who supported her employees and her community with unending passion, she was a tad eccentric. Under five feet tall, she also had large white eyebrows that could move in different directions to intimidate or ingratiate you, depending on her mood.

In her late seventies and quite humped over from the ravages of osteoporosis, she sat in the corner of the newsroom at her typewriter. While providing the latest typesetting equipment for her employees (then a video display terminal with tape), Hester preferred her old stand-up manual typewriter to type her stories on yellow sheets of paper.

One hot summer day during “Old Settlers Days” a carnival worker came at Hester to steal her purse directly in front of the newspaper’s downtown office. She just whacked him with the purse, and he ran off, obviously shaken.

On any given day, Hester might send me to the Ace Hardware to buy a flat of geraniums for the window boxes out front, or dispatch me to a car accident to take a picture.

I spent time in the print room, running the string machine and bundling newspapers. Sometimes I filed and sorted things for Hester in the newspaper’s giant morgue. When no one was looking I wrote my own obituary and put it in the file. Where it most likely still remains after more than thirty years.

I had a regular reporter’s beat. Every morning I went to the Police Station to check the log. I also had various other assignments around town – Hester wanted to write the history of every church in the county, so I visited Pilgrim Holiness, Fourth Baptist, the one and only Catholic church, and others so far out in the country my ’71 Olds Cutlass spit up dust.

I covered the REMC Banquet, Junior Miss contest, 4-H fair and learned to place a pan of food in front of hogs so they stand correctly for pictures. I couldn’t do much to curb the excitement of the gawky 4-H kid behind the pig and his overexcited parents behind the kid.

The first summer I shot pictures of animals at the fair I completely underexposed them by messing up the f-stops on the large German Rolleiflex box camera. As soon as the paper came out, Hester’s phone began ringing with belligerent parents wanting to know why the pictures were so awful. Hester did not fire me that day. I’m not sure why.

By the following summer I had greatly improved in my photography. That year my brother won a number of contests showing his pigs at the 4-H Fair. Guess what?

Hester got complaints that the photos were only better because it was a photographer’s family member. You just cannot please the public!

In my very first moments at the newspaper, I displayed the arrogance and certainty that any 20 year college kid who thinks she knows everything about the world.

The copy editor – who appeared to have the personality of Brutus from Popeye  – marched out from behind her big metal desk with my first piece of copy to point out my errors. She took out her red ballpoint pen and circled about four items on the yellow sheet of copy paper. And then she walked away. I corrected my errors and stabbed the yellow piece of paper back onto the metal spindle on her desk.

Eloise never said a nice word to me that wasn’t about editing in my time there, but I grew tremendously as a person and a writer under her tutelage. I’m sure she is dead now – the last time I saw her she was on her lawn tractor mowing in a pleated dress.

Edwin, the last old-time reporter, taught me a lot about covering a beat. Wearing a dark, rumpled suit, and thin tie, Edwin always had a cigarette hanging from his mouth with about an inch and a half of ash on it, like the dry-cleaner in The Andy Griffith Show. Everyone in the entire town knew Edwin, and he helped me know who to call when I was lost. Which was frequently.

While I would never want to return to the book bindery, in the fantasy world of my mind my ideal job is a small-town newspaper with a drive-up window. Stories would drive right in. I would serve my patrons a cherry coke and find out what the Thorncreek Township fire department was up to that day.

Then I would sit in the corner at my manual typewriter (I’ve saved it from college, it’s a small Olympic, and I even have a box of typewriter ribbons. When the Big Bomb falls, I want to be ready.)

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