Not Cut Out for Grit Labor

When I was 19 years old, my eldest sister was in the Air Force, stationed in Holland. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, she invited me to go there for the summer. What, are you kidding? Of course I said yes, with visions of jet setting around Europe dancing in my head.

Upon arrival, she mentioned that, oh, by the way, she had gotten me a job on the Air Force base. I was to mop floors and stock soda machines all summer long. I could hardly complain, could I? She had brought me to Europe, after all.

So, after pretty much zero training, I was sent off to fend for myself. And the verbal directions I was given as to the locations of the various vending machines was sketchy at best. To say I got lost is putting it mildly. That base was huge. A job that should only have taken a couple hours took me all night.

The next night, I was to mop the floors, using one of those metal industrial rolling buckets and a heavy stringy mop. I was a skinny little thing back then. At one point, I knocked the full bucket over in a hallway and flooded the place. I spent the whole night desperately trying to sop up the gigantic puddle. When my boss came in the morning he was furious.

I’ll never forget this. He called my sister and told her that I was “not cut out for grit labor”, and that was the end of that summer job. In retrospect I should have been a lot more insulted. At age 19, he was writing me off for life. And it turns out that the bulk of my career has been all about grit labor, so poo poo on you, bossman.

There were no other civilian jobs that I qualified for on base, and I had no work visa to work in country, so guess what? I traveled around Europe for the rest of the summer. It was great.

I swear to God, I didn’t do it on purpose.

Mop Bucket

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Hippie Wannabe

When I was 8 years old in 1973, I knew a teen-aged girl who desperately wanted to be considered a Hippie. She was a little young for it, and she really didn’t have any of the political or moral underpinnings to give her the credibility. Basically she was just a lazy, rebellious girl who wanted to shock people.

One day she brought home a scruffy guy who she called Frank. I have no idea where she met this guy, but he really stood out in our hyper-conservative WASPish Connecticut neighborhood. He was way too swarthy to not be considered suspicious in that day and age. She loved that about him. She told everyone he was an American Indian. How exotic. I had an instant 8 year old’s crush on him. I began to play cowboys and Indians, only I’d let the Indians win for a change.

Much later we found out that he was actually a Puerto Rican named Francisco. I have no idea why she considered this to be too much shock value even for her well-planned rebellion, and why converting him to American Indianism was somehow more acceptable, but there you have it. We also discovered even later that he was wanted by the FBI for God knows what. Rumor has it that it was drug related.

In keeping with his American Indian image (and in retrospect, his need to hide), they decided to make a teepee and squat on some abandoned land in rural Vermont. Somehow they got yards and yards of heavy duty canvas, a heavy duty sewing machine, and lodge poles, and they sewed the thing themselves. To their credit, it really came out well. It was impressive. It was huge. It was a good 20 feet tall. It showed a great deal of creativity and initiative. If she had abandoned her rebellion, she could have really made something of herself.

I have no idea how they got the canvas up there. It must have weighed a ton, but they soon set up a little home place, using a nearby mountain stream as a source of refrigeration, and they dug an outhouse. I have no recollection of how they bathed or cooked. They did like to skinny dip in a nearby pond. And when Frank began to leave her alone for weeks at a time to fend for herself, she hitchhiked into town and got a job as a waitress.

I can’t remember how long this strange little romance lasted. I know she was out there for at least one summer and one winter, but the details are a little foggy for me. All I know is that eventually she came back home. She even did a presentation at my elementary school about teepees and it was a big hit.

Later in life she joined the Air Force, which was the perfect place for her. That enforced discipline and tell-me-what-I-must-do culture was just what she needed. If anyone brought up her teepee days, she’d become infuriated. She was ashamed of that part of her life. That made me kind of sad. Even if it was ill-advised and not in keeping with her current image, it was interesting, and I’m sure she learned a lot from it, and it helped make her who she became later in life.

As time went by she married, had a family, and retired from the Air Force after 21 years. Then, sadly, she died of cancer at the age of 54. I have no idea what became of Frank. If he’s still alive he’d be in his 60’s now. I’m willing to bet he isn’t living in a teepee.


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Views from my Windows—Part One

One of my first memories of any type of view was the sagging wooden third floor balcony of our shabby tenement apartment. I lived in fear of this view, because every time I stepped out of the house it was a certainty that our neighbor would be lying in wait. She was this loud old Italian lady with the most enormous breasts I had ever seen in my short life, and every time she would see me, she’d chase me down the hall and hug me until I was sure I’d suffocate in her cleavage. I don’t know what terrified me more: that woman, or the idea that that whole ratty building would collapse around us. But with no child support from my father, not one penny, ever, we were lucky to have any type of roof over our heads at all.

From there we moved into what would now be called HUD housing. It was a duplex on a corner lot, and I always assumed the yard was as big as a baseball diamond, because I’d watch my sister play kickball out there on what seemed like a daily basis. Imagine my shock when I came back to see it as an adult and saw it was about 20 feet square at most. But the lilac bush that my mother planted is still there. As an interesting side note, my other sister’s first boyfriend lived in the other half of the duplex. Then, he liked to play the drums along with Beatles records. Now, he’s in prison for serial rape. Go figure.


From there we soared to the pinnacle of my residential life, for my mother remarried. We moved to a mansion, and we each had our own room. The place was called, ironically, Climax Heights, and it looked out upon a sweeping green expanse and towering trees that were perfect for climbing, and a babbling brook down the road which led to an artist enclave where they all grew to know me by name. We had a fireplace and my mother began to smile because she was finally able to get her teeth fixed. What a heavenly period. Granted, my stepfather gave me the creeps, but I was too young to understand why.

It was from there that things went to shit. My stepfather’s boss was relocating to Florida, and told him if we followed, he’d have a job there. So we decided to camp our way from Connecticut and down the coast. About the time we hit Virginia, the boss died, and no one wanted to give a job to a 350 pound old man with questionable intelligence. My stepfather briefly got a job managing a crappy apartment building that was in such a horrible neighborhood that I was not allowed to go outside. Ever. Having been uprooted from the only state I knew, my grades in school plummeted. My view was of the train tracks across the street, and the mattresses had to be burned because they were covered in some form of parasite. Needless to say, that job didn’t last long.

So next we lived in our tent. It was all we had. My view for the next 7 years was the campground, with its ever changing neighbors. To this day I can’t stand baked potatoes, which was sometimes all we had to eat. My mother sent out one last plea to my biological father, but no help was forthcoming from that quarter. So we went on welfare yet again. That’s when I started working. At age 10 I grew and sold houseplants and from that income I was able to buy school clothes. In the mean time I learned, to my everlasting regret, exactly why my stepfather gave me the creeps. Suffice it to say he was a horrible man who stole my childhood, and my ability to feel safe in this world was forever destroyed.

My goal in life after that was to go to college and get away from my stepfather. Just as I was about to do that, my oldest sister, who had joined the Air Force, bought my mother a house. My view from there was the back door of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I was always confused as to the day of the week, because I’d keep forgetting that they held their services on Saturday. But the library was two blocks away and I had a room with privacy again, and that was all I cared about. And besides, I was about to go to college. Free at last!

To be continued in Part Two….

My Invasion of Berlin

When I was 18 years old I took a trip around Europe with my boyfriend and his family which is sure to be fodder for many a blog entry in the future, but today I will focus on the one city that made the biggest impression upon me: Berlin.

When we went there, the Berlin wall was still up and would be for another 6 years. The Cold War was still going on, although it was beginning to seem more and more ridiculous and pathetic with each passing day. As we drove into the city we had to go for miles through East Germany along an autobahn lined with gun turrets. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s the only time in my life when I’ve been in “enemy territory”, and it felt exceedingly strange. I don’t know how people live from day to day in war zones. The stress factor must be off the charts. How lucky I’ve been in my life. I’ve never had to feel as if I’m surrounded by people who want me dead. Yet another blessing to count when I’m in a counting mood.

Since my boyfriend was in the Air Force, we were treated to a few extra mandatory checkpoints. He had been provided with a list of instructions as to how we should conduct ourselves in these checkpoints. I can only remember one of the instructions, and it was, “Do not smile at the soldiers.” Heaven forbid. We wouldn’t want to show any evidence of a thaw in this lovely cold war of ours. At one of these checkpoints we pulled up right beside a Russian soldier, and I couldn’t help but stare. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to make eye contact, but I shouldn’t have worried. This boy was not going to look directly at me. And he was a boy. My age. He looked like he had a splitting headache. I wanted to give him an aspirin and a hug. I’ll never forget his face. I wonder what became of him? When my boyfriend came out of the building, he said they had tried to sell him all sorts of contraband. As we drove away, I couldn’t help thinking about the thin and fragile veil between “Us” and “Them”.

In Berlin we did many things. We of course visited the wall, which was covered with the most amazing graffiti. It struck me that there was no graffiti allowed on the other side, and from their observation points they couldn’t see our graffiti because the wall curved toward them. What a metaphor for the suppression of creativity!


We climbed up to some observation decks to see what it looked like on the other side. These decks were, of course, directly opposite to East Berlin gun turrets. As we looked through binoculars, what we saw were soldiers looking through binoculars at us. I waved. They didn’t wave back.

We also visited the Berlin Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which still exists. I was impressed by the many ways people have tried and sometimes succeeded to get out of East Berlin. One really creative attempt was via homemade hot air balloon. Freedom is a powerful incentive.

We also rode the subway, or U-Bahn. Since it had been built before the wall, a few of the stops were actually on the other side of the wall. Well, calling them “stops” is a little deceptive, because the subway didn’t actually stop there. What you saw as we sped through were some very dimly lit, shabby old stations blocked off by chain link fence, with soldiers carrying machine guns walking around in the semi-darkness. What a creepy, dreary existence. Rodents in uniforms.

My boyfriend’s family actually took a highly restrictive but I’m sure quite interesting trip into East Berlin. My boyfriend, being in the military, wasn’t allowed to go, and out of a misplaced sense of loyalty I stayed with him. I’ll always regret that. But hey, I was madly, passionately and deeply in love, to the point where it took me about 25 years to get over him, so I was going to stand by my man. Stupid.

One day we were walking along, and all of a sudden a very loud and intimidating procession of western tanks came along the wide street, tearing up pavement as they went. It made my blood turn to ice water. I imagined what it would have been like to have my town invaded during World War II. For some crazy reason I didn’t have my 5 pounds of camera equipment with me that day, but my boyfriend got pictures and assured me he’d give me copies. This was something he never got around to doing. (Hint.)

Upon leaving Berlin, I was struck by the number of hitchhikers who were standing in a crowd (I’d guess there were about 100) hoping for a ride into West Berlin. The reason for this bottleneck was that obviously you couldn’t hitchhike along the autobahn itself. That really brought home to me how it must feel to be trapped inside this city. While I had enjoyed my visit, suddenly I really wanted to go home.