Job#4 – Taking Care of Business in a Flash

TCBThe Year:  1997

The Music: “Promised Land”, Elvis Presley

It was the summer of 1997, and I was scheduled to graduate from college that December. I would leave UT with five and a half years under my belt.  Entering college as a violin major, doing a stint in Early Childhood Education (thinking briefly of Psychology) and settling on Business and Marketing Education.  I remember vividly the night I spread the university catalog, time tables and all my paperwork out on my dorm room floor.  I added up all the various credits I had accumulated, and landed on a major which could get me out the door quickly.  So, when I say, I “settled on” Business and Marketing Education, it was exactly that…settling.  A liberal arts major at heart, I could not for the life of me pass the foreign language requirement.  I would leave college with as much direction as I came in with…none.  I can liken it to the feeling of being caught in a riptide.  About the time I would see the surface, another wave sucked me in and pushed me out.  I was caught in a constant state of push-pull.

My eldest sister more than likely realized I was floundering, and in what could have been 10 seconds of insanity (or scandalous grace), offered to let me move in with her family for that last semester.  I had exhausted my student leadership work experiences, and was slow to find a summer job.  My brother-in-law, in his ever-gentle way, suggested that I speak with his little brother who was a supervisor at Eagle Bend Manufacturing in Clinton, Tennessee.  So, I did just that.  Off I went to the temp agency to fill out the paperwork in my snappy little business suit.

I should pause here and tell you that I could write an entire book on my brother-in-law’s large family, and what they have meant to my large family.  The understated love between our families is some kind of connection that involves all the senses.  Mamaw, biscuits, rain, rolls of film, smoky hills and sandy beaches. It’s impossible to sum up in a few sentences.

Anyway, the lady behind the desk at the temp agency gave me the up-down over her half-eyes, and said, “You know this is a manual labor job, right?” “Yes, ma’am.”  I’m sure my snappy little business suit threw her for a loop.  She went on, “And it’s a graveyard shift.  You alright with that?”  “Yes, ma’am”.  Good lord, I just needed a job.  Who was I to be picky?

Eagle Bend Manufacturing turned out car parts.  Even after having worked there, that’s the extent of my knowledge.  The place smelled like a copper penny tastes, only dusty and on fire.  And if you told me you’ve never put a penny in your mouth and sucked on it, well, I don’t believe you.

I don’t remember needing much training.  I stood at the TY-14 spot welding machine for 10 hours a day (or night as was the case) and pressed a button that welded a small metal part into a big metal part.  Mind-numbing.  “TY” stood for Toyota, and the part that I was working with was for a bumper.  I wore steel-toed boots from Wal-Mart, ear protection, safety glasses, gloves and arm guards.  The sparks that flew out of my welding machine were somewhat like tiny, orange fireworks though rarely painful.  Every once in a while, a spark would sit and sizzle on your skin for a few seconds.

I didn’t work on an assembly line.  It was just me, standing there all alone with my welding machine.  I would weld a bin full of bumper parts, hoist the bins with my knee-to-hay-bale-lifting style, one on top of the other, all-night long.  My brother-in-law’s brother would stop by to make sure no one was hitting on me, and check that the weld was good.  We got two 15-minute breaks and one lunch break.  My guts never really got used to eating lunch at 1:00 in the morning.  That’s just weird.

What made life a little easier during those long shifts were the people. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a gift it is to work with people that aren’t afraid of work.  “Blue-collar” folks are real.  There are no pretenses.  Pretty much, no one gave a shit what purse you were carrying and if it matched your shoes.  One particularly squirrely fellow named Vince, still stands out to me.  Upon introduction, Vince wanted to hate me.  He wanted to call me a stuck-up little college girl.  But I made it impossible for him.

Vince had a mohawk, slicked back to meet company policy.  Everything that could be pierced on Vince, was pierced and he was the angriest cuss I had ever encountered.  He was wiry and lean – one solid sinewy muscle.  I suspect that he had managed to overcome quite a lot, but the rage the kid had!  The pilot light was always on, all it took was a match and he could burn practically anything or anyone all the way down.  Vince started hanging around my machine when he realized I would listen to whatever he had to say.  Girlfriend problems, baby daddy problems and legal problems.  I don’t remember ever giving him advice, but I do remember coming to the realization that I really had no real problems.  I would graduate and move on from Clinton, but I was fairly sure that Vince never would.

Sometime that summer, it dawned on me that what I really needed was a tattoo.  I had always wanted a tattoo and now with a graveyard shift wage premium, it seemed well within reach.  I made the appointment, took my best friend and spent an entire $60 dollars on a tattoo the size of a quarter.  I was obsessed with Elvis’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” that summer.  I wore out a cassette tape playing that single.  Summer air and cigarette smoke flying out of the car window, singing to the top of my lungs.  So, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Elvis’ death, it seemed only appropriate to get his TCB emblem permanently engraved on the back of my right shoulder.  It took a year and a half, and a fair amount of beer before I could tell her, but my mother was never so impressed…ever.  She said it looked like a spider, which hurt my feelings.  But now, on my 42-year-old shoulder, it does resemble a spider that’s been half stomped on.

There was a feeling of freedom when the shift was up, and I could scream out of the plant’s parking lot blaring Elvis Presley and throwing gravel.  It was that time right before the sun comes up, when even in the summer you can feel a current of cold air move past you.  It was a lush, sweet-smelling stretch of highway back home.  Drop into bed, try and sleep through the light peeking in the blinds, wake up around 2:00 p.m. and start again.

On my last day of that summer job, the shift supervisor walked up and said that if I ever needed a job, I would have one waiting at Eagle Bend.

Job #3 – Big Orange Country

 

Bog Orange CountryThe year – 1996

The music – “Killing Me Softly”, The Fugees

There is a special place in hell for people that ask interview questions like, “If you were a vegetable, what would you be?”  Broccoli…of course.  “What was the last book you read and how did it affect you?”  I plucked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” right out of thin air.  Oh, I had read the book, but it was about five years earlier in high school.  My appetite for books wasn’t quite as voracious in college as it is now.  I can honestly say that 22 years later, interview questions (and quite possibly my answers) have not improved much.  “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”  I love this question.  You and I both know that we will look an interviewer square in the eye, grinning like a two-bit hooker with an expression that says, “What do you want my strengths and weaknesses to be, lover.”  And then we will make up whatever answer will land the job.  I mean, come on.  Nevertheless, at the prompting of my best friend, Katherine, I applied to be an Orientation Leader at the University of Tennessee and these questions were part of the interview.

I should mention here that Katherine, was always doing this.  Always prompting, always encouraging.  We bonded over being stressed out, first-year resident assistants, and were inseparable from that point forward.  On the outside, we were complete opposites.  Katherine was tall, blonde and overwhelmingly sparkly.  I was short, brunette and mostly walked around in a state of perpetual confusion.  To this day, when I find a piece of glitter on my face that won’t budge, I know it’s Katherine.  She would pull me kicking and screaming out of my shell on more than one occasion.  “Ann-uh!  Come on!”  When she would become particularly frustrated with me because I wanted to introvert in my dorm room, the vein in the middle of her forehead would pop out, but she would relent and suggest that we just dye our hair instead.  One Halloween, she walked around campus in a gorilla costume…I did not.

Katherine and I would go through yet another lengthy interview process, and find ourselves on the next rung of student leadership.  It was a great honor really to be an OL (orientation leader), and I was shocked that I had been chosen particularly because I was such a clueless incoming freshman myself.  I completely missed my own orientation.

As all good student leadership experiences do, we started with an overnight retreat at the 4-H camp in Crossville, TN.  The cabins were musty and the running water was only cold.  Lifelines were drawn on giant sheets of butcher paper, icebreakers were taught and perfected (what torture for an introverted soul) and a comradery was formed.  I remember lying all over one another on the stage of the dining hall facility at that camp listening to someone’s life story.  There were 21 of us lying there.  A pile of flesh, sleeping bags and smelly clothes.  One sunny afternoon that weekend, a friend and I were walking down a dusty path lined with big, tall pines and he came out to me.  Just like that.  I was one of the trusted few that he felt safe with.  What an intimate privilege.  I’ll never forget it.  I’m often dumbfounded by these gifts we are handed in otherwise unrelated experiences.  As will become an emerging theme for me, relationships will always rise to the top like sweet cream.

The following spring semester would be a deep dive into the history and inner workings of the university.  We were privileged to work with so many knowledgeable faculty and staff, and it may have been the start of my affinity for institutions of public higher education.  We would learn it all in OL class, and we would be tested on it.  When was the university founded? 1794.  What is a land grant institution? Land dedicated to an institution as set forth by the Morrill Act. Oldest building on campus?  South College.  Keep ‘em coming.  For me, it would carve out a little nook in my heart for UT.  Not for the infamous game day experiences and hype of that nature, but for the institution itself.

My dad finished his studies at UT on the G.I. bill.  He would describe days of parking his car on what is now Circle Park, to study for statistics exams.  Ass-dragging because the two little ones (my two eldest sisters) at home, were up late the night before.  It took every bit of money, stamina and courage my parents could muster to get him through college.  He often shared the story of going in to thank his advisor for all the guidance, and to say goodbye.  He had taken all the stat courses he wanted, and he was off to claim his destiny.  His advisor insisted that, “No! That’s not how it works. The degree is the key.”  Dad would stay on, defiantly skipping the graduation ceremony to the chagrin of my mother and have his diploma mailed to him.  The institution served as a means of communication for us.  To fill awkward silences, and when there was nothing else to talk about, we could talk about our college experiences.  I digress.

During the summer of 1996, our troop clad in UT orange would set about orienting incoming freshman.  We started the day with singing and dancing our asses off to “Rocky Top”.  Really.  I strutted uncomfortably around that stage like it was my job.  We gave walking tours, bus tours, performed in skits and talked with wide-eyed parents.  In the evening, we would sit on our bed with a push button phone and show kids how they would register for classes the next day.  Push button phones, I say!

On the weekends, we drank.  A lot as I recall.  Some of us more than others.  There were hook-ups and break-ups.  One sultry summer night, all of us (save the one of us that would later go into ministry) exhausted from so many choruses of “Rocky Top” and full of cheap liquor, jumped the fence of an apartment complex just off of Highland Ave., stripped down to nothin’ and went skinny dippin’ in their pool.  I’m sure the residents were impressed.  It’s just the stuff life is made of.  And it was good.  I am still proud of being an orientation leader, and I would reference that job often during my first interviews post-college.

 

Job #2 – continued…

Peace

Regarding yesterday’s post, a friend of mine texted me last night and said, “I had a similar experience involving tequila.”  Those two magic words, “Me too.”  It lessens the power of that experience over me and brings me out of isolation.  Unfortunately, because of my response to that encounter, behaviors were set in motion that were both harmful and reckless. 

I learned early on to take experiences that not just felt wrong, but enforced the idea that I WAS WRONG, and stuff them way down to the end of my sock-feet.

The messages I received as a kid, or the ones my brain took and completely flipped inside-out, taught me to second guess myself about EVERYTHING.  I learned not to trust my insides, my creator-given instincts.  Words like, “I’m fine.  Everything is fine.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.”, were automated responses from adults all around me.  Even my five-year-old self knew that everything was not in fact, fine.  One smart woman I know told me that FINE stands for “fucked-up, insecure, neurotic and emotional”.  I’ve come to believe that wholeheartedly.

 I can point to major life decisions that I went along with even though my insides were insistent that I pull up on the reins.  The scenario that is the Bermuda triangle for me is when my head is says, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it will work out”; when my guts sarcastically murmur, “You have an empty gas tank, but by all means, DO take that road trip”; and when I have not paused long enough to be still and listen.  Deadly trio.

Not being allowed to, or not knowing how to speak my truth will inevitably lead me to oblivion, one way or the other.  Whether I implode or explode – the choice is mine.   My exploding looks like a mama bear rising up to defend my cub-like feelings.  My imploding looks like jet-black depression.  The third choice, of course, is to speak your truth from the get-go.  “No” is a complete sentence.

Job #2 – 1911 Andy Holt

Job #2 – 1911 Andy Holt

The year:  1994-1997

The Music:  Ditty, Paperboy; Strawberry Wine, Deana Carter; Wannabe, Spice Girls (oh, for goodness sake), ALL of Celine Dion and Shania Twain

Humes1

As I quickly scanned the small cinderblock room, I noticed one big toe sticking out of the unusually large pile of clothes on her floor.  “Stacy, it’s past visitation and I heard a boy’s voice.  He needs to go home now.”  “There’s no one here.  Must have been my TV”, she said.  “Stacy, I’m going to have to ask your boyfriend to come out from under that pile of clothes.”  I have to admit, it was somewhat of a creative maneuver.  I had, by this time, pulled boys out of closets, out from under beds, showers and storage nooks.  The really sneaky ones knew to pull drawers out of the built-ins and climb through the other side to the adjoining room.

Of all of the jobs I’ve ever fallen into, being a Resident Assistant in a Residence Hall (it’s not a dorm!) at the University of Tennessee was possibly the most pivotal.  If I’m honest, I applied for the job because Resident Assistants (RAs) got their own room without paying an extra fee.  Heaven!  So, at the end of my sophomore year, I put in an application, went through a lengthy vetting process and before I knew it I was part of the Humes Hall staff.  Being an RA would be my first run-in with what leadership could look like at its best and its worst.  The growing up I did during those years was immeasurable and often painful – as is most growth.  I would find an extended family, meet the woman who would become my most treasured friend, and meet my future husband.

I entered the University of Tennessee on a violin scholarship. Between my parents and myself, we managed to get me graduated with zero student loan debt.  I didn’t appreciate then how utterly amazing our “creative accounting” was until recently, as my children grow older and look towards their own college experience.  My monthly RA paycheck would cover room and board, and at the end of the month I received $13.00.  At the risk of sounding like a credit card commercial, the experience was priceless.  Lest you scoff at the young “inexperienced” students shepherding your college kid, perhaps I can shed a little light.

I could tell you a million stories of the shenanigans that went on in during my RA years, but the job was actual work.  Besides getting up in the middle of the night to give a bleary-eyed girl yet another lock-out key; her lips pink and swollen, mascara smeared – there was conflict resolution, confronting peers on difficult situations, grieving with students that were navigating difficult life experiences, program planning (for which I was usually put on probation for coming up short on my quota), drug and alcohol write-ups, sorting mail and the ever-popular cleaning of vacuums.  Creating seasonal door decorations and building relationships with 20+ girls on the floor. Those were just a few of our duties, all while trying to maintain our own studies and personal lives.  It was hard work, but telescoping back through time, it was one of the best times of my life.  And coming off a tough sophomore year, being an RA probably saved my life and kept me at UT.

When the fire alarm went off, I could be found running up and down the hall banging on doors with my shoe for residents to clear out.  I was usually doing this with a violin strapped to my back as it was my one and only prized possession.  More than once, the fire was started by someone throwing a flaming bag of microwave popcorn in the trash.

During my first year, I had several members of the Lady Vol basketball team on my floor.  I was always so impressed that Pat Summitt or Holly Warlick would actually assist their girls moving in at the beginning of the fall semester.  These coaches actually carried boxes!  If you don’t know who these women are, then you’ve been living under a rock and need to do some independent research.  Once, when one of her players had surgery, Coach Summitt came to pay a visit.  Glancing down the hall at her, I couldn’t make out her face because the sun was shining so brightly through the window behind her, but her silhouette and stance was unmistakable.  I squeaked out a small hello to which she replied, but to this day I wish I had drummed up a little awkward conversation.

Our staff was an eclectic, diverse group of women.  Among them, a couple of practicing Jewish girls.  They were kind enough to show me and teach me, tolerating what had to be really ignorant questions.  We formed a tribe, where members of the LGBTQ+ community felt safe enough to come out.  Black women on staff would share what a pain in the ass their hair could be and teach white girls like me how to “step”.  We learned how to be sensitive to each other and hold space for one another.  To be sure, we had our share of cat fights, but they were trumped by sitting at the front desk together and talking about everything and nothing.

Not everything during this time can be cast in such a haze of happy and carefree.  In my second year as an RA, I was sexually assaulted.  Even as I type this, I cringe at the word rape (was it?).  My face reddens and there are still stirrings of shame and uncertainty.  I remember him explaining how making ice cubes with warm water instead of cold, would make the ice cubes clear.  They made a perfect “clink” in the glass in which he poured bourbon and ginger ale.  Later in the pale, gray light of morning, I came to and noticed three condoms lying on the side of the bathroom trashcan.  As it was his desire to become an upstanding member of the FBI, I’m sure he wanted to make sure there had been no pin-holes, no chances.  I jerked my jeans on, flew out of his apartment and wrote it off as my fault.  I would go to the mat for one of my residents had this happened to her, but I put the responsibility of this intrusion squarely on my own shoulders.  I had put myself in a dangerous situation, right?  There was alcohol involved and besides, I had a very important statistics exam to study for.  Right, studying will make it go away.  I’m not sure whatever happened to that poor, pathetic bastard but knowing what I know today, I have more than a few words at the ready for him.  All of this “messy” would set many wheels in motion that would take years to straighten out.  Eventually though, things would become as clear as his fucking ice cubes.

To be continued…

 

Gray Matter

Gray matter

 

The thing about being unemployed and job seeking is that you aren’t quite sure what your mission is every day.  When you are working, your routine and basic function of daily living are dictated to you – my experience, maybe not yours.  For now, I get up every day, make the coffee, sit in the same corner of the couch, try to recall the prayers I’ve been taught to say, wait and listen.  On the weeks I have my kids, I play at being a grown-up and add making my bed to the list.  It makes me feel a little more organized, but mostly it prevents me from climbing back in and numbing out on sleep.  I’m a master at sleeping the blues away.

I’m not Catholic and some days I can’t quite articulate what I believe, but I’ve been saying the Prayer to St. Joseph the Worker every morning for about a week and a half.  It was given to me on a bookmark by a dear woman who I admire greatly and wears giant flamingo earrings.  She ensures me that the right job is out there, but it’s all about timing.  “Why are you holding onto this old blue jean jacket, when there could be a robe of silk out there for you?”  Now, I’m not sure how I feel about all that, but I know that I love this woman and she wants the best for me, so I say the prayer.   

One version goes like this, “God, our Father and Creator, You bestow on us gifts and talents to develop and use in accord with Your will.  Grant to me, through the intercession of St. Joseph the worker, as model and guide, employment and work, that I may, with dignity, provide for those who depend on me for care and support.  Grant me the opportunities to use my energy and my talents and abilities for the good of all, and the glory of Your name.  Amen.”

The picture on the bookmark shows a white male that looks like an older version of what we were taught Jesus looked like in Sunday school.  Standing there with a big yellow circle behind his head denoting a halo.  In his hands, are a carpenter’s square and pick axe.  The picture also depicts a version of little-kid Jesus peering timidly behind Joseph’s leg.  I remember being so shy as a child that I would immediately duck behind my mother’s leg at the first “Hello!” from anyone.  Years later, my daughter would do the same.

Some days, I still look for a leg to hide behind.  If I can just hide behind this grown-up person’s leg long enough, all the scary people, places and things will disappear.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, nor truthfully would I want it to. 

I wait and I listen.  I’m not sure how many of you have just sat with something that you don’t have a great deal of control over, but it’s not easy.  I do the next right thing.  I keep submitting resumes.  In the meantime, writing is a great distraction.  I have to be honest, though.  Trudging back through life, jobs, and love is really frightening when you are putting yourself out there.  Some of the threads in my weird tapestry are fragile and knotted up and just plain dysfunctional.  So, I’m asking myself these questions…Is the writing helpful to anyone else?  Are you writing for yourself or others?  Can I trust my memories?  How much of life can I handle putting on a blog?  Then the inevitable self-doubt makes her grand appearance (my “talking Barbies”).  “What do you know about writing?  You haven’t taken the right classes and workshops.  You’re not qualified.  Failure.” 

Maybe all this writing and weaving will free up some space in my head.  I’ve no doubt that I will, at the very least, learn something from stepping back and looking at the overall work.  These moments are just kinks in the yarn.

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep.”   – Henry David Thoreau

 

Job #1 – Roads and Grounds (continued)

So, the Roads and Grounds crew it was.  Of the ten production lines that could Roads and Grounds2manufacture explosives at Holston Defense, I believe only one or two were operational during the time that I worked there.  Our mission was to keep the plant looking neat and tidy.  We were issued four sets of cotton coveralls, boots, socks, gloves, safety glass, ear protection and if I remember correctly, bras and underwear.  The bras could not contain metal so as not to spark any explosives, but boy, that would have made for a great story.  I was much shorter than anyone else and the crotch of those coveralls hung down between my knees.  Somewhere along the way I was given a length of rawhide to use as a belt.

In short order, we introduced ourselves to one another and piled into a white 1990 Ford Extended Cab F-350.  There were five of us all squished together in that truck.  I remember thinking we looked like the cast of The Breakfast Club.

Barbara was our driver.  They always stuck one full-time employee from the plant with us because as temporary college employees, we weren’t allowed to drive company trucks.  Barbara was a tall, hard woman.  Her face and arms were tan from years of doing the kind of that most women would look down on.  It’s cliché to say, but she had a cracked, golden leather look about her.  The cigarettes she smoked were two miles long, her 80’s hair was always perfectly locked into place and her long nails always red.  She was single and she liked it that way.  Barbara loved NASCAR and she scared the absolute hell out of me.  Her voice was a low, smoker’s voice and she never repeated herself.

Our fresh-faced crew was driven to something called an “X” area. Later, I heard it called the magazine or igloo area.  It was a densely wooded area that wound around on itself.  You could get lost there for days.  We hopped out of the truck and stood in awe before a giant, grass-covered igloo.  Holston had stored explosives in these concrete igloos at one time.  They were covered in grass so they were camouflaged, at least from an aerial view.

Barbara took a weed eater out of the back of the truck tossed it on the ground and said, “Pay attention.”  Now, when I say weed eater, I mean a gas-powered, Stihl brush cutter with two handles and plastic blades.  The kind of equipment you lock and load onto a bright orange harness, and pray to God it doesn’t get the best of you.

Barbara put one foot on the trimmer.  She bent over and set the choke, punched the fuel pump bulb and ripped the cord on the trimmer without so much as breaking out in a drop of sweat.  I suddenly wished like hell that I had suggested to my dad that I wait tables at the local Italian restaurant for the summer.  Our crew of five would spread around the base of the igloo and “weed-eat” our way up to the top.  We did this for four-tens, Monday through Thursday for the entire summer.

The regular employees would just sometimes stand back and scratch their heads at us college kids.  Through the course of the summer, we had taken to taping the ankles of our coveralls shut with duct tape to keep the snakes out, a thin coat of OFF to keep the chiggers at bay and regular baths in Ivarest cream for our poison ivy.  We were assigned other fun jobs in confined spaces and shoveling sun-baked shit at the on-site waste water treatment plant.  You really wouldn’t believe what people flush down toilets.

After work and on the weekends, I could be found with my boyfriend two years my junior.  He was 6’ 6’’, practically 300 hundred lbs. and a star on the high school football team.  When we weren’t in his parent’s pool or making out in my bedroom (“We’re just playing cards!”), we were screaming down the road that ran alongside the river listening to Aerosmith.  The memory runs like a sticky sweet, modern-day country love song.  My legs were tan, toned and looked great in white cut-offs.  When I was with him, I felt safe for the first time in my life.   I would look over at him driving that old black Ford truck and dream about the day that we would marry, he would play for the NFL and life would be perfect.  He had a heart of gold, that one.  I would go back to college and he would continue through high school.  We would leave each other and those childish dreams and it would hurt like hell.  First heart breaks always do.

That summer, I learned how to change plastic blades on a brush cutter in under a minute and a half.  I was educated on OSHA and the red-tape that comes along with it.  I was schooled on the correct way to play Ping-Pong after lunch breaks (otherwise known as “dinner” in the South) by men with names like Kemper, Nick and Charlie.  To my detriment, I learned that if I smiled at Dwight just the right way, two packs of Marlboro Lights would show up in my locker the next morning.  I learned that I could do really hard work if all else failed and my college education didn’t pan out (irony?).  Far and away, the most important thing I took away from that summer was how much my dad cared for me.  I guess I always knew he did, but it was cemented.

Dad would remember that summer as one of the hottest on record in East Tennessee.  It didn’t help matters that I was wearing long-sleeved coveralls duct-taped around the ankles and cinched off with a rawhide belt.  It was akin to being a hot air balloon.  After one particularly hot day of weed-eating, I came dragging in through the back door. I relayed to dad that I had gotten too hot and had suffered a bit of heat exhaustion.  From that day on, Dad kept me stocked with a 36 oz. Gatorade every day for the rest of the summer.  I think he probably felt guilty having had suggested that working for Holston would be a great summer gig, but it was also his way of taking care of me.  To this day, I can’t drink Gatorade without thinking of Holston Defense or my Dad

I made enough money that summer to cover the cost of textbooks for the semester, and a little extra left over for spending money.  Over our time at the plant, this ragamuffin roads and grounds crew, along with the full-time employees, had become a closely knit community. Nick and Charlie are both dead and gone now, and Kemper is probably somewhere holding on just for spite.  It was a hell of a first job and was such torture, I signed on for the very next summer.

 

 

 

Job #1 – Roads and Grounds

Roads and Grounds

The year: 1993

The music: “American Pie”, Don McLean (Because my freshman roommate and I were vague and mysterious like that.)

Every day, the late afternoon sun would shine through the four small panes in the front door of my childhood home.  It projected four distinct beams of light down into the living room.  As a little kid, I used to sit on the stairs just opposite, and watch the dust particles flit and twirl.  I thought I was the only one privy to this little ballet.  Secret powers or some such. 

I was home on spring break from the University of Tennessee, and it was about that time of day when I sauntered into the living room as only kids with one year of college under their belt can do.  I remember exactly the spot I was standing when my dad stood up with the company paper in his hand.  The “company” was Eastman Chemical Company.  It came to the house every week, or maybe every other week.  In this particular issue, was a call for summer employees.  It was a special program for kids of employees who were in college.  Dad simply said, “Here is an opportunity for you this summer.”  And that was that. 

In all of my 18 years, I had never argued with my father.  I wouldn’t have dared.   There was an unhealthy amount of fear associated with dad that would soften as the years passed.  On this day, the unspoken words were clear, and I soon found myself applying for my first real job.

In high school, I had worked as a file clerk at an optometrist’s office, and at the local card shop where I consumed copious amounts of banana Laffy Taffy from the front counter and learned to really screw up a cash register.  As it turns out, cash handling is not my forte.  Those nickels and dimes were frittered away on frozen yogurt from TCBY, movies and toilet paper that my friends and I “rolled” houses with on the weekends.  They were works of art, all of that toilet paper blowing from the tall trees in the midnight air.

The Holston Defense Army Ammunition Plant was constructed by Tennessee Eastman to manufacture explosives for the Department of Defense during World War II.  My dad was a statistician for “the plant”. He worked there from before I was born until he retired.  I called it Holston “the Fence” until I was in the 3rd grade, and generally had very little interest in what happened there.  Because of his employment with Holston Defense, I would work there during the summer of my 18th year.  Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what I would be doing.

After the paperwork was filled out and my application was accepted, I was informed that I would have to agree to a drug test.  Drugs weren’t a problem for me, but shy bladder syndrome was.  If I suspected for one second that anyone could have heard me pee, I clenched up like a tight fist.  Of all of the fears in the world, I’ve carried the fear of someone overhearing me pee into adulthood.  It’s pathetic really.

Because the plant manufactured explosives, you had to pass through a security gate, verbally confirm that you had “no fire” (lighters or matches) and show that you had taken the cigarette lighter out of your car.  I wound my way around the plant to the infirmary, or what dad would call “Medic”.  I passed through the screened in porch, thinking I might be in an episode of M.A.S.H. and signed in.  The one and only nurse recognizing my last name exclaimed, “Phillips! You’re Haynes’ daughter.  The last of the brood.  Your dad talks about you all the time.”  That came as a complete shock to me, but I remember feeling at least two inches taller that day.  My dad had mentioned ME to his colleagues!

I had consumed approximately one gallon of water and a Gatorade so that I could perform this drug test for summer employment.  The nurse handed me a cup and pointed me in the direction of the bathroom.  I thought she was being not just a little pushy when she followed me into a room with one stall.  “Is she going to stand there while I do this?”  “Oh my God, she is going to listen to me pee?”  “Oh man, this is never going to happen.”  So, we both waited.  And waited.  I knew with the flip of the lock on the stall that if she was going to stand there and listen to me pee in a cup, there was a 100% chance that I would fail this test.

I left the stall with an empty cup and the nurse looked at me with empathy.  She knew.  She knew all about shy bladders.  She encouraged me to come back the next day.  I was only a tiny bit humiliated to tell my dad that I would have to return.  The next day, I would redouble my efforts, drink twice as much water and successfully offer a specimen.  Success!

In the final days of the spring semester of my freshman year, I would receive word that I had passed the drug test and would be gainfully employed for the summer.   My crew?  Roads and Grounds.  Seriously.