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.

Scraps and patches

For the better part of the past three months, I have been rocking back and forth on my second-hand leather couch wondering what’s next.  Drinking loads of coffee and trying to put one foot in front of the other without feeling like a victim.  (Gross…I hate that word, victim.)  I’ve been leaning too heavily on people that have helped me in the past to help me again and (besides the trap of having placed them on a pedestal), my motives are shit. I’ve come to loathe the question, “What do you do?” because the answer is that I don’t have the first damn clue.  I’ve been sitting in job interview after job interview telling a sanitized version of my story, hoping beyond all hope to land the job that I need (read: want).  Will someone recognize the conundrum of the “once upon a time” stay-at-home mom?  Do they see my “dark and twisty”?  Can they smell fear?  How can I be helpful to my fellows and make enough to live on and provide for people that depend on me?  Where will I feel valued?  Why are they yawning?

To kick a door out of the self-pity box and gain perspective, I retreated to my eldest sister’s house.  Time and time again, it is my safe place, respite and home.  She allows me to take care of myself and to be taken care of.  We talk about books, she lets me sleep, feeds me good food and speaks truth. 

The 13-hour drive to the hills of east Tennessee is not an exciting one.  When I hit Nashville and my ass has become fully numb, I recognize a little firework going off somewhere way down in the pit of my stomach.  Because A., I’m convinced that I will run into Vince Gill at the corner gas station and B., I’m getting ready to drive the best smelling stretch of highway and my nose tells me I’m almost home. 

It was on this last trip that I began to mentally scroll through my list of jobs and lack thereof.  I’m 42, almost 43, and I wasn’t one of the chosen few who seems to sail effortlessly through college, landing with both feet planted firmly in the vocation they were destined for.  An aunt of mine spoke the most beautiful words though, “I think that people with many gifts are therefore presented with many options, making it difficult to choose a path.  For when you go in one direction, you’re abandoning others.  Or so it feels”.  Relief.

Throughout my random list of employers there has been so much life happening.  All of these fibers and threads, patches and bits of sticks and yarn that make up…me.  So, an outline began to develop in my head.  What was that job?  What music was I listening to?  (Music is my time-warp machine). Was I in a relationship? Who were my mentors?  This whole life of mine is an entire body of work. Hard work.

All of that to say, I’m starting this blog for a couple of reasons.  Because the most important words anyone ever said to me were, “Me too.”  Maybe my light will connect with your light.  Because I need to get these words up and out of my throat – they are choking me.  And because I want to practice.  I practice making mistakes to make more mistakes.  That’s life.

I’ll try to keep my eyes on my own paper, and tell my own story without implicating others.  I can promise it won’t be perfect, and it will be messy but most stories are.  Stories are vitally important.  They help us connect.  They help us form community.  They help us figure shit out.  Stories are like a tapestry.