My Garden of Memories

by Flossie Erwin Austin

(1910-2003)

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Flossie continues her story…

Chapter 17—Life Begins at 50

I was about 50 when I began to feel I needed a new interest in life. I remember being at a card party with other Boy Scout mothers when I laughingly changed that popular quote Life begins at 40, to Life can begin at 50. And I was prepared to prove it could be so.

Getting married the summer following my graduation from high school and immediately starting a family, I had missed the experience of holding a job and the pride of that first paycheck for my own efforts. Oh, I had received money for babysitting, but that wasn't what I had in mind; it was too much what I had been doing all my married life and didn't present a challenge.

I considered trying to qualify to teach at the kindergarten or first grade level; I even went so far as writing to the state superintendent for advice and receiving a nice letter from him. I learned, after completing the required college courses, I would have about fifteen years I might teach before reaching retirement age.

As I weighed the pros and cons in my mind, trying to make the right decision, I finally decided that it was little late in life  for me to go back to school, since my youngest daughter was about ready to graduate from high school and was expecting to go on to college and prepare for a teaching career. Even with her scholarship, she would have expenses that would be a little hard on the family budget. Also, my husband was getting to the age where he was looking forward to, and hoping for, an early retirement. In retrospect, however, I realize that it is never too late, and that my teenage dream of going to college could have been realized, some how, some way.

I began reading the help wanted sections of the daily newspapers and putting my application in for any jobs I felt I should be able to handle. I soon learned I had two things against me: my age and lack of experience. During the weeks I was actively looking for a job, I visited and put in my application at hospitals, cleaners, apartment stores, delicatessens, a poodle groom­ing establishment, several laundries, the public school system and many more.

The job I finally found was in a uniform rental service. It was offered to me because of my ability to operate a sewing machine. Here I was to work for just short of five years—until my husband decided to retire at sixty-three and get on with doing his own thing—back to country living, of course.

But, oh, the memories stored up from those nearly five years of working. I learned tolerance with others whose lifestyle and outlook was so different from mine. I found time to lend a sympathetic ear to problems I couldn't believe. But I also met people that I felt an instant kinship for and these were the ones I shared confidences with at lunch breaks.

The building that housed the uniform rental service was a large rambling affair with a concrete floor, divided into departments by half partitions. As I recall, there were only two rooms that could be closed away from the rest; the office, and the stockroom where the new uniforms were kept. At one end of the building was the laundry department. That was where the route men delivered the soiled uniforms, at least once a week, to be washed and then passed on to the next department, or pressroom. The hottest part of the building, of course, was near the presses. It was rather welcome in the winter time, but in the summer there seemed to be always a need for more pressers.

The department where I was to work was called the pin-work department, and was separated from the pressroom by a half partition. As I recall, we were warm in the summer and freezing in the winter, as our department was next to the north wall, with no air conditioning, but plenty of cold drafts when the north wind blew. The pin-work department was really the mending or altering department; the name, pin-work, came from the large safety pins that the route men pinned in the shirts or pants. Each pin had a different number to correspond to the ticket number the men brought to our department, and would tell us what we were to do to keep their customers happy.

One of the most common mending jobs was sewing up ripped seats in the work pants. I learned quite early in the job that this meant double seaming. I remember with amusement one of the route men demonstrating the reason for this in a very pertinent way. He had had had several complaints from unhappy customers, and this one time, when he brought in his tickets for work to be done, he struck a squatting pose and said, "Look ladies, can you imagine how a man feels, when crouching in a work position and the seat of his pants gives way?" We laughed,, but assured him that we got the message.

Another common request from customers was for watch pockets in pants. Although I had never done this before, I found it was one thing I enjoyed doing and was a job that usually landed on my table. It was also our job to replace all clothing that the pressers threw out as being too ragged or torn to press from the shelves of used stock.

We had several machines to use, but there was only one with which I was familiar, the straight machine. While there I learned to use a machine for sewing on buttons, the hot patch machine (which was used for putting labels on the pants and shirts, as well as applying patches), a hemming machine to hem the legs of pants, and a zig­zag machine that was used for sewing on company emblems and names. Across the large central room from the pin-work department was another group of machines, used by the stock room crew in their job of preparing new orders.

Two work tables were placed along the line of sewing machines to hold the tools needed, such as scissors, yardsticks, pencils, pins, razor blades, etc. All were used at different times in preparing the garments for the different machines.

There was usually quite a bit of good-natured rivalry between the two departments. While we each did a lot of the same type of work, there was one difference; the stock room got their orders mostly from the office, while our department worked closely with the route men. To be a successful route man depended a great deal on how much zeal he used in conducting his route. He was responsible for keeping his customers happy and in canvassing his route for new customers.

The busiest times of the year for the pin-work department were in the spring when the shirts were pinned for short sleeves, and again in the fall when they to be changed back to long sleeves for winter. There were days when we weren't able to complete all the workthat was when an unsympathetic floor manager, whose duty it was to see all the work got out, would start taking out pins and tell the unhappy route men to pin again next week.

Usually, an easy, friendly relationship existed among the workers. Now and then there was friction, especially among some of the younger girls who were competing for the attentions of the floor manager or the younger route men. All of the men were married, but not averse to an affair on the side.

Always a good listener, I was often shocked at some of the gossip my fellow workers enjoyed passing on. I soon became aware that many had a lifestyle completely different my own. The telling, and retelling, of risqué jokes was a common form of entertainment. Although not always able to understand the point or appreciate the humor of some of the stories and jokes I heard, I learned to take them in stride. Laughter, in any form was preferable to tension, I felt.

It was easy enough to take or leave the loose morals displayed by many of my fellow workers, but I found it a different matter the spring my youngest daughter graduated from high school. She couldn’t fine a job anywhere, and asked that I help her get a job where I worked, so she might help with college expenses in the fall. It was with great reluctance that I finally agreed that she might apply for a job there. I felt it was tantamount to giving my approval of what I was beginning to think of as the seamy side of life.

But I soon found my daughter was able to accept conditions where we worked without any effect on her moral standards. In fact, as she went quietly about the jobs assigned to her, from the hot job operating the patch machine, to helping in the shipping department, I could see her gaining the respect of the other workers, as well as the management. When a more coveted job in the stock room was open, she was transferred there.

Later, after several years spent at college, my daughter shared this bit of wisdom with me: "You know, Mother, the moral codes of students I encountered at college weren't all that different from those of the employees of that laundry where we both worked, but at both places, one always had a choice of whom to spend ones lunch break with."

But as the summer began to drag, in what my daughter always called that hot place,” a welcome change was being planned for us. My husband was to have a three-week vacation from his job at the aircraft plant, beginning the last week in July. We had been looking forward to a camping trip vacation, and to this end, my husband had bought a used pickup and small eight-foot camper.

My daughter and I had decided to take a leave of absence from our place of employment, even if a vacation wasn't due us. We weren't about to miss out on this, what we were thinking of as a very fun camping trip. Of course, our son, two years younger than his sister, would go also.

What we hadn't decided on was just where we would go on this trip - that was decided almost at the last moment, so to speak. Our daughter-in-law, our oldest son's wife, and small daughter were visiting us when the matter of our trip was under discussion. She remarked, wistfully, "I wish you were going to San Diego, and you would take me and Toni with you."

Our son was in the Navy, stationed on the aircraft carrier Constellation, and was due back in about a month. He had only a few more months to serve, before his time was up. So we decided there was room for two more and San Diego would be our destination. We would leave our daughter-in-law and little granddaughter in an apartment there to await the arrival of his ship.

To be continued in the next issue of the Bagpiper.

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