Saturday, June 30, 2012

Preparing To Launch

A nineteen year old, newly married Saline County girl drives her red Oldsmobile Cutlass to a job interview in a former church building on Kavanaugh Blvd in Little Rock, just a few blocks north of War Memorial Stadium. The beginning of one of my fictional stories? No. The day that changed my life forever.

To put this in perspective, this mostly windowless building housed the Office of Personnel Management, a division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, and this story occurred in the spring of 1977, just a few months before Elvis died.

Computers were still a science fiction dream in those days. They were mostly housed at NASA, and took up a whole room. We did have electric calculators with rolls of white paper that piled up on our desks as we added columns of figures in an effort to make sure everything in our sight was balanced.

One of the most important functions of the employees in that building was to approve the payroll every two weeks for the thousands of workers employed by the State of Arkansas. This involved someone from each agency carrying stacks of paperwork and actual checks from one place to another, collecting signatures and stamps of approval. One very famous incident occurred in the elevator shaft when a trusted employee lost his grip on the precious papers, which slid into the gap between the elevator and the third floor landing, and went all the way down to the bottom. That brought progress to a clunky, damp halt for awhile. Of course, due to the dedication and hard work of all involved, those employees were paid on time anyway.

My specific role involved opening mail to begin the process of accounting for health insurance premiums deducted from the paychecks of State employees. I was the backup typist in the office as well, and although I believe there was one photo-copier on another floor, carbon paper was still the preferred method for producing more than one copy of correspondence. An indelible memory involves a green felt-tip marker that my boss used to mark up a letter she had dictated. That wouldn’t have been unusual except for the pronouncement at the end: “No, I think it was fine just like it was.” No problem, just stick another triple-decker carbon paper sandwich back in the IBM Selectric and start again, right?

 Fast forward over thirty years to the tenth floor of another repurposed building, a former bank with expansive views of rooftops and parking decks. Here, I helped train the people who process the payroll for their agency’s employees. Their job mostly involves reviewing the work done by other employees in their division, running reports to be sure that every hour worked by every employee is properly accounted for. Then, they push the right buttons to be sure that money is transferred to the bank accounts of those employees in time for an ATM withdrawal to finance the weekend’s activities, and to enable transfers and online payments to take care of household bills. Paper paychecks, green felt-tipped markers and IBM Selectrics are all dim memories.

 One of my proudest moments was when we traveled to the Headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. My friends and I were chosen to prove our agency’s commitment to making sure that everyone who wanted to work for the State of Arkansas would be able to take advantage of the latest technology to perform their daily job. We represented all of the hard-working analysts and programmers back in Arkansas who took their work very seriously. I believe that the folks in Baltimore recognized this, and we all came away with the feeling that we could make things easier for all workers, regardless of physical limitations.

  Imagine how excited that nineteen year old young lady would have been to hear where her career would end up.

   Today at a retirement party, with hugs from her friends and family, she stands ready to take a new leap of faith. With all of the knowledge and confidence they have given her over the years, how can she fail? With God providing the wind beneath her wings, she’ll soar to all sorts of new adventures. The story is getting more and more exciting!


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Real Life Time Machines

This time of year, when spring and summer seem to be tag-teaming, we can never be sure what we’ll be facing. Some days start out cool and comfortable, and end up very warm. Most days, the humidity is not out of control, but sometimes, the build-up to a very summer-like rain shower can be stifling.

For some reason, weather like this kicks my memory banks into overdrive. Smells, tastes, actions transport me back to my childhood, or the time when my own kids were small. Looking around us, we can name thousands of things that have changed since those fondly remembered times. But, it’s the constants, the things that have remained remarkably the same that really “send me”.

 Watering the grass for some has become a no-brainer. They have pipes and spouts under-ground that respond to a timer, taking the effort completely out of this task. But at our house, we’re fortunate enough to still be dragging hoses and squirting, whirling mechanical devices around the yard. There’s a science (which I haven’t quite perfected) to placing them just so, and moving them every so often, so as to keep the green carpet moist, while not wasting too much water on the driveway and the street. Something about dodging the spray reminds me of my old jump-roping days. Wait, wait, run before you get splashed. Or, just slow down and get a refreshing surprise. Ha! The smell of the moisture in the air, and the  10 degree drop in the surrounding temperature is universal. It feels and smells just like the yard I grew up in, all those eons ago.

   The shaved ice stands that seem to be popping up on every corner are another old thing that has become new again. When I was a teenager working in the baseball concession stand, the ice in the snow cones was chunkier, and there were fewer flavors of sticky syrup, but oh how good they tasted on a hot day. My own kids enjoyed the first shaved ice, and they have happy memories of perching on a picnic table outside of a very small building with their favorite icy treat. Ah, summertime.

 Another edible time machine is a hot dog, but only if it’s sold at a baseball game. When our kids were small, I would cook the franks at home, put them in a bun and wrap them in an aluminum cocoon. If anyone at the ball field objected to my smuggling them to the game in my gigantic tote bag, I never heard about it. Today, the ones you purchase after standing in a long line or from a barker in the stands taste pretty much the same, and you still have to contend with mustard and relish that always seem to slide off, and never enough napkins to shield your shorts and/or t-shirts.

 Marketers of all sorts of things are savvy to our generation. Muscle cars of today are clever copies of the Mustangs, Corvettes, Challengers and VW bugs of the 60s and 70s. The new models include all the latest safety features, and much better gas mileage. Baby Boomers are suckers for the perfect vehicle to take us down memory lane. Michael J. Fox and his DeLorean have nothing on us.

Twenty-first century houses and subdivisions also appeal to those of us who remember the latter half of the 1900’s. Our fairly new house has tall ceilings, crown molding, gleaming hardwood floors. The cul-de-sac with its wide sidewalks provides a great place for kids and their bikes, scooters and skateboards. Déjà vu all over again.

 Folks whose hair is gradually turning silvery still love new things and great adventures. But increasingly, we find comfort in the familiar. Summertime provides lots of opportunities to close your eyes, feel the cool breeze and get a whiff of your youth. We’ll be right there with you.